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…

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