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04/01/2008

About Russia and the "Women go home" campaign

I feel as if I'm traveling back in time when I visit Russia, leaving the West with its citizens turned into consumers, its detachment,  irony and spiritual void and entering Russia, the soulful, pre-ironic land of material impoverishment.

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I have traveled to Russia repeatedly the past seven years. Most of the business that we do in Russia is with women. Russian women are responsible for the boom in FMCG there,  buying into the dreams and promises of the great Western brands.

Often the dreams that brands are made of function as compensation for the hardship that women in Russia have to endure. They bear the double burden of family and work with fatalism, not expecting much from the men who might already be gone or/and drunk or dead.

The communist "engineers of human souls" realized a few decades ago that  birth rates are falling rapidly in the Soviet Union. The communist leaders did their bit of research and concluded that it was the participation of Soviet women in the workforce that led to the "masculinization" of women and hence to falling birth rates.  The official propaganda came up with the "women go home" campaign, encouraging women to become more feminine, submissive and tender. According to some Soviet psychologists,  the masculinization of women "had caused the feminization of men, wounding the men's self esteem, causing them to become idle and demoralized." (Cited in "Femininity and Double Burden) This is a tragically wonderful example of transfer of the guilt for impotence (both literally and figuratively speaking) from men to women.

The target for the "women go home" campaign were clearly men, who felt empowered by the campaign's goal - the subordination of women. In reality, the women were very much at home already as they still are today. The universe of Russian women begins and ends at home: women define themselves through home, family and interpersonal relationships. While many men are losers and drunks and living with them is hard, life without men seem even harder. No man equals no family  and "having a family" is the ultimate goal for many Russian women. On a more practical level, it is almost impossible to survive in Russia as a single mother. Single-mother families account for most of the poor households in Russia because of: a) the low individual income of single mothers;  b) their inability to compete with men on the labor market; and, c) the insufficient amount of private and public transfers to compensate for the absence of the second income source in the family. The need - to get and keep men - has been exploited by manufacturers and brands in Russia. Here is one of the crudest example (I have showed this ad already here but it is worth seeing again).

The need to appear feminine and attractive under any circumstances have been long internalized by Russian women. "Beauty requires sacrifice" and the sacrifice is performed daily: a typical Russian women would never leave her house - even to go shopping to a corner store - without a make up. They would be horrified if they could see some of the women in London who do their make-up on the morning trains to work, totally oblivious of the other passengers, males or females. Russian women are all but oblivious to the gaze of the others. The "locus of control" is not located within the free individual but with the community outside of oneself (which implies less freedom and individualism in the Western sense but  also less loneliness and alienation).

Perfect beauty in Russia involves a touch of mystery and enigma. The mystery comes from inside and is connected with the notion of "inner beauty" and "soul" - which are still so important in Russia. In relation to men, it is the mystery that is supposed to constantly re-fuel and renew men's desire. There is an unconscious fear on part of some women, that if a man "sees through a woman" he loses interest in her.

Times are changing, even in Russia. Changes are happening the fastest in Moscow, while things are slow in the provinces. It is in the provinces where time seems frozen. There are typical small towns full of older ladies (most of the men are dead) walking slowly along the empty playgrounds (the birth rates continue falling in the post-communist times). There is no Ikea furniture inside of the apartments in the province (there are Ikeas in Moscow already); their chairs and tables are old, dark - and real. The sense of authenticity is strong, coming from the things that have been touched and used for years, from the books on the shelves (yes, the Russian classics) that were read, experienced and "re-lived" and from the sense of fatalistic reconciliation with life itself.   

Whatever little I have learned about her - the Russian woman - I learned by talking to them in their kitchens, snooping around their living rooms and bathrooms. I also learned a lot from the "perfect crowd" of great researchers, sociologists and other experts that I have the privilege to meet and work with in Russia.   

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Source: "Feminity and the Double Burden: Dialogues on the Socialization of Russian Daughters into Womanhood",  Natalia Roudakova and Deborah S. Ballard-Reisch