On International Women's Day, Russian women want change – not gifts

International Women's Day has been a popular holiday in Russia since the Soviet era, when women played a major role in work and politics. But they have been largely sidelined by men since.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Customers purchase flowers from a florist on the eve of International Women's Day in central Moscow in 2012. Men all over the country acknowledge the women they love on International Women's Day by presenting them with souvenirs and flowers.

International Women's Day is one of the few holidays inherited from the old Soviet calendar that remains universally and genuinely popular in Russia.

It's a kind of cross between Mother's Day and Valentine's Day in the West, with just the faintest hints of its early-Soviet-era aura of militant feminism thrown in.

But several women who are active leaders in various fields say that this year they are taking a hard look their lives in a wider political and social context, and thinking about ways to change the long-standing male-dominated status quo in politics, business, and the professions.

"We do see some change in the attitude toward women in our society. People are beginning to understand that equal rights are a must," says Albina Shirobokova, head of the Angara Union of Women, a civil society group in Irkutsk, Siberia.

"There are some signs that politics are beginning to work more in our interests. And women are more independent than they used to be. Life has forced them to take care of themselves," she says.

All of Russia shuts down on March 8. Men make a beeline for the family hearth, bearing flowers, chocolates, and gifts – according to a survey by the Russia-based MAR Consult company, men in Moscow alone will fork out $550 million on presents for their womenfolk this year – and spend the evening feasting and offering up toasts of praise for mothers, wives, daughters, and sweethearts, as well as women in general.

But, in a well-worn Russian cliche, many women still end the day wondering why they're the ones who have to do all the cleaning-up afterward.

"I love the attention, I adore my family, and I don't think my life is awful at all," says Galina Buryakina, a 30-something Moscow accountant.

"Still, nothing ever changes. I sometimes wish my husband would take this day to talk [about] our lives and how we might rearrange things to make it better, rather than making a big deal out of flowers and candies and rote speeches," she says.

The Soviet Union "emancipated" women long before the West did by bringing most females into the workforce, giving them equal access to higher education, and creating a system of universal state-funded child care. But it also locked them into low-paid professional ghettos such as medicine – a majority of Soviet doctors were women – teaching, science, and engineering. It set quotas that ensured strong representation of women in the Supreme Soviet, Communist Party committees, and trade union bodies, even if the upper echelons remained a male preserve.

But the quota system evaporated at the USSR's end, much of the infrastructure devoted to helping working mothers collapsed, and men started invading professions like medicine as they became more prestigious and lucrative in the new market-based economy.

"On one hand, the past few years have been economically favorable, and the material conditions of life have improved for a lot of women," says Oksana Dmitrieva, a Duma deputy and former minister of labor.

"On the other hand, the old Soviet mechanisms of advancement are gone, and new democratic institutions that should promote social mobility are not working. Economic and political life has been monopolized, and the old areas where a woman could make a dignified career, such as medicine and education, have been commercialized and become much more discriminatory," she says.

Many women say they still face one notorious Soviet legacy, the "double burden" of work and homemaking, which limits women's career choices and leaves them with virtually no time to themselves.

"I can manage in my workplace, I don't feel discriminated against as a woman," says Svetlana Golubeva, a colonel in Russia's MVD, or interior troops, which is a semi-militarized national police force. "In the MVD we have several female generals."

But, she adds, "I'm married with two children. As it is, my work day lasts from morning to night. If I go for a promotion, I know my work load will only grow. So, in practice, you have to make a choice between career and family. I don't want to lose my family."

Many women who went into politics during chaotic but hopeful democratic experiments of the 1990s have since quit public life. Some cite the narrowing of political opportunities under President Vladimir Putin and a greatly reduced tolerance for female participation.

Ella Pamfilova, a veteran politician, former minister of social services, and the first woman ever to run for president of Russia (in 2000 she got 1 percent of the vote) says attitudes are changing, but very slowly.

"Men have been at the top for a long time in Russia, but there is a feeling that male politics has exhausted itself," she says. "Women today are increasingly active in civil society, and most are forced to become active out of despair. Male politicians simply do not address women's issues. So women need to organize themselves. I hope we shall see a new wave of women coming into politics. We have lots of successful women in business, journalism, and other fields who see what must be done."

Today's State Duma has 61 female deputies, or about 14 percent, compared to around 50 percent in the old Supreme Soviet. Even that number may not reflect political reality, since the pro-Kremlin ruling party, United Russia, has revived the Soviet-era practice of padding its list of deputies with non-politician celebrities including quite a few female gymnasts, figure skaters, ballerinas, and others.

After two decades of post-Soviet, market-oriented change, many of the problems today's Russian women face might sound more familiar to their American contemporaries than to their Soviet mothers.

"Russian women have attained higher educational levels than the men, and that trend has been growing for the past ten years. Currently almost 60 percent of students in higher education are women," says Marina Baskakova, an expert with the official Institute of Economy in Moscow.

"This creates conflicts with tradition, because it's regarded as better to find a husband with a higher educational level than yourself. This is a serious problem not only for women, but for men too. A man finds himself in a tight corner: he's supposed to be the breadwinner, but he can't earn enough to keep the family going. It's driving social changes…. And this is happening amid a political situation that's becoming more conservative and tradition-oriented. Still, the situation is stable, for now," she adds.

Irina Khakamada, former Duma deputy and the second Russian woman ever to run for president (in 2004), has since withdrawn from political life but says she is optimistic that the younger generation of Russians are changing all the old equations.

"I look at the kids these days, and I see that it's different. Men these days want a woman who's clever, self-sufficient, able to earn money. The traditional model, where a woman's domain is the kitchen while the man is lord of everything, is disappearing. Of course our women have problems. Mainly they're looking for suitable men and there's a big shortage of those…."

"What I've learned is that in chaotic times, Russian women develop dynamically. Our men tend to prefer stability and predictability. Life in Russia is difficult, yet we go on."

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