Members of the punk band Pussy Riot (AP/Bebeto Matthews)

Sex, gay rights, women's rights in Russia: Fighting oppression behind closed doors

Soviet Russia frowned on sex, officially -- but the era's crushing drabness did not always reach into the bedroom


Gregory Feifer
February 9, 2014 9:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Russians: The People Behind the Power"

A humorous 1980s television commercial for Wendy‘s restaurants reflected the Western view of Soviet life at the time: a grim fashion show with one dumpy model whose every outfit was the same shapeless gray dress. Most Americans were convinced Russians were also puritanical in those supposedly sexless days. But although the USSR hardly evokes an image of a sexual hothouse, that‘s what it often was. Attitudes toward sex were still very permissive when I first visited in 1991. Liaisons were made on the street, in shops, in the metro, on the escalators leading to the metro trains and pretty much everywhere else.

Official Soviet broadcasts and publications were prudish, to be sure. But although sex was taboo in public and government-approved literature and films presented a prim society, communism‘s crushing drabness didn‘t reach into the bedroom. Soviet realities, such as the difficulty of obtaining restaurant reservations and tickets to the Bolshoi, actually encouraged promiscuity by compelling people to look elsewhere for entertainment.

Advertisement:

Such permissive attitudes emerged in the 1950s, partly thanks to the great shortage of men after World War II, when 40 percent of males between the ages of twenty and forty-nine perished among the thirty million Soviets who died in the conflict. With so few men around, women had little hope for marriage if they wanted physical release or a child. Competition was so intense that many women who longed to raise children often forwent the luxury of bothering with propriety or niceties. Sex often took place when and where it was possible and there was nothing shameful about it.

As so often in Russia, new views were imported from abroad, especially from early foreign tourists to the Soviet Union. Some of their very limited contacts outside officially approved channels were with enterprising young men who took risks by buying or trading anything that  could be resold for several times its actual worth, from clothes to books and radios. Among the most popular items were glossy Western magazines that showed American and European fashions. Well-thumbed secondhand copies of Vogue and Playboy also provided glimpses of the budding sexual revolution in the West. They contributed to the change of attitude, which started with the young elite in Moscow and Leningrad who were increasingly less interested in the mores of their parents. For all the USSR‘s dictatorial aspects, sex there was very free by the early 1960s.

The biggest problem was where, even where to get things going. The lack of bars, let alone clubs or discos, meant that state restaurants were among the few places people could go to escape their communal apartments—that is, if they were wealthy, lucky or persistent enough to get in. Even on freezing nights, long lines routinely formed outside restaurants that were half empty because the employees inside were illegally selling produce, which made them as much as or more than they could make by serving customers. Supplies were always of questionable quality in any case. Visiting the resort city of Sochi, my father once took a table at a restaurant imaginatively called Fish that overlooked the Black Sea from the town‘s hills. When the waitress came along after a half hour or so in a typically surly mood, he asked which fish was fresh. "Young man," she admonished him, "stop clowning!"

The authorities generally frowned on restaurants, which many popular books and films portrayed as places where no-goodniks and criminals met to conduct their dirty dealings. But if you got in, you could dine while musicians performed popular songs and sometimes even jazz, although that remained risky until the mid-1980s. Anyone could ask anyone else to dance; refusing even highly intoxicated strangers was considered bad form. Splurging diners often ordered many dishes and left their plates largely untouched because they were really there for the drinking, talking and dancing.

But most partying was done at home. Among the experts in that during the 1960s was a friend of my parents named Sergei Milovsky. A gifted criminal lawyer who gave parties in his tiny apartment as well as in those belonging to his large circle of more privileged friends, Seriozha, as he was called, was much liked for his irrepressible good cheer and generosity, which extended even to distant friends of friends. The master seducer was also able to take advantage of the permissive attitudes of the day to maintain a steady stream of girlfriends. My parents once visited Milovsky‘s apartment when he happened to be entertaining three very young women. As my parents sat down, one of the three who had left for the bathroom emerged naked. Clearly trying to outshine her companions in the competition for their host‘s attention, she asked, "Do you want to see my pussy?" and didn‘t wait for an answer. That was typical.

