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Russia’s Image of Woman—In a Country of Extremes

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The filmmaker of a documentary about three women in a Siberian prison and a yearly May Day beauty pageant writes about the changing roles and images of women in Russia.

I lived in Russia only the first five years of my life, but when I decided to make my first documentary film its focus was obvious. It was going to be about the first generation of women to come of age during the collapse of the Soviet Union. And indeed, Miss GULAG became something of an answer to my question: What would I have become had I not left Russia?

We came to the United States in 1981 during the Brezhnev-Reagan years. “We” were three women: myself, my grandmother, who was a 60 year-old pensioner, and my intrepid 27 year-old mother—the driving force behind this very bold move. I've never even noticed the absence of male role models in my life. All my most basic physical and psychological needs were always met. It wasn't until much later that I started to analyze and wonder, how on earth did they manage it all?

My grandmother was a child of the post-Revolutionary period. Born in 1923, she grew up knowing early on that a woman was responsible for everything. Firstly, she was supposed to get an education and a profession. The government provided it, but you had to prove yourself, especially if you were Jewish. She also knew that she had to cook, clean and care for the whole household while her own mother worked to alone support two children. Cultural and gender stereotypes were being destroyed by the Communist Party, which decided that women should be “liberated”—free to work, get equal pay to men, and be “productive members of socialist society.” They could do any job they chose, from welder in a factory, to astronaut, to opera singer. The new socialist state was going to open scores of free childcare centers where these productive citizens could leave their children practically from birth and go to work or to university. Next, to liberate women from the burdens of shopping and cooking, the state would open “Obshe-pit,” short for “Obshestvennoe pitanie” or “Communal meals”—giant cafeterias for all workers and their families. And finally, there was the new housing policy. No longer would women have to slave all day cleaning vast houses or big apartments. The “Communal apartment” laws dictated one room per family. Into my great-grandmother's six-room apartment came five more families, the kitchen and the bathroom to be shared by all.

Of course, what looks like a great idea on paper doesn't always pan out. Apartments were dirtier than ever before due to the over-crowding, and the “Obshe-pit” was only good if you wanted a stomach ache for a few days. The childcare was the only thing that seemed to be okay, as long as you lived in a good neighborhood or had the right connections. (Sound familiar that last part?) Both my mother and I grew up watching my grandmother do everything for everyone. She had succeeded in getting an education and became a pediatrician, a respected doctor in Moscow who nevertheless would stand on line for three hours in negative 30 degrees to buy a sack of questionable potatoes. And my mother grew extremely thoughtful as she watched my grandmother go on house-calls, taking her coat on and off 60 times a day to treat all the children of the neighborhood, only to get up at 5 am to make soup for her own family out of the aforementioned questionable potatoes. The ideology dictated one image—strong, hearty women, in kerchiefs and over-alls, red-cheeked and smiling. You can still see these in propaganda posters of the era. But the reality was vastly different. “Women can do anything!” the slogans shouted. And indeed, they were. They were doing everything for others and putting themselves last on the list.

The media in post-Revolutionary times all the way up to Gorbachev exalted the woman as the worker and “productive member of society” before any other female image. Hard work, intellect, and character were prized. In my own mother's youth there was a bit of a backlash. And there was even a famous movie in the late 70s that with immense irony spoofed the extreme that women had become. It was called “Slujebniy Roman” or “Office Romance.” The boss, a very stern and comely lady of a certain age, falls in love with one of her underlings—very risqué and taboo for the time. She decides to undergo a near-miraculous transformation. She starts wearing heels and make-up, gets her hair done, and is taught how to walk in a “free and mysterious manner” by her young and trendy secretary. To this day it remains one of the best-loved classics of Soviet cinema.

There were many beautiful Russian women then as there are now, but it was considered in bad taste too flaunt your looks. There was no Vogue, or Style Channel, or any obsession with height, weight, skin, hair, and the rest of it. With a stylish pair of shoes or jeans costing half your month's wages, and lipstick from the former Czechoslovakia (if you could even get it) costing a week's worth of groceries, you learned to sacrifice. Prized possessions to be sure, but they did not define your existence either as a woman or a human being.

With the fall of the Soviet Union came a sudden and heady influx of new images in the media. Today, every fashion magazine that exists in the West has its Russian-edited counterpart. If you turn on Russian TV/cable channels as early as 6 pm you are bombarded with explicit, sexually themed talk-shows, reality shows, and even dating shows. Music videos and girl-bands with names like Vi-Agra are what teen-aged girls see on a regular basis. No longer are Russian women like Alexandra Kollantai (the world's first female ambassador) and Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman in space) written and talked about the world over. Instead the morning talk-shows in Moscow and New York are too busy profiling the latest Russian Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover model. A beautiful young Russian woman to be sure, but a questionable at best role model for girls.

It saddens me that today's girls and young women are bombarded the world over by values so superficial and mercantile. Growing up in the United States I was exposed to much of this, although not to the extreme extent that girls are today. However, I needed only to look to my grandmother to be my compass.

Who would I have become had I grown up during a period of extreme changes in Russia? I still don't know for sure, but perhaps one of the girls whom I filmed. I have a feeling, though, that I'd be the same person—just with many fewer opportunities and positive experiences in my life. Russia has always been a place of extremes. To go so swiftly from one extreme of what a woman is defined as to the exact opposite—well, it's no wonder there are beauty pageants in prisons these days.

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