There are 20 million more women than men in Russia (a ratio of about 7 women for every six men). Why? The main reason is that men die much younger than women. There were also many more women than men after World War II. As a result of World War II deaths, working-age women outnumbered men by 20 million in 1946.

Russia has a history of strong women: Catherine the Great; Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya; Valentina Tereshova, the first woman in space; and Raisa Gorbachev. Women fought and were killed in battle in World War II. In the Revolution in 1917 there was a female “battalion of death.”

There is also a history of discrimination towards women. In the time of Peter the Great, women who did not do as they were told, were often forced into convents. Communist-era magazines for women included Factory Worker Lady and Peasant Lady. They had articles about five year plans and model workers. Despite this women did not have the freedom that they were promised.

Russian women are known as naggers and complainers. Moscow women have a reputation for being snobbish. Traditional sexual roles are emphasized in school. Girls wear dresses and hair ribbons in elementary school. In junior high school, boys are directed into shop and car repair classes while girls learn cooking and sewing. Breaking from the traditional roles is discouraged.

Russian women pride themselves as being resourceful and hardworking while clinging to some degree of femininity. In peasant communities a woman’s worth was often based on how well she could work. They were often busy round the clock in the fields and at home: weeding, collecting water, milking the cows, cooking, washing, spinning cloth.

A series of articles by Penny Morvant, published in the Open Media Research Institute's biweekly Transition in 1995, are concise studies of poverty, the role of women, and the health crisis in Russia.

Gender Roles in Russia

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “Soviet Russian general attitudes to gender roles and sex differences can be defined as a sexless sexism. On the one side, gender/sex differences have been theoretically disregarded and politically underestimated. The notions of sex and gender are conspicuously absent from encyclopedias, social-science and psychology dictionaries, and textbooks. On the other side, both public opinion and social practices have been extremely sexist, all empirical sex differences being taken as given by nature. [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality sexarchive.info ==]

“Russian public life remains dominated and governed by men. Women remain socially dependent. Seventy-three percent of the unemployed population are women, and women receive only about 40 percent of men’s salaries. Women are also underrepresented in political bodies (Kon 1995, 129-157). In the family, the situation is more contradictory. About 40 percent of all Russian families may be considered largely egalitarian. Russian women, especially urban women, are more socially and financially independent of their husbands than at any time in the past. Very often, women bear the main responsibility for the family budget and for resolving the main issues of domestic life. Russian wives and mothers are frequently strong, dominant, and sure of themselves. On the other hand, their family load considerably exceeds that of the man and is sometimes absolutely unbearable. The length of the work week was the same for women as for men in the 1980s. Yet, women had to spend two or three times more hours than men on household work. ==

“The fair distribution of household duties is a paramount factor in satisfaction with and the stability of marriage. Mutual recrimination and arguments about who is exploiting whom are a typical feature of Russian press comments going back many years. Women passionately and sorrowfully bemoan the lack of “real men,” while men complain about the dying breed of women who show feminine tenderness and affection. ==

“As a result, opposition to the idea of gender equality has been mounting and widening since the 1970s. Men find it painful to lose their old privileges and accept the uncertainty of their social status. Women feel themselves deceived because they are under a double yoke. As a consequence, there is a mighty wave of conservative opinion dreaming of turning the clock back to times that were not only pre-Soviet, but prior to the industrial revolution and Peter the Great. Of course, a return to the premedieval (Domostroi) household rules is a conservative Utopia. However tough life is for present-day Russian women, the overwhelming majority would never agree to reduce their social roles to being only a wife and mother. Younger and better educated men also have more egalitarian social views and take on a greater domestic, including fatherly, responsibility.” ==

Russian Housewives and Babushkas

It said that many Russian women are beautiful until they are in their thirties and then they change into babushkas. The babushka, or grandmother, is one of Russia's most enduring figures. She is credited with keeping families together, making sure everyone is taken care of and keeping life in proper perspective. Traditional babushka activities include banging grain sheaves, cooking kasha, making bread and canning food. Many babushkas feel a strong link with the Communist party.

