‘A woman is everything’: The reproduction of Soviet ideals of womanhood in post-communist Russia1

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‘A woman is everything’: The reproduction of Soviet ideals of womanhood in post-communist Russia1

Sarah Ashwin

At the beginning of the transition era, there was a good deal of speculation over whether the collapse of communism would precipitate a return to so-called traditional gender roles in Russia. In particular, a number of Western and Russian commentators predicted that women would succumb to the call of the home, leaving the labour force voluntarily as soon as they had the option of doing so (for example, Pilkington, 1992: 200; Funk, 1993: 322; Lissyutkina, 1993: 276). The logic of such predictions was that since women’s inclusion within the Soviet labour force had occurred under pressure, it had not brought the emancipatory gains usually associated with female employment. As one Russian commentator put it, ‘There can be no doubt that working outside the home and being paid for their labour is one of the main conditions for women’s emancipation…. However, women’s working outside the home can be transformed from an important means of liberation into a very powerful instrument for their enslavement…. That was precisely what occurred in our country’ (Voronina, 1994: 46-7). The idea that Soviet women were coerced into work has led commentators such as Larissa Lissyutkina to argue that, ‘Emancipation for Soviet women is not based on a demand to work. On the contrary, liberation is perceived by many as the right not to work’ (Lissyutkina, 1993: 274). Other commentators have argued more generally that a return to traditional values would actually be welcomed by many Russian women. For example, the feminist writer Nina Gabrielyan claimed that a large number of women had responded positively to the ‘replacement of the socialist pseudo-egalitarian mythology’ with the ‘old patriarchal’ one because they were tired of ‘pseudo-emancipation’ which left them torn between work and home (quoted in Morvant, 1995: 5). This article scrutinises such claims through an analysis of the nature of the Soviet legacy in terms of gender ideology. The argument that women want a full return to the home and ‘old patriarchal’ values is rejected, in favour of the idea that women tend to endorse a combination of traditional and more egalitarian ideas regarding their role and that of men. This reflects the confusion within the officially sanctioned roles of men and women in the Soviet era, which were themselves a blend of traditional and revolutionary norms.

Understanding the nature of local gender ideologies is important because they form an important part of the normative framework in which people take decisions regarding employment and the household. As the anthropologist Henrietta Moore has argued:

economic processes such as the differentiation of tasks by gender, discussions between husbands and wives over income distribution … are actually a set of practical activities which operationalise gender ideologies. They are therefore in some sense the outcome of local ideas regarding the appropriate behaviour of men and women (Moore, 1994: 92).

The influence of gender ideology on behaviour has recently been recognised in literature using the concept of distinct ‘gender orders’, to explain different patterns of male and female employment between nations and between cultures.2 For example, the idea of different gender orders is employed by the researchers Angela Dale and Clare Holdsworth (1998) to explain why, even though both sets of women face the same institutional constraints, British ethnic minority women tend to work full-time, while white women are more likely to work part-time. The idea of the gender order has also been built on by Birgit Pfau-Effinger, who uses a version of it to explain cross-national differences in patterns of full-time and part-time working among women (1998) as well as divergent attitudes to maternal employment (1999). As well as examining the nature of the dominant gender ideologies with regard to the employment of women and the domestic division of labour in contemporary Russia, this article also attempts to analyse their implications in terms of women’s employment behaviour.
The argument presented here is based on two sources. First, data from an on-going research project funded by INTAS.3 This project is designed to examine gender differences in employment strategies through longitudinal qualitative research which traces the labour market activity of specially selected groups of men and women through a consecutive series of semi-structured deep interviews. The four groups selected are defined by a series of distinct labour market transitions at the beginning of the research. Equal numbers of men and women (thirty in each group) have been selected and are being interviewed at six month intervals for a period of three years which began in March 1999. The research on the four different groups is being carried out in four separate cities. The groups are: new entrants to the labour market, graduating from a university and a technical training institute (in Ul’yanovsk); those confronting the labour market involuntarily as a result of the acute financial difficulties of their employer (in Moscow); those who are unemployed and seeking work through the employment service (in Samara), and those whose incomes are so low that they qualify for state social assistance (in Syktyvkar). This paper is based on data from the first two rounds of interviews. Each interview is referred to by three numbers: the first indicates the city;4 the second, the respondent, and the third, the stage of the research. The second source of data used here is 20 deep interviews with female blue collar workers I carried out in Samara in July 1997. The women interviewed were either working at garment factories, the large foreign-owned chocolate factory in the city, or in catering. Fourteen of those interviewed were aged between 30-50, and the rest were in their early twenties.

