Don’t call her a feminist

Call a Russian woman a “feminist” and she will most likely take umbrage, or at least start making excuses

What can you do — feminism in the Western sense has yet to take root on Russian soil. Women who openly call themselves “feminists” arouse the pity (at best) of most of their compatriots. They see these strident women as unfulfilled in their personal lives and bent on revenging themselves on men for their unhappiness.

To the casual Western observer Russia gives the impression of a male-dominated country. It seems that here all decisions are made by the men, who are always running around, making a lot of noise and competing with each other to see who’s cooler. But drop in on that “macho” man at home and you will be literally stunned to see how obediently, if not obsequiously, he behaves with his wife: “Yes, darling. Of course, darling. Whatever you say, darling.” In 8 out of 10 cases, that is exactly what you will find.

Incidentally, foreign travelers in Russia often noted this public side of relations between man and wife (apparently no one ever invited them home). Journeying through Russia in the 16th and 17th centuries, they made notes about the hard life of Russian women — uneducated and forgotten, locked away in tower chambers behind high walls by their cruel husbands. What a horror.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Monomakh, a Grand Prince of Kievan Rus, exhorted his sons in his famous Instruction: “Love your wife, but do not let her have the upper hand.” Apparently, even for princely progeny in the 12th century the danger of becoming a hen-pecked husband was real.

True, Russia’s foreign observers varied. The notorious Italian adventurer Casanova, who by force of nature consorted closely with women in different countries, had this to say about Russia in the 18th century: “It seems that Russia is a country where the sexes have become confused. Women govern, women preside at the meetings of scholarly societies, women take part in administration and diplomacy. The one thing this country is missing, the one privilege not accorded these lovely ladies is that of heading an army.”

Of course, the idea of fighting for the equal rights of women did not bypass Russia altogether. In the latter half of the 19th century, the idea came to Russia from Europe along with the increasingly strong revolutionary movement. The revolutionaries openly declared that the Woman Question was for them one of the most important; that may be why so many women took part in the Russian Revolution.

After the Bolsheviks came to power women got the green light. As Vladimir Lenin put it: “Any cook-maid should be able to run the government.” What the leader of the proletariat meant, of course, was that members of the most forgotten strata of society would come to power. But in his famous phrase, he referred to a clearly female “cook-maid”, as opposed to a clearly male “chef”. In the Soviet Union there was no discrimination on the basis of sex — female labor was paid the same wage for the same work as male labor. And in order to “break free” a working woman did not forsake her family duties, the state guaranteed her many social benefits, including long paid maternity leaves and subsidies for children. Those “echoes” of socialism are still alive in the post-Soviet Russia of today. According to a recent report by the World Bank on Women, Business and the Law — 2010, women in Russia have more socio-economic and labor security than in the United States and in many countries in Europe. For instance, a working woman in Russia is entitled to 140 days of paid maternity leave plus 540 days of unpaid leave.

Therefore when Russian women are told that they should fight for their rights, they sincerely do not understand what people are talking about since they do not feel discriminated against as compared to their husbands. The “favorite” complaint of Russian women about their husbands is that they are weak. “There are no more strong men, we have to do everything ourselves,” the successful businesswoman will lament at the least opportunity. But I promise you, if some trusting man takes that unhappy career lady at her word and tries to tell her what to do, she will cut him right down to size.

This has been the situation for a long time. Russia has always been a country of strong women. Read a few Russian folktales and you will be well versed in important aspects of our national character. Vasilisa the Wise, a beautiful princess, is always helping her beloved and saving him from certain death; his name is Ivanushka the Little Fool. Russian literature, too, is all about this: while the weak man rushes about not knowing what to do or how, the woman calmly takes responsibility for her fate.

As for feminism in Russia, former State Duma deputy and presidential candidate Irina Khakamada was recently asked what she thought about it. One of Russia’s best known and most successful women, she said: “I’m a post-feminist. A woman who isn’t fighting for her rights, who isn’t trying to prove anything, and for whom men are for happiness. Like a fast car or a beautiful watch. Because everything else — making money, having children and bringing them up — I can do myself.”

Of course, comparing the significance of a man in a woman’s life to a car or a watch looks a little insulting to the former. But perhaps this is the height of feminism — woman’s independence. Let men make us happy, and we’ll do everything else ourselves.

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