The Gammerova Girls and How They Grew (1889–97)

Young sisters Katya and Rita Gammerova are excitedly looking forward to Christmas when an influenza pandemic arrives in St. Petersburg and claims the life of their father and youngest brother.  As the grandchildren of former serfs, they’ve always been aware they’re not part of high society, but now their lowly rank is even more keenly felt.

Katya, Rita, and their remaining brothers are accepted into a charity school, with the understanding they’ll have to help their mother and grandparents with housework as soon as they come home every day.  Rita’s excellent grades soon advance her one year into Katya’s class, giving her hope of a rosier future, but the loss of their other two brothers to diphtheria pushes the family even deeper into dire straits.

Katya and Rita believe they’ll have to go to work full-time after they complete their sixth year of school, but their academic records earn them spots in a progressive girls’ gymnasium.  The sisters are soon moving among the world of St. Petersburg’s bourgeoisie, a world they further become acquainted with through their part-time job in an upscale clothing store in luxurious department store The Passage.

Rita, a brilliant student with modern friends, is determined to go abroad to a women’s university and marry for love, but Katya knows their duty is to marry up in arranged marriages and help the family out of poverty.  There’s no place for idle daydreams as Katya starts counting down the days till her sixteenth birthday, when she’ll start wearing her hair up and mark herself as old enough for marriage.

For poor girls in late nineteenth century St. Petersburg, free will and independence are seemingly unattainable luxuries.