Katya Kabanova Ostrovsky

Alexander Ostrovsky

Leoš Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová is based on an 1859 Russian play by Aleksandr Nikolayevich Ostrovsky, titled Groza (The Storm, also known as The Thunderstorm). Often considered a precursor of Anton Chekhov, Ostrovsky wrote 48 original plays and “almost single-handedly created a Russian national repertoire.”Considered Ostrovsky’s masterpiece and a classic of Russian theatre, The Storm depicts the lives of Russian peasants and the middle-class merchant class who live on the banks of the Volga River. The expansive and austere beauty of the Volga’s landscape provides a backdrop for the “dark kingdom” where tradition and false piety compound a stifling and hermetic world in which even a slight moral transgression is harshly punished.

The tragedy of The Storm derives from the idiosyncratic value system of the society it portrays. That value system, symbolized and upheld by the old generation, Katerina’s* unopposable mother-in-law, Kabanicha, and her male counterpart, Dikoy, is internalized by everyone, including Katerina herself, who escapes neither the physical nor the psychological bonds of her social milieu, and who accepts her own demise with fatalistic resignation. Katerina’s fear of the thunderstorm is irrational, but it also symbolizes what critic R. A. Peace (1989) called, “the fear of her own conscience, a terror that she should die not in a state of grace.” Olga Muratova (2009) notes that Katerina “feels compelled to expiate her sin, confess it, and repent in front of everybody, including her mother-in-law as her Nemesis, her debilitated husband, and all the people in town. Her guilt, which comes from her devotion to Christian teachings, wins over her temporary slip that allowed her life to be regulated by external and not internal sanctions.” Although she was able to break a taboo, Katerina is unable to live with the guilt, having internalized the religious precepts that continue to hold her in the grip of self-policing.

In her introduction to the first English translation of the play, in 1898, Constance Garnett poignantly notes the insular character of the town of Kalinov and its:

atmosphere of the little Russian town, with its primitive inhabitants, merchants, and workpeople, an atmosphere untouched, unadulterated by the ideas of any outside European influence. It is the Russia of Peter the Great and Catherine’s time, the Russian patriarchal family life that has existed for hundreds of years through all the towns and villages of Great Russia, that lingers indeed to‐day in out‐of‐the‐way corners of the Empire, though now invaded and much broken up by modern influences.

The historical context of the play is connected to the brewing rebellion of the peasants, who were emancipated only two years after the play’s premiere, and to the consequence of Russia’s recent defeat in the Crimean War. In the 1850s, the Russian progressive critic Nikolay Alexandrovich Dobrolyubov, in his famous essay “A Ray of Light in a Dark Kingdom,” pointed out that the society of Kalinov can be viewed as “a microcosm of the Russian state itself.” The title, The Storm, thus refers to both the weather and the brewing social upheaval. Katerina’s longing for freedom from the bondage of a loveless marriage and the oppressive claustrophobia of the Kabanov household symbolizes the peasants’ longing for their own freedom from serfdom.

The play also represents the contrast between the two crashing centuries: the backward Russia of Peter the Great and the coming age of Romanticism. As R. A. Peace put it: “The values of the older generation seem still rooted in the seventeenth century, whereas the attitudes of the younger generation are much closer to the nineteenth: they display their emotions far more openly; they are spontaneous, even impulsive—they are, in both senses of the word, ‘romantic.’ It is a dark kingdom where elements of Russian culture of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries seem to exist, almost unresolved, side by side.”

Kabanicha, whose name in Russian means, “an old and mean wild sow,” is an unusual villain: an elderly woman, seemingly pious and universally respected by townspeople. In the history of European drama, perhaps she can only be compared to Bernarda Alba, the tyrannical and destructive matriarch of Federico García Lorca’s anti-fascist play The House of Bernarda Alba. Written in 1936, on the cusp of the Spanish Civil War, the play symbolizes the Fascist mentality overtaking Europe at that time, with Bernarda’s heartless treatment of her daughters epitomizing the psychology of the despot. Scholar Cynthia Marsh (1982) notes that, “Ostrovsky’s work dwells on the grimmer aspect of Russian national life. He emphasizes its tyranny and oppression. He depicts a society motivated by acquisitiveness and by a concern to preserve, at all costs, its rites and customs.” In that sense, The Stormseems prescient.

