Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Last glimpse of the Soviet Union

‘Soviet Women – Walking the Tightrope’ – Francine Du Plessix Gray, 1989

Francine Gray didn’t know it, but her visits to the U.S.S.R. provide some of the last glimpses of civil life there. After she left, the Soviet government collapsed in December 1989, followed in 1991 by the shelling of the ex-Soviet parliament by Yeltsin's military. After that came the ‘free market,’ plunging the ex-Soviet peoples into an instant 10-year depression, one of the worst economic collapses in history. (See “Reinventing Collapse” by Dmitry Orlov, reviewed below) One of the architects of that counter-revolution “Dr. Shock,” Jeffrey Sachs, now admits he thought the West would ‘aid' Russia. Actually, the only thing the West wanted to do was steal the USSR’s assets for a song.

But this tumult is just approaching as Ms. Gray tours the Soviet Union during perestroika and glasnost. Her method is to personally interview many mostly female intellectuals, journalists, scientists, psychologists, government bureaucrats, factory workers, artists and doctors in the span of 3 or 4 visits. As a middle-class American feminist with a Russian background, (her mother had been engaged to Mayakovsky before emigrating to Paris), she looks into the issues of sex, abortion, contraception, womens' roles, the 2nd shift, child care, health care, working conditions and female leadership in the USSR. .

Gray acknowledges the legal gains of the 1917 revolution – formal sexual equality, the right to vote, equal inheritance laws, improvements in divorce, the lifting of the veil in the Muslim Republics – and social benefits like child care, social feeding, long leaves and access to all jobs. But she points out, along with some of the Russian women she meets, that these gains under Lenin were undermined by the Stalinist period and then the long ‘stagnation’ of the Brezhnev years – called “zastoy.” Gray calls it ‘re-domestication.”

Alexandra Kollantai, the most prominent feminist in the revolutionary years, was saved from execution by Lenin – a fate recommended by the conservative faction of the Central Committee. Instead Kollantai was sent overseas as an ambassador to get her out of the way. In 1979 the first samzidat ‘feminist’ text since the 1920s was issued in Leningrad. In 1980 four of its authors were expelled from the USSR. Stalin had outlawed homosexuality in the early 30s, and even in 1989 the statute was still on the books. Lesbianism was not recognized as even possible. So it comes as no surprise to Gray to find so few Soviet women willing to call themselves ‘feminists,’ even in 1989.

The funniest part of this book is how Soviet women look down on Soviet men as lazy weaklings. The Russian male evidently was supremely lazy at home – never cooking, cleaning or taking care of the children – instead puttering around reading the newspapers. This is a description of a matriarchal social culture based on work. To Soviet women, their jobs, mothers and children come far before their husbands – and to be single with a child, normal. Marriage is not the exalted state we see depicted in the US culture. Their exhaustion working two shifts proves their social superiority – which is why Soviet women guarded their right to be exhausted. Ah the contradictions. Your husband wants to cook? But that is not a man’s job!

Gray describes the birthing floors of Soviet hospitals, where husbands are not allowed, and birth is a joyless and unpleasant experience – all presided over by women midwives and doctors. The babies are then swaddled until they can barely breathe. The Lamaze method is unknown – even though it originally came from observations of an early Soviet doctor.

In a way, Gray’s visit to the USSR is an exercise in vertigo – reactionary practices and ideas on the one hand, progressive elements on the other. Abortion is legal. Yet it is almost the only form of Soviet contraception, and women endure crude abortion methods and facilities repeatedly. Better contraceptives like the pill are almost unknown or hard to find, or dangerous to use. Daycare is available to everyone – but extremely low grade for many. The ‘professional’ women she meets in Moscow and Leningrad are overwhelmed by poverty – while some of the working-class factory workers have good food available from the factory commissaries, quality daycare and higher pay. Yes - the reverse of the situation in the U.S., where the female factory or service worker gets the low end of the stick.

Yet Gray comments that Uzbek professional women of that period "enjoy some of the most privileged lives in the Soviet Union.” Gray meets a hardened female Brezhnevite apparatchik in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, who is incompetent without her Party perks. And a generous, kind female factory director in Irkutsk, Siberia, near Lake Baikal, who entertains Gray with a sauna and simple food. Tellingly, Irkutsk is a town populated by former dissidents, starting with the Decemberists, for generations. Gray spends much time on the portrayal of women in Russian literature, and on their conflicting desires to dress well because they must ‘shoulder bricks.’

All these contradictions reflect the socialized economy and lack of a capitalist class, yet also a corrupt and dying bureaucracy astride society.

Gray’s main theme continues to be the matriarchal social life she and many other Soviets grew up in. It would be interesting if Gray - or one of her graduate students or colleagues - returned to Russia and the now independent Muslim Republics to observe the new status of women, and what changes have occurred, for good or ill.

And I bought it at Mayday’s Used Book Section!
Celebrate International Women’s Day.
Red Frog
March 8, 2012

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