Polina Ryzhova
“All by Myself”: Feminism and Gender During the Stagnation

The history of western feminism is usually divided into several so-called waves, and a similar periodization could be applied to the women’s movement in the USSR and Russia. Journalist and screenwriter Polina Ryzhova has traced the emergence of feminism and studied how women defended their rights in the 1970s and 1980s — in samizdat, cinema, and daily life. What were the circumstances of women in big cities as the Soviet project drew to a close? How was the literary and artistic underground of the time “backward”? How did the feminist and dissident movements intersect? And what was the difference between Soviet and western feminism?

Dissident Anna-Natalia Malakhovskaya recalls her initial reaction to the idea of producing a feminist anthology:

July 24, 1974. I am standing on the Spit of Vasilievsky Island, in the dead center of my hometown, Leningrad. Tatyana Goricheva, one of my friends from my work in samizdat, comes up to me and gives me (as she promised on the phone) “something special.” Namely, four pages, rather shabby in appearance, yellowed with age, typewritten. She says that the artist Tatyana Mamonova (a name that I heard for the first time) has read my works in samizdat, and she liked them so much that she decided to ask me to work with her… And then she says something that turns my stomach. She has proposed that I, a writer with sixteen years of experience, join her in producing a samizdat publication for women. Me, doing a publication for women?! I immediately felt as if I had been demoted! [1]

Malakhovskaya found herself in possession of an article by Mamonova, entitled “Human Childbirth,” detailing the horrors of childbirth and the psychological violence that women usually faced in maternity hospitals. Malakhovskaya immediately read it, experiencing something like an insight: she suddenly realized that the hopelessness of the female condition was caused not by the real state of affairs, but by “the approach to this state of affairs that is instilled in us.” Shocked by this discovery, the writer hurried home, where she scribbled an article on the first scrap of paper that came to hand: it was a manifesto on the unfair division of responsibilities between women and men in Soviet families. Work had thus begun on the first and only Soviet feminist anthology, which would be entitled Women and Russia.

The material for the first issue, quickly solicited by the anthology’s editors from their friends, was deliberately diverse: it included a philosophical essay about the Virgin Mary, a letter from a women’s prison, a short piece about single mothers and abortion clinics, a monologue about a children’s summer camp, an article about homosexual motifs in the lyrical poems of Walt Whitman and Marina Tsvetaeva, several short stories, and a translation of poems by a female Indian poet. Ten copies, typewritten and bound by hand, were ready by autumn. Only a couple of months later, two feminist publishers in France showed interest in the anthology. (French feminists even managed to quarrel while trying to decide which of the publishers should publish the book.) The KGB also evinced a persistent interest in the editors and contributors: during a “prophylactic conversation” with KGB officers, Mamonova was labelled a “provocateur,” and the anthology was dubbed “tendentious.” Due to threats from the authorities, the editors did not dare to publish a second issue, but they did launch a new feminist magazine, Maria. They were able to assemble only one issue before the entire editorial board was expelled from the Soviet Union in the summer of 1980.

The first Soviet feminist project thus lasted only one year, ending as abruptly as it had begun. The very fact of its emergence seems surprising today, especially for those who are accustomed to regarding Russian feminism as an exclusively imported phenomenon. What happened? Why did several Leningrad dissidents suddenly feel the need to write about women’s rights? What were the preconditions for this desire? And, most importantly, why did they generate no followers after their expulsion from the Soviet Union? The answers to these questions can be found by examining the socio-cultural context of the time. From the point of view of gender structure, the Brezhnev Stagnation was a unique period in Russian history: women for the first time found themselves in a strong position, and this enabled them to interpret Soviet equality critically.

The Three Stages of Soviet Emancipation

Women were promised equal rights with men immediately after the Revolution. The Bolsheviks believed that the cause of women’s deplorable circumstances was that they had not been allowed to take part in social labor for many centuries. “The enslavement of women has to do with the division of labor by sex,” wrote Alexandra Kollontai, “in which productive labor falls to the share of men, and auxiliary labor falls to the share of women.”[2] So, in order to solve the so-called women’s question once and for all, the Bolsheviks merely had to allow women to work on an equal basis with men. Consequently, all independent associations that had advocated for women’s rights were shuttered, as they had become superfluous, allegedly.

