America Needs Babushkas, Too

SEVERAL times a week, the Russian evening newscast, News 1, features a trim, polished woman as its anchor. With her dress-for-success suits, tasteful jewelry, neatly styled hair, and artfully applied makeup, she typifies a new generation of Russian women. To viewers watching her on C-Span 2, in fact, she and the women who appear as reporters on the program bear a striking resemblance to their female counterparts on American newscasts.

What a contrast between these young glamour women on Russian TV and the babushkas, or grandmothers, whose pictures have appeared regularly in Western newspapers in recent months. With their shapeless figures, weathered faces, dark clothes, and ever-present scarves tied under their chins, they symbolize Soviet women of earlier generations, whose lives are marked more by hardship than by conventional definitions of success.

Yet for all their plainness and lack of professional credentials, the babushkas are emerging as national heroines, the invisible glue holding Russian families together. All through this lean winter they have been photographed waiting in long lines for meager supplies of expensive food. Some have appeared in new roles as sidewalk entrepreneurs, selling possessions to earn extra rubles. One woman tried to trade an old sweater for fish. Another held strings of dried mushrooms.

But lines and street-corner commerce constitute only part of a babushka's responsibilities. Back home, out of camera range in living quarters that often house three generations, she typically spends long days cooking, cleaning, and caring for grandchildren while the children's parents work. In her role as keeper of the hearth, she transmits values, preserves traditions, teaches religious beliefs, and passes along family stories.

Self-sacrificing to a fault, a babushka has no chance to consider retirement in the Western tradition. She has no need for over-50 magazines with names like Modern Maturity and New Choices. By American standards, she holds a position that is largely unenviable, although within her own country she is reportedly both revered and feared.

It is impossible to imagine the News 1 anchorwoman and her female colleagues as babushkas someday. When they retire, their roles will almost certainly be different from those of their mothers and grandmothers. Anticipating this change, one elderly Russian woman predicts darkly that when today's generation of babushkas is gone, life will be much harder for families.

Overextended American women joke wryly that every working woman needs a wife. Perhaps what they actually long for is a babushka who can bring order, comfort, and moral authority to a family. Russian families, after all, are not the only ones needing glue. For those of us who must depend on long-distance phone calls and airline tickets to connect our scattered families, the idea of maintaining closer generational ties, while still preserving everyone's independence, appears to offer advantages that go bey ond mere sentiment.

The babushka should not be romanticized. She is too grumbling to be a saint. What she does, she does from necessity rather than choice. As a survivor of pre-feminist generations, she knows no other options.

Is the babushka exploited? The answer has to be yes - and no. For there is an energy to the way she does the jobs that nobody else wants to do. In taking the responsibility, she finds her reward - to be needed. In today's Russia, the babushka or someone like her can give a certain day-to-day direction and stability to the family when everything else seems to be falling apart.

And what about other countries? Older Americans will never model themselves after babushkas - the youth culture is too firmly in place, dictating senior prototypes that range from the dancing grandmothers to Elizabeth Taylor. But in recognizing the need that the babushka fills with dignity and humor, other cultures can honor those in their own midst who give care - and something more.

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