On Thursdays, ACTR holds a 90-minute Russian-American student conversation group. My current strategy of latching onto my tutor is not exactly working out – as in, I’m not successfully leeching her friends – so I saw this group as a window of opportunity to find out more potential Russians to ambush. The topic of the first meeting was Love, in honor of good ol’ St. Valentine’s Day. Discussion was split into 2 parts – 1st 45 minutes in English, and the 2nd half in Russian. For the English- speaking portion, it was mainly the American students politely discussing the general trend of marriage, how many marriages dissolve into divorce, tradition, etc. When it became our turn to ask about Russian custom, two opposing factions quickly emerged. First off, there were people there who definitely were not students and must have been well into their 50’s (at least, that’s how old they looked. For all I know, they could just be really leathery grad students.) The question of “are there stay-at-home fathers in Russia?” came up and one particularly scrappy, weathered old curmudgeon looked around indignantly at the preposterous idea, scoffed, and said that he only saw stay-at-home-fathers in American movies…basically implying that in America, men are obviously wimps and that Russian men are robust, strapping bucks. The younger girls, who I’m assuming were more around my age, were simply not having it and vehemently disagreed, claiming that because women were getting more and more successful, it was not so strange to see a man helping out around the house. Scrappy old man seemed quite offended at the idea that women could be as successful or even more so than men, and said something along the lines of, “Men are strong in Russia,” or at least, that’s what I think he muttered under his breath.
This somewhat heated discussion in broken English forces me to ask why feminism, or at least a stronger sense of self among women, isn’t stronger in Russia. Surprisingly, the women’s movement in Russia has a longer history than the western feminist movement, with the first wave appearing right after the abolition of serfdom in 1861. The Soviet era squashed things for a bit (60 years), but feminism came back after Glasnost and Perestroika. And now, there are nearly 600 women’s organizations, with human rights, reproductive rights, and access to education as their goals, just to name a few. Unfortunately, as witnessed in the small debate at Discussion group, stereotype and tradition are difficult to overcome, not to mention the fact that gender equality officially disappeared in early 2000 (no more formal government structure to protect women’s rights). While more people might be aware of what rights there are among women, this awareness remains mainly in the educated, upper class.
All for victory.
I have no conclusion, and I am not terribly optimistic either. What brought about the western feminist movement won’t necessarily work here, because, not to be obvious, Russia isn’t the west. However, things are improving, albeit at a snail-slow pace…kind of fits into the general pattern of Russian life that I am beginning to notice: everything here takes much longer than it normally would.