Alessandra Stanely wrote in the New York Times: “Glimpsed on a street corner or subway, even the prettiest Russian girl looks severe, sullen or remote...Catch a Russian woman receiving guests at her home, or at a party, and the transformation is almost hallucinatory. A stone-faced matron just back from the tractor assembly line will don a frilly frock coat and push her swollen feet into high heels and smile and force cucumbers, blini and vodka down a visitor’s throat. A young girl will flirt, her mother will coddle and scold and both will serve guests, particularly males ones, with traditional Asian deference.”

Russian Women in the Communist Era

Although socialist policy was to treat men and women as equals in all fields, economic demands more than the ideological guidelines of Marx and Engles defined the roles women played in the economy and the work force. Not until peristroika were questions raised about the social welfare of women rather than the economic welfare of the state.

In the Soviet era, equality was instituted through a quota system. A certain number of government jobs were set aside for women. Women studied alongside men at universities. Cafeterias and day car centers were opened so women could find it easier to work. Between 1950 and 1965 the number of housewives dropped by half.

Equality did not exist in politics. Even though women made up half of the population, women made up less than 20 percent of Communist party members, only six sat on the Central Committee and none were in the Politburo.

Igor S. Kon wrote in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “A paramount slogan of the October 1917 Revolution was the liberation of women and the establishment of full legal and social gender equality. The Soviet regime revoked all forms of legal and political discrimination against women. A host of women was attracted into industrial labor, education, and public activities. Like all other actions by the Bolsheviks, however, the program was naive and unrealistic. Gender equality was interpreted in a mechanical way, as a complete similarity. All historical, cultural, national, and religious-based gender differences were ignored, or viewed merely as “reactionary vestiges of the past,” which could and had to be removed by political means (Kon 1995, 51-127). [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality sexarchive.info ==]

“Soviet propaganda boasted of the fact that women, for the first time in history, had been drawn into the country’s sociopolitical and cultural life. By the time Soviet history reached its peak, women comprised 51 percent of the labor force. The percentage of women with university educations was even higher than that of men and, in such professions as teaching and medicine, women absolutely predominated. ==

“Yet, it was not so much an equalization as a feminization of the lower levels of the vocational hierarchy. Women occupy the worst-paid and less- prestigious jobs and they are grossly underrepresented on the higher rungs of labor. Women’s average salary was a third less than that of men. With the transition to a market economy and the overall economic collapse of recent years, the position of women has deteriorated sharply. Entrepreneurs simply do not want to take on pregnant women or mothers with large families.” ==

Daily Life of Tired Russian Women in the Communist Era

According to sociologists in Communist countries feminism didn’t exist. Women simply thought in terms of survival and getting things done. They were often the ones in charge of difficult but necessary tasks such as finding a plumber, an electricians, a carpenter or a decent doctor when there was a problem.

The Communist system empowered women to work outside the home which in the end just doubled their work load—because they were still expected to take care of the house and raise the children—and this made them extremely tired. Many Russian women in the Soviet era complained of being "permanently exhausted." They worked full time and had to prepare breakfast and get their children off to school before they wnt. After work they had to wait in line for food and when they got home prepare the meals without appliances Westerners take for granted. By the time they did the dishes and tucked their children in bed they collapse exhausted, only to have to wake up the next day and do it all over again. Their husbands were not much help. They refused to pitch in around the house plus they were often demanding and rude to their wives.♦

A typical woman in the Communist era rose at 4:00am in a cramped apartment with her family and parents to fix breakfast for everyone and get her kids off to school. She then took a crowded streetcar to work. At 2:00pm she got off work and then rushed to the butcher shop with a ration card and queued for meat and after she which she rushed to another store to wait in another line for vegetables. After arriving at her apartment bloc she walked up the stairs because the elevator didn’t work, fixed dinner, washed the dishes and collapsed into bed.

