Someday Russia Won't Need Women's Day

It's Women's Day, which means that wives and girlfriends all over Russia are supposed to gratefully accept symbolic bouquets of limp carnations from errant husbands and beaus, while I, the cynical columnist, am supposed to rain on their parade.

I won't let anyone down. The only thing I have ever liked about International Women's Day are the hilarious socialist realist-inspired postcards that I used to buy (robust farm workers in joyous choruses of Happy International Women's Day!) and send home to bemused family and friends. I think my mother actually still has the first such card I sent her and shows it to people as an exhibit of "something they do in Russia."

You don't need me to tell you what you have undoubtedly heard before: that Women's Day is nothing more than an excuse for men to absolve themselves of their dismal behavior the rest of the year. They make the ritual motions of presenting flowers and candy, then grab a bottle of vodka and sit back while the women slave in the kitchen over the expected holiday dinner.

That's right. Even though International Women's Day is not a purely Soviet holiday (it was brought to Russia from Denmark in 1913, therefore preceding the emancipation-minded Bolsheviks by four years), it still embodies a tradition quintessentially Soviet: showing things to be the precise opposite of what they really are.

Such is the case today as well. The roses are prettier, the candy imported, but the women are no better off.

Violence against women is a growing -- or at least more visible -- problem in a society where male aggressiveness remains a virtue (let us not forget the old Russian saying that a man who doesn't beat his wife doesn't love her). A rape victim is an outcast. Police still often deride victims of sexual assault, sometimes refusing to take their testimonies or forcing them to recant.

Unemployment is rising, and women make up 80 percent of the urban unemployed. Those who are employed earn less than their male counterparts and often hold menial positions. Labor Minister Gennady Melikyan continues to make pronouncements about the value of male over female workers -- suggesting, among other things, that women can help combat the unemployment problem by just staying home where they belong.

You can still count on one hand the number of women in the upper reaches of government, and state funding for social programs for women is miniscule. There are few women leaders in business: What woman, after all, is going to be trusted with credit to get her enterprise off the ground?

So this most Soviet of holidays has grown even more ironic in the post-Soviet years.

Still, there are a few glimmers of hope. Moscow's Sexual Assault Recovery Center, soon to be a year old, has taken 1,000 calls on its hotline since last April -- amazing for a country where most victims are afraid even to pick up the phone. Around the country, grassroots women's organizations are finally taking root. Surviving on dribbles of foreign aid, they are putting together shelters, legal aid, and family planning centers for women. Even the northern outpost of Murmansk is opening a shelter.

But there is still a long way to go. You don't change a centuries-old mentality overnight. One way to tell when the woman's lot has improved in Russia will be when no one needs Women's Day anymore.