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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: Russian Men Must Pick Up Raisa's Legacy




The death of Raisa Gorbacheva set me thinking about how far Russian women have come since 1985, when the former Soviet first lady took what was then a revolutionary step and showed herself, her taste and her intelligence.


At the public farewell to Raisa, I met women of pension age who had gone from resenting to admiring her, middle-aged women for whom she had always been a role model and women too young to remember her.


They were little girls when she first emerged with her husband, Mikhail Gorbachev. Now, they are enjoying the fruits of what she achieved for her gender. They have embraced the message of the magazine Cosmopolitan that says a modern girl can have everything from a career to cosmetics to fun in bed.


"And yet, and yet," said Maria Podolskaya, nearly 20, a journalism student who came round to have coffee with me, "we are still very far from full equality."


I have known Masha since she was a young teenager. She used to be crazy about ballroom dancing but gave it up because she could not find a worthy partner. Now, she plays in the intellectual television game, "Brain Ring." But still she has a partner problem.


"Most of the other participants are boys," she said. "They out-shout the girls. When I complained, one said: 'You're there to look pretty, not to say anything, so shut up.' That's what Russian women are still supposed to be - pretty and passive."


Most of Masha's fellow journalism students at Moscow State University are women.


"Boys go into the sciences while girls study the humanities. Boys are educated to become the bread winners while we are prepared for low-level jobs plus housework. There are very few young men ready to accept that their wives would have jobs," she said. Because of the sexist attitudes of most young men around her, Masha does not have a boyfriend. For our meeting, she was wearing blue jeans, a black cable sweater. "I could not dress like this for a boy," she said. "They expect us to paint our faces and wear revealing mini-skirts. More or less, we have to look like tarts, or they do not give us a second glance. Then, after marriage, they expect us to put on an apron and do everything for them like their mothers."


Perhaps, I suggested, Russian men also suffered from being thrust into confining roles. Masha nodded. "In our society, women bring up boys. First, their moms coddle them, then teachers in kindergarten and school. Boys reach the age of 18 and still, they are babies. Then suddenly, we demand that they become real men." Mutually assured disappointment, then. Masha is not hurrying into a marriage that would only end in divorce but concentrating on her studies. She has not given up hope of a harmonious relationship with a man but fears that, when she does have a child, she is doomed to repeat the experience of her mother and grandmother, who both brought up children alone.


I felt saddened by this conversation, then thought again of the pioneering Gorbachevs, this time of Mikhail, weeping at his wife's grave. By this act of emotional honesty, he did something as revolutionary as Raisa when she appeared in public. He showed that a man doesn't have to be a brute. If Russian women still need liberating, men also need freedom to show the gentle side of themselves.