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.
In Russian culture emotion is assigned an entirely positive value, and thus the culture’s sexual stereotypes differ from those of the Protestant, Enlightenment West. The more a person expresses his emotions, the better, more sincere, and more “open” he is. When Russians speak of the soul, what is meant is this developed subculture of emotion. You don’t have to explain what the soul is; any Russian is capable of expounding upon the subject at length and with deep feeling. Within this subculture, women are seen as stronger: that is, they appear to feel more, express things more openly, display their emotions more clearly—they are, in effect, “more Russian.”
Russian literature is not intellectual, but emotional. In Russia the people who are committed to insane asylums are not those who have lost their reason, but those who have suddenly acquired it. At the very least, he who attempts to reason logically is declared a dangerous eccentric. In Griboedov’s play Woe from Wit, written at the very beginning of the nineteenth century, the hero arrives in Moscow after spending several years in the West. The absurdity of Moscow life horrifies him and casts him into despair. He tries to appeal to reason, to logic—a waste of time and effort. He is immediately declared insane—in a matter of five minutes this becomes clear to everyone. Despairing, the hero runs away. Where to? To the West of course. The philosopher and writer Chaadaev, one of the most brilliant men of the same period, was likewise declared insane. Truly mad people—iurodivye, as they are called in Russian—are thought of as “God’s people”; they are holy, and their incoherence, absurd pronouncements, and strange behavior, are considered a genuine sign of a special, mystical link with God.
I do not presume to give even an outline of the Russian world view—at the very least that would be immodest. But my Russian feeling tells me how accurately Francine du Plessix Gray understood (or felt?) the powerful female principle that suffuses the Russian universe. Home, hearth, household, children, birth, family ties, the close relationship of mothers, grandmothers, and daughters; the attention to all details, control over everything, power, at times extending to tyranny—all this is Russian woman, who both frightens and attracts, enchants and oppresses. To imagine that Russian women are subservient to men and that they must therefore struggle psychologically or otherwise to assert their individuality vis-à-vis men, is, at the very least, naive.
Of course social inequities exist: many traditionally female occupations (including doctors) are among the lowest paid in the country; many women in the Soviet Union break their backs at excessively hard physical labor (women do a great deal of the road construction work, for instance); many work around the clock without a chance to rest. There are women who are beaten or brutalized by their husbands; there are women alcoholics, women who would sell their children for a bottle of vodka. There is a bit of everything, as is true everywhere in the world. But most Russian women—“normal” women—are, as a rule, far from weak creatures.
Russian women so often exude such a strong, psychologically overpowering aura that men, floundering helplessly like moths in the wind, are only to be pitied. A Russian woman is entirely mistress of her household, the children belong to her and to her alone, the family often doesn’t even ask for male advice, or only consults men to clarify a situation: women will do things their way in any event.
When, a few years ago, Literaturnaya Gazeta began a discussion about “who is master in the house,” the publication was bombarded with a stream of male complaints—thousands of unhappy representatives of the “stronger sex” complained about all manner of oppression. The most common was the situation of divorce. If there are children in the family, they inevitably stay with the mother when the couple divorces, although theoretically the law recognizes the equal rights of each parent. But no one would ever think of awarding custody of children to the father; the organizations that supervise the treatment of children consist entirely of women, and the very idea of entrusting a child to a man would seem absurd to them. Dozens of complaining letters from men merged in a common, miserable howl. This was perhaps the first time that men had received the right to express themselves on the theme of the family in the Soviet press, and the results astounded many people.
The letters from women in this polemic were fairly unanimous as well: “The creep got what he deserved.” “What good are men?” “All men are pigs”—alas, a common female refrain. Of course, there’s an ongoing fight over these “pigs,” since every woman wants to have her own “creep” at home. The feeling of property—as opposed to companionship or partnership in marriage, for instance—is a very Russian characteristic.
Men are the property of women; if this property betrays, or runs away, or decides to lay down its own law—it will receive its just desserts. Francine Gray, having spoken with dozens of women, noted with surprise that almost all of them talked about men as they would about furniture or other inanimate objects. A group of women doctors kept a few men in their group “for a tonic.” You can always find this kind of “Schweppes” in female collectives: among doctors, teachers, in publishing houses, in the many research institutes that exist in the Soviet Union, where women are in the majority. The “tonifying” man is usually spoiled, receives a great deal of attention, women try to dress up for him (our women tend to dress for work as if for the theater), they like to bring him homemade meat pies and salads, they even pretend that they are happy to submit. But if he should try to boss them around—woe to him. If women aren’t the death of him, then at least they are always capable of arranging some quiet, legally unassailable sabotage, and it is impossible to force a woman to work if she doesn’t want to. Women will quickly unify and attack the accusing man with reproaches of callousness, oppression, cruelty, and lack of understanding of a woman’s hard fate.
It is difficult—especially in a short article—to speak of problems whose roots go back in history. But the events of the last decades are available for observation: the Revolution; a lengthy civil war; the almost complete destruction of the intelligentsia in Russia; the coming of new classes to power; the mixing of all layers of the population and all nationalities who live in the Russian empire; the many years of Stalinist terror with tens of millions of prisoners and deaths; then the war, which destroyed at least twenty million men (according to some estimates, as many as thirty-six million people altogether).
