Russian women find it's 1950 again, and they belong at home--and in bed

February 11, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW -- Lyudmila Zakharevich, 16, tops her class at an elite Moscow high school, but instead of planning a career, she dreams of becoming a full-time housewife.

Lena Guzeeva, 22, on the other hand, desperately wants a professional position in one of the new private businesses in her central Russian city but worries that sexual exploitation has become so accepted that she will be jobless unless she agrees to submit to a potential employer's advances.

And Natalya Zhdanova, 48, who was laid off from her job as a top engineer at a military-industrial plant and is working as an after-school, day-care supervisor at the local school, is bitter that the career she had for 25 years under Soviet rule is now out of her reach because it is part of the men-only world of the new Russia.

By their own choice and because of mounting new social pressures, the women of Russia are less liberated, in the feminist sense, than they were when the Communist Party ruled their country. Many are being forced out of professional jobs, sexual harassment is considered business as usual and, increasingly, young women believe that freedom means enjoying traditional female roles that were largely denied them in the old Soviet Union.

During the Soviet era, most women here had no choice but to wear frumpy clothes, work full-time jobs and maintain a home with little help from the male members of the family, according to social anthropologist Irina Popova. "So, now it is considered liberation to be a sex symbol, get married early and stay home with the kids," she said.

Russian society is going through a phase similar to that in 1950s America, when homemakers and wholesome movie stars were idealized, Ms. Popova added, but because of a rebellion against the state-decreed sexual puritanism of the Soviet era, the ideal Russian woman is more sex kitten than homecoming queen.

The images are pervasive: Penthouse-style photos in the mainstream Russian press; frequent full female nudity on both daytime and prime-time television; sexy female fashions never imagined by the average Soviet working woman, and beauty pageants where talent competitions include erotic dancing.

Under Communist rule, equality for women was legally mandated, and women as well as men were required by law to work. Although this emancipation-by-decree failed to create many female factory directors or top politicians, women made up more than half the work force and filled mid-level managerial, engineering and support positions -- as well as working as jackhammer operators.

This did not, however, change the public consciousness of a woman's role at home, so women were still responsible for child-rearing and housekeeping.

Lyudmila is one girl who has already decided that she does not want to repeat the double-duty life of her mother, who has toiled full-time for 20 years in a candy factory while, like many other Russian women, being solely responsible for the household.

"She gets no satisfaction from her work," said Lyudmila, a mature-looking teen-ager with a round face and long, sandy-blond hair. "I don't want to work after I am married. It takes too much time from your family. Most of my girlfriends feel the same way."

Ms. Guzeeva, a senior economics student at the university in the provincial Russian city of Voronezh, decribes what it is like to interview for a job at a new private business:

"Businessmen come right out and say they don't take girls for professional positions . . . They say they do hire girls as secretaries, and then they look them up and down. If they don't like the way you look, they say, 'We don't need a girl like you,' and if they do, they let you know that your responsibilities may include those of a prostitute."

Women who have made it to high positions in private business tell of being given ultimatums by their bosses such as, "Sleep with me or quit."

There is no talk of sexual harassment suits -- indeed, there is no law against that kind of behavior here -- and formal protests are rare.

An American businessman tells of sitting in the office of a Russian partner while the latter was interviewing a young woman for a secretarial position. The Russian businessman suggestively asked the interviewee, "What size couch do you prefer?" The woman giggled and replied, "Any size you like."

"What surprised me most is that these girls are not even insulted," said Tamaz Ellis, the American businessman who emigrated from the Soviet Union 20 years ago. "There is no self-respect."

Both mature career women and young would-be professionals complain that Russia's new capitalist business world is like an exclusive men's club.

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