Page 7 Chapter 6:
Back to the Future (or, Feminism the Soviet Way)
Many people compare Russian women with what American women were like in the “good old days.” More than once I’ve heard American men recount that, having visited Russia and having communicated with Russian women, it was as if they had traveled back in time to an earlier part of the century when American women were “traditional” and “feminine.”
Many believe that feminism has not managed to touch Russia. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Feminism actually came to Russia much earlier than to America.
Ideas about emancipation and the liberalization of women were incredibly popular in Russia by the middle of the nineteenth century. Women of Russian society’s higher class have always been well-educated, often more enlightened than the men, well-read, and actively observant of events in Europe. Russia is one of the few countries in Europe where the rulers were women, beginning with Princess Olga (962 AD), and Ekaterina — “Catherine the Great.”
Russian feminism began somewhere in the first half of the nineteenth century. Its first activists were the intelligentsia from noble families. But very soon the proletariat mastered the ideas of feminism as well. The women’s movement in Russia became very diverse and influential. These women, and the men supporting them, struggled for the equalization of women in both civil affairs and political rights.
The First Russian Women’s Convention took place in Russia in 1908. It gathered more than 1,000 delegates from various women’s groups. At that time, the women’s movement in Russia had divided into two groups. One group of moderate feminists defended the idea of equal rights with men. The smaller group of extreme feminists was proposing the idea of women’s superiority over men. In comparison with the bygone days of radical Russian feminism, even the liberal ideas of “N.O.W” seem rather mild.
About a decade after these feminist conventions, Soviet power was installed in Russia. As one of its first acts, the Soviet government made great show of ensuring women all of the civil rights and “freedoms” which equalized them with men in the eyes of the law. But, in reality, their purpose was self-serving. The Soviet state needed the energy and the enthusiasm of women to bolster support for the new political system.
To accomplish this they needed to move women into the labor pool. So, the government adopted a document proclaiming the “Equal Rights” of women with men. The aim was to increase the number of people in the working class, which was considered its main base of support. Russia was experiencing economic growth and was in great need of physical labor. The traditional family structure, with the man as provider for the family and the woman as homemaker who raises the children, was an obstacle for the realization of the grandiose plans of the Soviet government.
The Soviet state needed the women as workers. The active agitation of the women in the cities and the villages of Russia was undertaken. The so called “Zhen Soviet” (Women’s’ Union), whose function was to teach the traditional and uneducated rural women that their mission was not in the family, but in the factories, began to appear. They tried to present the traditional family as a form of slavery, and as oppressive chauvinism by men.
Under their influence, agitation, and economic pressure, women began learning new professions. Through massive, state-created child care programs, their children were placed in public nurseries and kindergartens, practically from their very birth. Having left their villages, hundreds of thousands of rural girls migrated to the industrial development centers. And there they performed many of the hard jobs that previously were only undertaken by men.
These women mastered such specialties as construction, lathe operations, milling and even locomotive engineering. Others found occupations in foundries, chemical factories, and the printing industry. State propaganda touted these “achievements” as an inspiration to women to be “useful” to their socialistic motherland. And many women sincerely believed this.
The Soviet woman was being brainwashed by a climate of double standards and dual morality. She had been told about her emancipation and equal rights since childhood. The girls really had equality with boys when it came to their access to the education system, and usually, because they showed more zeal, often left school with better marks than their male counterparts.
As a whole, the education level of women in Soviet Russia was much higher than that of men. More than 70 percent of Soviet Russian women had a college or a specialized technical education. Soviet propaganda considered it a great achievement of socialism.
However, discrimination against women has always existed in Russia, and did so in Soviet Russia as well. It started on the level of the allocation of work places after graduation. As a rule, women always got the jobs that didn’t attract men, and they occupied those jobs in the workplace rejected by men. For the most part, women occupied dead-end jobs that offered little chance for any meaningful advancement.
A high level of feminization in a profession often served as an indicator of its low social prestige. Women’s professions such as librarian, cultural worker, schoolteacher, doctor, economist, and bookkeeper were extremely low-paying occupations.
In the Soviet economy, opportunities for a woman generally existed only in low-skill, hard, and menial jobs. She covered roads with asphalt, labored on railways, worked on buildings, and performed loading and unloading jobs, just to name a few. About 90 percent of the caretakers and cleaners in the country were older women. For most people raised in the West, it is difficult to imagine how women at brick factories manually laid up to 40 tons of brick during one work shift.
On the one hand, Russian women were called “the weaker sex,” and on the other hand, they were assigned duties much harsher than those assigned to men. Ideally, the woman was expected to be a hard worker, fulfill the duties around the house, be responsible for the upbringing of the children, and also to remain attractive.