"Everything was allowed then," my mother remembers. "There was no shame, nothing holding people back. Fellini was nothing; Russian girls could do anything!"

Advertisement:

* * *

Life had become easier by 1959—six years after Stalin‘s death—when my mother turned sixteen and began going out by herself. Some consumer goods, such as shoes and even furniture, had begun arriving from abroad, mostly from Soviet Bloc countries but later even Germany and

Advertisement:

Britain. Exhibitions about life in other countries entertained and sometimes dazzled Muscovites, especially the fairs from Sweden, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. But the event that really shook the capital was the 1959 American National Exhibition.

That summer, more than two million people thronged leafy Sokolniki Park in the city‘s northeast, where a set of newly constructed, futuristic-looking pavilions brimmed with the latest American consumer goods. Braving a broiling sun—Moscow often suffers heat waves—people gawked at Polaroid cameras, the latest washing machines and a model house. The exhibition was an iconic episode of detente, one of the landmarks of rapprochement that came between the shoe thumping and nuclear brinkmanship of the Cold War. The Americans also intended it to astonish Soviets into accepting the superiority of capitalism over communism. On opening day, then–Vice President Richard Nixon escorted Khrushchev through the pavilions. Reaching a model kitchen, they stopped in front of surprised onlookers and faced each other in what would become known as the kitchen debate.

It was continued later in an RCA television studio on the exhibition grounds. There Nixon suggested to the portly, combative Khrushchev that the United States was ahead of the Soviet Union in some areas, using as an example the then-astounding development of color videotape, on which their meeting was being recorded. "This indicates the possibilities of increasing communication," he said. "And this increasing communication will teach us some things and it will teach you some things, too. Because after all, you don‘t know everything."

Advertisement:

Khrushchev was having none of it. The Soviets were ahead in most areas, he insisted. Anyway, the tape would probably be used for propaganda back in the United States. "What I have to say here is being translated only into your ear," he said. "The American people will never hear it." Khrushchev could easily have been seen as having spent his entire political life preparing for that chance to demolish the apparent benefits of capitalism. At the time, however, most Americans believed, as they were inclined to, that Nixon won the debate. Either way, the major interest of many of the young Americans serving as the exhibition‘s guides was their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the Soviet Union, a state portrayed back home as America‘s fearsome, mortal enemy.

My father, George, was one of the guides. Two years after that first visit, he would return to Moscow for a graduate exchange year. He‘d studied Russian during a two-year stint in the navy after his hopes of joining the Sixth Fleet headquarters in Naples—where he pictured himself wearing a summer uniform with a mandarin collar and carrying a sword—were dashed by the navy‘s consuming interest in Russian rather than Italian speakers, it being the height of the Cold War.

The choice fit my father‘s proclivities. As a high school student in New Jersey, he‘d shocked his prosperous secular Jewish parents by announcing that he wouldn‘t attend college, then leaving home to apprentice himself at a farm in Vermont instead. After a miserable summer there, he eventually graduated from Harvard. Speaking to crowds at the Moscow exhibition‘s Ford display, he found himself spending far less time answering questions about cars than other aspects of American life, from the school system to the cost of bread. "Very surprisingly, there was a sea of affection for the American people," he remembered later. "There was also among  those supposedly downtrodden and oppressed people, as we were incessantly told, a great deal of humanity and originality and humor." And there were questions, almost certainly from a corps of KGB plants, about why Americans lynched blacks, didn‘t have universal health care and surrounded the peaceful Soviet Union with military bases. But other voices emboldened by the crowd‘s anonymity sometimes shouted down the hostile questions.

Advertisement:

That reaction came as a surprise to George, who, along with the other seventy-four guides, had been coached by the CIA on their voyage by ship from New York to Genoa, then by train to Moscow, on how to respond to challenges from Soviet visitors to the exhibition. On arrival in Moscow, he found it far more economically depressed than he‘d expected. Countless men without limbs—the war had ended only fourteen years earlier—hobbled about on crutches or with empty sleeves. The model socialist city seemed more like a village in the sense that streets were dusty and many people were dressed in what looked like peasant clothes. Still, he was very quickly hooked. Although George and his fellow guides found Russians in groups difficult to deal with, they were very relieved to discover that individuals in America‘s enemy country seemed entirely human.

