Women Role in Russia

Politics, long the preserve of the Russian male, is beginning to acquire a female voice. And not only politics: brilliant women have appeared in the media and business, including a number of women who seem enthusiastic about reaching the top of the pyramid, including President Yeltsin’s daughter. However, for the majority of Russian women, the situation is not that attractive, and in fact, many of the problems and limitations that women faced during the Soviet era continue to dominate the situation of women in Russia. In fact, there is even little agreement on the situation of women during the Soviet era, as some see it as an ideal condition for women’s development while others insist that it was nothing but another impeding socio-political barrier for women’s emancipation. The origins of feminism in Russia date back to the late 19th century, and yet, more than a century later, the controversy over Russian feminism and its achievements remains.  For the majority of Russian women, however, it seems that the communist system has been more of a barrier, and even today, almost a decade after the collapse of communism, the condition of Russian women appears to have worsened rather than to have been improved.

Feminism Russia

This discussion is complicated by the two ideals of feminism Russia has inherited from the 19th century. The first was exemplified by the characters in the novels of Ivan Turgenev. These women are presented as an image of love and spirituality, an angel in the flesh and even without it. A second ideal was the one upheld by the Slavophiles, who saw a woman as somebody who keeps the home and ensures the continuation of the family line, and who characterized her as “baba,” the naïve and passive peasant or housewife. Such, in their opinion, is the social function of a woman. These two images continued to dominate in Russia, even long after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 which tried to mobilize women. These two ideals have survived despite communism’s efforts over seven decades to snuff them out.

When the communists came to power, they abolished all distinctions, even the distinction between a man and a woman. It was called the equalizing of rights. Boys and girls received equal education, both secondary and higher. Men and women were given an equal right to work, including-and especially-unskilled physical labor. It became shameful to be a housewife. Moreover, few women could afford to be a housewife because the husband was unable to look after the family.

Despite this equalization, however, the burden of life faced by wives and mothers was much heavier than that of men. A man and a woman were considered equal at work, but at home a man was more equal. A woman had to go to empty shops in search of food, cook meals, clean up the flat and look after children, whereas her husband usually read newspapers or watched a football match on television.

Communist rule is usually described by such words as dictatorship, totalitarianism and nomenklatura. The more suitable term, however, is patriarchy, particularly ensured through the domination of women in the Communist Party structure. Throughout the workforce, women generally played a secondary part. They worked mainly as doctors, teachers and shop-assistants. In the strange hierarchy of values of that time, this was regarded as the service sphere, which was complementary to the mainstream occupations. Many women were also employed in the textile and food industries. Men prevailed in all other spheres of life, especially at the political level where virtually all decision-making positions were filled with men.

Changing this was virtually impossible. Since women were equal, what was there to change? The most important impediment to women’s condition was that the sphere of power was a purely male preserve. In the time of the rule of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and others, up to Gorbachev, only one woman, Yekaterina Furtseva, was a Politburo member. It seems Soviet leaders had no wives. At least, no one saw them, with rare exceptions. This tradition was broken by Mikhail Gorbachev, who began to appear in public with his wife Raisa.

In any case, prior to perestroika and glasnost initiated by Gorbachev and the first more or less free elections, women merely decorated institutions like the Supreme Soviet, a pseudo-parliament which always approved all decisions. But they took no part in real decision-making. Under socialism men were divided from women not by the burden of labor but by the burden of power.

The situation has not changed much in the present government. True, a woman can be proposed for the post of minister of culture or public health-thus consciously giving preference to the female sex. However, this merely emphasizes that the federal government and local government bodies remain a male preserve. In fact, even at best, when a woman is able to make it to the positions of power, this is usually an individual achievement, and typically because the successful individual woman has been able to identify herself with strong male traits that are relevant to the political game and system.

