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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

First Ladies Present a Strong Cultural Contrast

When Hillary Rodham Clinton and Naina Yeltsin meet on Friday at Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador's residence, the differences between the two first ladies will illuminate an important lesson for students of U.S.-Russia relations:


Despite such factors as the" snickerization" of Moscow, the impressive number of Russian players in the U.S. National Hockey League and the debut of Ralph Lauren's "Russia" collection, the cultural gap between the United States and Russia is still wider than the Russian winter is long.


While Clinton's participation in politics, particularly her spearheading the development of a national health policy, has sparked a debate in the United States about the role of the first lady, Yeltsin's assumption of her role has evoked little more than relief that she is no Raisa Gorbachev.


"I am only the president's wife," Yeltsin told The Washington Post last week. "I shudder when people call me the first lady."


While Clinton proudly unveils a bold new decor for the White House, Yeltsin lives in a simple four-room apartment in an ordinary Moscow neighborhood.


While Clinton poses in a black Donna Karan dress in the pages of Vogue, Yeltsin shuns the limelight. A hyphenated name for Yeltsin? Don't even think about it.


Perhaps what underscores the cultural difference between the U.S. and Russia even more than the opposing styles of the two first ladies is the extent to which each woman is accepted at home.


Despite her share of critics, Clinton, 46, is the woman most admired by Americans, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released last month. For her part, Yeltsin, 61, is admired here as a wife, mother and grandmother who lives modestly, supports her husband and does not meddle in his affairs.


Nevertheless, the two women -- one whose hairdos are scrutinized by pundits and the other whose hair could probably be best described as "nondescript" -- were said to get along well during their first meeting during the Tokyo G-7 summit last July.


Yeltsin, a retired engineer, said she admired Clinton as an "American woman of a new generation, on top of her job both as the president's wife and as a lawyer," the Post reported.


Russia's reluctant first lady also shares Clinton's interest in health care and has been involved in getting equipment and supplies to Moscow hospitals.


Clinton, who is expected to arrive in Moscow on Friday morning with her daughter, Chelsea, 13, is scheduled to join her Russian counterpart for official visits and sightseeing. Friday evening, President Boris Yeltsin will host a formal banquet attended by the Clintons and American and Russian guests.


Though her visit will be brief -- the Clintons are scheduled to leave Moscow on Saturday after an early morning visit with U.S. Embassy families at the embassy gymnasium -- her presence in Moscow will likely elicit some discussion about a woman's place in politics.


This subject was broached in Tuesday's Izvestia, where an article about President Bill Clinton's visit began by recirculating an old joke about the Clintons.


The joke goes something like this: When the Clintons encounter an old boyfriend of Hillary's working at a gas station, the president tells his wife: "If you'd married him, you'd probably be pumping gas, too." "No," she answers. "If I'd married him, he'd be president now."


Yelena Yershova, director of the GAIA Women's Center in Moscow, said she hopes that Russian women will look to Clinton as a role model of a politically active, professional woman.


"There are a lot of women in Russia who attain a certain level of professional success and then suddenly become ashamed to draw attention to the fact that they are female and stop supporting women's causes," Yershova said.


"Mrs. Clinton is proud that she's a woman and continues to work for women's rights."