Visitors stood in line for hours at the front gates. Many of those who entered got their first taste of Pepsi-Cola. Tatyana came with a new boyfriend, a dashing cadet at one of the country‘s elite Suvorov military academies, who, after studying English, had been trained by his teachers to engage enemies of the communist order with arguments about the superiority of everything Soviet. Inside the park, Tatyana was drawn to the most crowded displays, where the American guides spoke openly about everything, and with humor. "I just somehow sensed how free that country was," she said of her first impression. "Through their gestures, through the way they behaved, through the way they were dressed. You could just see that they were free people, and we were not."

At the Ford display, my sixteen-year-old future mother asked my twenty-five-year-old future father (whom she‘d tell she was nineteen) a question about American jazz that he, a lover of classical music, was unable to answer. But after following the microphone cord to the source of the voice and gaping at her beautiful face, he immediately announced a break in his question-and-answer session in the sun. Feigning an interest in a discussion with Tatyana‘s cadet, he got the couple to return the following day by giving them one of Moscow‘s hottest items that summer: exhibition tickets, so they wouldn‘t have to stand in an endless line again. More tickets for more days were required until she got the point and came alone.

When George returned to Moscow in 1961, it was to study the Soviet legal system for his doctoral studies at Columbia University. He invited Tatyana to the Bolshoi on one of their first dates. Late as usual, she rushed from her communal apartment in the handsome old building I‘ve described into a big snowstorm. No car was in sight, let alone a taxi, which were perpetually scarce in the best of circumstances. Hurrying to a larger street, she engaged in a game of fatalism: if a taxi somehow saves me now, she told herself, I‘ll marry George. It was just a way to comfort herself for a moment: the idea of marrying a foreigner was much too far-fetched to take seriously. An instant later, a car appeared at the end of the street. As it drew closer, she saw it was a taxi. The green light behind its windshield meant it was vacant.

Advertisement:

She‘d soon forget the coincidence. It would remain forgotten for many years as their relationship evolved, but not for good.

* * *

Permissive attitudes toward sex ended with the fall of communism, when, paradoxically, it was suddenly everywhere. Sexual images appeared in public with a vengeance prompted by reaction to the lifting of Soviet suppressions. Mafia gangsters and their molls had the run of Moscow‘s loud new nightlife. No self-respecting nightclub lacked for a strip show, while television channels showed an endless parade of B-grade Hollywood films containing plenty of nudity. Until recently, network TV broadcast the weekly Sex with Anfisa Chekhova, hosted by a voluptuous young brunette who posed nude in Russian Playboy. The show, which featured segments just this side of soft-core pornography, addressed topics with its tongue held firmly in cheek, including the pros and cons of sex in cars, whether blondes really are dumber and reviews of sex toys.

Despite her youth and naive, if not exactly dumb, television persona, Chekhova is well informed, well spoken and very ambitious. When I met the elaborately dressed and made-up starlet in a trendy French cafe on Moscow‘s central Tverskaya Street, she said between sips from a glass of white wine that the 1990s raised the curtain on sex, but not in a good way. "There was sex, but no sex education. Rapes skyrocketed because men believed women had no right to refuse their demands. And girls believed prostitution was something to aspire to." I remembered seeing advertisements for secretaries in the help-wanted sections of the time that required women to include their photographs and measurements with their applications.

Advertisement:

Although there‘s no lack of prostitution today, a decade of oil wealth and authoritarianism has helped stabilize urban society, enabling increasing numbers of female lawyers, accountants, journalists and others to take top jobs in fields previously seen as male domains. Russia‘s capitalist boom is helping women make their own decisions about where to work and when, if ever, to marry and raise families. And although life in the mostly impoverished provinces remains largely unaffected, women‘s ever-greater role in society is slowly transforming perceptions in Moscow, St. Petersburg and a handful of other cities, especially among young men, who tend to be more exposed to global culture. Perhaps nothing more visibly reflects the seismic shift in that aspect of life than the number of female drivers on Moscow‘s streets. Whereas one could go weeks without seeing a single woman driver twenty years ago, there now seems to be one behind the wheel of every second car. When I spoke to a young Muscovite in her middle twenties named Lera Labzina, who‘d been driving for two years, she said that made her "very, very happy."

