Left: Durova as a noble lady. Right: Durova as a soldier in uniform.
When she was an infant, her father placed her under the care of a soldier after her abusive mother threw her out of a moving carriage. Growing up, she memorized all the standard marching commands, and her favorite toy was an unloaded gun. A noblewoman by birth, Nadezhda Durova wanted nothing more than to don a uniform and defend Russia against Napoleon. At age 24, she did just that. “With firmness so alien to my young age,” she wrote in her memoirs, “I was wrecking my brain about how to break free from the vicious circle of natural and customary duties assigned to us, women.” In 1807, disguised as a boy, she left home on the back of her favorite mount, Alchides, and enlisted in a Polish uhlan regiment. “At last I am free and independent. I had taken my freedom, this precious, heavenly gift, inherently belonging to every human being!”
Durova’s service in the military earned her distinguished honors, and throughout her career she was, by all accounts, revered by everyone in her chain of command. A few officers knew her secret, but most did not. Tsar Alexander I, aware of her true identity, awarded her a cross for saving a soldier’s life and gave her permission to join the regiment of her choice. He gave her a new male surname, Alexandrov (after his own name). Durova continued crossdressing after retirment from the military. She died at age 83 and was buried dressed as a man, with full military honors.
In 1962, the Soviet Studio MosFilm released a musical called Gusarskaya Balada (“Hussar Ballad”) based on Durova’s life. In what’s certainly a complete misrepresentation of Durova’s complicated existence, the musical paints Durova as a young patriotic woman in love with a male soldier, eager to win him over on her terms, as a fellow fighter. The film is without subtitles, but has enough colorful characters, costumes and music that I think a non-Russian-speaking audience would appreciate the clip above, which showcases Durova’s character first dressed as a woman, then dressed as a man. I love actress Larisa Golubkin’s confident, homoerotic swagger in the second half of the clip.
It’s difficult not to revel in the fabulousness of Gusarskaya Balada, but I wish that someone would make a textured, compassionate film that dug deeper into Durova’s life. There are many different ways for this play out, for many facets of Durova’s identity are still debated to this day. On the topic of her gender identity, Wikipedia states that “some readers interpret her as a cisgendered woman who adopted celibacy and male clothing to achieve professional freedom,” while others believe that Durova was transgender. Similarly, Durova’s sexual orientation remains a mystery. She eloped with a man when she was young, against her father’s wishes. However, she omitted her marriage (and any description of attraction to men or women) from her memoirs. When it comes to her relationship with women, one biography notes, “Durova felt uncomfortable around other women. On at least two occasions women recognized her true identity and addressed her as ‘Miss.’ Her fellow officers often joked that Aleksandrov was too shy and afraid of women.”
The deeper I dig, the more fascinating scenes I find. Beyond the obvious allure of wartime crossdressing, there are many odd tidbits, like Durova’s powerful connection with animals. As a child, she “frightened her family by secretly taming a stallion that they considered unbreakable.” Later in life she provided shelter to stray cats and dogs that she rescued, and she passed on her animal-taming abilities to her descendants, circus legends and founders of the Durov Animal Theatre in Russia. Then, there’s her horrible mother, who only wanted a boy, and seemed to punish Durova for being born a girl by making her spend countless hours doing monotonous “women’s work” like sewing and crocheting. That’s a whole other story itself, right there.
Hopefully, one day soon, someone will make a serious film about Durova. Until then, enjoy the song and dance.