The 1920s were a period of rampant experimentation in family and marriage relations: women’s rights to divorce and abortion, coupled with economic independence, increasingly undermined the concept of the traditional marriage. However, these emancipationist policies were curtailed in the early 1930s. Stalin banned abortions, made it tougher to get a divorce, and introduced separate school education for boys and girls. If the first stage of Soviet gender policy had involved the political mobilization of women, the second stage was focused on their economic mobilization.[3] In addition to the role of mothers, the Soviet state increasingly imposed on women the role of workers: it was during this period that many benefits that women had enjoyed in the workplace were abolished, such as a ban on their working night shifts and in hazardous conditions. Thus, the “working mother’s contract” was consolidated, and the so-called double burden of women – employed full-time at work and forced to work for free at home – became the norm that still holds sway to this day.

The third stage occurred during the Khrushchev Thaw. Starting in the mid-1950s, women were given back the right to reproductive choice, divorce, and co-education in schools. Thanks to mass standardized construction methods, millions of Soviet citizens were able to move from communal apartments to single-family flats. On the one hand, this made families more autonomous and independent of the state: private life became less regulated. On the other, it increased the domestic burden on women even more: now they had to take care of their children and run their households alone, although no one had exempted them from their other role as workers.

Women, Take Care of Men!

In the late Soviet period, women became virtually independent of men. They earned money themselves: in the 1970s and 80s, more than ninety percent of able-bodied Soviet women were employed and/or pursuing higher education.[4] Women made up fifty-one percent of blue-collar and white-collar workers, and fifty-nine percent of professionals with a tertiary and secondary education.[5] As a rule, a husband’s salary was not enough to support his family. The Soviet state was trying to partially replace the traditionally male function of breadwinner by supporting mothers with a variety of resources: it introduced paid maternity leave, provided sick leave for mothers when they had to engage in child care, paid benefits to single mothers, and expanded the network of free institutions such as kindergartens, schools, and outpatient medical clinics. In the early 1960s, nurseries and kindergartens had been available only to 12.6% of preschool-age children; by 1980, however, 45% of Soviet children were cared for by state institutions while their mothers worked.[6] During the Stagnation, Soviet women had more social protections than Soviet men, at least on paper.

This gender imbalance provoked a discussion in Soviet society about a “crisis of masculinity.” It was kicked off by the article “Take Care of Men!" by Boris Urlanis, published in the Literary Gazette in 1968. Concerned about the high figures for male mortality, Urlanis suggested, by analogy with women’s health clinics, establishing men’s health clinics, in which the prevention of accidents would be combined with systematic discouragement of drinking and smoking. “Women, take care of men, because they are a no less beautiful half of the human race... Let’s make sure that we have not only great-grandmothers, but also great-grandfathers, who are currently quite rare,” wrote Urlanis. Men in late Soviet society could not manifest and affirm their masculinity, because they were disadvantaged vis-à-vis women in terms of resources.[7] In the novel The Time: Night (1992), Lyudmila Petrushevskaya paints a grotesque portrait of a late Soviet family consisting of a grandmother, mother and daughter. Men in this matriarchal system either leave voluntarily, or are kicked out, accused of parasitism: the need for them to remain in the household is questionable from a purely economic point of view.

During the Stagnation, the problem of male drunkenness was particularly acute: a single adult male drank an average of 180 half-liter bottles of vodka per year — that is, one bottle approximately every two days. By the mid-1980s, drunkenness was so widespread that the Soviet state was forced to launch an anti-alcohol campaign. Having lost the status of sole breadwinners, men who drank heavily were often a burden to their families. However, along with this, men’s symbolic value in society paradoxically increased. Sergei Dovlatov ironically commented on this subject in his novel Pushkin Hills (1983): “A bow-legged local tractor driver with the tresses of a train-station floozie was always surrounded by pushy pink-cheeked admirers. ‘I’m dying for a beer!’ he’d whine. And the girls ran for beer…”[8]

Sociologists Anna Temkina and Elena Zdravomyslova write that late-Soviet men were regarded by society as losers when compared with previous stereotypes of masculinity.[9] One of the main models for comparison was the image of the fathers as Second World War heroes. In the view of postwar Soviet society, the generation of fathers had fulfilled their manly vocation by defending the motherland and sacrificing themselves for the sake of the country’s future. However, the role model of hero was no longer appropriate to a changed reality. This internal dialogue with the father’s nostalgic image is literally embodied in Marlen Khutsiev’s Thaw-era film Ilyich’s Gate (1962). When the main character, Sergei, asks his father, who was killed in the war, how he should lead his life, the father asks him old he is. “Twenty-three,” replies Sergei. “I’m twenty-one,” his father says. “How can I give you advice?”