"Driving represents another step toward women‘s independence," she told me. Not everyone is happy about that development, however. Another typical Muscovite, a young man named Nikolai Mukhin, complained that only men should be allowed to drive. "When I‘m waiting at a traffic light," he told me, "I keep an eye on the light. But what do women do? They‘re putting on lipstick. For them it‘s normal to read a magazine at the wheel. That‘s dangerous for everyone."

Even women drivers believe women can‘t drive well. Elena Zdravomyslova, a gender studies scholar in Moscow, told me such attitudes reflect the growing disparity between a changing reality and deep-rooted sexism. "Women work in traditionally male professions," she said. "They drive cars and engage in business, but the public discourse is still about how they have ‗different‘ brains, how their psychological differences from men prevent them from playing an equal part in society."

Popular culture offers two basic roles for women: housewife and sex symbol, both of which are presented in the hundreds of images that bombard Muscovites from billboards, television programs and glossy magazines. They are "aggressively sexualizing" the general idea of women‘s roles in society, Zdravomyslova declared.

Advertisement:

Sex show host Chekhova told me the media portrayal of women in a society that provides few "constructive" roles for women to counteract it is seriously affecting their behavior. "Physical beauty is idealized to the point of hysteria," she said. "Women dress every day as if they‘re going to a ball. Moscow has beauty salons on every street, more than any other city. There‘s fierce competition to catch one of the eligible men throwing around large sums of cash." In a country where women still outnumber men by more than ten million—the highest disparity since the 1970s, according to a 2010 census—the best options are to marry either an oligarch or a foreigner—"that is," she explained, "to live it up or leave." Despite her own show‘s relentless promotion of dressing up to attract men, Chekhova complained that the energy women spend on their looks comes at the expense of their intellect. "You go out at night and see women dressed to the nines and all looking like one another, like clones."

Moscow‘s reputation as a place where women dress up is well deserved, and it doesn‘t just apply to the wealthy. After midnight on any typical night, even during the depths of winter, young women in miniskirts and boots emerge from lines of cars parked up and down the streets surrounding the city‘s most "in" nightclubs. One is the international discotheque chain Pacha, which opened a branch a stone‘s throw from the Kremlin in 2009, at the height of the global financial crisis. Business boomed nevertheless. Pacha‘s manager, Basil Vasiliou, a large, bald Englishman with a penchant for shiny suits, assured me that far from putting a damper on the good times, the financial squeeze had left Muscovites with more free time to spend whatever money they had left. Oil prices having since recovered, any real concern was short-lived.

On a Friday night when I visited, crowds gathered around the club entrance‘s velvet ropes, guarded by burly bouncers rigorously enforcing the club‘s standards for those they deemed attractive enough to allow inside, a policy known as face control. Inside, svelte dancers wearing minuscule panties writhed on platforms above a crowded dance floor. Although reserving one of the tables that line the top-floor balcony costs thousands of dollars, all of them were packed, their patrons picking grapes from fruit trays, sipping Champagne and knocking back vodka. Most were highly conscious of the many eyes fixed on them, but this was Moscow, where ostentatious display is the norm. The neon-and-mirror interior below them was filled with a sea of mostly blond women, many wearing fur vests, the latest hot accessory. Most revelers would stay dancing under the laser lights until the club shut its doors the following morning.

Objectifying women is hardly unique to Russia. What seems to be different there is that as society grows richer, men are increasingly seeking respectability by marrying and settling down, and it‘s women who are on the prowl. Paradoxically, that trend reinforces increasingly traditional attitudes. Chekhova said that most women define liberation as having a strong man to take care of them and independence as the freedom to become a model or open a hair salon. Catering to those views, dating agencies that call themselves modeling agencies offer matches to wealthy male clients who take their pick from photos in glossy catalogs.