Dobrolyubov “described Ostrovsky’s world as a ‘realm of darkness.’ It was ruled by tyrants who through their corruption or intimidation of the younger generation prevented any challenge to their own position.” For Ostrovsky, however, the natural order of things must eventually win, and the young must take over. Although Katerina self-destructs, Varvara, “a ray of light in the realm of darkness,” does manage to escape. Dobrolyubov argues that Katerina’s suicide can also be interpreted as “an act of protest against injustice.” If the young are destroyed, who is to inherit the world? Such is “the impasse which tyranny has produced.”

When The Storm first opened at Moscow’s Teatr Maly in 1859, it caused instant controversy. First, by dramatizing the plight of the peasants, it pointed out the obvious need for change in Russian society. As Marsh notes: “It was widely recognized that the abolition of serfdom would introduce a new era, in which the traditional Russian life-style would be under pressure.” Intergenerational tension was at the heart of Ostrovsky’s play, which made a clear statement about the “evident dissatisfaction with the tradition-bound and autocratic ways of the older generation.”

The second controversy was related to the tragic situation of young, married women, who were expected to be subservient to their mothers-in-law. Katerina became a symbol of all women, and her willingness to follow her sexual longings ruffled the strict, conservative patriarchal status quo. One Russian critic, Nikolai Filippov, described the play as an “example of vulgar primitivism,” calling Katerina “shameless” and the love “scabrous.” Mikhail Shchepkin also criticized “those two episodes that take place behind the bushes.” Stepan Shevyryov suggested that The Storm was proof of the moral decline of Russian drama, which “is sliding down the ranking stairs.”

Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová is not the only operatic version of Ostrovsky’s drama: The Storm has enjoyed many musical adaptations. Tchaikovsky composed the first overture in 1864 (although it wasn’t performed until 1896). The first performance of the opera based on a libretto written by Ostrovsky himself was composed by Vladimir Nikitich Kashperov in 1867 (and performed the same year). Others who composed operas based on the play include Asafyer (1940), Dzerzhinsky (1940), Trambitsky (1941), Rocca (1952), and Pushkov (1962).

From Constance Garnett’s November 1898 introduction to A. Ostrovsky’s The Storm:

The special triumph of The Storm is that although it is a realistic picture of old‐fashioned Russian patriarchal life, it is one of the deepest and simplest psychological analyses of the Russian soul ever made. It is a very deep though a very narrow analysis. Katerina, the heroine, to the English will seem weak, and crushed through her weakness; but to a Russian she typifies revolt, freedom, a refusal to be bound by the cruelty of life. And her attitude, despairing though it seems to us, is indeed the revolt of the spirit in a land where Tolstoi’s doctrine of non‐resistance is the logical outcome of centuries of serfdom in a people’s history. The merchant Dikoy, the bully, the soft characterless lover Boris, the idealistic religious Katerina, Kuligin the artisan, and Madame Kabanová, the tyrannical mother, all these are true national types, true Russians of the changing ages, and the counterparts of these people may be met to‐day, if the reader takes up Tehehov’s tales. But the English reader’s very difficulty in this respect should give him a clue to much that has puzzled Europeans, should help him to penetrate into the strangeness of Russian political life, the strangeness of her love of despotism. Only in the country that produces such types of weakness and tyranny is possible the fettering of freedom of thought and act that we have in Russia to‐day. Ostrovsky’s striking analysis of this fatalism in the Russian soul will help the reader to understand the unending struggle in Russia between the enlightened Europeanised intelligence of the few, and the apathy of the vast majority of Russians who are disinclined to rebel against the crystallised conditions of their lives.

*The names “Kátya” and “Katerina” are interchangeable in Russian; in The Storm, Ostrovsky calls his central character “Katerina,” while Janacek prefers “Kátya” for his opera.

Originally posted at Boston Lyric Opera Blog (02/26/2015)


Marsh, Cynthia. “Ostrovsky’s Play The Storm.” In Leoš Janáček: Kát’a Kabanová, ed. John Tyrrell. Cambridge Opera Handbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. 38–47.

Muratova, Olga. “Religiously Based Morality in the Theatre of Alexander Ostrovsky.” PhD diss., City University of New York.

Ostrovsky, Aleksandr Nicolaevich. The Storm. Trans. Constance Garnett. 1898; Project Gutenberg, 2013. Available at http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/7991/pg7991.txt

Peace, R. A. “A. N. Ostrovsky’s The Thunderstorm: The Dramatization of Conceptual Ambivalence.” Modern Language Review 84, no. 1 (1989): 99–110.

Ritschel, Nelson O. Ceallaigh. “In the Shadow of the Glen: Synge, Ostrovsky, and Marital Separation.” New Hibernia Review 7, no. 4 (2003): 85–102.