It is obvious that the role of housewife and guardian of family values has been rehabilitated. Opinions about new women and their roles in present Russia were expressed about “a woman who is closer to God” denoting the strong religious freedom that many women are enjoying. One could also hear protestations against “the society which advocates the ideals of individual freedom and is essentially alien to the family and a woman,” as well as against “the generation of young women who deliberately seek social success first of all.”  It is such opinions and expressions that are presenting a lot of pressure against the emancipation of women today. Nonetheless, they appear as indirect threats because they are viewed as conservative of social traditions and values, when in reality, they are not much different from the “baba” concept held of women in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Raisa Gorbacheva, speaking at one of her own forums, said that women feel uncomfortable in power structures because “politics remains immoral in our days,” adding that: “It seems to me that the participation of women in politics could make it less immoral.”

Gorbacheva’s opinion was supported by a feminist voice from the hall: “If a woman were defense minister, we would have had neither Afghanistan nor Chechnya.” This remark shows that the hopes (or illusions) that Russians cherish in connection with women are long lasting indeed.

In the Soviet Union, a clear understanding or organization did not exist of feminism, particularly under the repressive Soviet controls. Today, the issue of feminism has risen to the surface again, but this time to deal with the impact of the recent economic changes on women. These changes have shaped the way in which women understood “feminism,” and women’s “nature” and role in society. But what is most encouraging is that in Russia and the Newly Independent States, the issue of gender itself is being seriously considered for the first time. Women in Soviet times were defined as “the same as” or “different from” men according to the current needs of the regime, with gender-specific or gender-neutral policies then applied as the particular situation such as war, peace, or labor shortages required. Only recently have Russian women in the post-Soviet period begun the difficult but necessary work of claiming agency and making themselves their own first priority.

In her book The Baba and the Comrade, Elizabeth A. Wood  focuses on the feminist aspects that confronted Bolshevik activists after 1918: were women and men the same or different? Could a baba, generally defined as an ignorant peasant woman, become a comrade, a full-fledged human and citizen? The Bolsheviks were very reluctant to target women separately in their propaganda and organizing efforts; only the competition with feminist groups and other socialist parties forced them to do so in the last years before the February and October 1917 revolutions and the years that followed.

The dilemma for the Communists was that their revolution was to be class-based, and “any special efforts on behalf of women threatened the revolution’s class nature.” Nadezhda Krupskaia, partner and wife of Lenin was a defender of women’s interests, but she showed the Communist reluctance when she wrote in 1913 to the party paper Rabotnitsa (“Woman Worker”) in 1913:

“The ‘woman question’ for male and female workers is a question [of] how to draw the backward masses of women workers into organization, how best to explain to them their interests, how best to make them into comrades in the general struggle. Solidarity among the male and female workers, a general cause, general goals, a general path to that goal–that is the solution to the ‘woman’ question in the working- class environment…. The journal Rabotnitsa will strive to explain to unconscious women workers their interests, to show them the commonality of their interests with the interests of the whole working class.” (Wood, pp. 33-34).

Yet, for practical and historical reasons, women, who were less literate than men and who were charged with all household and childcare duties, in addition to other work which they did outside their homes, could not be reached by Communist activists as easily as men. Many women could not or would not attend meetings with men, nor would they speak out with men present. But the Communists needed to appeal to women in order to mobilize their support,  especially during the crucial years of the civil war, from 1918 to 1920. The Communists feared that if the backward baba was not made to support the new regime, then she might have a negative impact on the revolution, and even become a source of counterrevolution, that is, opposition to the Communist Party.

And as women would be raising the next generation, it was critical that they understand and support the new order. The idea of the baba harming the revolution if she was not won over became the source for the activism that was focused on women by the Communist Party.

In reality, and despite the communist propaganda which pictured women to be equal to men, most Russian women did not benefit from the revolution, and for many the Soviet experience was a largely negative one. Not only was there little money in the hands of women, but also little to decide upon, and in fact, most Russian women during the Soviet period had no decisions to make at all.

Yet, many women who came from extremely poor and difficult backgrounds benefited from joining the Communist Party. Still yet, while the Communist government supported women in terms of propaganda and declared policy, little was done on the ground. Most Russian women, especially those who lived on their own with their children had received very little support, if any at all, from the government. In most cases, they had to strive on their own in order to earn their living and cope with their extreme poverty. Women’s poverty in the USSR was not a simple matter because at the end of World War Two there were 26 million more women than men in the Soviet Union.  Some of these women had to renounce their families of origin in order merely to survive, while others found it necessary to marry men of “correct” backgrounds so as to “lose” their pasts–or even just to gain a place to live.

