A STRONG smell of burned buckwheat porridge hung over Russia yesterday morning, as a nation with male chauvinist pigs celebrated International Women's Day by cooking breakfast for their womenfolk.
That lame gesture, supplemented by a bouquet of carnations, was about as far as most men in this country went. And nothing could have been further from their thoughts than the idea of honoring women's struggle for equality.
That may be what March 8 is about elsewhere in the world. But not here. Once-a-year tokens of gratitude, rather than emancipation, are the focus of this major holiday - showing that ``gender equality'' is still an oxymoron for many Russian men.
For a front-page editorialist with Moskovsky Komsomolets - an allegedly progressive daily - the date ``inevitably calls to mind the bright image of a beautiful, tender, and defenseless woman, causing an overmastering desire to take care of her.''
And if you think that attitude sits uneasily with the feminist ideals that International Women's Day is supposed to promote, try Komsomolskaya Pravda, whose holiday edition was printed on boudoir-pink paper and graced with a pouting pinup girl.
On March 8 - a holiday on par with New Year's Eve here - shops, offices, and factories close, public transport runs on a skeleton schedule, and the whole country takes the day off.
Women's Day was elevated to this status by the Soviets, under whose rule the ``Heroic Female Worker'' became a proudly muscled icon.
The holiday's purpose, explains the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, was ``to mobilize women - who have been liberated from social oppression and received equal rights with men.''
That was the official line. In practice, the holiday became a celebration of women as wives and mothers, warped beyond recognition from the original aims of the socialist women who introduced the holiday to Russia - along with the idea of emancipation - in 1913.
The holiday was hypocritical enough in the Soviet era, critics say, and today, celebration is even more inappropriate, as women's rights are trampled underfoot in the new capitalist Russia.
``Neither Jobs Nor Justice,'' a new report by Human Rights Watch published yesterday, finds that women are fired from their jobs disproportionately as companies privatize and downsize. In many regions of Russia, women make up more than 85 percent of the unemployed.
But those sorts of concerns were far from most Russian minds yesterday, as the most hackneyed visions of womanhood temporarily obscured reality.
``I'll take my girlfriend out to a restaurant - I don't often do that,'' said a young man who identified himself only as Arkady, clutching three pink carnations as he waited for his sweetie outside a subway station.
``I take this holiday seriously,'' he said. ``I very much want to do something good for a woman, at least once in the year.'' And he giggled, guiltily.
``Women's Day is nothing more than an excuse for men to absolve themselves of their dismal behavior for the rest of the year,'' wrote Betsy McKay, a columnist for the Moscow Times.
Absolution comes easy: flowers and chocolates are the standard, time-honored gifts on this combination Mothers' Day/Valentine's Day. Irina Korchagina, for example, an accountant with a firm that exports oil products, took home a bunch of roses, a bouquet of mixed flowers, and two boxes of chocolate.
While she is happy enough to enjoy such gifts, she still finds it faintly ridiculous that ``for one day you get a few more smiles and a few more compliments, and that's about it.'' On the whole, she feels, the whole affair ``humiliates women's dignity.''
As a respectable young woman trying to make her way, Ms. Korchagina has to steer a careful course. In free-market Russia, complained Lyudmila Semina in the liberal Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily, ``two priority models of social behavior have developed for women - business vamp or courtesan.''
Yelena Grunina, her hair dyed blonde and her lips extravagantly reddened, would probably fall into the former category.
Ms. Grunina is a successful businesswoman, and like many successful businesswomen, she feels that ``our men don't respect women enough, and a lot needs to be changed.''
What exactly? ``Well, first of all women should work less, take care of themselves more and love their men,'' she suggested. ``Then there would be more respect.''
And what did Ms. Grunina expect on March 8? ``A sea of flowers and lots and lots of love,'' she gushed.
``Women's Day here is a totally sexist holiday,'' snorts Natalya Kigai, an expert on the women's movement. Asked if there is in fact any women's movement in Russia on which she could be an expert, she sighs with resignation. ``That is a painful subject,'' she says.
Certainly, a good deal of consciousness remains to be raised in Russia. Itar-Tass, the official news agency, cited a public-opinion poll this week that found that only 30 percent of Russians think the emancipation of women is a good thing.
Twenty-two percent oppose the idea, and 24 percent haven't decided yet. And another 24 percent didn't know what women's emancipation meant.