Women's Group a First in Russia

Moscow's Transfiguration Club pursues international ties and practical social action

IN an upstairs room at the Writers Union in Moscow, 23 women and two men gathered recently to discuss ways of building international support for their fledgling organization. The Transfiguration Club is the first feminist group to be recognized by the government, according to its president Diana Medman, a Russian biochemist.

It began about four years ago when a group of seven friends gathered around Dr. Medman's kitchen table. They found that by meeting regularly they could encourage and support one another. "With the coming of perestroika," Medman explains, "we began to dream that it might be possible to organize officially, to have a special forum for women."

With glasnost, the dream came closer to reality. Legal status, they realized, was crucial if they were to press the government on women's issues and gain the interest and support of the international community. But laws governing the formation of nonprofit, charitable, and educational organizations were almost nonexistent.

The group was determined to achieve legal recognition. But no sooner had they complied with one set of directives than another would spring up. In one instance, they assembled letters from supporting organizations, only to be told that all the letters would have to be notorized both abroad and in Russia.

Finally, on Jan. 11, 1989, Transfiguration received notice that it had been recognized as an "informal common organization." Medman estimates that by that date only about 50 other such organizations had been approved, none of them a feminist women's group.

The vice president of the group, Zoya Boguslavska, whose book "American Women" was published in Moscow last year, defines feminism as "having a choice."

"For years," she says, "women were expected to do hard labor - to lay asphalt, for example - and still shoulder all the burdens at home, buying food, cooking, raising the children. If feminism means anything, it means having some choices about balancing home and work."

Because "informal common organizations" are not permitted to solicit or receive donations, a way had to be found to fund the club. A loan was permissible, and a for-profit biochemical firm owned by Medman loaned 100,000 rubles (about $1,000) to the club. The club in turn loaned the money to its own charitable projects.

"We were now legal," Medman recalls with a smile. "We had a stamp, a bank account, and a dues-paying membership. We could get on with our work." An estimated 50 to 75 members pay 25 rubles each (about 25 cents) a year.

The Writers Union, where the club meets, is housed in a 200-year-old mansion on a quiet Moscow street. Tolstoy used the building as a model for Natasha Rostova's home in "War and Peace."

At the two-hour meeting, a visiting American woman, speaking Russian, addressed the group. Irene Goldman represents the Alumnae Association of Douglass College, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and is a consultant to the New Jersey Network for Family Life Education, also at Rutgers. She brought two crucial letters of support for the Transfiguration Club's international affiliations.

"We would be delighted to work together with you on concerns facing women and the family in Russia," wrote Susan Wilson, executive coordinator for the New Jersey Network.

The Alumnae Association of Douglass College in New Brunswick, N.J., voiced similar support: "[We are] always seeking interaction with organizations whose goals, like ours, are to expand our understanding of women and their special place in the world."

Olga Tatarinova, a radio engineer and published poet who wrote the club's constitution, says, "One of the first decisions we had to make was - given our feminist philosophy - whether we wanted to take a purely theoretical approach or to apply ourselves to practical efforts. We decided that the level of need in our society mandated a practical approach."

THE Transfiguration Club is the sole support of two schools in Moscow, one for autistic children and another for retarded children.

Both use creative methods to draw out the abilities of each child, in contrast to government institutions, which are little more than warehouses for children with handicaps.

"We've had interesting results," says Anna Volzhina, a speech therapist at one of the schools. "Children have begun to paint pictures in an effort to communicate and to do chores for themselves. Our goal is to help these youngsters become self-sufficient adults."

Transfiguration also supports a weekly workshop for poets called "Echo," a course on Saturdays and Sundays for children ages 2 to 7 that emphasizes creative play, and a weekly meeting place for teenagers.

The club's emphasis on creativity reflects the backgrounds and avocations of the founding members, who include scientists, economists, speech therapists, writers, poets, translators, artists, a businesswoman, a stockbroker, zoologists, music teachers, and a lawyer.

In the last year or two, several members have traveled to women's meetings abroad - in Greece, Finland, and the United States. For them and others in the club the new political reality, however difficult the transition, represents a burst of light for women.

"We chose the name 'Transfiguration,' " Medman says, "because we want to raise women's consciousness, to transfigure ourselves and our society. But there is so much work to be done."

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