There were often laws that stated that both spouses must shoulder equal share of house work and child care. There were no penalties, however for those who broke the law. With less household appliances than the their Western counterparts, Soviet housewives spent between 35 and 40 hours performing household chores. Their husbands spent less than 20 hours.

Woman in the Post-Communist Era

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, women lost their positions in government and the capitalist that took over the economy were exclusively men. There are few women in the military. Women who worked in factories and construction jobs were happy to quit or get laid off and became housewives. One housewife told the New York Times, “Women will never win the fight within the establishment for power. Why should I try when I can achieve so much more at home?”

In some ways women seem to have adapted better to the market economy than men. They secured jobs in the service industry and in small businesses. Many enrolled in business and economics courses. Many foreign companies said they preferred Russian women to Russian men because they were willing to start at bottom and accept transfers.

Some young women in Russia seem to wear the shortest skirts and longest heels imaginable. Women regularly strip at some bars. Others work as bodyguards with a bullet proof vests and gun straps under their armpit. Miss Red Star beauty pageant was won in 1998 by Miss Police.

Nominal legal protections for women either have failed to address the existing conditions or have failed to supply adequate support. In the 1990s, increasing economic pressures and shrinking government programs left women with little choice but to seek employment, although most available positions were as substandard as in the Soviet period, and generally jobs of any sort were more difficult to obtain. Such conditions contribute heavily to Russia's declining birthrate and the general deterioration of the family. At the same time, feminist groups and social organizations began advancing the cause of women's rights in what remains a strongly traditional society. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Maternity Leave and Child Allowances in Russia

Women who have an employment contract are entitled to paid maternity leave from seventy days prior to giving birth until seventy days afterward. Maternity leave benefits are based on the minimum wage rather than on a woman's current wage, however. Russia also provides a maternity grant, which is a onetime payment totaling three times the minimum wage or 45 percent of the minimum wage in the case of mothers who have worked less than one year. In order to receive a maternity allowance (or sickness benefits), a woman must have an employment contract. The maternity allowance amounts to 100 percent of the mother's salary, regardless of her length of employment. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Maternity allowances in Russia are followed by a monthly child allowance of 80 percent of the minimum wage in the case of children up to eighteen months old. This allowance may be supplemented by a child-care allowance, set at 35 percent of the minimum wage, to compensate for earnings lost in the course of caring for children in this age bracket. The latter allowance is paid to mothers over the age of eighteen who have been in the labor force at least one year. An additional compensatory child-care allowance, equivalent to 35 percent of the minimum wage, is available to mothers or other caretakers of children under the age of three. *

Russia also has an extended child allowance of 45 percent of the minimum wage (60 percent for children of military personnel, children living with a guardian or in an orphanage, and children with AIDS) to assist families with the care of children between the ages of eighteen months and six years. Single mothers and those who receive no child support from the father of their child may obtain an additional 45 percent of the minimum wage up to their child's sixth birthday; this figure is then increased to 50 percent and remains effective until the child is sixteen. In May 1992, special cost-of-living compensations were introduced to cover the increased expense of meeting children's basic needs. These compensations ranged from 30 percent of the minimum wage in the case of children less than six years old to 40 percent in the case of those ages thirteen to sixteen. *

Russia also has an overall system of family benefits. These can be grouped into three broad categories: those payable to all families with children, regardless of income or other qualifying conditions; those payable to working mothers; and those payable to disadvantaged families. *

Russian Women in Government and Politics

Women had few positions in power until the Gorbachev era. In the 1990s, on the national level, the most notable manifestation of women's political success has been the Women of Russia party, which won 11 percent of the vote and twenty-five seats in the 1993 national parliamentary elections. Subsequently, the party became active in a number of issues, including the opposition to the military campaign in Chechnya that began in 1994. In the 1995 national parliamentary elections, the Women of Russia chose to maintain its platform unchanged, emphasizing social issues such as the protection of children and women rather than entering into a coalition with other liberal parties. As a result, the party failed to reach the 5 percent threshold of votes required for proportional representation in the new State Duma, gaining only three seats in the single-seat portion of the elections. The party considered running a candidate in the 1996 presidential election but remained outside the crowded field. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