Advertisement:

Chekhova‘s theory was borne out when I made a very unscientific test of young Muscovites‘ attitudes on Kamergersky Pereulok, one of downtown Moscow‘s swankiest shopping streets. While glamorous-looking women glided past Christian Dior and Versace boutiques, a well-dressed twenty-one-year-old named Yulia Gaidakova echoed views I‘d heard again and again. Her marriage the year before, she told me, represented attainment of her life‘s most important goal. "Women want a good husband who‘s dependable, responsible and loyal. Everything else is secondary," she said. Men agreed. "Everyone should have his role in life," a bartender named Vladimir Shatilov told me after serving a brisk lunchtime crowd at a nearby restaurant. "If a man goes out and works, a woman has to take care of the home." But although Gaidakova typically praised Russians‘ attitudes toward marriage over those in the more egalitarian West, even she admitted not liking one aspect of relations between the sexes: men don‘t respect women.

Later I spoke to twenty-three-year-old Maria Kutsova, a friend‘s colleague whose hair was styled in a fashionable bob. We met at a trendy restaurant near the foreign law firm where she worked translating French and English into Russian. Inside, neither women nor men were shy about giving their fellow diners serious once-overs to the loud sounds of disco music. Kutsova complained that while Moscow‘s cafe society may resemble its Western counterparts, Russian women are forced to confront much more deeply entrenched sexism than women in the European countries she‘d visited. Yes, women are more emancipated than at any time in Russian history, she agreed, but she insisted that attitudes toward their roles in society remain positively medieval. "If a woman has career, if she‘s smart and has a good education, she won‘t be able to find a partner who‘d be at her level," she said. "Russian men can‘t compete with successful Russian women. They‘re just not used to it."

Kutsova added that dating is a challenge for other reasons. In a country where abortions are a common form of birth control, almost none of the men she met cared about safe sex, even though AIDS is spreading like wildfire. If she were looking for a long-term relationship, she continued, her most important goal would remain freedom. "Women like me are virtual outcasts in Russia. I can find a husband who will expect me to cook and clean and do everything for him. Maybe he‘ll earn a lot of money. But that‘s not what I want. I don‘t want to stay at home." She found Russian attitudes so oppressive, she said, that she‘d decided to leave her family and friends behind to start a new life in Canada.

Relatively few women choose to confront sexism. When I spent a day driving across Georgia with journalist Olga Allenova in 2008 shortly before the Russian invasion, she told me she faced a near-daily struggle against sexist attitudes just to get her work done. A chic correspondent for the well-respected Kommersant business newspaper known for covering some of the most dangerous conflict zones in the Caucasus Mountains region, Allenova was nevertheless often  denied permission to accompany male colleagues on press trips. "Sometimes I‘m not allowed to ride in military helicopters on the 'principle‘ that women simply aren‘t allowed. You just have to learn to deal with those situations."

* * *

Although attitudes toward homosexuality have also evolved, there has been even less progress in gay rights than women‘s rights after a brief advance in the 1990s. Same-sex intercourse was illegal in the Soviet Union, punishable by up to five years in prison, until its decriminalization in 1993. Homosexuality was so far from the minds of most Russians that I was surprised during my first visit to Moscow to see men showing affection for each other by touching and even holding hands in public. Later I realized that rather than evidence of progressive thinking, the displays indicated that no one was interpreting them as sexual. Nevertheless, gay culture soon began emerging from underground. Although anyone who drew attention to himself that way risked beatings or worse, young Muscovites began to see aspects of the culture as avant-garde. Some gay nightclubs even became mainstream. One that featured men swimming in giant aquariums became hugely popular.

The retreat of those attitudes with Putin‘s emergence became very evident. In 2006, the controversial head of a popular gay website announced plans to organize Moscow‘s first gay pride parade. A well-spoken and apparently fearless young man, Nikolai Alexeyev appeared uncharacteristically nervous when I spoke to him shortly before the event. He told me his action was one of the only ways to draw attention to gay and lesbian issues. "The fact that we made the announcement and are discussing a parade, that it‘s being written about in the press and even shown on television, it all shows that society acknowledges that gays and lesbians are a real social group that can‘t be ignored," he said.

It also prompted a backlash. While politicians condemned the parade plans, skinheads and elderly demonstrators holding icons gathered in front of gay nightclubs to hurl insults and rotten eggs. Leaders of the Orthodox Church denounced homosexuality as a sin and the country‘s chief Islamic mufti opined that marchers should be flogged.

