If the word “babushka” once summoned up a resolute dowdiness — Americans might know it from the eponymous scarf often tied under the chin of Russian grandmothers — hello! — the year is 2011.
Now babushkas carry cellphones, and Irina Komarova was wearing a large-brimmed, bright pink hat last week when she turned up to accept her title as one of Moscow’s best babushkas.
She took up yoga not long ago, swims frequently and has a deep, expressive singing voice. Reaching into her purse, she retrieved a freshly pressed CD of her work to present to a new acquaintance.
“I keep forgetting my age,” she said, recalling that she’s 69. Komarova still works as a telephone operator at the substation where she has toiled since 1960. “I spent my youth there,” she said.
She was among about a dozen grandmothers who had been named Super Babushka from more than 100 finalists. (Google Translate can pronounce it.) They had been selected from competitions at community centers all over Moscow in a contest sponsored by the city’s Social Welfare Department.
The babushkas were at their most charming, smiling sweetly as they descended on the city’s sprawling expo center to accept their due. They were even more charming when they happily reverted to form, setting each other straight and telling others off.
Valentina Gorbatova, wearing a long purple gown with pearls arranged flapper-like around her neck, selflessly took on the task of patrolling the line of winners waiting to climb onstage.
“Who’s number 8?” she demanded, taking her sister contestants by the arm and moving them to and fro as they fussed over each other, smoothing hair here, fluffing it there.
“I’m very proud of my grandchildren,” Gorbatova confided. “If everyone had grandchildren like mine, Russia would not be so low.”
The Russian babushka has been tempered by time and adversity. Having survived much, she expects to get her way.
An acquaintance tells the story of how he was named. As his parents considered their choice, his babushka had her say. “He’ll be Nikolai,” she said, “or I won’t sit with him.” Nikolai he is.
Galina Kamyrina, wearing a splendidly embroidered black caftan, had only just finished remonstrating with the expo center staff. She had carried her dress from home, she said, and not only did she have trouble finding a decent place to change, but the checkroom did not want to keep her bag. “Of course I made a scandal,” she said. “We were brought up in the Soviet Union.”
Kamyrina, who will be 70 soon, was brought up when rules were rules and babushkas enforced them. She wore two medals on her dress, one for long years of labor, another issued in honor of the 850th anniversary of Moscow in 1997.
Tatyana Reshtuk, 66, agreed that the women looked wonderful. “They put a lot of makeup on us,” she said.
“It was like casting,” said Margarita Arkhangelskaya, a 74-year-old wearing 10 medals won in earlier days for labor, singing and artistry. “We waited all day.”
But those finals were behind her, and she was decidedly pleased at her Super Babushka status, proudly taking to the expo center stage, where the winners were honored adjacent to a three-day show of wares for the 50-plus generation.
When told that The Washington Post was interviewing her, she blew a kiss to all of America. “Ooooh, Mama!” she exclaimed.
Arkhangelskaya remembers the hungry and fearful days of World War II and the years of misery that followed.
She said she’ll never forget Victory Day, when people gathered outside the factory where her mother worked. She saw tears flowing. “We won!” she heard the crowd shout.
“Now will they give us more bread?” she asked.
“And now I’m a pensioner, and I have everything.”