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Notes from Underground

Tatyana Tolstaya, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell

Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope

by Francine du Plessix Gray
Doubleday, 213 pp., $19.95

During the two weeks I spent in the United States at least forty people asked me: “And what do you think about this book?” The person asking the question would simply point at it, without mentioning the author or title—the assumption seemed to be that it was obviously the book worth talking about at the moment. It was given to me twice during my stay.

The most important thing about Soviet Women for me is that it rings true. It consists of numerous stories, portraits of living people—women and men whom I recognize as though I actually knew them. Each is present as a person, with his or her own point of view and taste. The opinion of any of these Soviet citizens can easily be argued with, and one can often object that a highly personal point of view is being given, and that the person talking is simply wrong and doesn’t understand anything—but the sum of these opinions of Russian women and men will, I believe, shake up the view of Soviet society that has formed in the West.

Francine du Plessix Gray traveled with a tape recorder from the Baltic states to Siberia, asking women of many nationalities and cultures about their lives, in order to form a general picture of the situation of Soviet women. She was drawn to make this visit by affection for and curiosity about the country of her mother’s and her grandparents’ birth, and those of us who met her sensed the warmth of her involvement; but this did not hinder the sharpness of her observations. Her sense of humor must have helped her out more than once in situations that would have driven mad anyone who expected to make a quick, businesslike compilation of information on a country where—just imagine—the entire female population vigorously repudiates feminism.

Once or twice a year the doorbell of every Soviet apartment rings and a stern, middle-aged woman with a list of residents in hand appears on the threshold. With no introduction, she curtly and glumly inquires: “Bothered by rats? Hear any mice? Bedbugs, cockroaches?…” The mistress of the house, caught unawares, or perhaps gotten out of bed, mutters hurriedly in her confusion: “No…no…not yet”—whether any of the above-mentioned animals have paid a visit: everyone knows it’s useless to fight them anyway. The stern visitor nods, makes a notation in her book, and, without so much as a word of farewell, turns and rings the next apartment. For years women from Western countries who call themselves feminists have interviewed us in the same cold, rigid manner: “How do your men oppress you? Why don’t they wash the dishes? Why don’t they prepare meals? Why don’t they allow women into politics? Why don’t women rebel against the phallocracy?”

Soviet women are dumbfounded. Not only do they not want to be involved in the depressing, nauseating activity called Soviet “politics”—which for years amounted to sitting for hours on end in a stuffy room amid piles of paper and pronouncing officially authorized sentences—they would much rather not work at all. In bewilderment they ask themselves: What do we need this ridiculous feminism for anyway? In order to do the work of two people? So men can lie on the sofa? For as soon as a Soviet man sees that someone is doing his work for him, he quickly lies down on the sofa and falls into a reverie with a feeling of relief.

Russian men have been recumbent for many centuries. Emel, the hero of Russian fairy tales, lies on the stove, and a fish—a pike—brings everything to him, from daily sustenance to a princess, upon marriage to whom he will be able to do nothing at all with complete justification. Ilya Muromets, the knight-hero of Russian folk epics, lies quite still, without lifting a finger, for thirty-three years—until some sorcerers chance to pass by and endow him with heroic powers. Oblomov, the famous protagonist of the nineteenth-century writer Goncharov’s novel, remains in repose his entire life—too lazy even to write a letter to put his finances in order.

With laughter and regret all Russia recognized itself in the person of Oblomov. The heroes of Russian folklore and literature set their affairs straight, thanks to magical wives and fiancées who sew, weave, spin, cook, bake, heal, cast spells, come to their rescue in dangerous situations, and save them from inevitable doom. Men in Russian folklore are often fools and idlers; women are sorceresses, terrifying or gentle, cannibals or beauties, they are beings that deftly transform themselves into swans and frogs at just the right moment. When the silly hero, unschooled in the mysteries of female magic, tries to approach things rationally by burning the mysterious and dangerous frog skin or stealing the swan’s feathers, women abandon him, fly off to distant kingdoms beyond the dark blue forest, to grass mountains or lost islands. In short, as Francine Gray says, quoting a Soviet proverb: “Women can do everything, and men do all the rest.”

Russian men may have been lying down for hundreds of years, and Russian women may have been bemoaning this state of affairs. But there are exceptions among men. And even the exceptions seem to come straight out of Russian literature. Once one of my friends, Irina, a music teacher with three children, got a phone call from an unknown man. “Hello,” he said. “I want to be your slave.”

Where do you know me from?” said Irina, surprised.

