March 8 is an official holiday in Russia to mark International Women’s Day. It is one of the most popular holidays on the calendar, with men buying flowers and chocolates for the “fairer sex” and doing some symbolic cooking and cleaning. Although Valentine’s Day has been gaining adherents since its appearance after the collapse of communism, a recent VTsIOM poll found that 90% of Russians mark Women’s Day, while retail sales are 60% higher on March 8 than February 14 (wciom.ru, Moscow Times, March 5).
Flowers aside, how are women faring in Russia, 14 years after the fall of the Soviet system? The picture is a mixed one. Most feminists assume that the arrival of a market economy meant things got worse for women. Indeed, the collapse of state socialism meant that the state was no longer committed to maintaining the social benefits necessary to ensure the full employment of women. As living standards fell in the 1990s, women often bore the brunt of the adjustment, working long hours in the informal economy to try to make ends meet, while maintaining the full range of household duties. Their response to this “double burden” was to have fewer children, with the birth rate dropping to 1.25 in 2004, well below the replacement rate of 2.13 (RIAN, December 9, 2004).
These trends led to what a 2000 World Bank study called the “feminization of poverty in Russia,” with poverty concentrated in the ranks of single-mother families and single elderly women. Women’s wages on average were 60% of male earnings. Traditional gender roles in the home remained unchanged: women spent on average three times more time than men on housework and child care, amounting to 20 more work hours per week. At the same time, women had to deal with the surge of new challenges to their social role that came along with political and economic freedom: sexist advertising, pornography, prostitution, and female trafficking (worldbank.org.ru).
However, a subsequent 2002 World Bank study, “Gender in Transition,” found a more complex picture. It concluded that “the burden of transition has fallen disproportionately on men in the European former Soviet Union” and found “no empirical evidence that the treatment of women in the labor market has systematically deteriorated across the region.”
It turns out that women had maintained their share of the total labor force, at 47%. On one hand there was a tendency of employers to fire women first in order to keep the male “breadwinners” on the payroll. On the other hand, traditional male industries such as defense and manufacturing plants had been decimated by the collapse of central planning, while some traditionally female occupations such as accounting were suddenly in high demand. Women were also more active than men in taking advantage of new opportunities for self-employment and small business formation, even though this was usually driven by necessity. As in the Soviet era, women have an edge over men in formal education: 24% of employed women have higher education versus 19% of employed men, and 38% secondary professional education 38% versus 30% of men.
What seems clear is that the market economy has produced greater inequality among women, as in society at large. While highly educated entrepreneurial women are rewarded, the elderly and unskilled have seen their living standards erode. A recent ROMIR survey of 15,000 respondents found that women made up 68% of the very poor, the bottom 15% of the population getting by on less than 1,000 rubles ($35) a month (Novye izvestiya, March 4).
The biggest psychological impact of the Soviet collapse was on middle-aged men, many of whom found that their professional and political careers were suddenly worthless. The result was a surge of alcoholism and stress, leading to illness and death (including accidents and suicide). Since 1990 the average life span of Russian men has dropped by 4.8 years (and by one year for women), a phenomenon not previously seen in a developed society in peacetime. Forty percent of men die between ages 16 and 49. As of 2004 life expectancy was 73 for women and 58.6 for men: a gender gap without parallel in other countries.
One thing that has not changed is the exclusion of women from the political arena. There have been only two female governors, and women make up just 7% of State Duma deputies. The Women of Russia party lost its place in the Duma a decade ago, and women’s issues rarely feature in political debate.