The men were basically released from the duties involving supporting the home and raising the children. Accordingly, the women had much less free time than the men, but twice as much responsibility. The socialist experiment with the emancipation of women left most of them dissatisfied and disappointed with the positions that had been presented to them by the Soviet ideal. Instead of “house slavery,” it gave them “double slavery” in the workplace and in the family, and it destroyed the institution of the traditional family.
These factors resulted in the firm hostility of most Russian women to the words “emancipation” and “feminism,” which are now associated in their minds not with freedom, but with the exploitation of cheap labor in the workplace and in the family. Traditional Russian women are traditional not by force and necessity at all, but by their sincere beliefs and their own free choice.
One of the paradoxes of the character of Russian women is that most of them are traditional contrary to how they were brought up and what they were officially called to do during their lives. In the times of socialism, girls were actively being brainwashed with the idea that to be “only” a mother and a housewife was a symptom of inferiority. The “woman-worker,” but not the “woman-mother,” was praised in the Soviet Union. Even the sexless form of address between the citizens of the USSR, “comrade,” formally erased the difference between a man and a woman.
I remember the lessons of Russian literature taught in my high school. According to Soviet ideology, the wonderful traditional Russian women’s characters found in the classics of Russian literature of past centuries were being ideologically assailed. The image of Natasha Rostova from the well-known novel, War and Peace, became a synonym for petty bourgeois and “intellectually challenged” women.
After some romantic misadventures, she found complete happiness and peace in her marriage and devoted herself to her children and husband. On the other hand, the images of the other women — rioters, fighters — the “comrades” who sacrificed their children and personal happiness for the sake of the “the interests of the society” — were being praised in Soviet schools.
Soviet girls were encouraged to dream about working and scientific achievements, but not about their families. According to Soviet ideology, marriage is the initial cell of socialistic society, and a voluntary union of two equal partners. . Of course, love was sometimes mentioned, but very casually and briefly. Even in the rare “bedroom episodes” that appeared in Soviet films of those years, spouses were featured platonically, lying in a bed and talking about politics or job-related matters.
A traditional family, where the woman is a wife and a mother and the husband is the breadwinner, was called bourgeois, or “a vestige of the past.” As the family was proclaimed a “cell” or a component of society, then of course such kinds of “bourgeois” families were a threat to Soviet ideology.
During its many decades of domination in Russia, Soviet socialism tried to destroy the “traditionalism” or “bourgeoisie” of the human psychology and create a completely new type of a human — a kind of human-robot. Russians humorously referred to this as “Homo-Soveticus.” The traditional woman, who, as we’ve already discussed, is the basis of the “old-fashioned” morality and spirituality in the family, was hindering those ill-conceived plans. Therefore, she was exposed to attacks from the proponents of socialist ideology.
The traditional Russian woman’s character turned out to be much stronger than socialistic propaganda. It survived the assaults, although it had been herded into the cellar.
By the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, an accurate picture of life in the West started seeping in, causing Russian women to think about their own destiny and traditional values. The image of the typical “bourgeois” family with a husband (breadwinner), a wife (homemaker), and three children became incredibly attractive for the tired, forcibly “emancipated” Soviet woman.
At the same moment, under the effect of the sexual revolution, feminists, homosexuals and other radical influences, the Western family experienced a serious crisis. The West suffered from a lack of traditional women and values. Both West and East looked at each other with hope:
But, it took almost ten years until all of the borders into and out of Russia were finally opened. The best kept secret of the Cold War had ended, and the world was exposed again to something wonderful — the traditional Russian woman.
Unfortunately, under the influence of Western culture, the youth in the larger cities of Russia, much like the young people of any country, started deviating from traditional moral values. In addition, the second wave of feminism has begun appear in the large cities of Russia among the 30- to 40-year-old educated, professional women.
The first group of Russian feminists of the second wave appeared in Russia at the very end of the 1970s under the influence of the dissident movement. Their aim was to oppose the ideas of “Soviet feminism.” Their orientation to the spiritual-religious values distinguished them from the Western feminists, as well.
Only ten years ago at the height of “the reconstruction” and the democratization of the country, the various women’s movements started returning to traditional life in Russia. Although there are small groups of feminists of “the Western kind” and “feminist-lesbians” amongst them, the overwhelming majority of Russian feminists occupy a rather moderate position, the idea of which is the destruction of gender discrimination, but not the irreconcilable struggle with a man as a phenomenon.
The Russian feminists say that they want equality with, but not the advantage over, men. Their aim is not to take away men’s rights, but to establish their own rights. “Mutual respect and partnership of the sexes” is their slogan.