I don’t know you,” responded the man. “I simply dialed your phone number by chance. But it doesn’t matter. I feel terribly sorry for all women on earth. Poor souls! They do the work of three people, these gentle, unfortunate creatures. And no one helps! I decided to dedicate my life to a woman—all of you are equally wonderful. Please allow me to come to your home and do the heaviest work.”

The man began to cry, and Irina agreed that he could come that evening, when her husband was at home.

I want to wash the floors,” he said. “I’ll take out the garbage, cook, take the children for walks.”

We can’t trust him with the children—he’s probably some kind of maniac,” thought the couple. “Well, here, return these empty bottles for starters,” they told him, figuring that the slave would steal the deposit money and that would be the last they’d see of him, thank heavens. But the slave turned in the bottles and came back with the money.

Then he began to work at house-cleaning. When everything was done, the slavemasters invited their new acquisition for a cup of tea. A completely Dostoevskian conversation ensued—a long, philosophical, Russian sort of conversation about morality, and whether or not one would inevitably experience a fall if one raised oneself above other people, and about how while they had been exploiting him, they had been overwhelmed by proprietary instincts and negative feelings of superiority, and their souls had recognized the sin of pride. So they asked him to finish his tea and leave.

What do you mean, leave?” the slave protested. “I’m yours now. You don’t have the right to get rid of me. You can only sell me. For the time being I’m going to sleep in the hall on the rug. You’re depressing me!”

It was with a great deal of difficulty that Irina and her husband sold the slave to a sick woman, Elena, who needed constant help because she was an invalid and bedridden. From time to time Irina would call the slave, “Well, how’s it going?”

Wonderful,” he’d reply. “I’m working around the house and I finally feel useful.”

How’s it going,” Irina asked a week later. “Not bad,” said the slave, “only she demands that I buy her French perfume with my own money. What impudence. I’ve liberated her from this work, and she tyrannizes me.”

Well, how’s it going?”

It’s awful, awful,” complained the slave a month later. “It’s not enough that I wash her, dress her, comb her hair, take her out for walks, tell her interesting stories, buy her everything she wants. She also wants me to enter the university and makes me read Pushkin and write compositions. Of course, I’m a slave, but what right does she have to interfere in my inner life?”

Finally he himself called. “Congratulate me, I’m a free man! Finally! I won’t have anything to do with another woman in my life!”

And he disappeared forever into the sea of life from which he had so unexpectedly surfaced.

Happily free of the dry, rigid rationalism of many of her Western colleagues, Francine Gray did not force herself on Russian women with ready-made, one-size-fits-all stereotypes; she didn’t wave preconceived formulas for the reorganizing of Russian women’s lives at them and didn’t exclaim, “Horrors! Shame!” as have—in all sincerity—many of her more simple-minded compatriots.

She noticed—and was herself surprised to find—that Russian, even Soviet, society, is matriarchal. The term “matriarchy” is of course too weighty a term to apply without caution to the complex, motley, and paradoxical society that arose (and is apparently fast disintegrating) in a huge country stretching from ocean to ocean and comprising hundreds of peoples who speak virtually all imaginable languages and pray to all imaginable gods. But if we don’t insist on a strict, overly scholarly approach, and, dimming the sharp, surgical light of rationalism, allow ourselves to relax, listen, observe, absorb, and feel—that is, do exactly what Russian people do almost professionally—then it is possible to speak about the matriarchal qualities of many feature of the Russian consciousness. And the Russian mentality has to some degree penetrated all corners of the empire—often not for the best.

Sensitivity, reverie, imagination, an inclination to tears, compassion, submission mingled with stubbornness, patience that permits survival in what would seem to be unbearable circumstances, poetry, mysticism, fatalism, a penchant for walking the dark, humid back streets of consciousness, introspection, sudden, unmotivated cruelty, mistrust of rational thought, fascination with the word—the list could go on and on—all these are qualities that have frequently been attributed to the “Slavic soul.” When one puts them all together, one forms the impression that the description is of a woman. (These qualities, however, also equally fit the male Russian literary and folk heroes mentioned above.) Russian writers and thinkers have often called the “Russian soul” female, contrasting it to the rational, clear, dry, active, well-defined soul of the Western man. The West in fact often refuses to speak about the “soul” at all, as it applies to a people or a culture. The West refuses to use such an unscientific concept: you can’t hold the “soul” in your hand, therefore it’s impossible—and unnecessary—to study it. Logical categories are inapplicable to the soul. But Russian sensitivity, permeating the whole culture, doesn’t want to use logic—logic is seen as dry and evil, logic comes from the devil—the most important thing is sensation, smell, emotion, tears, mist, dreams, and enigma.

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