The Soviet Gender Order

In order to understand the Soviet legacy in terms of gender ideology, it is necessary first to understand the nature of the Soviet gender order. The Soviet state promoted and institutionalised a distinctive gender order in which the roles of men and women were defined according to the perceived needs of the communist state.5 Involvement in work was to be central to the identity of all Soviet citizens: over time the labour collective became the main locus of social integration and distribution within Soviet society (Ashwin, 1999a). In the case of women, their role was defined as worker-mothers who had a duty to work, to produce future generations of workers, as well as to oversee the running of the household. In return for this they received ‘protection’ from the state in their capacity as mothers, as well as independence through their access to paid work. But although women were integrated into the workforce en masse,6 early Bolshevik dreams of the transfer of domestic functions from the private to the public sphere were never realised except to a limited extent in the realm of child care. This meant that women workers were still expected to perform their traditional domestic role: none of the Bolsheviks, not even Aleksandra Kollantai, challenged the idea of domestic work as inalienably female (Ashwin, 2000: 11 – 12), and essentialist understandings of the division of labour within the household remained a feature of official thinking until the end of the Soviet era. This acceptance of supposedly natural sexual difference on the part of the new communist elite informed both the terms on which women were integrated into the labour force (as second class workers),7 and what was expected of them as wives and mothers.

Men, meanwhile, had an at once more limited and higher status role to play. They were to serve as leaders, managers, soldiers, workers, while the state assumed responsibility for the fulfilment of the traditional masculine roles of father and provider, becoming, in effect, a universal patriarch to which both men and women were subject. In the early post-revolutionary period, the new Bolshevik authorities perceived the traditional patriarch as a bulwark of the old regime, a little Tsar whose influence needed to be restricted. Initially, the state struggle with the patriarch was conducted through a combination of legislation and coercion which served to undermine male prerogative within the family (Kukhterin, 2000). After the compromise with the new Soviet family in the 1930s this campaign was relaxed, but the private power of men continued to be regarded with suspicion. This distrust found its expression in a notable silence about the male domestic role: while mothers were glorified, Soviet men were not allowed to compete with the father-figures who led the Party.8 Male self-realisation was thus to be confined to the public sphere, where their dominance continued to be seen as legitimate and ‘natural’.
The extent to which official discourse and institutional arrangements influenced subjective understandings in the Soviet period is difficult to assess. Obviously, it is not possible retrospectively to untangle the various influences on the formation of male and female gender identities in order to assess the precise role of the state in shaping these. Nonetheless, the life history data available suggests that there was a remarkable congruity between the ideal of the Soviet woman propagated by the state and that accepted by individual woman: that is, women tended to accept that a woman should work, take responsibility for the household, and be a mother, though the generally accepted social norm was for women to have at least one child, rather than the five to ten required to earn a medal from the state (Ashwin, 1999b; Kiblitskaya, 2000a).9
In the transition era, however, the institutional and ideological underpinnings of Soviet-approved gender relations and identities have been removed. First, work is no longer a state-imposed duty. Economic inactivity is an option for both men and women, while the capitalist evil much dwelt on by Soviet propagandists – unemployment – is now an unwelcome reality in Russia. Now, rather than emphasising women’s duty to work, members of the political elite are more likely to argue that in an era of high unemployment women should leave the jobs for the boys.10 Second, motherhood has been redefined as a private responsibility. While in the Soviet era motherhood was portrayed as a service to the state, and recognised as such through a social policy which supported the mother and child unit as an indivisible whole, now the state has reneged on its paternal role as the protector of mother and child (Issoupova, 2000). This, of course, implies that there is greater pressure on men to perform the role of providers, as can be seen in the following quotation from a 1996 magazine article:
Today our Russian post-Soviet fathers have gained the chance to occupy an appropriate place in the family. As soon as the economy became market-oriented, it required the development of traditional male qualities, and a man obtained the possibility of returning to his normal and natural role. His destiny is now in his own hands…. He can (if he wants, if he gets up from the sofa and makes an effort) provide for his family. Now he himself must take responsibility for the children, and not delegate it to Big Daddy: the state (Materinstvo, no 1, September 1996: 91, quoted in Issoupova, 2000: 42).
These changes in state policy appear to be conducive to a return to the so-called traditional family consisting of a male breadwinner and non-working wife,11 thus perhaps lending credence to the predictions noted in the introduction. Clearly, it will be very difficult for men to become sole breadwinners in an era of economic collapse, but, this practical problem aside, have such policy reversals had an impact on the norms and expectations of men and women? The following section will attempt to answer this, focusing on the case of women.

