"Not since the czars ruled Russia has a woman maintained such a high profile in the Soviet society . . . "
This lead-in sentence of a popular talk-show host seems to have echoed throughout America in a variety of permutations during the days of the summit. The slim, educated and outspoken Raisa Gorbachev has captured the attention of America, stirring considerable controversy by her reported rudeness to Nancy Reagan and her visible -- and largely misunderstood -- role in the PR package the Soviets brought to the summit.
To many people here, she represented the "new type of Soviet woman," an equal partner of her husband in affairs of the state, a professional woman who at the same time is appreciative of finer things in life, including fur coats and American Express. In short, a role model for Soviet women, as the talk-show host put it. It is true that there has not been such a high-profile Soviet woman in many years. But this carefully cultivated image of the "new Soviet woman" is strictly for export -- an item manufactured for Western consumption.
To understand why Mrs. Gorbachev is not a suitable role model for Soviet women, one need only look at the reality of daily life of women in the U.S.S.R. and their position in society: a conservative, male-dominated society where women carry the overwhelming share of the hardships of life. They do have equal rights under Soviet law -- a fact that the Soviet propagandists proudly point out as a proof of superiority of the socialist way of life. Law, however, often has little to do with reality in the U.S.S.R. And the reality -- according to the official magazine of the Communist Party, Kommunist -- is that in industry women are often confined to menial jobs, for example, where they have to lift objects up to 120 pounds, moving perhaps up to 10 tons during one shift.
The situation is not going to improve any time soon because the real power -- the power to make policy decisions -- remains an exclusively male preserve. For instance, women make up 40 percent of the academic professions, but there are fewer than 2 percent of them among members of the Soviet Academy of Science -- the power center of the huge academic bureaucracy. And when it comes to real decision-making power, women have none: only once in Soviet history has there been a woman on the Politburo. Her tenure was brief: she was brought into this inner sanctum of power by Nikita Khrushchev as part of his push for social reform and was removed swiftly as an unwelcome intruder once he himself fell from favor. The odd twist is this: Soviet women cannot even fight for greater political clout because theoretically they already have all the rights granted to them by the Soviet constitution.
So although there may be no legal roadblocks to prevent a woman from rising up the economic and social ladder, most simply give up under the pressure of demands generated by the low standard of living of Soviet society and its technological backwardness, especially in the area of consumer goods. Ninety percent of Soviet women work full-time. Housework is a second full-time job, almost never shared by the husband. A typical Soviet woman is just a survivor of everyday struggle: bringing home a decent piece of meat after standing in line for several hours gives her a better sense of accomplishment than fulfilling her production quota at the factory.
It is true that in the United States, too, the salary of a working wife and mother can make a difference and is not, strictly speaking, "optional." Most women here don't work to be "liberated," but to make money and help support the family. But their salaries often make possible a higher standard of living, not mere survival. In the Soviet Union, many women would like to be able to stay home and raise a family, but the reality of life leaves them with no choice.
The ability, therefore, to have a job -- as Mrs. Gorbachev did -- that does not require being there full-time becomes a status symbol, generally bespeaking the power status of the husband. Many academic positions allow for a day or two of "sabbatical work" during the week -- a euphemism for "staying home." In theory, these breaks are provided to let people work on their monographs in the quiet of their homes. In reality, because of low academic standards and lax deadlines -- in most cases the work can be accomplished in half the time allotted to it -- many women in these professions consider this extra spare time a perk that leaves them with more time for themselves and the family.
Graduate study is the best time of all: there are three years on the state stipend that is close to an average worker's wage, and there are no courses or exams to take, except qualifying preenrollment exams, so all that remains to do is to write a dissertation and two or three publishable papers. From my own experience of doing such study I know that, at least in social sciences, all this can be accomplished within six months.
