AFTER THE RUSSIAN Revolution, the Bolsheviks abolished the notion of chivalry and proclaimed the equality of the sexes. Now, more than 60 years later, the ordinary Russian woman lives a life of humble servility and the ordinary Russian man treats her like a beast of burden. It may seem strange that the country which created "Anna Karenina," probably the world's greatest love story, now rarely produces books, plays, short stories or films about love. In Moscow, I often went to the cinema but I cannot remember a single scene based exclusively on an amorous relationship.
Soviet women do have three special magazines: The Soviet Woman, Working Woman and Peasant Woman. These include stories of superproductive female workers or of the achievememts of mothers of 10, the number of children which qualifies a woman as a "heroine of the Soviet Union." They publish patterns for simple dresses or coats. What they do not print are stories of love or passion. The Soviet authorities, who behave like universal nannies, consider such things unwholesome.
The absence of romantic love, in real life as well as in literature, is, I think, a matter of Soviet life-style. There isn't the room and there isn't the time. Soviet women spend many hours each day queuing. There are shortages of almost everything and, even in the big cities, there are only a few, ill-provided self-service stores.
So you queue at dawn, before work begins, at lunchtime and in the evening after work. There are separate lines in front of the bakery, the dairy, the butcher, the grocer. This leaves very little time for cooking. The average Soviet wife cooks just once or twice a week -- a big stew, a soup mincemeat rissoles -- and then goes on serving the same dish every day until the supply runs out. She then starts something else, depending on what is available in the shops or market.
There are no regular family meals. Members of the family come in at different times and expect food on demand. I remember when I used to come home from college at 3 p.m. and mother would serve me. Then, two hours later, father would arrive and need feeding. Sometime I might go out for the evening and want another meal when I got back.
One of my best friends among the Russian emigres in London has three lovely children and says how pleased she is to be in a country where people respect a mother's and wife's role.
Back in Moscow, she says, men would drop in with a bottle any old time for a chat with her husband, who is a distinguished economist. They would talk, laugh, drink, well into the night and sometimes into the early hours of the morning, without a thought of whether the woman of the house wanted company, was pregnant, happened to be breast feeding or needed rest and privacy. She just didn't matter.
People ask why Soviet wowen put up with it. Well, I never did. When I defected two years ago this spring, I was almost 33 -- and elegantly dressed. I must admit I did have one of the best dressmakers in Moscow, a dressmaker who copied models from Vogue. I am now far too spoiled to put up with the cheap mass-produced clothes sold in London. I never seem to see anthing I like for less than $140 or $150.
But I was very untypical. My family was well-connected, and we had quite a lot of money and access to those exclusive shops that make imported goods available to privileged customers. I left the Soviet Union not because I was poor but because I hated the whole, harassing set-up. For eight years I had been planning to escape, and I never had to endure the punishing existence of a Soviet wife.
On the other hand, my elder sister uncomplainingly accepted her inferior status. Even during the time in their careers when she was earning a lot more than her husband, she had to do the shopping and household chores.
One reason why women put up with it all is that there are not enough men to go round. The number of bachelors is small and a woman, particularly with a child or children, who loses her man knows she will probably never find another. Spinsters are lonely and looked down on.
Do Russian women enjoy sex? At the institute where I worked, we all giggled when the Soviet magazine Health, the medical monthly and the only Soviet periodical which ever mentions sex, published an article affirming that the most healthy form of sex lasts 2 1/2 minutes. Presumably they wanted to make sure that Soviet couples would not reduce their labor productivity by depriving themselves of a good night's sleep.
A sick Moscow joke has one lonely Soviet spinster telling another, "Our Masha, who recently got married, is really lucky. She has a husband and a lover and I hear that last night she was raped in the courtyard."
Nothing like this can ever get into print; the standards of Soviet censorship are positively Victorian. The Russians are not very good lovers. Lovemaking is not the first priority in a man's life, but drinking and chatting with male friends are.
They tend to discuss sex by telling dirty jokes, usually containing the Russian equivalent of four-letter works, but are prudes in their approach to love-making and their wives. It is considered indecent to see each other naked or to have a light on during intercourse.
Any mention of emotional, let alone physical, love is frowned upon, and there is consequently a booming black market in pornography. Through diplomatic and other channels, Western books and magazines always seem to get in. People who can read foreign languages and have foreign connections get all the hot stuff: I read "The Story of O," "Emmanuelle," "Myra Breckenridge" and issues of Playboy long before I defected.