The persistence of Soviet ideals of womanhood

The qualitative evidence in terms of women’s perception of their roles is remarkably consistent. While the issue of generalisation is always problematic with qualitative data, this is to some extent off-set by the detail of the responses. When women who work in different industries, in different parts of the Russia, with different levels of skill and education express their views in similar terms (often using almost identical expressions) it is a strong indication that the views in question are widely shared. In addition to qualitative material, I also use quantitative data from our INTAS study in the following sections. The numbers involved here (240 respondents) and the nature of the sample (non-random) mean that these figures need to be treated with caution, though on many issues the consistency of the responses is striking.


How do Russian women of the post-Soviet era see their role? First, as has been shown before, there is no evidence to suggest that they perceive ‘liberation … as the right not to work’. Surveys have consistently shown that, even if women had the financial possibility of staying at home, the majority of them would continue to work (for details see Ashwin and Bowers, 1997: 25 – 26). In our current INTAS research, 80 per cent of women said that they would continue to work if they had the financial possibility of not working, as against 72 per cent of male respondents. Meanwhile, qualitative studies have shown that work is crucial to women’s sense of identity; provides them with sense of meaning, of being needed and socially useful, and is a source of companionship and support, even when the work itself is unpleasant and provides little intrinsic satisfaction (Ashwin and Bowers, 1997; Gruzdeva, 1995; Kiblitskaya, 2000b; Zdravomyslova, 1996).

There is little new in this. The interesting finding from our INTAS research concerns younger women. These women have grown up in a climate in which ‘traditional’ values are valorised both in political discourse and certain forms of popular culture and they therefore might be expected to be less committed to work than older generations. Nonetheless, 90 per cent of our young female respondents (as opposed to 80 per cent of men in the same group) said that they would work if they had the financial possibility of not working. Our largest group of young respondents are the graduates from the university and technical training institute in Ul’yanovsk who, having invested in their education, would be expected to be more committed to work than those who are less educated. Indeed, 93 per cent of female respondents in this group said that they would work if they had the financial possibility of not working, as opposed to 74 per cent of men in the same group. Nonetheless, between 75 - 100 per cent of female respondents under 35 in the other city samples gave the same answer. The major difference between older and younger women was in the reasons they gave for wanting to work. As can be seen from the following quotations, young women said that they would continue to work because of their fear of boredom and social isolation. The consistency in their reasoning is notable:
You exaggerate a bit if you sit at home, you find a fifth corner in the flat already. No, generally speaking, it’s impossible to sit at home (2-26-2).
Yes, I would work. I always said that. Even if I had a super-millionaire as a husband, or, I don’t know, got some kind of inheritance… I can’t sit at home. I hate to sit within four walls, doing nothing. I can do nothing all day – but that’s only for one day, two at the most (2-32-2).
What [else] is there to do? You’d die of boredom. It [work] is in its own way a rest from resting (2-46-2).
I would work. Because if you don’t work it in any case means staying at home. It means no acquaintances, no new acquaintances. It seems to me that it is very hard and you become like part of the furniture (2-35-2).
Of course I’d work, because it’s a way out into the light and a chance to socialise with people (2-57-2).
I would work. I’ve thought about that a lot, by the way. When I see films where they show a husband completely supporting his wife, I don’t know, on the one hand it’s good that you don’t have any financial problems…. But on the other hand, what can you spend the whole day doing if you don’t work? Some kind of work at least, it’s necessary, otherwise you’d crack up (2-31-2).
While younger women stressed that work was a way to meet people and to avoid boredom or madness, older women (who know far more about the reality of what goes on within the dreaded ‘four walls’) placed more emphasis on the fact that it gave them a sense of social significance, financial independence and a rest from housework (all quotations taken from Moscow factory workers):
I think that work is a necessity. Work helps you to feel that you are a woman. Well and money, of course, that’s important. Take me, for example, I think that at home I am on the whole nothing [nichto] (1-16-1).
It’s unconditional. When my husband … has got a bit more money, he says: stay at home. I say: no way. No way. Home – it means the floor cloth. I don’t want that. Not under any circumstances (1-52-1).
I would like to have my own pay … so that no one could say to me, “you stay at home” and have the right to reproach me with anything (1-58-1).
Thus, although the justifications for wanting to work vary between different age groups, the idea that work is an important part of a woman’s life is held by a sizeable majority of women regardless of age. The housewife ideal does not seem to be catching on. Indeed, the Ul’yanovsk research group sensed that their female respondents were framing their answers in opposition to post-Soviet ‘neo-traditionalist’ opinion, even though they did not explicitly identify this adversary in their comments. (Meanwhile, the same research team also noticed that their young male respondents, though generally supportive of the idea of their future wives working, talked about this in a lordly tone, suggesting they expected to have the ultimate right of decision in this matter; ‘let her work’ was a common formulation.)
Women’s desire to remain in work is reflected in the employment statistics. Contrary to predictions, women’s economic activity has fallen by the almost exactly the same as men’s between 1992 and 1998: 8.3%, as against 8.1% for men (Goskomstat, 1999: 8). The reduction in overall economic activity rates is accounted for by the withdrawal from labour market activity of the young and those of pension age, and only to a very limited degree by the exit of women from the labour force (Clarke, 1999a: 118). It should also be noted that women are far less likely to leave their jobs voluntarily than men (Clarke, 1999b: 179). Nor do they seem to be more vulnerable to unemployment: according to the internationally comparable Labour Force Survey data, in October 1998 51% of the unemployed were men, and 49% were women (Goskomstat, 1999: 28).12 Clearly, this is not the whole story. Women spend longer unemployed than men (Ashwin and Bowers, 1997; Katz, 2000), and there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that discrimination and sexual harassment are rife in the Russian labour market. Meanwhile, women earned 65 – 70 per cent of men’s wages in the Soviet era, and this gap has certainly not narrowed in the transition era: indeed, Katerina Katz estimates that it has increased (Katz, 2000). It may therefore be the case that women are experiencing ‘downward mobility’ in the transition era, but at the same time they are retaining their presence in the workforce. They show no signs of retreating into the home, and nor does it seem they would rush to do so were their prospects of finding a male breadwinner to improve.