A smaller organization, the Russian Women's Party, ran as part of an unsuccessful coalition with several other splinter parties in the 1995 elections. A few women, such as Ella Pamfilova of the Republican Party, Socialist Workers' Party chief Lyudmila Vartazarova, and Valeriya Novodvorskaya, leader of the Democratic Union, have established themselves as influential political figures. Pamfilova has gained particular stature as an advocate on behalf of women and elderly people. *

The Soldiers' Mothers Movement was formed in 1989 to expose human rights violations in the armed forces and to help youths resist the draft. The movement has gained national prominence through its opposition to the war in Chechnya. Numerous protests have been organized, and representatives have gone to the Chechen capital, Groznyy, to demand the release of Russian prisoners and locate missing soldiers. The group, which claimed 10,000 members in 1995, also has lobbied against extending the term of mandatory military service. *

Women have occupied few positions of influence in the executive branch of Russia's national government. One post in the Government (cabinet), that of minister of social protection, has become a "traditional" women's position; in 1994 Ella Pamfilova was followed in that position by Lyudmila Bezlepkina, who headed the ministry until the end of President Boris N. Yeltsin's first term in mid-1996. Tat'yana Paramanova was acting chairman of the Russian Central Bank for one year before Yeltsin replaced her in November 1995, and Tat'yana Regent has been head of the Federal Migration Service since its inception in 1992. Prior to the 1995 elections, women held about 10 percent of the seats in parliament: fifty-seven of 450 seats in the State Duma and nine of 178 seats in the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council. The Soviet system of mandating legislative seats generally allocated about one-third of the seats in republic-level legislatures and one-half of the seats in local soviets to women, but those proportions shrank drastically with the first multiparty elections of 1990. *

Working Woman in Russia

Women predominate in low-paying jobs that require higher or specialized education and carry some level of prestige. These jobs include engineers, veterinarians, agronomists, accountants, legal advisers, translators, schoolteachers, librarians, organizers of clubs and cultural events, musicians, and even doctors. A 1994 World Bank report identified an increasing likelihood that positions offering lower wages would be filled by women, in most sectors and occupations of the Russian economy. Many women, however, reportedly accept jobs at lower levels of skill and remuneration in exchange for nonmonetary benefits, such as short commuting distances, minimum overtime hours, and access to child care or shopping facilities in the workplace. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996*]

Women have traditionally been in charge of selling agricultural goods in the markets. In the mid 1980s, women made up of 52 percent of the work force. Many were stressed out from working at their jobs and doing chores at home after work. In the 1970s, women made up about half of the Soviet Union's work force. About 80 percent of Soviet women between the ages of 20 and 25 worked full time. The majority of them held positions such as secretaries and factory workers. Women comprised more than more than half of the Soviet Union's doctors, economists and teachers and one third of its engineers, lawyers and judges.

The Soviet constitution of 1977 stipulated that men and women have equal rights, and that women have equal access to education and training, employment, promotions, remuneration, and participation in social, cultural, and political activity. The Soviet government also provided women special medical and workplace protection, including incentives for mothers to work outside the home and legal and material support of their maternal role. In the 1980s, that support included 112 days of maternity leave at full pay. When that allowance ended, a woman could take as much as one year of additional leave without pay without losing her position. Employer discrimination against pregnant and nursing women was prohibited, and mothers with small children had the right to work part-time. Because of such provisions, as many as 92 percent of women were employed at least part-time, Soviet statistics showed. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Working women continue to bear the "double burden" of a job and family-raising responsibilities, in which Russian husbands generally participate little. In a 1994 survey, about two-thirds of women said that the state should help families by paying one spouse enough to permit the other to stay at home. Most women also consider their role in the family more difficult than that of their husband. Such dissatisfaction is a factor in Russia's accelerating divorce rate and declining marriage rate. In 1993 the divorce rate was 4.5 per 1,000 population, compared with 4.1 ten years earlier, and the marriage rate declined from 10.5 per 1,000 population in 1983 to 7.5 in 1993. In 1992 some 17.2 percent of births were to unmarried women. According to 1994 government statistics, about 20 percent of families were run by a single parent--the mother in 94 percent of cases. *