Another Russian exemplar of traditional masculinity is the hardworking Russian peasant: nostalgia for this figure is visible in the work of the so-called Village Prose writers. A different iteration of this figure is the aristocrat who lives by the code of honor, a character that is well represented in classical Russian literature. The romantic image of the Decembrists, fearless freethinkers, was tried on by Soviet dissidents, who in reality were forced to conceal their political aspirations much more carefully and literally lead a double life. The late Soviet generation was also fond of a western model of masculinity, as incarnated in the image of the cowboy, borrowed from movie westerns, for example, John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960), which was extraordinarily popular in the Soviet Union. The cowboy is an independent, noble and self-confident hero who opposes injustice and protects the weak while at the same time firmly separating himself from the feminine world of the family.[10]

During the Stagnation, Soviet men felt insecure not only in terms of conventional models of masculinity, but also in comparison with emancipated women, who retained power in the family. It is curious how male artists and female artists of the period represent themselves in different ways.[11] Whereas in the self-portraits of male artists we can detect motifs of departure, bifurcation, and dissolution — as, for example, in Nikolai Belyanov’s Kiosk (1979) — in the self-portraits of female artists, on the contrary, we sense a forthrightness and narcissism, with the female figure often occupying a dominant position on the canvas, as, for example, in Elena Romanova’s Self-Portrait in a Red Sweater (1972) and Ksenia Nechitailo’s Self-Portrait in Red (1988). At the same time, in the public discourse, it was often women who were recognized as responsible for the fact that men could not manifest their masculinity. “The position of the woman made her responsible, strong and capable of managing others, which included men who were dependent on female care. Female care — the care of mothers and spouses — proved to be a source of power and was often viewed as a form of violence,” write Zdravomyslova and Temkina.[12]

The Reverse Side of Soviet Equality

During the Stagnation, women were formally in a stronger position than men, but it would be difficult to call their position advantageous, as they were faced with a huge physical and psychological burden every day: having to fulfill the “working mother’s contract” — that is, going to work, taking care of their children, organizing home life, and in conditions of scarcity, also making connections to obtain the resources necessary for their family’s survival.

Natalia Baranskaya’s novella A Week Like Any Other, published in the literary journal Novy Mir in 1969, describes the typical life of a working mother. Her protagonist, 28-year-old Olga Voronkova, an employee of a chemical institute and a mother of two children, is forced to live in a state of constant hurry: she has to get up early, make breakfast, feed the children and get them ready, go to work all day engineering a new type of plastiglass, buy groceries, go home, cook dinner, put the children to bed, wash dishes, do laundry, sweep the floors and, after six hours of sleep, repeat the entire routine again. Olga doesn’t have time to eat a proper breakfast or comb her hair. She is perpetually sleep-deprived, forgets everything, is late everywhere, and worries about the health of the children, her relationship with her husband, the possibility she might be fired, her failings as a homemaker, and her inability to save money. Her husband suggests that Olga devote herself completely to taking care of the family, but her job is also important to her:

Dima, do you really think I don’t want what’s best for the children? You know I do, but what you’re suggesting would kill me. What about my five years at university, my degree, my seniority, my research? It’s easy enough for you to dismiss it all, but if I didn’t work I’d go mad, I’d become impossible to live with. Anyway, there’s no point in talking about it. There’s no way that we could live on your salary and at the moment you really haven’t been offered anything else.[13]

During the week, Olga tries to make time to fill out a “Questionnaire for Woman,” issued to her at work: Soviet demographers counted on using them to understand how to alleviate the country’s “demographic crisis.” Olga, meanwhile, is desperately afraid of getting pregnant: she does not have enough strength, time, or money for a third child.

One of the characters in Ilya Frez’s comedy film Quarantine (1983) faces a similar dilemma. The young mother, who spends her days at work and her nights writing her dissertation, has an unplanned pregnancy and is thinking of having an abortion, because a second child would likely put an end to her career. The situation worsens when the kindergarten her daughter Masha attends is closed for quarantine, and now, in addition to work and dissertation, the woman has to take care of her child. Unlike Olga in Baranskaya’s novella, who has only her husband to help her, the young woman in Quarantine is surrounded by relatives: her husband, his parents, and his grandparents. However, none of them are willing to support the young mother. On the contrary, the family members believe that taking care of the child is her primary task, and she should not foist her responsibilities on others. Her infantile husband, who tries to get up before his wife in the morning and slip off to work unnoticed so as not to have to deal with his daughter, tries to convince his wife that the child is her responsibility:


Tell me, why did you have a child?