The “family values” legislation, which the Stalin sponsored and supported during the 1930s and 1940s, could not overcome the problems of hunger, crowded housing, fatigue and policies that separated people from their loved ones and destroyed family happiness for so many women.

What did give meaning to most of these women’s lives was a love of work. Most women were able to find jobs and work. Even though the payment was low, the case was as such for men as well. However, when it came to promotion and advancement, women could not get rise effectively. In fact, one of the highest positions a woman could think of was to be head of a department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, that is, a senior officer in the second most important decision-making body in the USSR. As one former Communist woman puts it, “There was a ceiling. It’s the tenacity of tradition, and unfortunately, to this day, we haven’t broken its hold. I don’ t know how long it will take to overcome it.”

Under the personal, economic and political conditions that these women lived through, however, their survival and the survival of their children seems to have been very difficult. Russian women under the Soviet Union seem to have suffered serious limitations and suppression because of their sex. Their worst problems were the overt discrimination and the practical obstacles caused by single motherhood and poverty.

Soviet women may also have been victims of double jeopardy. They did not only suffer because of their sex, but also because of the class-based discrimination. Although the Communist regime called for the abolishing of social classes, the fact that women were second class members of the Communist Party and regime seems to have brought further limitations upon their conditions as human beings and members of their community.

Soviet investment in education, in addition to the fast urbanization movement during the 1960s through the 1980s allowed for more opportunities, especially for many women. The situation of women in the post-Stalin period was much better than in the past, but even with the availability of opportunities, equality was far from being achieved.

The freedom of Russian women to discuss and protest their situation was not achieved until the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, that was exactly when the lives of these women began to worsen once again. Parental leave and childcare had been associated with women only, women were and are the ones most likely to be fired as workplaces have to cut costs.

Gender roles at Russian homes have never been questioned before. Housework is extraordinarily time-consuming in because the Russians do not have well-supplied, conveniently located shops or labor-saving devices. As a result, women, as the few “reserved seats” for them in government bodies disappeared, are at a disadvantage in trying to compete as political players. They have first to fulfill their duties as housewives and then think of political career.

Old-fashioned male chauvinism also plays a part in keeping women out of politics, and out of business as well. These are aspects of modern Russia that have been inherited from the Soviet Union. The Communist Party and other powerful institutions always had affirmative action programs for sons but not the daughters of party leaders.

At the same time, the opportunities that were created after the collapse of the Soviet Union were mainly available for men, not for women. This has pushed many feminist Russian activists to try and organized their lines in order to win over political and social support.

One of the best-known is the Center for Gender Studies, the Soviet Union’s first center for research on women, and its sister umbrella group, the Independent Women’s Forum, which organized the first country-wide, independent gathering for women’s groups. The Center and the Forum have been very successful in publicizing their critiques of Russian society. They are less involved in politicking to get women into positions of power, although their members often serve as consultants to government bodies. Although the Center is associated with the venerable Academy of Sciences, it has been outspoken in its feminism, as has its founding director, Anastasia Posadskaya- Vanderbeck.

Posadskaya early on found the Soviet system to be sexist and hypocritical, once she saw underqualified but well-connected men getting into academic programs for which she was rejected although she had passed the exams. She comes across in her book as less comfortable being interviewed than being the interviewer; she calls herself a “reluctant activist, ” saying she would have preferred to be a full-time scholar, but felt impelled to fight for women to “have their own voice, to speak independently, to speak not from a position of class or of one-half the population, which has been rescued by somebody else, but to set up their own agenda.”