A common recipe for a dissertation in social sciences -- the type that Mrs. Gorbachev has written -- requires little more than compilation of politically safe statistics with a generous sprinkling of quotations from Lenin and a few prominent contemporary academics, preferably those who sit on the expert boards that award the degree, and appropriate conclusions that usually end with the words: "The Communist Party has already taken giant steps in improving the situation of (workers, peasants, etc.) but certain improvements in that area are still needed" -- followed by a list of recommendations well within the limitations of the party line.
Therefore, foreign languages, publishing, social sciences and college-level teaching are favorites among wives of the power elite -- and among their husbands who have enough clout to make sure that their wives' job demands do not take too much time away from their wifely duties. (It is more than a coincidence that Mrs. Gorbachev's dissertation was on the peasant's life in the Stavropol region, where her husband was first secretary with access to both the data and expert staff help.) At the same time, less effort is needed to maintain a home -- one of the perks of being a ranking member of the elite is a network of special shops where the ladies of the Soviet "high society" can buy otherwise scarce food items at subsidized prices and shop for Western-made clothes otherwise obtainable only on the black market.
The higher the position of the man in Soviet society, the less likely it is that his wife works at all. In Western societies many women who don't have to earn their living direct their energy to volunteer and charitable work. The Soviet society does not have an equivalent of that. Occasionally the wives of high Soviet officials assume a ceremonial role in one of those nebulous state-run associations -- a "Congress of Soviet Women," this or that "friendship society" and such. Most simply enjoy being a "wife of" and spending their days in competition for clothes, gossiping over coffee or perusing Western glossies, the circulation of which is limited to the party elite.
The life style of the Soviet power elite is one of the most carefully guarded state secrets. Of course, the ordinary people know that life at the "top" is different, but they rarely know just how different. They accept as a fact of life the limousines with curtained windows zipping through Moscow streets in a specially reserved center lane and the six-foot-high fences around the government officials' country retreats. Very few realize that in addition to a limousine and a country "dacha," the Gorbachevs would have a staff of some 30 people -- the bodyguards, the cooks, the maids, etc.
The traditional demeanor of the men in power rarely betrays the extent of their privileges because the only clearly visible signs are the chauffeured cars and better-cut suits. This is accepted by the population, although not without some grumbling. After all, the popular perception goes, these men at the top have worked their way up, and they are doing an important job of running the country. What is far less acceptable is the perception of an idle wife with imperial manners. In Soviet society, rudeness and disdain for the "lower classes" increase in geometrical progression with an ascent through the ranks of the party hierarchy -- look at the flashing of an American Express card at Tiffany's, as Mrs. Gorbachev did, or at the constant embarrassment Brezhnev's daughter Galina created by her famed love for jewels, furs and foreign cars.
There are some unwritten rules in Soviet society, and one of them is that although the economic disparity is tacitly acknowledged, the wealth is not to be openly flaunted. After all, it is still a society whose official ideology is equality. Ostentatious display of "bourgeois decadence" rings a jarring note and breeds deep resentment among the populace. When Khrushchev brought his wife with him on his trip to the United States, her clothes may have looked dowdy to the American media, and she did not impress anybody with witty remarks -- in fact, she kept herself so much in the background that few people here even remember that she accompanied her husband on that trip. The important thing is that Mrs. Khrushchev did not offend the sensibilities of the Soviet people, either.
Perhaps someday economic conditions in the Soviet Union will improve enough to let women handle the demands of the family and at the same time develop professionally at the same pace as men do so they can rightfully compete for the same jobs. And perhaps someday Soviet women will have their role model -- a professional woman who will rise in the society on her own merit, without having to sacrifice her personal life for her career, and at the same time be good-looking, vivacious and stylishly dressed. Until such time comes, however, the message Soviet women get from Mrs. Gorbachev is that the way for a woman to have a nice life in the Soviet society is to marry the right man.
Alexandra Costa, who defected from the Soviet Embassy in Washington in 1978, is a computer consultant and writer and lecturer in Soviet affairs.