But between myself and my friends there was never any question of selling the stuff, even though the really salacious books commanded huge prices, perhaps the equivalent of a month's pay. Instead of selling books my friends and I used to exchange them between ourselves.
I was always eger to read any dissident literature I could lay my hands on, though this was much more dangerous. The authorities would scold you if they caught you reading anything sexy, but it could be forced labor or the psychiatric ward if you took to Solzhenitsyn or Bukovsky. I read both these and lots of other anti-Soviet material without the KGB ever catching on.
But I don't think Solzhenitsyn, who is austere and pious, would be very happy if he knew that we used to exchange a volume of the "Gulag" (his three great books of testimony on the Soviet concentration camps) in return for something by Henry Miller -- I loved "The Tropic of Cancer" -- or works by Harold Robbins, whom I wasn't so keen on.
The prudishness of the Soviet censor reflects the general social attitude toward love. There is a general blanket of disapproval about any goingson, even if it is only a kiss and a cuddle between boy and girl. (Between boy and boy there are rigorous penalties: homosexuality is almost as risky as dissadence). Even if heterosexual love is quite innocent and neither side is even thinking of intercouse, everybody immediately suspects the worst. Girls who want to get respectably married cannot flirt too openly or they will be fatally pointed to as "a woman with a past . . ."
All the collectivist activities -- holiday camps, organized meetings and rallies and so-called "voluntary" brigades in which groups of office workers are made to spend a few weeks working on a collective farm -- give plenty of opportunity for girl to meet boy, but only under the watchful eye of jealous colleagues.
A soviet working woman does have recourse against her husband which would not be open to any her counterparts in the West. If her husband is going around with another woman, she can carry her complaint to his place of work. There, she reports to either the Communist Party offices or the Trade Union, the two bodies which try (often unavailingly) to discipline the Soviet workforce.
There was a case when one scholar in his late 40s, who had a wife and a child, fell in love with a girl where he worked. She had a child and her angry parents wrote a letter (without saying a word about it to her), accusing the man of all the possible sins, to the party organization at his place of work.
A special meeting, to which all their colleagues were invited, was held at their institute, with wife and girl both present. The former appeared to be understanding and forgiving, while the latter was crying and denying knowledge of the letter, saying her parents had written it. "Forgive him, I love him, he is such a nice man."
However, the scholar was officially blamed at the meeting for being unfaithful to his wife, pronounced counterrevolutionary in his writings and eventually expelled from his job. A week after the event he had a severe heart attack. Later, being Jewish, he applied for a visa to emigrate and now lives happily in the United States.
I belonged to one of the academic institutes, and I remember when a wife came in to complain about the goings-on of her young husband, a researcher. The party secretary took the offender aside and begged him to end his affair. "If you don't, she will certainly take it up with the regional authorities, and then we will all be in trouble!"
But we had a relatively sophisticated set-up. In an ordinary factory or office, the people in charge would haul in the culprit and he would confront about 10 to 20 people who were in positions to make or break his career. They would read aloud his wife's letter and automatically assume he was guilty.
If he was ambitious, he would certainly be a member of the Communist Party (a necessary condition for getting on in the world). In that case things would be worse. If he persisted in his offense, the record of infidelity would be inscribed on his party card. He would then carry the notification of his misdemeanor around with him.
The widespread notion that sexual attraction is dirty and disgusting is carried into the Soviet national health service. A visit to a gynecologist is a detestable humiliation. Theoretically, Soviet women are supposed to go for a checkup every six months, but the exiperience is so harrowing that nobody goes unless they have to.
The gynecological clinics or hospital wards generally devote one day a week to abortions. Since Stalin's death, abortion has been available on demand. Normally, about 50 women turn up the night before and are treated inhumanly, like pieces of machines on a conveyor belt. Unless they are rich or well connected, they get no anesthetic. After having an abortion, women have to stay in the hospital for three days and get a medical certificate. Everyone in their office or factory then knows what has happened, and they can expect a lot of nasty sniggering.
But all this does not dissuade women from preferring abortions to babies. I had one friend who told me she had had 10 abortions, and another boasted of six.