Soon the mayor‘s office said it would refuse to even consider an application to allow the parade to take place because the idea caused outrage in society. Subsequent attempts to hold unsanctioned parades ended quickly, after would-be participants suffered punches from homophobic protesters and rough handling by police. The swelling public homophobia was part of a larger movement toward intolerance, xenophobia and racism fanned by burgeoning neo-Fascist and other right-wing groups. Although a strong if less visible gay culture survives in Moscow, it‘s nonexistent in Russia‘s outlying regions, where gays live under threat of violent attack. A poll at the time, in 2006, reported that more than 43 percent of Russians believe homosexual relations between consenting adults should be prosecuted.

Although gay and lesbian leaders deplored the hardening resistance, they also criticized Alexeyev. Olga Suvorova, head of a lesbian organization called Pink Star, said Russia wasn‘t ready. "The announcements set off a war against gays," she explained. "It set us back many years in terms of the amount of homophobia there is in society."

Alexeyev dismissed such criticism, saying Russia will never be ready without being pushed. However, his strident public stance helped split the gay rights community. One prominent activist, Edward Mishin, the editor of a gay magazine called Queer, drew attention to himself by suing officials who refused his application for a same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, Mishin said plans for a gay pride parade had been needlessly provocative. "Even people in show business are joining a whole front against gays and lesbians," he told me. "This isn‘t just about the parade anymore. They‘re condemning homosexuality and believe it‘s something that should be combated."

Alexeyev‘s attempts to stage his parades continued prompting scuffles and attacks, including against visiting foreign activists, until 2013, when Putin enacted a new law banning "homosexual propaganda." Although it refers only to "nontraditional" sexual relationships, the purposefully vague measure essentially recriminalized expression of gay identity by outlawing gay parades and gay-themed events and banning dissemination of information about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.

The law‘s supporters used the old argument about the need to protect the majority from individuals‘ destructive impulses by shielding what they called Russia‘s non-Western, conservative society from the foreign-influenced threat to its children. By 2013, the Levada Center found that almost two-thirds of Russians condemned homosexuality as "morally unacceptable" and almost a third believed it to be "an illness or result of psychological trauma."

Seen as part of Putin‘s drive to shore up his credentials among conservative voters, the new law made him mocked abroad as a caricature authoritarian who advocated discrimination. Critics focused on how officials would act at the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Gay bars in the West boycotted Russian vodka. At home, however, emboldened vigilante stepped up attacks against gays.

* * *

Russian attitudes toward women, like those toward homosexuality, are the legacy of a highly patriarchal society. Centuries of accepting that the head of the household made decisions for everyone, historian Richard Pipes has argued, were central to the development of modern Russians‘ behavior. Starting with medieval Slav tribal communities whose kinship clans formed their basic social units, people related to one another worked "as a team."

The head of the Russian peasant family, the bolshak ("big one"), had the final say in all matters. Crucially, his decisions governed all tribal property, which was traditionally held communally. Those early communities, Pipes believes, laid the foundation for the later emergence of the legendary Russian peasant commune, the mir. The origins and importance of the mir, which acted as both a village government and a cooperative, have been subject to much fierce debate and mythologizing, especially during the nineteenth century, when socialist revolutionaries and other radicals saw it as proof that Russian society—unlike bourgeois European culture—was naturally predisposed to socialism. (Mir translates as "society" but also means "world" and "peace," concepts that have provided more fuel for the debate.) Pipes sees it as central to the rise  of what he describes as Russia‘s "patrimonial" state, an autocracy under which the lack of private property enabled the tsar to consider everything his. Of course America also began with great patriarchal concepts and practices, but the burdens that had to be lifted on the way toward women‘s liberation were far less heavy.

By the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Russian society seriously lagged behind Western Europe‘s. Although the country was industrializing faster than ever at the turn of the century, a government census conducted in 1897 found that at least three-quarters of the population still consisted of peasants, the vast majority of whom were illiterate. Russia was very far from progressive.