Often women with families are forced to work because of insufficient state child allowances and unemployment benefits. Economic hardship has driven some women into prostitution. In the Soviet period, prostitution was viewed officially as a form of social deviancy that was dying out as the Soviet Union advanced toward communism. In the 1990s, organized crime has become heavily involved in prostitution, both in Russia and in the cities of Central and Western Europe, to which Russian women often are lured by bogus advertisements for match-making services or modeling agencies. According to one estimate, 10,000 women from Central Europe, including a high proportion of Russians, have been lured or forced into prostitution in Germany alone.

Sexual Discrimination in Post-Communist Russia

Despite official ideology, Soviet women did not enjoy the same position as men in society or within the family. Average pay for women in all fields was below the overall national average, and the vaunted high percentage of women in various fields, especially health care, medicine, education, and economics, did not hold true in the most prestigious and high-paying areas such as the upper management of organizations in any of those fields. Women were conspicuously underrepresented in the leadership of the CPSU; in the 1980s, they constituted less than 30 percent of party membership and less than 5 percent of the party Central Committee, and no woman ever achieved full membership in the Politburo. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Most of the nominal state benefit programs for women continued into the post-Soviet era. However, as in the Soviet era, Russian women in the 1990s predominate in economic sectors where pay is low, and they continue to receive less pay than men for comparable positions. In 1995 men in health care earned an average of 50 percent more than women in that field, and male engineers received an average of 40 percent more than their female colleagues. Despite the fact that, on average, women are better educated than men, women remain in the minority in senior management positions. In the Soviet era, women's wages averaged 70 percent of men's; by 1995 the figure was 40 percent, according to the Moscow-based Center for Gender Studies. According to a 1996 report, 87 percent of employed urban Russians earning less than 100,000 rubles a month were women, and the percentage of women decreased consistently in the higher wage categories. *

According to reports, women generally are the first to be fired, and they face other forms of on-the-job discrimination as well. Struggling companies often fire women to avoid paying child care benefits or granting maternity leave, as the law still requires. In 1995 women constituted an estimated 70 percent of Russia's unemployed, and as much as 90 percent in some areas. *

Women on average earned 75 percent less than men in 1991. By 1994, the figure had dropped to 40 percent according to Center of Gender Studies in Moscow. The unemployment rate among women in 1994 was three times that of men. Women have lost their jobs at a disproportionate rate compared to men. In the first two years after the fall of Communism, 70 percent of people laid off were women.

Violence Against Women in Russia

Sociological surveys show that sexual harassment and violence against women have increased at all levels of society in the 1990s. More than 13,000 rapes were reported in 1994, meaning that several times that number of that often-unreported crime probably were committed. In 1993 an estimated 14,000 women were murdered by their husbands or lovers, about twenty times the figure in the United States and several times the figure in Russia five years earlier. More than 300,000 other types of crimes, including spousal abuse, were committed against women in 1994; in 1996 the State Duma (the lower house of the Federal Assembly, Russia's parliament) drafted a law against domestic violence. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The traditional Russian wife was expected to put up with the boorish and often mean and insensitive behavior of their husbands without complaining. In a 1997 survey, 30 percent of Russian men said there were situations in which a husband could beat his wife and 89 percent of Russian women said there should be a law protecting women from beatings.

The first registered crisis hot line for abused women was not set up in Moscow until 1994. One hotline worker told AP, "Many people here do not accept that domestic violence is a crime. In our society it is considered the norm.