I thought I was married.


My love, what does being married mean to you?


It means not being a single mother: I get half, and you get half.


So, how are we going to cut Masha, lengthwise or crosswise?

Her husband’s grandfather, a professor, remarks unhappily to her: “I would ban women from writing dissertations — academia can take it.” Her mother-in-law has a more rational approach: “Our time is worth more than yours: you are so young and so poorly paid that you should stay home with the child.” However, after learning that the woman is pregnant, the whole family tries persuading her not to have an abortion. Consequently, she caves in, agreeing to keep the pregnancy. Despite the happy ending, however, we realize that she will be unable to combine work and family, and the complex problem raised in the film thus remains unresolved.

Often, it was the need to take care of a child and do housework that turned a promising young female professional into a low-paid, low-skilled employee, thereby generating the basis for the gender pay gap. In her book Russian Women in the Labyrinth of Equality, Svetlana Aivazova describes the typical path of a young woman in late Soviet society: at school and university, she usually was taught the principle of equality between men and women, and thus faced discrimination for the first time after having a child. She would go on maternity leave, interrupting her career while simultaneously taking on all the burdens on the home front. Her husband, meanwhile, to compensate for the lack of her salary, worked even harder, thanks to which he became a more highly paid professional than his wife. When the woman’s maternity leave ended, she would still have to keep house, since her time was “worth less” than the time of her husband, who had moved up the career ladder. Aivazova summarizes: “The gap between him and her deepens and hardens: he has a career, while she has to do housework and raise the children while pursuing her professional work ‘on the side.’”

What Did Soviet Feminists Stand for?

The unfair division of responsibilities between men and women was one of the central topics of Women and Russia. In her article “The Mother’s Family,” Anna-Natalia Malakhovskaya traces how the family structure has changed over different historical periods, concluding that it was during the Soviet period that the balance between men’s contributions to the family and women’s contributions was disturbed. While, after work, the man mostly “gets drunk and falls asleep,” the woman has to give birth to children (“However, the woman is not given credit for this work. A child who has pricked its finger elicits more sympathy than a woman dying from the pain of childbirth”); run from shop to shop, standing in queues for scarce products; take care of the children; and earn money, while constantly taking sick leave to mind the children and thus risk getting fired. Malakhovskaya also identifies a fifth necessity — creative work, which is most often impossible to incorporate into the life of a married mother:

The family shatters the woman’s creative side. Nowhere can you find a family in which the man, even the most ordinary man, would do for his wife what a woman, even the most talented, does for her husband: destroying his creative potential so that she can cultivate her talents. The woman says, “You are my ambition,” thus murdering the Mozart in herself. Or she doesn’t say it, and the Mozart in her is murdered by her husband. And so the next [man] has it even easier. He says to his wife, “There have not been any Mozarts among women yet, nor can there be: the Lord God didn’t make you that way.”

The anthology’s editors and contributors aimed to refute the idea that women in Soviet society were in a privileged position. Mamonova wrote an eloquent essay about the pitfalls of the patriarchy. Natalia Maltseva reflected on the hard lives of single mothers, while in passing detailing the deplorable state of kindergartens, nurseries, and abortion clinics. Yulia Voznesenskaya tackled the violence in women’s prisons, which she had witnessed herself. The anthology was a call not only to improve the situation of women (“In order to equalize women’s rights in reality, society should pay them more than men, not less”) but, most importantly, to start treating women with the respect that they deserved.

On the one hand, the approach taken by the editors and contributors of Women and Russia echoed the ideas of western second-wave feminists, who reflected on the fundamental difference between the world of women and the world of men and tried to discern the unique features of women’s experience. Many of them attempted to conceptualize motherhood, regarding it as a crucial aspect of women’s lives. According to the sociologist Alexander Kondakov, in the 1970s, the Soviet Union entered the global context of the reproduction of inequality, and in resistance to it, the second wave of Russian feminism emerged, searching for the “genuinely feminine” in Soviet society. In turn, third-wave western feminists critiqued this approach, pointing out that motherhood was not a universal female experience (otherwise, we would have to exclude girls, old women, infertile women, and child-free women), while reliance on the categories of “genuinely feminine” and "genuinely masculine” only reflected the patriarchy’s strategy without solving the problem of inequality per se. On the other hand, the anthology did not set out a single, consolidated stance, and the views of its contributors on feminism differed markedly. In particular, Mamonova, in her article “Human Childbirth,” questioned motherhood’s creative aspect, claiming that pregnancy was “essentially parasitic.”