Household and family

Where young and old women are similar is in their negative characterisations of ‘home’ which, as can be seen from the quotations in the previous section, is portrayed as a potential prison, while men are portrayed by some older women as would-be gaolers. Nevertheless, women tend to accept that running the household is their responsibility. A clear majority (65 per cent) of women in our INTAS research said that the woman should be responsible for running the household, with 32 per cent saying that this should be a joint responsibility. Moreover, the qualitative responses of those who did not explicitly say that the household was a feminine responsibility sometimes revealed tacit acceptance of a traditional domestic division of labour, as can be seen in the comments of the following young woman:

Whoever’s got the bigger brain should be the one to answer for the running of the household. If, for example, we trusted my father to run the household, we’d all, on the same amount of money, have died of hunger by now. He goes to buy onions and he buys the most mangy onions in the market…. It’s not even really that the brain should be bigger in those kind of areas, but that whoever is more practical should run the household. For some people it’s the husband, for some the wife, but it’s more often wives…. I would, of course, hope that I’d have the sort of husband who’d buy good onions [laughs], who’d do everything so well…. But he can even be useless in that area – if he brings in good money I’ll go along with it (2-41-2).
Unsurprisingly, virtually no one thought that men should assume responsibility for the household.13 In the under 35 age group the proportion of women thinking that the woman should be responsible for running the household fell to 53 per cent (as opposed to 41 per cent of men in the same age group). It is possible that this reflects a shift towards more egalitarian values among the young, but given the small numbers involved it is difficult to read too much into this result. Overall, what was striking in the tone of qualitative responses of those who thought that women should take responsibility for the household was the degree to which they saw this as natural.
But although the majority of women adhere to essentialist ideas regarding the domestic division of labour, their views on child care run counter to the ideology of the male breadwinner-female-carer model. This perhaps reflects the fact that, while the Soviet authorities never challenged the idea that women were responsible for the domestic sphere, they were too greedy for female labour power to endorse the idea of private motherhood. Instead, they ‘struggled’ to get women to use state child care, which served the dual function of allowing women to work and ensuring that children were corrected socialised (Issoupova, 2000). It seems that state propaganda was effective in this regard for many women, given the chance, will expatiate enthusiastically on the virtues of kindergartens, as can be seen in this comment from one of the respondents in my Samara study:
Kindergartens are interesting for children. They mix with other children, they develop there. For example, my son had problems with his speech. Well, at the kindergarten they have a speech therapist and he was given special help, and by the time he entered the first class at school he could speak and he could read. It really surprised me. I couldn’t have taught him to do that if I’d have stayed at home with him.... So I think kindergarten is very important. The children should have proper teachers – what’s a nanny? Nannies are no good. And with their mother – they’re going to arrive at school knowing nothing. And those early years are very important in development, I think. It’s a very serious question. (Cook, Samara café, 43 years old).