Although the Bolsheviks promised radical change, they actually helped freeze social progress by cutting their subjects off from developments in the outside world for seventy years, a legacy that will endure for generations. On the surface, Soviet ideology condemned the traditional image of women as subservient to men and prescribed gender equality. The government used subsidies to encourage women to occupy the role of working mother, especially when the shortage of men left factory and other blue-collar jobs vacant. By the 1980s, more than 80 percent of women, many of them mothers, worked and even dominated some white-collar professions. They constituted 75 percent of teachers, doctors and dentists, according to the 1970 census—a far greater figure than in the United States. Nevertheless, social mores remained antediluvian. In the 1980s, Raisa Gorbacheva, Mikhail Gorbachev‘s glamorous and independent-minded wife, tried to provide a new model for women by playing a prominent role in her husband‘s affairs. However, she was widely disliked for it, and post-Soviet leaders‘ wives have since been much less visible in public, including Putin‘s former wife, Liudmilla, who was very rarely seen at all before the couple‘s divorce in 2013. Quoted in a biography of her husband, she described his "shall we say traditional ideas about a wife‘s place."

"A woman must do everything in the home," she explained. "You should not praise a woman, otherwise you will spoil her." His attitude made it extremely difficult to cook for her husband because "if he doesn‘t like the slightest thing" in a dish she‘d made, he‘d refuse to eat it. When the former Aeroflot flight attendant announced the couple‘s divorce in an awkward, stage-managed interview on state television in June 2013, the news reignited long-running rumors that Putin was engaged in an affair with a former Olympic gymnast, now a member of parliament, who is half his age. It also prompted some to joke that Liudmilla is the "only Russian who managed to liberate herself from Putin."

Soviet rhetoric about women‘s rights, used largely to persuade women to work, did have some success in reducing bias. However, men continued occupying the highest posts, and behind the propaganda, attitudes toward women remained far more traditional than in the West. Gender scholar Zdravomyslova said that remains especially true in the provinces to this day. "Russians have much stricter limits in their perceptions about gender roles—what‘s a man, what‘s a woman," she said. "Society restricts its discussions to those limits."

The entrenched attitudes are helping perpetuate one of Russia‘s darkest secrets: domestic violence, which is so pervasive that many see it as normal. The government‘s own almost certainly low figures estimate that fourteen thousand women die annually from domestic

violence. That‘s the death of one woman at the hands of her husband or partner every hour, more than ten times the number in the United States, whose population is twice the size of Russia‘s. Countless more women suffer violent abuse in secret. Although more than half the women questioned in a recent survey said they‘d been beaten by their husbands, the real number is impossible to count because domestic violence, seen as a private matter not to be aired in public, remains hidden.

Elena Litvin, a soft-spoken Moscow woman in her late thirties, married a medical student in 1995 expecting to begin a happy family life. She gave birth to two children, but her marriage soon became a nightmare. "My husband began staying out late drinking," she told me. "He‘d come home angry and beat me in front of the children. He hit me in sensitive areas, such as the stomach and chest, avoiding my face and hands so the bruises wouldn‘t be seen in public."

Litvin said her husband also threatened to kill her. Although desperate, she was too afraid to complain: a very common story in a country where victims of domestic abuse often have nowhere to turn. Moscow, with its more than ten million people, has not a single shelter for battered women. The one I visited outside the city was among only twenty government-run shelters in the entire country, and it had a total of seven beds. Like other officials, its director, a businesslike woman named Marina Nakitina, downplayed the issue of domestic violence, assuring me the problem is no worse in Russia than anywhere else.

The government has started to take action, but very slowly. Difficult as it may be to believe, Russian law still doesn‘t recognize domestic violence as a crime. Marina Pisklakova, who founded the Anna Center for Domestic Violence, told me that even the few officials willing to intervene in abuse cases are often prevented from acting until it‘s too late. Pisklakova‘s organization, which is located on the second floor of a small building in central Moscow and employs several people, is the highest-profile NGO combating domestic violence in the country. A petite, smiling woman who speaks flawless English, Pisklakova calmly recounted gruesome stories and shocking statistics.