During the four years of war there was only one sex in Russia—women. The men had gone to war. Not only did the country have to be fed, but weapons had to be manufactured—and this was done by women and small children. And after the war sometimes only one man would return alive to a Russian village full of women—and even he was often an invalid. One can understand that each woman strived to possess him. An entire generation of women grew up, grew old, and died as eternal fiancées or widows.
And the Stalinist arrests continued after the war as well—with renewed strength. Those who had managed to spend time abroad, especially the partisans who fought with liberating forces in other countries, were sent to the camps; those who had been held prisoner in German camps were sent away; homeless adolescents and orphans, often turning to crime to survive, were also sent to the camps. Sometimes it is said that the entire country spent time in the camps, and this is actually a fair statement. Women—especially the wives of prisoners—were also arrested, but by and large it was men who did time. They returned desperate people; the level of alcoholism was very high; many had become criminals in detention. They would commit crimes and burglary and be sent back again. The intelligentsia was often arrested for political reasons and the level of education, enlightenment, and just plain civilized behavior was extremely low.
Add to this the constant psychological and physical stress of periods of famine and chronic food, housing, and consumer shortages well beyond the imagination of most Westerners, and it becomes obvious that all these catastrophes were bound to have a devastating effect on the family and relationships between the sexes. Disastrous shifts in the Russian consciousness were bound to occur, developing and strengthening its worst traits. Most foreigners who visit our country deal primarily with the city culture of Moscow and Leningrad. The psychology of rural, provincial, small-town culture is less well known to foreigners—but I am talking mostly about this small-town culture, since the intelligentsia in most countries around the world is quite similar.
A Soviet woman’s dream is to not have to work—but work she must, because salaries are very low. It is impossible to live on a husband’s salary alone. There can be almost no discussion of a career in the Western sense of a progression upward—a career is tied in with enormous psychological difficulties and adds so insignificantly to one’s salary that it isn’t even worth trying. A career is more likely to give power than money, but most Soviet women feel they have enough power as is. Why should she want some kind of intangible political power over abstract people who don’t want to submit, when right within her grasp is a full-fledged, seductive, constant, palpable power over the members of her family, over every object, chair, bed, broom, curtain, pot or pan, keys, the dog, the schedule and menu?
Until very recently, a “career” meant relinquishing the personal, private life that provided Soviet people with respite and protection from the claims of the state, in order to participate in the meaningless parades, endless meetings, and lying speeches of the public domain. An honest person tried his or her best not to participate in this “official” life. Those who did get involved in the hellish machine were broken: either it destroyed all traces of individuality and compromised them morally and ethically, or—if a person rebelled—threw him out of society, sometimes sending him as far as Siberia.
Of course, in our society everyone felt suffocated by public life, by the total absence of freedom. But men suffered from it to a greater degree than women, since women have always had the loophole of “domestic life,” to fall back on. Men had no such loophole in our society. At the beginning of the Sixties a special law was devised against “parasitism,” i.e., the failure to work at a job authorized and recognized by the state. Though this law was used primarily as a tool against political dissidence, it was also directed against men who wished to freely choose their profession and thus be masters of their own fates. The Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky was convicted under this very law.
Women have rarely been prosecuted under this insane law. In the Soviet Union women have the de facto right not to work if they don’t want to, although the law theoretically applies to both sexes. But it is only used against women in exceptional cases—if the woman’s behavior is excessively “anti-social” for instance, if she is a prostitute, a thief, an alcoholic, beats her children, and her neighbors also complain about her. But these are the extreme exceptions. For years our society regularly punished, persecuted, imprisoned, and humiliated its male population, for men could not withdraw from the role of public citizen as easily as women. One of the ironies of the Revolution is that it did in fact succeed in making men and women equal—by taking away the rights of every member of society.
The picture that I have painted here may seem gloomy, but my words are dictated not by a wish to judge, but by compassion for our people, who may often seem emotional barbarians to outsiders. And I feel an enormous sympathy for Francine Gray, who was not frightened off and did not turn against the people she met, the Russian men and women whose living portraits fill the pages of her book. There is a Russian proverb: “Learn to love us when we’re filthy dirty—anyone can love us when we’re clean.” That’s what she did.
The possibility of misunderstanding and not hearing each other always exists. If a desert dweller and a citizen of a lush tropical island begin to chat about the sun, water, and wind, it’s not likely that their opinions will coincide. Knowing Soviet life, I read Francine Gray’s book, noting mentally: true…that’s exactly right…. American readers—those who don’t know our country at all—might think entirely the opposite. “How unlikely,” they might think, “how could that possibly be true?”
We are too different; in many respects we are opposites. It’s simpler not to listen, not to believe, to shut ourselves off inside the cozy curtains of the usual stereotypes. I end this article with a strange feeling of uncertainty whether I will be correctly understood, the same feeling that people have on parting with someone they have just met and don’t know too well. “It seems I was in top form today, and spoke well,” thinks one of them. “What a strange nose he has, what a dreadful suit, and what stupid relatives,” thinks the other. “Drop in again,” they both say. After all—they’re neighbors.
—Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
May 31, 1990