The trouble is that contraceptives are poorly made and hard to come by. Men's sheaths tend to be made of leaky plastic. The pill, available only on prescription, is made in Hungary or Bulgaria, and supplies from both these communist countries are believed to produce bad side effects.
You can get platinum intra-uterine devices if you are very rich, but otherwise these are manufactured out of cheap plastic material and turn out to be very unreliable. Health once published a piece affirming that a woman could simultaneously carry within her womb a contraceptive device and a fetus. I just don't believe the magazine's claim that the woman could still produce a healthy baby.
Russians tell the story of a young woman who asked her doctor what was the best contraception. "A glass of water" was the reply. "taken before or after intercourse?" she queired. "Neither. Instead of . . ."
It is the absence of privacy which drives many young people into making premature marriages. The reason is partly the lack of accommodations, which makes it very difficult ever to be alone. But this is aggravated by the generally accepted practice of interfering and gossiping about other people's personal affairs.
Most young people who marry before they are 25 get divorced, and in some years the portion is more than 70 percent. The trouble is that every possible obstacle is placed in the way of love before marriage. Some young people have illusions that marriage will solve all their problems and do not understand about the burdens and adjustments required by a life-long partnership. People often marry because there is no other way of making love.
If they are young, the new couple will probably have to move into the flat of one set of parents. This increases the likelihood of divorce. I had two girl friends whose marriages came apart for this reason. One was a girl from what the communists would call "a good family." Her father was high in the party apparatus and her mother collected antique furniture and lived what she thought was a cultured life. The boy was bright but self-made. He was no respector of his in-laws' values or possessions, and very soon he got up and left.
In the other case, the couple went to live with the man's family. His mother kept on about how desperately she longed for grandchildren. I think it was the incessant pressure which prevented the girl from conceiving. There, too, the couple split.
But Soviet marriages are more often contracted for reasons of housing rather than out of love. Marriage prospects are much brighter if the boy or girl can offer a room or two, whether independently or in part of the family home. Money is much less treasured than living space.
Some Westerners seem to think that the Russians are just a bit behind the times, moving rather slowly toward the modern world of Women's Lib. I do not agree. There does appear to be a tiny fringe movement of feniminists, though I must admit I had never heard of them until I came west.
Also, there is a small, privileged elite which can permit itself la dolce vita . They have access to Western books for the ideas and to country houses of big flats for the premises. These people indulge in all the perversions they read about in Western publications, including "group sex."
I never say any of this, of course, but a party of this kind was once graphically described to us by one young man at the institute who had just come backe from one. It had taken place in the country home, or dacha , of the parents of an up-and-coming young architect. The old people had discreetly stayed in Moscow while he and his friends let themselves go. But the highly permissive behavior of the privileged elite (referred to in Moscow as the priviligentsia ) is kept secret from the ordinary Soviet family.
Under the existing Soviet system, I see no signs of any refinement of tastes or improvements in the behavior and attitudes toward Russian women.
The communists liquidated not only the notion of chivalry but the educated classes which practiced it. Then, led by a bunch of dedicated fanatics, the peasants took over. Indeed, in Moscow today you often hear a Russian woman referring to her husband as moy mushick (my peasant).
In the countryside, away from the few collectives specially spruced up for foreign vistors, women's life is not much easier than it was in prerevolutionary days.
The local church is replaced by the communist meeting place and the cross is replaced by statutes of Lenin. But most people still live in miserable wooden huts, and the families are tied to the land as they were before serfdom was abolished in 1861. The women, like the men, are forbidden to move away from their place of work without special permission, through now the authorities are the Soviet state and party instead of the landlord or the czar.
Women are better off in the cities, with better prospects for their children, more job mobility, improved housing and assured employment, even through often at miserable pay. The Soviet state boasts of providing equal pay for equal work, but this man-dominated society makes sure that the best and therefore highest-paid jobs are reserved for men. There are no women in the Politburo and hardly any in the Central Committee.
The pattern of life for a Soviet woman is dominated by the peasant tradition and, whether in the town or the contry, the ordinary Russian family has more in common with its peasant ancestry than with Western consumer society. Materially, the gap between East and West is getting wider, and I hear from my friends and family that things have got even worse since I left in 1979.
It is a hard, harsh world in which the masculine virtues of assertiveness and thrust are rated above the feminine ones of tenderness and compassion. I am happy to be out of it.