WITH THE CLOCK ticking before Russia's June 16 presidential election, the outcome is anyone's guess. Some polls suggest Gennady Zyuganov, the communist challenger, will sweep to power; others indicate President Boris N. Yeltsin has a chance for re-election. One thing is clear, though. The winner has to garner the support of Russia's women, particularly the legendary babushkas.
Which way will the babushka vote go? That is one of the most intriguing puzzles of Russian politics today.
In her new book, "Waking the Tempests: Ordinary Life in the New Russia," veteran journalist Eleanor Randolph argues persuasively that rather than benefiting from the Russian market economy, women have been big losers. They have been the first ones to be fired by unprofitable factories. Their pay in relation to earnings of men has plummeted. And while Soviet society at least paid lip service to women's rights, even that hollow promise of equality has now often disappeared.
Russian women never had it easy during more than seven decades of communism. They had to forage for staples that often were in short supply. They were routinely given back-breaking jobs at construction sites. No wonder that by the time they reached 40, most women had aged far beyond their years and were relegated to the over-the-hill status of babushkas, grandmothers. Yet they kept the country going.
The question now is whether these babushkas think Mr. Yeltsin's rule, despite trying social and economic conditions, has given the country enough hope to justify his re-election. Or whether they will feel so much nostalgia about the tough but more predictable communist times that they will favor Mr. Zyuganov.
As the final weeks of the presidential campaign begin, the Yeltsin camp is aggressively arguing that a Zyuganov victory would return Russia to Stalinist repression. Meanwhile, Mr. Zyuganov himself is trying to moderate his message. However, so far he has failed to outline any clear-cut blueprint about how the communists would handle Russia's economy.
Babushkas are sometimes characterized as meddlers. But in today's Russia they are more than meddlers -- they are the crucial swing vote.
Pub Date: 5/26/96