Babushka: endangered species

You may find her, wrinkled face damp with tears, in a cramped church at Easter midnight . . . or struggling along a Moscow sidewalk, a bulging shopping bag in each pale and . . . taking tickets in the subway . . . or walking tiny children through the park.

If you stroll through Moscow on a biting winter day, she will stop you and tell you to bundle up.If you're a young Soviet woman prancing along in an immodest skirt, she's apt to wheel around and tell you you should be ashamed of yourself.

If you're a young man, tired and a little bold with vodka, who jokes, "Maybe we should toss the whole Politburo in the Moscow River," she will tell you to stop talking like that.

Sometimes, she believes in that peculiarly Soviet god named Lenin. She grew up with his revolution. Invariably, however, she believes in the power his successors wield in his name. She holds to the good values: family, hard work, obedience. Boats, she will tell you, are not for rocking. ...

She is the babushka.m The word, literally, means "grandmother," but she is much more than that. She is an odd mix of steel and goose down. She is an important institution in a society that remains, in many ways matriarchal. She is glue in a Soviet system creaking and straining with change.

And, more and more, she is becoming an endangered species.

For if there will soon be gone for good, or changed beyond recognition. Her daughter has fewer children than she had. Her granddaughter, it would seem, will have yet fewer.

Eroding, too, with the passing of generations is the intimate sense of awe at Lenin's revolution; the quiet fear at the memory of internal purges and outside aggression that left tens of millions of Soviet citizens dead this century.

Fading also is the powerful wonder at backward Russia's growth into a modern Soviet state. The babushkam knows, feels, that there are cars and refrigerators where once there were none, that there is more and nicer clothing, more money and more food.

But the younger the Soviet woman, the less she has lived the history of this 60-year-old state.

The woman today in her teens or 20s, even 30s, did not toil in wartime factories while her husband and father and uncle battled the Nazis. She did not , as a rule, venture into cruel Soviet winter to help dig trenches against the encroaching invader. She recalls vaguely, if at all, the long, trembling lines for rationed food.

She was born into a country at peace, a country with the time and inclination to look in on itself. Life was visibly getting easier, education was improving and expanding. Refrigerators and televisions came to what Pravda would call the masses.

"Those were the good times," recounts one Moscow woman who grew up in the postwar years. "There was the feeling things were getting better. . . . I had this sense, which I've never fully had again, that I lived in the best nation on earth."

Many Soviet women, whatever their age, still feel that way. Just as few laid-off auto workers in Detroit probably long for life in the Soviet workers' state, few Soviets seem to pine for Detroit.

But if Moscow -- and Soviet news media reports on other parts of this vast nation -- are any indication, the babushka'sm daughter and granddaughter do hanker for some of the trappings of Western, particularly, American, life:

Things like makeup and lipstick, or fashion magazines and the clothes advertised in them. Take, for instance, Anna Arkadevna, whose case was recently reviewed by a Soviet newspaper. Pleasantly housed with her "old mother" and working on a university dissertation, she swooned for a suitor who plied her with such trappings and suggested they "travel dwn life's highway together, the wind in our hair." Then she jilted him. He filed an official protest of sorts, got her reprimanded for an "irresponsible attitude toward marriage," and also reclaimed some of his gifts. These, the newspaper said, included:

* Instant coffee.

* Lipstick.

* Eye shadow.

* And one brown brassiere (imported).

She apparently got to keep one item: "prestigious jeans."

Yet younger women interviewed here say they would like more than jeans or lipstick. Having been born after the war, they tend to look at recent reverses in the Soviet economy with anything but the babushka'sm accepting eye. They want more readily available meat, or quality butter. They want, generally, a more comfortable life.

They are -- although the analogy most not be stretched too far -- something of a Soviet "me" generation. In Moscow at least, this impression comes over strongly.

Interviews, if perhaps a woefully imperfect indicator in a state as enormous as this one, suggest that many young women harbor values starkly different from those of their mothers and grandmothers. The preoccupation is with school, exams, a good job. If girls still join the Communist Party's youth wing in large numbers, the reason, at least sometimes, is that they know that not joining can complicate other aspirations.

The babushkam wanted to be a good wife, a good mother. Her granddaughter is apt to be more interested in getting a good husband, ideally one who doesn't drink much and helps with the housework. "Children? Maybe later.For now, they just make life harder. I want to finish my studies, and get a good job. . . ."

Another woman, once divorced and thrice having decided to abort would-be children, said she felt there was simply no room in life or budget for kids.

A recent article in the Soviet trade union newspaper Trud ran through the common explanations of the Soviet woman's increasing tendency to shun motherhood:

There is the shortage of apartment space, too few kindergarten places. . . . Many a babushkam no longer fulfills her traditional role of matriarch and baby sitter. (Even the babushkam is changing.)

But at the heart of the matter, Trud suggested, lay the shifting values of young Soviet women.

Does the young woman long for a helpful babushka?m "A recent Moscow survey," the newspaper said, showed that only 9 percent of the parents of small children want to live in the same apartment with the grandparents. . . . And only 20 percent want to live [even] in neighboring apartments."

"If there is no desire to have a baby," Trud concluded, "An excuse can easily be found."

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