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The Ship of Widows by Irina Grekova

The Ship of Widows (1983)

by Irina Grekova

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To provide context for this novel, the foreword states, "It would be difficult to exaggerate the colossal scale of destruction visited on Russia by World War II. Twenty-seven million Soviet citizens perished, the entire western third of the country was laid waste, and the astronomical mortality rate among men transformed Russia into a mainly female population faced with the superhuman task of rebuilding the country and coping with millions of starving and abandoned orphans. Yet, despite the unimaginable ravages, in retrospect Russians recall the war and postwar years almost wistfully as a time of collectively defended ideals, of national solidarity against a common enemy." The foreword further notes that after WW II, in Russia there was a widespread system of "surrogate families" created by war casualties, as women assumed increasing responsibility in all-female quasi-familial units. Ship of Widows depicts the lives of five such women (widows) living in a communal Moscow apartment during and after WW II.

Anfisa, who before the war occupied one of the rooms in the apartment with her husband, enlists as a nurse at the front in order to try to be nearer to her husband. She never connects with her husband, but becomes pregnant and returns to the Moscow apartment prior to the end of the war. The loose plot revolves around the birth of her illegitimate son who as he grows up is outrageously spoiled by Anfisa and the four other women who share the apartment. The other widows are Kapa, an extremely religious retired night watchman; Ada, a former opera singer with romantic ideals; Flerova, a former member of the inteliigensia whose career as a concert pianist ended when her hands were injured by a bomb which killed her husband, daughter and mother; and, Panka, a pipefitter devoted to proletarian ideals.

Their stories are set against a background of food shortages, bleak housing conditions, orphanages, military medical units, the post-war enlistment of youth to work in the "virgin lands" (Siberia), sexual mores among Russian teenagers, and so much more. Most of the novel is told from the viewpoint of Flerova, although some chapters are told from the pov of Anfisa or an omniscient narrator. Near the end of the novel, there is a chapter told from the viewpoint of Vadim, Anfisa's son.

I really enjoyed this novel. I did not learn anything startling or new, but it provides a moving immersion into the lives and trials of these five women.

3 1/2 stars ( )
  arubabookwoman | Feb 10, 2017 |
I was given this book for my birthday, years ago when I was still in University.
I liked it very much, it gave me more insight in the daily life, struggles and the way of thinking of people in the former USSR. We here had no other way (then) to learn anything about that, but from books, or an occasional movie that was shown on a Slavic night.
This book was an eye opener for me. ( )
  BoekenTrol71 | Apr 29, 2013 |
In the opening chapter of The Ship of Widows, the narrator, Olga Flerova, learns that her husband has been killed in the front and her apartment in Moscow is bombed soon after, killing her mother and daughter. A pianist, Olga can no longer work after she almost dies and her hands are permanently injured. She is assigned to teach music at an orphanage and moves to a new communal apartment where the plot really takes off. She describes living with her neighbors but the main focus of the story is her relationship with Anfisa Gromova and Anfisa’s bastard son Vadim. The author subtly examines the limitations of Soviet life and shows female friendship and motherhood as both sustaining and painful. Some character seem more like examples of types than people and almost all the male characters, except Vadim, get shortchanged but the focus on women and daily life sets this book apart and makes it well worth reading.

Grekova keeps the story on the relationship of Olga and Anfisa, and later the relationship of the women to Vadim, but also looks at life during and after World War II in Moscow.
Communal living, a ubiquitous feature of Soviet cities, provides the widowed women (some more widows than others) with a family life but also brings about nonstop quarrelling. They have to share the kitchen and who’s talking to whom or who shares their food with the others is an indicator of friendship or anger. There are the usual space problems and issues with male guests or residents. The all-female environment approximates what life would have been like after WWII – the high death toll meant many women would have been widowed. The German invasion resulted in deaths of even those not on the front line. Other factors – arrests, exiles and sentences in the Gulag never stopped during the war – meant that the traditional family structure could not always be relied upon and Olga finds one such solution. At Olga’s work, her supervisors – one who lets things slide and is more concerned with effectively running the orphanage, the other who is obsessed with regulations and conformation – represent various modes of dealing with the repressive Soviet system. As Vadim gets older, he has typical teenage feelings of superiority and being the only person who’s not a phony. However, all the examples he gives are of genuine phoniness – of his young Communist group saying one thing but making them do another, of people too concerned with conforming, of people pretending to be happy when they are not.

The novel also looks at the role of women in Soviet society. Olga’s other apartment mates are perhaps more like types than fleshed out characters. Kapa is a superstitious, religious ex-village woman, a busybody and gossip. Ada, a former operetta singer, is flighty, feminine and always engaged in some romantic delusion. Panka is frequently described as mannish and works as a fitter. She’s a true believer in socialism and equality for all, even if it means that everyone is equally miserable. Unhappy relationships prevail – drunken, abusive husbands and partners are common. However, they all behave differently when men are around and Olga notes that they are all unfulfilled having lost husbands and no children. For the most part, they fit into rigidly female roles and even work to support that – deriding Panka as mannish, shaming Anfisa for her pregnancy. There are also the positives of female friendship – emotional support and a sensitivity to balance out Vadim’s thoughtlessness. But the atmosphere that is described suggests that they have no choice and not even much of a conception that things could be different. Olga’s simple and resigned narration also gives the impression that they are stuck in their roles – men move in and out, become violent and expect to be given priority but this is just the usual way of life. Anfisa’s love of her son provides another example. Raising her son gives her life meaning after the war and she sacrifices everything for Vadim. The other women value their relationships with him as well. However, he is ungrateful and rude, causing Anfisa no end of worry. The ending highlights the ambivalent nature of their relationship. While Soviet society enshrined motherhood – women were mothers of the future generation of workers and Soviet citizen – those who stepped outside their roles, like Panka, were looked down on. Family also had to take place behind Stalin and the state. In such a time and place, family and friends are a mixed blessing. ( )
5 vote DieFledermaus | Oct 13, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Grekova, Irinaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Porter, CathyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Mijn man was gesneuveld aan het front toen de oorlog nog maar net begonnen was.
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