Perhaps the most exotic feature of Soviet feminism, as presented in the anthology, was its religiosity. The philosopher and Christian feminist Tatyana Goricheva was responsible for this component. Following Vasily Rozanov, who had tried to bridge the gap between religion and gender, Goricheva attempted to bring religion and women closer together, refuting the dogmatic idea of women as “failed” men. She argued that it was Christianity that had incarnated a fundamentally new ideal of womanhood in the Mother of God, the “image of the perfect person.” Citing Simone de Beauvoir, Goricheva writes that woman has never existed as a subject, only as a projection of male desires — that is, she has been man’s Other. Unlike western feminists, however, Goricheva sees this not as humiliating woman, but, on the contrary, elevating her. If man is action, then woman is being: “[S]he is not a monad, complacently self-contained. She is the openness, emptiness, and nothingness that waits for God.”[14]

The samizdat journal Maria, which the Soviet feminists began producing after the closure of Women and Russia (albeit without Tatyana Mamonova’s involvement), had a distinctly religious bent. It was founded in the name of “the religious revival of Russia as a brotherhood based on Christian love” and to disseminate “Christian culture as an alternative to Marxism.” Goricheva recalls that everyone in their circle was a believer: “Everyone — Yulia Voznesenskaya, Natalia Malakhovskaya and the others — came to the faith through a difficult life: divorce, prison, abortion. Tatyana Mamonova was a western-leaning feminist, but we were all believers.” It was the religious component that was misunderstood by western feminists, who saw religion and the movement for women’s rights as mutually exclusive concepts. In 1981, the French feminist publishing house Éditions des Femmes published a translation of Maria, but it removed the wording “the journal of a Russian independent religious club” from the title.[15] The publication was not greeted with the same enthusiastic support in France that the translation of Women and Russia had aroused a year earlier.

A Double Underground

Most of the anthology’s contributors were dissidents: Tatiana Goricheva and Anna-Natalia Malakhovskaya had published their work in the Leningrad samizdat journal 37, while Yulia Voznesenskaya’s work was featured in Chasy, a no less famous Leningrad samizdat journal. In many ways, the idea of making their own anthology arose from the fact that neither “women’s issues” nor the idea of gender equality provoked sympathy in the dissident samizdat world. Women were generally treated condescendingly in that milieu, in which the highest praise, according to Malakhovskaya’s memoirs, was to compare them with men, by saying, for example, they had “a masculine mind” or wrote “masculine poems.” On the other hand, many key members of the Soviet human rights movement were women — for example, Lyudmila Alekseeva, Natalia Gorbanevskaya and Tatyana Velikanova — who bravely endured interrogations, prisons and internment in psychiatric hospitals. Among Leningrad dissidents it was even said that, in that city, it was impossible to meet any real men except among the women.

Paradoxically, the late-Soviet underground culture was less tolerant of women than Soviet officialdom. This is clearly visible in the art world of the period: official Soviet art of the 1970s could accommodate, for example, the phenomenon known as the “Amazons of the Moscow Artists’ Union’s left wing” (e.g., Tatyana Nazarenko, Natalia Nesterova, Olga Bulgakova, and Elena Romanova), while women were practically invisible in Soviet nonconformist art, figuring only as the girlfriends and wives of male artists. “While the Artists’ Union, as an establishment organization, could pursue a ‘quota,’ albeit with moans and groans, meaning that sometimes in its policy toward women artists it retreated from the masculine pattern, the underground artists were ‘under martial law’ from the get-go. While they were at the forefront in terms of aesthetics, they also defended the spirit of male brotherhood,” writes the artist Natalia Abalakova.

