Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 5

by Elena Chinyaeva

March 8 is still celebrated in Russia as “international women’s day,” with men scurrying to buy flowers for their loved ones and organizations buying presents for their female employees. Most Western observers think that conditions for Russian women have substantially deteriorated since the collapse of the Soviet system, but in reality the picture is more complex. The transition has in fact brought opportunities as well as problems, although men still jealously guard their grip on political power.

Once, during a department meeting at Moscow University where I was a postgraduate student, the department head said on the issue of new postgraduate admissions that: “We won’t take any more females, and if so only party members.” To which a female professor, the department’s longest serving member, inquired: “What is it in a man that is an equivalent to a female’s party card?”

That was during the Soviet era, and a woman’s misfortune of having to look for an equivalent was only partially rewarded by acquiring a party card. After all, there were plenty of men with party cards around and they did not show any inclination to loosen their tight control over society.

Women, together with all other groups discriminated against under the Tsars, were “freed” by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, which declared them equal and granted them all social and political rights. In reality, however, the Soviet political system became male dominated, its legislative organs developing into a rigid structure based on proportional representation. Women were guaranteed proportional representation in the soviets of all levels up to the Supreme Soviet, as were workers, peasants, ethnic minorities and other groups. But these institutions were a parliamentary facade with no real power.

The career of a Soviet woman depended on whether she had managed to gain access to the party-controlled jobs–as part of the nomenklatura. That did not happen very often, as the family was considered to be a woman’s principal social obligation. None of this is to say that a working woman with a family had any privileges over male colleagues in terms of childcare help. More often than not she would simply be denied promotions on the pretext that–because of her children–she could not work hard enough and hence was less valuable to her organization.

The Soviet Union ratified a 1979 UN convention on the liquidation of all forms of discrimination against women. This was reflected in clause fifteen of the Russian Constitution of 1993, which recognized the principle of gender equality in the Russian Federation’s legal system.

Though the official principle of equality remains in effect, there have been some important changes in conditions for women in post-Soviet Russia. There have been fewer formal declarations of equality, for example, and proportional representation in legislatures was eliminated. Moreover, women have emerged not only as a source of social and political power, but, most importantly, as an indispensable economic factor.

When the old system collapsed and the usual social and economic safety nets were dismantled, it came as a great shock to most Russian families. The men often found consolation in drinking, while women had no choice but to find a way to feed their families. Instead of lamenting forever the stability that was lost, women started to take up those new opportunities that the transition to a market economy had presented. One’s success no longer depended on party membership, but on one’s wits, energy and persistence. Leaving their traditional occupations, women ventured into small trade and opened their own businesses. In the early 1990s, “shuttle traders” played an important role in the emerging market economy. Former teachers and engineers went to Turkey, Poland or Thailand to buy clothes and appliances to sell in Russia. Women took an active part in these activities, which later led to the appearance of regular shops and other small and medium-sized businesses.

Women also took advantage of opportunities in newly established firms, quickly climbing through the ranks to become managers. This was especially true in accounting, advertising and public relations. However, although women have become a visible presence among top managers, their success in business is still very much limited by the glass ceiling. Among the so-called oligarchs, the leaders of Russia’s largest companies, there is not a single woman. When President Vladimir Putin met with the members of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs on February 19, there were no women among his twenty-five guests.

Women also enjoy only limited access to established channels of political and social influence. State and political institutions are still tightly controlled by men. Women make up more than 54 percent of the Russian population, and the number of those holding fulltime jobs (about 45 percent) is on par with the developed countries. Yet their representation in political bodies amounts to less than 10 percent.

With ten million more votes than men, the female electorate often determines the outcome of elections at all levels. It is well known, moreover, that more women than men supported Vladimir Putin during his last presidential campaign, and they continue to do so. Putin repays this support, never failing to emphasize that he would like to see a woman in this or that position. It is said, for example, that the appointment of Lyubov Slizka to the post of deputy chairwoman of the State Duma was Putin’s personal choice. Nevertheless, the trend lines for female representation in legislative organs have been negative. The number of women deputies in the State Duma has declined from 13.6 percent to 10.4 percent to 7.2 percent, while in the Federation Council there are six women against 162 men. The government has but one high ranking woman–Valentina Matvienko, vice premier for social matters.

In some Western countries one third or more of the parliamentary deputies are women. This has been achieved in various ways, such as by establishing a quota for women in party organs and party candidate lists, or by imposing direct quotas in political institutions. Thus, the Swedish cabinet is half female. In Russia, a presidential decree on June 30 1996, recommended that the presidential administration introduce a minimum quota for women, as well as create a system of female cadre training. The initiative was not acted upon. This was not only because male officials resisted it, but also because the idea of quotas for women–as well as special parties for females–had little appeal for women themselves.

According to sociological polls, the majority of Russian women agree that men have more opportunity to build successful careers–but this is accepted as normal. Up to 85 percent of women reportedly regard a patriarchal model of gender relations as an acceptable phenomenon, although few would want the model applied to them personally. About one third of women would leave work if their material situation allowed it, but approximately 60 percent would continue to work regardless of such considerations.

The idea of a women’s political movement is also unpopular among Russia’s female population. There are at least two reasons for this. One is that public consciousness still associates women in politics with failed personal lives. The other is that women are inclined to believe that a “female party” would be relegated to the margins of political life. The party “Women of Russia,” which appeared in the 1993 Duma, failed to clear the 5 percent barrier in subsequent elections. Russian women apparently did not support the idea of political divisions made on the basis of gender. Among women’s public associations, the most influential to date is the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers. It has achieved a high political profile in addressing problems related to the army and its operations in Chechnya.

Behavioral patterns have also been changing in Russia. Perhaps the most visible to a casual observer is the number of women driving cars. In the old days, cars were scarce and were driven mostly by men. However, such a mundane practice as women driving cars has taken a few years to be accepted as routine in Russia. (Alas, there has not been any positive change in the attitudes of male drivers toward females behind the wheel on Russian roads.)

In general then, it can be said that, although Russian women have become more active, socially and politically, they still lack the instruments necessary to realize their potential power. Russian women are looking to make progress in their own way, without necessarily adopting a Western approach. For example, a rigid code of political correctness is not what even most politically and economically active women in Russia would desire. While aspiring to scale societal and business heights, they have tried to avoid behaving in a bluntly declarative manner. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a Russian woman taking offence at a man for opening a door or offering a hand; rather, she would scold him for not doing so.

On the other hand, having tasted power and money, women are not opposed to the idea of taking advantage of the situation–a theme exploited by the writer Michael Crichton in his 1994 book, Disclosure. According to this theory, the only reason why women are more frequent victims of sexual harassment by superiors is that the majority of these superiors are still men. Today, one can read in the classified sections of Russian newspapers: “A female boss is looking for a reliable aide.”

As the economic and social situation in Russia continues to improve, the most important thing for women to have is not a strong feminist movement, but a widening range of opportunities and options. Society should allow women to build their lives as they want–as politician, businesswoman, professional, or housewife.

Elena Chinyaeva holds a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University and is a writer for Kommersant-Vlast, a leading Russian political weekly.