The taken-for-grantedness of sending children to kindergarten is dramatically illustrated by the comments of one 22 year old worker from one of the Samara garment factories, who, asked if she would consider staying at home if her (putative) husband could afford to keep her replied: ‘I wouldn’t want to sit at home ... it would be boring – the children wouldn’t be at home, and my husband wouldn’t be at home. It would be boring alone there.’ Clearly, the idea that she might stay at home to look after her children herself, in preference to sending them to kindergarten, did not even occur to her! There is, however, a division of views on this question. Fifty two per cent of female respondents in the INTAS study with children of pre-school age thought that kindergarten was the best option for their child (along with 44 per cent of male respondents), and many of those were as enthusiastic as the cook quoted above. A number of respondents even justified their answer with comments which would have been deeply gratifying to Soviet ideologues. One man, for example said that even if the mother stayed at home ‘some kind of kindergarten, even if just for a while, is very necessary. Children learn a lot there, to live in a collective, and in terms of education’ (4-2-2, emphasis added). Twenty four per cent of mothers did, however, think that being at home with them was the best option for their children, with a similar proportion of fathers wanting maternal care for their pre-school children (28 per cent). Meanwhile, 6 per cent of parents of pre-school children felt that their children were best off with their grandmother, and 18 per cent favoured the ‘other’ option, which usually implied that they endorsed a combination of mother and kindergarten.
The importance of social norms regarding motherhood and childhood have been emphasised by Birgit Pfau-Effinger (1999), who argues that a purely institutional analysis is not adequate to explain different patterns of women’s labour participation in different countries. She bases her argument on a comparison between the Netherlands, Germany and Finland. In the Netherlands and Germany the pre-industrial ‘male breadwinner/female-home-carer’ model was culturally influential, so that ‘the idea of private motherhood and childhood survived at least in part’ (p. 68). Meanwhile, in Finland the pre-industrial ‘family economic model’ of small farming, where all members of the family worked, was modernised into what Pfau-Effinger terms the dual breadwinner/state carer model. The resulting differences in the relative acceptability of mothers of pre-school children working, Pfau-Effinger argues, go a long way towards explaining the differences in the patterns of female labour participation between these societies. In its inculcation of the value of public child care, therefore, the Soviet state can be said to have had a profound impact on the norms that govern the labour market behaviour of Russian women. The lack of strong support for the ideal of private motherhood, and the prevalence of the idea that kindergartens are actually a superior form of child care, is a major cultural obstacle to the institution of a male breadwinner-female-home-carer model in Russia.

Combining work and home

The literature on women in the Soviet era paid a good deal of attention to women’s ‘double burden’ of work and housework, and the tone of such discussion often implied that women were victims of this state imposition. But life history interviews with women suggest that the Soviet ideal of the woman who successfully combined home and work was not an alien imposition, but something to which many women aspired (Ashwin, 1999b). Their gender identity was not forged solely at work: to be a good woman was to combine work and home effectively. This often involved making compromises in one sphere or other, but women do not tend to talk about this with resentment, but rather as an accepted part of life. For example, the majority of the women I interviewed in the Samara study who had families related having made adjustments in their working lives in the Soviet era for the sake of their dependants. A typical example was that of a glazer from the chocolate factory who had given up the four year course she was attending at a Moscow food institute after one and a half years because ‘there was no one else to look after my mother-in-law ... [and] she was a very good woman. I can even say she replaced my mother. I couldn’t have behaved differently.’ Meanwhile, a skilled seamstress at the garment factory reported that she had been forced to give up her position as forewoman because it entailed working night shifts and she was a single mother. A particularly striking form of the Soviet art of juggling home and work was the ‘kindergarten career move’ of mothers (often of children with bad health) who, as one worker explained, went to work at the kindergarten attended by their child:

They’ll get a job as anything, a nanny, a teacher if their education allows it, a cook, a cleaner. That way they can be around their child – they don’t have to think, for example, ‘Am I going to send him today? Is he well enough or not?’. I know of a few cases like that; some even go on and get a job at the school when their child moves on there.
That women would choose to take a job at a kindergarten to be near a sick child, rather than attend to that child at home, highlights the strength of the normative pressure on women to work in the Soviet era, but also their willingness to structure their work lives around the needs of their family.
Under communism, such juggling was facilitated through state child-care provision, and the ready availability of work which increased women’s chances of finding a job close to home, with a suitable shift system. During the transition era, however, it has become increasingly difficult for women to pursue ‘convenient work’ strategies (Yaroshenko, 1999). Since 1991 pay has become increasingly important in the labour mobility of both men and women, while women have become less likely to cite working hours and conditions as a reason for leaving a job – though they are still more likely to cite such factors than men (Clarke, 1999b: 167-78). Therefore, in contemporary conditions, a convenient work strategy is likely to be adopted only where a woman has a partner or spouse with relatively high and stable earnings. This is well illustrated by the account of this 27 year old respondent from Sytyvkar:
It was necessary after maternity leave to go to work somewhere, [and] I went to a kindergarten; then it seemed to me to be the most convenient option, mainly in order to be near my son…. There were also privileges for the workers at the kindergarten, their children could attend for free, though now they’ve changed it all and you have to pay. There were wage delays there as well, but you can wait, especially if your husband’s providing everything (4-1-1).
Although taking a very low paid job for the sake of convenience is an option fewer and fewer women can afford, accepting what could be termed a sub-optimal job (in terms of status, career prospects and in some cases pay) in order to reconcile work with household responsibilities is still common.14 (In our INTAS research we have found a small number of men who also do this, although the most notable examples are widowers with dependent children who have been forced to take on a ‘female’ role). Thus, rather than completely changing their approach to combining work and family in the transition era, women’s emphasis has shifted. Now, as will be seen in the following section, ensuring the survival of the household through earning money is often more pressing than finding time for housework.

What women expect from men

Women’s readiness to sacrifice career development in order to fulfil what they perceive as their domestic responsibilities reflects the fact that they expect men to be the main (but not sole) breadwinners. Asked who should take primary responsibility for providing for the family, 72 per cent of female, and 79 per cent of male, respondents in our INTAS study said that it should be the man. Given that women generally earn less than men, it is not surprising that many men do manage to live up to their implied obligation to earn more. Sixty per cent of our married male respondents and 64 per cent of married female respondents said that a man was responsible for breadwinning in their family. Unsurprisingly, among never married, divorced and widowed respondents this proportion was lower, with 50 per cent of divorced men in our study saying that a woman (who could be their former wife, mother or new girl friend) was responsible for providing for their family, and 93 per cent of divorced women saying that a woman had this responsibility. Although the numbers of female main breadwinners in households containing married couples are not that high (15%, with 21% saying that the woman shares responsibility for providing for the family), it could well be that divorce is most likely to occur where a husband fails to fulfil his masculine obligations. Our research does suggest women find it difficult to deal with male failure to provide.15 For example, one male respondent who, after a long period unemployed had managed to find a low paid job, had been left by his wife between the first and second stages of our INTAS study because ‘she couldn’t stand it’ (3-22-2). Meanwhile, another had suffered a similar fate before our study began:

A man should earn more … At the factory when I got 190, she got 82, but then everything changed and she began to get one and a half times more, and began to reproach me, while my mother-in-law urged her on, and the result was those differences between us. Because of the fact that I started to earn less than her at the factory. Continual reproaches. So we split up (3-15-2).
This, of course, also poses major problems for the men who fall short of the male breadwinner ideal, although in some cases doing what would be required to live up to this role can present what are perceived as even more serious challenges to masculine identity.16
Although on the face of it the numbers of men failing to fulfil their perceived obligations are not that high, female anxiety about the issue is more widespread. Women often complain that men do not take their responsibility to provide seriously, and for this reason cannot be relied upon. For example, one woman, asked why she had named herself as the main breadwinner responded:
Why? He [her husband] can chuck it in [his job] and lie down. I can’t do that. Generally speaking he’s working at the moment, but, judging by the fact that he didn’t work until this month, I don’t even how to put it. I’ve got a sense of responsibility, perhaps. I’ve got the kind of work that I can’t just drop. I’ve got stable earnings and I cling on to that job. But him – he’s got work at the moment, then he won’t have it, and that means that we’ll once again live on my pay (3-43-2).
The idea that women have a more developed sense of responsibility with regard to household survival was encountered reasonably frequently. For example, half of the married women in my Samara study suggested that women took on greater responsibility for household survival than men, typical comments being:
Now mainly women work [laughs]. Women try to earn money but men, [breaks off] ... men, somehow don’t really try and, how can I put it?... Either they don’t get paid, or they can’t find work. Women try.... Perhaps we ourselves, women, are guilty. We’ve spoilt them perhaps.... I just compare all of our husbands, and those with live-in lovers – in general none of them work, no, they work, but they don’t get paid, generally. And so we have to work, to labour (Machine operator, chocolate factory, 43 years old).
Our men – it’s not that many of them who take responsibility for feeding the family. There’s lots of women at work whose husbands don’t even work.... And all the same I think it’s more difficult for women to find work. I think that men can always find a job somewhere. They can find work. Perhaps not prestigious, not what they want, but something that will bring in a few kopeks. But they load everything onto women’s shoulders (Glazer, chocolate factory, 40 years old).
This sense that men are unreliable reinforces women’s attachment to the labour market, but it is also a major cause of marital discord. The norms surrounding the breadwinner role are a key area of conflict in contemporary gender relations in Russia, for although men and women ostensibly share the same aspirations, achieving these is now more difficult than ever.
This sense of a male ‘responsibility deficit’ is not confined to fears about men’s ability to provide financially. Another complaint was lack of male involvement in the home, in terms of ‘help’ provided and participation in decision making, a view best summed up by one of the respondents from my Samara study:
Everything is on women’s shoulders. The woman is the leader. With money, in financial questions. Women decide everything. Men don’t want to do it because it’s difficult. Only a woman can work out how to divide it up, where to spend it, what it’s possible to do without.... Everywhere the wife is the leader (Cook, Samara café, 43 years old).
Although some women complained that their husbands were not ‘leaders’, it does not seem that these women would like to be dictated to by a breadwinner who would confine them to the ‘four walls’. Instead, the substance of the complaints tends to reflect a yearning for a sober breadwinner who shares some of the responsibility for the well being of the household. Interestingly, this is very close to the view of the ideal husband portrayed by mainstream publications of the late Soviet era, when concern about the failure of women to perform their demographic duty led to a minor re-evaluation of the male role and greater emphasis being placed on the need for male ‘help’ in the home.17 The problem is that this model was conflict-ridden even in the era when it was underwritten by state policy; it is unlikely to flourish now such support has been withdrawn.


Rather than ushering in a return to the so-called traditional family, the post-Soviet era has seen a reproduction of the Soviet-style family in which women share the burden of breadwinning, yet play the primary role within the domestic sphere. Given that the majority of women both want to work and consider that they should take responsibility for running the household, this can be seen as a choice rather than an imposition. But this situation is not without its tensions. Women’s bearing of the ‘double burden’ is based on the assumption that men will perform the role of main breadwinner. Even in the Soviet era, a substantial minority of men were unable to live up to this role (Kiblitskaya 2000a), and now the difficulty of their doing so has increased dramatically. This has major implications because, as has been seen, women are only able to choose ‘convenient work’ strategies which allow them to balance the demands of work and home when their partners have decent, stable incomes. The inability of many men to discharge their ‘duty’ in the present situation therefore raises the question of the durability of the prevailing gender ideology. This is also called into question by evidence that a more egalitarian approach to breadwinning is gaining ground among younger women.18 Changes in behaviour, however, will not occur overnight, for, as the experience of women in the West in the last few decades reveals, even if Russian women do move towards the idea of shared roles, it will be some time before they receive the male co-operation required to put such ideas into practice.


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1 The quotation in the title comes from one of my female respondents in the West Siberian mining settlement where I carried out my doctoral research. She argued that, ‘I always say a women is everything: she is a mother, a wife, a lover, a laundress, a cook, and everything else. She does everything’. For more details about this respondent, whom I refer to as ‘Marina the medalistka’, see Ashwin, 1999b.

2 The gender order can be defined as the historically constructed pattern of power relations between men and women and definitions of masculinity and femininity in a given society (Connell, 1987: 98 – 9).

3 This project is entitled ‘Gender differences in employment strategy during economic transition in Russia’, grant no. INTAS-97: 20280. Along with interview transcripts, in preparing this article I have used analytical reports prepared for the project by Natalya Goncharova, Marina Ilyina, Ol’ga Isupova, Marina Kiblitskaya, Irina Kozina, Tanya Lytkina, Elena Omel’chenko, Irina Popova, Irina Tartakovskaya and Sveta Yaroshenko.