Dissidents did not approve of Women and Russia: some criticized the contributors for quoting Lenin, while others laughingly counted how many times the word “phallus” was used in the texts.[16] The journalist Andrei Gavrilov regretfully recalls that the issues raised by the feminists seemed “frightfully pedestrian” at the time. The poor state of Soviet maternity hospitals and abortion clinics was not perceived in their community as something worthy of discussion: “There [were] important problems, there [were] important goals, but they [were] talking about the fact that they [did] not have enough sheets.” In Konstantin Kuzminsky’s Blue Lagoon Anthology of Modern Russian Poetry, a multi-volume anthology of late-Soviet samizdat poetry, the contributors to the feminist anthology are discussed with hostility: Kuzminsky iterates their allegedly unattractive appearance (“flat as a board,” “rumpled blouses,” “used-looking”) and calls them “dumb broads.”

Ordinary sexism was, seemingly, not the only reason for this drastic reaction. Dissidents clearly associated feminism with the Soviet system: they saw the fight for gender equality not as a defense of human rights, but as levelling on the part of the totalitarian state. This is evident both in the harsh rejection of quotations from Lenin and references to the high-ranking Soviet politician Ekaterina Furtseva and the cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova in the anthology, and in the poisonous comments made by Kuzminsky, who reproaches, for example, Yulia Voznesenskaya, who “got mixed up” with feminists, for constantly wanting to “join the Party.” For dissidents, opposition to the ideological foe often trumped the interests of a particular person, and in this sense they paradoxically mirrored Soviet ideology. This mirroring is well reflected in a quip made by the poet Anatoly Naiman, as quoted by Dovlatov in Solo on an Underwood (1980): “What do you mean, he’s pro-Soviet? You’re wrong!” “Okay, he’s anti-Soviet. What’s the difference?”[17]

Along with a few members of the gay community (for example, the writer Yevgeny Kharitonov), the feminists were part of a specific “third culture,” a “double underground” that was opposed not only to late Soviet officialdom, but also to the underground community of the period.

Nostalgia for Femininity

Women’s emancipation was also critically interpreted in late-Soviet popular culture. The classic movie image of the time is that of a female boss with an unsettled personal life: although she has climbed the career ladder to the top, she has been unable to realize her “feminine side.” It is interesting to compare how this storyline is treated differently in two films, one made during the Thaw, the other, during the Stagnation.

In A Simple Story (1960), the main character, Sasha, played by Nonna Mordyukova, is unexpectedly elected chair of her collective farm. She dives into the new job, overcoming the prejudices of her employees, step by step making their lives better while improving the farm. Consequently, she earns their unanimous love and respect. Meanwhile, her personal life is a mess: she lost her husband in the war, her lover proves to be a calculating scoundrel, and her sudden feelings for the district committee Party secretary are unrequited. “You are a good man, Andrei Yegorych, but not an eagle,” Mordyukova’s character says to him with a smile. In the finale, when Sasha has an opportunity to leave the collective farm and reunite with her lover, she chooses instead to stay and continue helping the people who need her. The choice made by the protagonist is presented as her unconditional personal victory.

Anna, the main character in the melodrama Old Walls (1973), played by Lyudmila Gurchenko, has similar circumstances: she wisely manages a textile factory, lives for the needs of her employees, and is also a widow — her husband returned from the war with a severe concussion. Although she is a successful and confident woman, she feels a vague longing for the old order, when men were decisive and women were defenseless. In a conversation with her son-in-law, who complains to her about the fact that her daughter has left him, Anna pensively argues, “Sometimes a man is bad. He drinks, gets into fights, and rubs people the wrong way, but you can’t say a bad thing about him.” “So, should I beat her or something?” the son-in-law asks uncomprehendingly. “I don’t know, maybe you could beat her. It’s better than going to your mother-in-law and crying,” she says. “Oh, men, men,” she sadly sums up their conversation, “we have to explain everything to you and even make decisions for you.” While visiting her deputy, also a young man, who makes his wife put up the wallpaper in their flat, Gurchenko indignantly speaks of “feminization”: “It’s a process happening now all over the world. First there was emancipation, now there’s feminization: women have achieved equality and wear the pants, while men slowly grow their hair long.” Succumbing to emotions, Anna makes a date with a man she met at a resort: he works as a driver, likes to drink and, when they meet, he impudently gropes her in front of everyone. Thanks to their romance, the main character finds inner peace. “It is difficult for a woman to be a boss," she concludes, hinting that she will soon get married and leave the factory, leaving its management to her young male deputy.