Defending his habit of beating up women and forcing them to eat gravel, one Russian gangster told the New Yorker, "In Russia, it was normal for men to beat women. In the stories of Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Gorki wrote to slap a woman is normal. It’s part of life."

Sexual Harassment in Russia

The first known sexual harassment case, which is defined by Russian law as a boss demanding sexual favors from his subordinates, was tried in 1994 in the southern Siberian city Banual. A 35-year-old female doctor charged that her boss, a 62-year-old physician, groped her in his office and threatened to fire her if she resisted his advances.

Many Russian men consider groping and grabbing women, and making suggestive comments and jokes about them in the work place, to be acceptable behavior. Women say they routinely asked for sexual favors in return for promotions, money and perks. The issue of sexual harassment is considered by some to be an American hang up. One social worker told the Washington Post that a 19-year-old female worker approached her after being gang raped by fellow employees at dinner to celebrate her promotion.

The rapidly expanding private sector offers women new employment opportunities, but many of the Soviet stereotypes remain; the most frequently offered job in new businesses is that of secretary, and advertisements often specify physical attractiveness as a primary requirement. Russian law provides for as much as three years' imprisonment for sexual harassment, but the law rarely is enforced. Although the Fund for Protection from Sexual Harassment has blacklisted 300 Moscow firms where sexual harassment is known to have taken place, demands for sex and even rape still are common on-the-job occurrences. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

According to the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “While sexism was admittedly common during the Communist regime, sexual harassment, defined as a boss demanding sexual favors from subordinates, was a crime; it was a seldom-prosecuted offense. The current lack of laws protecting employees from exploitation and harassment, coupled with the heady sense of permissiveness fed by pornographic videos, sexy advertising, nightclubs, casinos, beauty contests (Waters 1993), nude pinups, and open prostitution, have raised the level of sexual harassment to epidemic proportions, according to aggravated feminists. Some male observers counter that women simply view their bodies as a way of furthering their careers, while most Russian men, including husbands, dismiss the issue of sexual harassment as yet another silly Western hang-up. Most employers stress youth and sex appeal in advertizing for office help; some include as a prerequisite bez kompleksov or “without inhibitions” in their advertizements. Despite a few attempts to battle sexual harassment and initiate law suits in 1994, an unemployment rate for women three times higher than for men, and a decline in their wages from 75 percent of male salaries in 1991 to 40 percent in 1991 have provided fertile ground for sexual harassment (Stanley, 1994). (Editor)] [Source: Igor S. Kon, Ph.D. International Encyclopedia of Sexuality sexarchive.info ==]

Women’s Rights in Russia

Feminism and activism are looked upon with suspicion by both men and women. One Russian told the New York Times that Russian women don’t identify with Western style feminism because they don’t feel discriminated against.

The feminist movement in Russia is relative small and weak. In 1994, there were no feminist newspapers or magazines. One woman told the New York Times that one forth of the calls she received from a hotline on sexual harassment were from men who thought the number was for phone sex.

Independent women's organizations—a form of activity that was suppressed in the Soviet era— have been formed in large numbers in the 1990s at the local, regional, and national levels. One such group is the Center for Gender Studies, a private research institute. The center analyzes demographic and social problems of women and acts as a link between Russian and Western feminist groups. A traveling group called Feminist Alternative offers women assertiveness training. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Many local groups have emerged to engage in court actions on behalf of women, to set up rape and domestic violence awareness programs (about a dozen of which were active in 1995), and to aid women in establishing businesses. Another prominent organization is the Women's Union of Russia, which focuses on job-training programs, career counseling, and the development of entrepreneurial skills that will enable women to compete more successfully in Russia's emerging market economy. Despite the proliferation of such groups and programs, in the mid-1990s most Russians (including many women) remain contemptuous of their efforts, which many regard as a kind of Western subversion of traditional social values. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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