"It‘s very difficult for them to do their job," she said of the police. "They know they simply can‘t intervene until victims‘ injuries are medium or severe or there‘s a murder." To be classified as "medium," she explained, an injury must prevent the victim from working for two weeks. Even many women able to prove they‘ve suffered from domestic violence face other insurmountable obstacles. Restraining orders don‘t exist in the Russian legal system; women who file complaints against their partners often end by retracting them.

When Elena Litvin finally gathered the courage to go to the authorities, the police initially refused to investigate her claims, she said. It took them six months to initiate criminal proceedings against her husband, whom she finally divorced in 2004. Like many estranged Russian couples, they continued living together because they couldn‘t afford to move apart, an arrangement she said was "seriously harming" their young children. "They tell me it‘s difficult to bear his presence. He gets drunk and follows us around, finding fault with every word we say. His goal is to humiliate us."

After Litvin‘s ex-husband was eventually convicted of attempting to murder her, he was sentenced to a year of probation. "I have to go back to the same apartment," she said. "I have to hear the same threats and can do nothing about it."

Pisklakova said such stories are common in Russia, where an old saying advises women that "if he beats you, he loves you" and violence is often justified as a way of controlling women. "She must have done something wrong to deserve it," Pisklakova explained about the attitude toward beatings. "That mentality is still there, the mentality of women being basically created to serve men."

Some believe men‘s attitudes toward women are among the most direct vestiges of serfdom. Oppressed by their owners or other overlords, their lives circumscribed by the dictates of reactionary church dogma, male serfs had few outlets besides beating their women, or so the argument goes. Repression under communism perpetuated such traditional attitudes. "Physical violence and love is connected in Russia," Pisklakova added. She traced the association to a sixteenth-century domestic guide called Domostroi, "domestic order," that instructed the master of the house not to hit women in the face in order to avoid public embarrassment. It recommended whips as more effective than fists.

"No one spoke about domestic violence during the Soviet era," Pisklakova said, because the model of the Soviet family was presented as perfect. "Therefore, there couldn‘t be violence, period." Although attitudes are very slowly changing and new laws are being passed, and although the topic of domestic violence sometimes even appears on television talk shows, "it‘s still seen as up to women to make the home better," Pisklakova added. "Domestic happiness remains their responsibility."

Other convictions reinforce those attitudes, including the belief that men deserve more sympathy than women, partly because so many died during the last century‘s two world wars and also because their life expectancy is so much shorter. "Russian women are seen as very strong, which is true," Pisklakova said. "But the attitude is that they can deal with their problems while men need protection."

Domestic violence also continues to be accepted because Russians see themselves as emotional and passionate. The impetuous "Russian soul" is often invoked to explain "crimes of passion," however violent. A recent television drama billed as a tale about unhappy love featured a female metro employee who leaves her policeman husband after he beats her. After stalking her, he proceeds to kill her, then himself. "But the story wasn‘t about love at all," Pisklakova said. "It represented a classic case of domestic abuse, about power and control."

Change would almost certainly be faster under a political system that doesn‘t repress human rights organizations or undermine the independence of the legal system. Still, change would be slow even under a more democratic government. Attitudes toward women and their roles derive from the generally small place all individuals hold in a society where the strong rule and traditional arrangements govern most aspects of life.

Back on Moscow‘s streets, proud new driver Lera Labzina said that although she believes some attitudes toward women will continue improving, others will never change. "Men have never accepted women drivers," she said, "and I don‘t think they ever will." Even some women accept the stereotypes. Rear-window "warning" stickers that picture stiletto-heeled shoes are not uncommon on Russian cars. Others point to a larger lack of respect for the rule of law and human rights. "We never think about Russia as a country where women are oppressed," I was told by Irina Mikhailovskaya, editor of the Russian edition of the magazine Forbes Style. People are oppressed, not just women. That was true about the Soviet Union, and it remains true today."

Mikhaylovskaya believes change will be very slow if it comes at all. "We‘re so far away from the West, it‘s not a question of a few years or even a generation."

From the book "Russians: The People Behind the Power." Copyright (c) 2014 by Gregory Feifer. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.


Gregory Feifer

MORE FROM Gregory Feifer


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2014 Olympics Books Editor's Picks Lgbt Russia Sochi

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •