Near the top, but still not decisionmakers

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

They are the Jeane Kirkpatricks, the Sandra O'Connors, the Carla Hillses of Soviet society: the officially trumpeted female success stories. Western critics dismiss them as mere tokens in a Soviet system still steered overwhelmingly by men -- old and conservative men, at that.

Natalia Malachovskaya -- one of three dissident women who made an ill-fated stab at publishing this nation's first feminist journal and then emigrated to the West -- once scoffed:

"It is not important if we have women in our government . . . because those who get there are not women anymore."

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Even President Leonid Brezhnev noted recently that "not all the possibilities are being used to promote women to executive posts," adding, "this must be corrected."

Still, the dozen or so women hoisted nominally near the pinnacle of Soviet political power embody a remarkable success story, one that is shared to some degree by more than a few of their compatriots.

The country's most powerful women come, by and large, from simple backgrounds. They suffered through a word war that left some 20 million men, women, and children here dead. They benefited from education well beyond the reach of their mothers or grandmothers.

And they climbed, or were hoisted, to their current positions by a route open , at least in theory, to many other Soviet, women: the Communist Party organization.

If lengthy interviews with four of the Soviet Union's top-ranking women are any indication, they indeed have little input into most major policy decisions. Other senior Soviet sources confirm that this remains the virtually exclusive province of the all-male party Politburo and the secretariat of the Central Committee.

Nor -- and this is presumably the implication of Mrs. Malachovskaya's indictment-from-exile -- does any of the most prominent Soviet women seem to see herself as a standard-bearer for feminist causes.

There is no need, these women argue, for women's liberation. Soviet communism has liberated women along with everyone else. Yes, there are problems (here the women generally quoted Mr. Brezhnev for good measure). But the problems are not fundamental, and they are being addressed.

A relevant vignette:

Valentina Nikolayeva-Tereshkova is perhaps the showcase woman of all Soviet showcase women. In the days when all males were male chauvinists, she would have been called delicate, charming, feminine, also willful and articulate. All would have been meant as compliments.

She is in her mid-40s but looks younger. She is the only woman in the world to have flown into outer space. "My [three-day] flight," she said proudly in an hourlong interview, "proved that women can be fully the equal of men. . . ."

Mr. Nikolayeva-Tereshkova is now head of the Soviet Union's official Women's Committee. She is also a member of the party Central Commitee, a larger and less powerful body than the committee's secretariat, although constitutionally it is empowered to remove even Mr. Brezhnev from power.

And what, she was asked, of the enormous number of abortions among Soviet women?

"This is the first time I've heard we have a problem of obortion," she replied evenly.

An aide quickly whispered something to her, and she retreated somewhat; "The main issue," she said, "is that there is no perfect form of contraception. . . . The decision [on abortions and the like] is the province of individual families."

On other issues, Mrs. Nikolayeva-Tereshkova spoke with a tone that alternated between warmth and incisiveness. She noted that she, like many other Soviet women, was a "child of the war," her father having been killed in its early days. She recalled her wideeyed dreams, as a member of the party's youth wing, of following in the footsteps of Yuri Gagarin, the world's first spaceman.

Asked why there were no women at present on the ruling party Politburo, she rebounded more sharply: "History shows there are heads of state who are women . . . like [Britain's] Mrs. Thatcher, but that this doesn't solve the problem" of women's rights.

The other women interviewed:

* Zinaida Mikhailovna Kruglova. Another of the eight women with full membership on the 470-strong Central Committee, she chairs the leadership of official Soviet friendship societies with foreign coutries.

A large, handsome, graying woman of peasant ancestry, she survived as her mother, sister, and finally her father were killed in World War II. "I was left alone, without any family," she recalls. "I was 17."

After the war, she studied engineering in Leningrad, then taught physics there. Increasingly active in party affairs, in 1954 she began rising to more senior posts, and some 20 years later, she was a deputy to the minister of culture in Moscow. She then moved to her present post.

She sees her position, supervising friendship groups that deal with allied states and left-leaning forces in other countries, as one of encouraging detente. She speaks forth-rightly, dodges no questions.

Asked in the interview what she thought of the Polish situation -- this was several months ago -- she echoed Soviet news media attacks on "counterrevolution" in Poland. But she added that, in theory, the Soviets should focus on continuing their economic aid to the Poles.

"The Poles should decide" their future, she said. "We can'd decide what is right or wrong. . . ."

* Alevtina Vasilievna Fedulova. Although not a Central Committee member, she sits on the party's central auditing commission, traditionally a stepping stone to committee membership. She is a member of the governing secretariat of Komsomol, the youth wing of the party, and head of the Pioneer organization, the party-guided organization for children from 10 to 15 years of age.

Mrs. Fedulova is a slightly jowly woman with blond hair and a pleasant, almost matronly voice. She has the manner of a kindergarten teacher in some faraway American town, hardening only when she turns to her role in helping make youngsters into good Soviet citizens.

Athough generally upbeat, she echoes concern recently expressed by Mr. Brezhnev that at least some Soviet youths nowadays have turned "politically naive."

Like many other Soviet officials, she harks back to her experience in the war. Maybe, she suggests, some Soviet youngsters aren't intimately enough aware of how terrible the suffering was. "I was only a small child in the war," she says. "But I remember. . . . My father, and my husband's father, both died."

* Alexandra Pavlovna Biryukova. The most impressive of the women interviewed , she is a Central Committee member and also sits on the national secretariat of the Soviet Union's official labor union apparatus. She smiles often. She looks far younger than her early 50s. She, too, remembers the war. She lost her father and one brother. "It should be clear to you why the party and government come out for peace. . . ." she says.

She is a believer in Soviet communism, in the campaign to energize official trade unions here, in the advances women have made since the 1917 revolution. She speaks of all with a high, excited voice, shuffling encroaching piles of papers. . . .

But, yes, there was problems. And of all the women interviewed, she seems genuinely upset over them. She goes beyond mere citations from Mr. Brezhnev's writings and speeches.

"A woman still has not enough spare time, . . ." she says. "And facts show she is more engaged [with work] at home than the men. . . ."

As for the unions, "We still have certain [economic] leaders, including some executives . . . who do things like give only one day off, or stretch employees' working hours. . . ."

And although she made it clear she resolutely opposed the kind of union that has sprouted in Poland, she said she was determined to take Mr. Brezhnev and others at their word, and to use the official unions' apparatus to bring offending bosses to task.

She proudly cited an example, saying that she had backed a local union move to dump a director from one electronics factory. A (male) government minister, who has to approve such decisions, resisted. "I clashed with him," she said, "and the minister finally had to go along."

Mrs. Biryukova is, like the other women interviewed, a token -- if only in purely numerical terms, in that so few women rise to such senior official posts.

But there is evidence that other women here have lived Soviet socialist success stories, one a lesser scale.

A fellow Western correspondent recalls having visited the chief of construction for the Moscow subway in connection with a recent story. A flock of men with sheaves of plans cringed outside the director's office. The director turned out to be a woman -- who had got her start as an ordinary ditch digger in the initial stages of he subway's construction.

Next: The biggest problem -- Soviet men.

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