4 Numbers 1-4: Moscow, Ul’yanovsk, Samara, and Syktyvkar respectively.

5 The following account of the Soviet gender order is based on Ashwin, 2000, where its content and contradictions are explored in greater detail.

6 As is well known, by the end of the Soviet era female labour participation was close to the biological maximum. The figures were impressive even taking into account lower retirement ages and the fact that the Soviet figures defined as economically active women on maternity leave, which by the end of the Soviet era could last up to three years. It should also be noted that there was virtually no provision for Soviet women to work part-time.

7 For a full account of the terms of women’s integration into the labour force see Filtzer, 1992: 177 – 203.

8 Stalin was a particularly jealous guardian of the paternal role (for details see Ashwin, 2000), but the official neglect of the private role of men persisted throughout the Soviet era. For example, in 1984 G. Bragrazyan charged journalists with ‘praising women to the hilt, almost singing hymns to their honour, and letting fathers slip to the periphery of our consciousness’ (Pravda, 2 September, 1984, quoted in Attwood, 1990: 168).

9 For a discussion of men see Kukhterin, 2000.

10 One of the most notorious expressions of this was the comment of the (then) Russian Labour Minister, Gennadi Melikyan, who, when asked in 1993 about measures to combat female unemployment, replied, ‘Why should we employ women when men are out of work? It’s better that men work and women take care of the children and do housework. I don’t think women should work when men are doing nothing’ (quoted in Morvant, 1995: 5).

11 The use of the term ‘traditional’ is problematic in this context. The male breadwinner/female carer model is not ‘traditional’ in Russia, in the sense of being the dominant pre-revolutionary model. On the eve of the Russian revolution 80 per cent of the Russian population were peasants, and peasant women worked within the context of the peasant household. As one study of Russian peasant women’s work concluded, ‘work, paid and unpaid, was the focal point of existence for peasant women as well as for men’ (Glickman, 1992: 69). Moreover, on the eve of the revolution the participation of women in industry was quite high: in 1913, though they were heavily concentrated in textile industry, women constituted a third of the industrial labour force, rising to half during WW1 (Lapidus, 1978: 164-5). Male heads of household were considered to have the right to control women, but most men in Tsarist Russia could not afford to keep a non-working wife.

12 Goskomstat began conducting a labour force survey in 1992. According to these figures, which provide a far more reliable picture of unemployment levels than the registered unemployment statistics, there have always been marginally more men unemployed than women. But this has not prevented certain feminist scholars from peddling the fallacy that unemployment in Russia has a ‘female face’. See, for example, Bridger et al., 1996: 51; Khotkina, 1994; Sperling, 1999: 43. It seems that this results from a confusion regarding the relative reliability of the Labour Force Survey and registered unemployment statistics, possibly reinforced by a tendency to perceive women as victims.

13 Interestingly, however, despite women’s fear of being confined at home by their husbands, men revealed themselves to be slightly less conservative than women, with 47 per cent saying that women should be responsible for the household and 43 per cent that it should be a joint responsibility. What they mean by this, however, is another question.

14 Women’s desire to reconcile work and family suggests that a sizeable proportion of Russian women would prefer to work part-time were it to become a more widely available option (though many of those who would like such work would probably not be able to afford to take it).

15 See Meshcherkina (2000) for an interesting account of women’s investment in preserving the male breadwinner norm. She argues, on the basis of her study of New Russians, that both women and men are contributing to the reproduction of this norm, and that both feel uncomfortable when it is disrupted.

16 See Kiblitskaya (2000b) on men’s interpretation of their role. She argues that being a successful male breadwinner sometimes conflicts with other determinants of masculine status such as professional status (bringing home the bacon can mean taking on what is perceived as a demeaning job), and male comradeship (not having any personal money, and not being free to drink with work mates, is a sign of the cardinal sin of being ‘accountable to the wife’).

17 See Irina Tartakovskaya (2000) on the gender relations promoted by Izvestia in 1984.

18 As well as being less likely to see running the domestic sphere as a purely female responsibility, women under 35 are also somewhat less likely to think that the man should take responsibility for providing for the family (60 per cent, as opposed to an average of over 80 per cent in the older age groups). Men in the younger age group are just as traditional as their older counterparts regarding this issue, however, 85 per cent of them thinking that they should be responsible for providing for the family.

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