The same plot, an inversion of “Cinderella,” would be embodied in two cult films of the Stagnation era: Office Romance (1977) and Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1979). Their female protagonists happily trade in their tiresome albeit superior social status for the bliss of domestic worries. Film scholar Yevgeny Margolit writes that the feminine plot in Soviet cinema can be read as “the story of the successful assertion of the feminine essence itself, which in various ways overcomes the dictate of the business suit-cum-uniform imposed [on women] by the system.” Stagnation-era women, in fact, went through reverse emancipation: they did not want to feel like cogs in a big system, nor like Soviet superwomen, but like delicate and fragile creatures in need of protection. The “working mother’s contract,” which generated an unbearable burden for women, triggered their dream of traditional relationships. As transpired after perestroika, it was a dream that was largely unrealizable and futile.

The Myth of the Housewife

Perestroika and the Soviet Union’s collapse generated new images of hegemonic masculinity — of the fighter, breadwinner, authority figure, and defender — that had been unattainable for late-Soviet men. The political processes taking place in society were perceived as a chance to shape the image of the man of means, for whom all opportunities were open and who was able to free the woman from her heavy burden, thus restoring her to her traditional role. It was at this time that the myth of the western woman as a housewife and caring spouse, provided for by her husband, became widespread in Russia.

However, as Zravomyslova and Temkina note, there was no return to the traditional model.[18] The role of housewife was rather an exception to the rule, a token of social prestige, while the absolute majority of women were forced to work even more. The post-Soviet contract still included motherhood, but the emphasis shifted to earning money: often it was women who had to take responsibility for the survival of their families. In the absence of decent jobs, they had to work as vendors in markets, become shuttle traders, and agree to any low-skilled job they could find.

Having lost the state’s guardianship, women found themselves in even more difficult circumstance. They were forced out of the public and political spheres and discriminated against when applying for work. Sexual violence became more frequent, and women’s symbolic capital in society generally fell. If in western countries at this time the class structure of society gradually relaxed, giving women more and more freedom, the opposite processes took place in Russia, and economic inequality was a much more significant problem for post-Soviet women than gender inequality. The plight of men often appeared as difficult to them as their own.[19]

It is not surprising that post-Soviet society was for so long unresponsive to the idea of equality: women’s emancipation was associated exclusively with Soviet coercion and was rejected. Thus, in a country where women had already won the right to vote in 1917, feminism had become an unpopular and even marginal movement by the end of the twentieth century. However, the gradual conceptualization of Soviet traumas, including in the area of gender relations, gives us grounds to hope for the emergence of a radically new attitude to the movement for women’s rights. The story of the unique anthology Women and Russia, which emerged as an antithesis to Soviet officialdom, dissident culture, and even western feminism, helps us remember that this movement has traditions to which its adherents can look for support.


Aivazova, S.G, Russkie zhenshchiny v labirinte ravnopraviia (Ocherki politicheskoi teorii i istorii. Dokumental’nye materialy) (Moscow: RIK Rusanova, 1998).

Gapova, Elena, “O gendere, natsii i klasse v postkommunizme,” in: Elena Gapova. Klassy natsii. Feministskaia kritika natsiostroitel’stva (Moscow: NLO, 2016), pp. 14–26.

Iukina, Irina. Russkii feminizm kak vyzov sovremennosti (St. Petersburg: Aleteiia, 2007).

Kondakov, Aleksandr, “Deradikalizatsiia rossiiskogo feminizma, ili kak Dzhudit Batler, nakonets, vstretila Aleksandru Kollontai,” Neprikosnovennyi zapas 2 (2013): pp. 67–81.

Lebina, Nataliia, Sovetskaia povsednevnost’: normy i anomalii. Ot voennogo kommunizma k bol’shomu stiliu (Moscow: NLO, 2018).

Vasiakina, Oksana, Sasha Talaver, and Dmitry Kozlov, eds., Feministskii samizdat. 40 let spustia (Moscow: Common place, 2020).

Zdravomyslova, E.A., and A.A. Temkina, 12 lektsii po gendernoi sotsiologii: uchebnoe posobie (St. Petersburg: Izdatel’stvo Evropeiskogo universiteta v Sankt-Peterburge, 2015).

Subscribe to our newsletter:
By leaving your email, you consent to the processing of your personal data and agree to the privacy policy
Contact us
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and may not coincide with the position of V–A–C Foundation. 12+, except specially marked content for other age groups.

All rights reserved. Reproducing or using the materials from this web-page without written consent of the rightsholder is forbidden.