Baba, Cook or Comrade, But Never a Woman

Russians' relationship to the wives of its heads of state is a true indicator of the way the country relates to women in general. Alas, we don't love the wives of our leaders very much.


Vladimir Lenin spent too little time at the head of government for the people to notice his wife. Nadezhda Krupskaya remains in our memory as an eternal teacher in glasses -- unattractive, plump and, well, goggle-eyed. She spent all her energy combatting illiteracy and was not involved in the fight for equal rights of women.


Josef Stalin's wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, did not remain in the people's memory either. She left this world when she was young, long before Stalin had risen to the height of power. According to one version, she committed suicide. According to another, she was killed by the tyrant during a family quarrel. Alliluyeva is said to have accused her husband of betraying the ideals of the revolution, and Stalin reached for his revolver. Bang: The despot could not bear arguments even at home. In a word, Stalin became a widower, and this left a deep impression on our medieval consciousness. Stalin is unhappy! He was left with a little daughter on his hands. And this only strengthened his personality cult: He was an ascetic, a genius, a widower.


Nikita Khrushchev was the opposite of the tyrant-ascetic. He was corpulent and jolly, and his wife, Nina, was a good match for him. She was a simple, round-faced woman with big peasant hands. Nina was seen as an eternal babushka but in no way as a woman. She was the kind grandmother of all Soviet pioneers and schoolchildren.


Leonid Brezhnev's wife was cut off from society in general. The first time I ever saw her was on television the day of the general secretary's funeral. I didn't know what she looked like. It was only from the veil that I guessed that this old, large, plump woman was indeed Brezhnev's widow. On the other hand, we all knew quite well the leader's legendary daughter, Galina, who got involved in scandals, loved diamonds and good spirits. However absurd it may seem, Galina Brezhnev's freedom to act as she liked and her constant love affairs made her the first feminist of our society, where women at the highest levels had no rights to a private life.


We also did not know Konstantin Chernenko's and Yury Andropov's wives, since these leaders were not ruling but dying. And then we were thrown a bomb! Raisa Gorbachev was an energetic, cultured, modern, youngish, well turned-out and, at last, stylish wife of a Kremlin leader.


The country was changing, and it looked at this phenomenon with astonishment. This was the first real woman who appeared next to the head of state. The Gorbachevs should be given credit for their courage: They made an appeal for change in a poor society, where a woman is often a baba, or married peasant woman, workhorse, cook, tractor driver, pilot, astronaut, friend, comrade and brother but never a woman, feminist, leader or simply a person.


I personally liked Raisa Gorbachev as the first lady of the country. The problem with the Soviet first lady, in my view, was that she did not grasp the conservative, Orthodox psychology of this communal society. Essentially, a woman should follow the example of the Virgin Mary, who protects Russia before God. She should be the protector of all who are offended, sick, poor and unfortunate.


The last Russian tsarina, Alexandra Fyodorovna, understood this unspoken, secret condition very well. In the eyes of the people, Alexandra was the main Sister of Mercy, as nurses were called at the time: During World War I, the press constantly showed photographs of the tsarina, in a white nurse's uniform and red cross on her cap, among the wounded soldiers.


This is one of the reasons why Princess Diana has had such success in Russia. Among the first things she did upon her arrival in Moscow was to visit a medical clinic for children with cerebral palsy. At one moment, she got on her knees so she could hear a child's whisper and the child could touch her cheek. Muscovites were struck by this act of mercy.


Raisa Gorbachev failed to grasp the fact that Russia expects acts of mercy from its first ladies. I remember the first time that, despite myself, I felt disappointed in her. It was in the summer of 1988 when the press revealed the sensational news of the survival of Larisa Savitskaya from a plane crash. The crash occurred in Siberia when a military plane collided with a civilian one. The An-24 was torn to pieces in the air, at an altitude of 5,600 meters. All the passengers and crew were killed -- except Savitskaya. Having fallen from such a height, she came away with only some fractured ribs and a broken arm. The story of Savitskaya, a schoolteacher who was raising a child on her own, was told around the world. The Russian press wrote indignant articles on how she received the ridiculous insurance payment of 75 rubles from Aeroflot.


I immediately thought about the president's wife. Here was her chance to become beloved by the country. All that she needed to do was invite this unfortunate, fragile, single mother to the Kremlin, show her before television cameras, offer her an apartment, a car and a vacation to bring her back to health, restore justice, condemn the airline officials and take the little boy by the hand. The whole country would have been reduced to tears, seeing Raisa as the protector of the aggrieved and offended. But nothing of the kind happened, and I fell out of love with the first lady.


President Boris Yeltsin's wife, Naina, is liked by the people. She is neither young nor fashionable. But she has learned from the mistakes of her predecessors: She is mostly seen at schools, orphanages and hospitals.


Moreover, Naina Yeltsin is favorably compared in the eyes of the masses to the U.S. first lady, Hillary Clinton. A women such as Hillary, who emerges from the presidential plane almost before the president and waves to the crowds more energetically than her husband, would not find support among Russian voters.


Even Vladimir Zhirinovsky understands this. Last winter he and his wife renewed their vows in a church ceremony after 25 years of marriage. No one was really happy for the "newlyweds," and everyone understood it was a show. Sensing the hostility of the crowd, the demagogue suddenly cried out: "Muzhiki! When I become president, you will never see my wife on television! I'll lock her up in prison! I'll send her to the convent! I will run the country alone!"


These words were so unexpected that his wife even winced. But they were followed by cheers, laughter, applause and cries of approval.


Look at Russian women today. No one speaks about their rights. Look at the composition of the new government. There is only one woman minister. This is a disgrace for the country, where the majority of the population are women.





Anatoly Korolyov is a writer whose works include "Eron." He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.