Posadskaya also stresses a sense of responsibility for Russia: “This is our country, and we cannot emigrate. We have to live here, and that means we have to change our situation and the situation of the country.” She acknowledges that the various women’s groups have sometimes had tense relations with each other. The fears of centralization or control, a characteristic that stands as a “legacy of Soviet control of all social organizations,” are still prominent. However, some feminist groups, especially the Women’s League, is structured to be non-hierarchical, or “horizontal,” with rotating chairs. It works to get women involved in the political process, but it has broader goals as well: one of its founding groups, Gaia, sees “Russia as a deeply patriarchal and authoritarian society…

The founders’ vision was to empower women to become autonomous and self-confident in order to advance democracy, build a civil society, and dismantle patriarchal values and practices in Russia.

Yet, it seems that this political involvement aims at making feminism and Russian women more responsible for “civilizing” Russia. But the focus is clearly on empowering women not only for Russia’s sake but especially for their own. One of the League’s leaders and Gaia’s founder, Elena Ershova emphasizes women’s need for self-esteem, which must be obtained not only by having economic and political power, but also by working to undo women’s socialization into silence, to learn to speak out and break free of the old myths. Much of the League’s work is very practical, as is that of the smaller business and economic organizations described in the book, for which feminism is a process and a practice.

Although competition and rivalry, as well as fear of centralization, are obstacles to the unity that would help the feminist movement become a stronger force in contemporary Russia, it is nevertheless good that there is no enforced “one way” or only one spokeswoman for feminism This may help prevent the media from stereotyping feminism and feminists. The growth of many groups and organizations will also help to convince as many women as possible that the women’s movement is relevant to their lives, as they can choose a group whose interests most closely correspond to their own. The existence of many groups may also help to counter a Russian historical tendency for theory to guide political activism rather than letting theory evolve from activism.

What, then, has Russian women’s activism accomplished? It is noticed that most of these achievements, if they exist, are not reported in the media. What clearly has been achieved, however, has been a revolution of consciousness. Although Women’s Activism leaves us with questions about the future of feminism in Russia, there seems to be a lot of hope for Russian women in the future. While some women have chosen to become active in the political arena, regardless whether they took their positions on the right or the left, it seems that Russian women are not going backwards, but rather, insisting on improving their conditions, regardless how difficult these conditions are today.

The challenges are really difficult, especially with regard to women’ s economic situation, to which the growth in sex trafficking of Russian and other women from the Newly Independent States is a serious problem. But activists are aware of these problems. Feminist groups now put it clear, that there will be no more mobilizing women’s support for men’s political agendas, for women to be only producers and reproducers for the state. There may be few babas left, but “comradeship” will be defined on women’ s terms. And then women will truly have a revolution of their own.

In the post-Soviet Russia, the situation of women has not changed much. Yet, awareness among these women of class differences seems to have become more developed. Most of the younger women have less patience for anything connected with the old regime. Many of them want to break free from the limitations that are inherited from the past.

In the final analysis, it becomes obvious that there is a major challenge for feminists today. Only shortly before the Soviet Union collapsed, the existence of feminism and feminist groups in Soviet Russia was not yet clear or even certain. Today, feminism has flourished, and more importantly, there seems to be a very strong awareness among the majority of Russian women about their conditions and need for emancipation. However, the problem is that this awareness has only developed as the economic conditions of Russian women have deteriorated in the post-communist era. Accordingly, many Russian women have not only lost hope of economic improvement, but also of social and political development. Whether these developments will in the end lead to the radicalization of women and feminism in Russia or not is not very clear right now. Yet, it appears that Russia’s new women are determined to have their way through in the system. On the long run, it is expected that some kind of equilibrium will come to exist in the Russian socio-economic situation. By then, the achievements of the Russian feminist movements will have begun to appear. As for now, however, the average Russian woman, perhaps no longer a baba, has to strive in a struggle for food, shelter, and belonging, just as her ancestor did less than a hundred years ago. For Russian women, the times may have changed, but not the conditions.

Works Cited

Wood, Elizabeth A. The Baba & the Comrade. New York: West Publishing

Company, 1996.

“Women’s Forum.” Feminism in Russia Online, 1999.

“Women’s League Online.” Feminism in Russia Online, 1999.

“The Feminist Movement in Russia,” Online, 1999.

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