International Women’s Day: Russian women get flowers, not power


Russian President Vladimir Putin poses with workers of the Vologda textile factory on the eve of International Women's Day, in Vologda on March 7, 2013. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AP)
March 7, 2013

Men ranged through the streets of Moscow on Thursday, clutching pink tulips and yellow mimosa, dismantling pyramids of champagne, buying up skyscrapers of chocolates. Joyful or dutiful, all would be prepared. Friday was on its way.

Lucky Russian women! March 8 is their moment: International Women’s Day, when nearly every man they know gives them a bouquet along with an expression of regard, if not love. Women, the government says, are so important that the entire country must have the day off to celebrate them. Accolades flow. Role models offer advice, so familiar to the Russian ear.

Women, stay home, commanded Gen. Yelena Knyazeva, the nation’s only woman army general. “I think it’s better for women to get married, have children and bring up their sons who will serve their Motherland,” she declared Thursday in an interview with the RIA Novosti news agency, arguing against a proposal for woman volunteers to substitute for the large numbers of male draft dodgers.

“Each of us has to do our own business,” she said, adding that there are a few woman soldiers now and that they are “kind, womanly and beautiful.”

This week, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev celebrated women’s day at the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, which, of course, is run by a man. Only one of the 21 ministries — the Health Ministry — is headed by a woman. Only one of the six deputy prime ministers is a woman.

Usually, men predominate around the long ministerial table. But for the occasion, a group of well-regarded social workers (mostly women; they earn an average of $400 a month) had been brought in from around the country.

“Dear ladies, I’d like to wish you a happy spring holiday,” Medvedev said. “This is not an ideological holiday, but a celebration for families and co-workers. On behalf of all men, I wish you happiness, good health and love in your homes.”

Nadezhda Shvedova saw it all on television and shuddered. “It’s very dangerous,” said Shvedova, head of the Center for Social and Political Studies of the Institute for U.S.A. and Canada, “because it’s a sign from government of its opinion of the status of Russian women.”

Talk about ideology; this was a holiday inspired by American socialists in 1909 who were agitating for women’s suffrage. Russian women demanding equal rights observed the day in 1913, and Lenin made it an official Soviet holiday after the October Revolution, encouraging women to stand side by side with men in wielding the hammers and sickles of the new society.

And now they’re talking hearts and flowers?

Natalya Bitten, a political scientist, writer and feminist, grew up eating the candy and smelling the flowers, and one day noticed that very few of the women so ardently admired were running government or businesses.

“I don’t want candy and flowers,” she said. “I want a good job and education. Where do flowers and perfume once a year get you if you have nothing the next 364 days?”

She’ll spend Friday at a demonstration in central Moscow, rallying for equal pay for equal work, better child care, an improved health system and enhanced pensions. “If you have a good job,” she said, “you can make money and spend it as you wish.”

Shvedova, a historian and political scientist, said there was ample hypocrisy about the role of women during the Soviet period, but at least child care was widely available, along with health care and educational opportunities.

“Now all this is put on the shoulders of the woman,” she said, “and she is assured that her destiny and obligation as woman, wife, mother is to care for her child, her parents, her husband and his parents. She must be happy to do all these jobs while the state washes its hands.”

Certainly, things are changing. You even find women behind the wheel, a peculiar sight a decade or so ago.

“Now you can see lots of women driving a good car,” Shvedova said, “even though it makes men absolutely crazy. But day after day, they are learning to accept it. And women are learning they don’t have to be a toy in the hands of a rich man without hair on his head. They are learning a sense of their own value and worth.”

On Monday, a group of media representatives published a list of Russia’s most influential women, which was led by Valentina Matviyenko, who is speaker of the upper house of parliament. Of course, Shvedova said, she’s not really powerful. The Federation Council is appointed and does what it’s told by the men in power.

“She’s on television a lot,” she said.

Women are not often seen striding through the halls of power here. When President Vladimir Putin surveyed preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi recently, a man-only retinue trailed him. One woman stood out; she was the translator for the head of the International Olympic Committee, who spoke French.

Back on the streets of Moscow, Alexander Smirnov, a 26-year-old sales manager, had cheerfully bought bouquets for his wife and mother-in-law. He would spend Friday toasting them, telling him how much he loved them, calling friends and relatives with holiday congratulations.

And then the women would cook the celebratory meal.

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