By Sonia Narang
For nearly all of its history, Russia has been caught between East and West. Even before the Soviet Union began to break up in the late 1980s, many Russians began to turn toward the West. Through Mikhail Gorbachev’s program of “glasnost” or openness, many started to learn English and to focus on the world outside of the previously closed borders of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, the impulse to Westernize and be a part of a new global economy gained strength for much of the decade. Imported goods filled the shelves in Moscow and conspicuous consumption was the order of the day in the capital.
Still, even as a privileged few were able to enjoy the trappings of Western life, most of the rest of the country was left far behind. The loss of the government-sponsored subsidies of the Soviet Era made life difficult for many Russians.
"Communism was not a pretty picture, but there was a level of stability for the Russian people in the Soviet era," says University of Iowa Russian Cultural Studies Professor Paula Michaels. While people enjoyed subsidized services such as childcare, free apartments, and state-sponsored medicine under Communism, they no longer have access to these kinds of benefits. A small group of mostly young, urban, well-educated Russians enjoy professional opportunities, but the vast majority of the population now has to worry about day-to-day struggles such as health care and paying the bills.
In the late 1990s Russia suffered an economic collapse that made many question whether they had been looking West through rose-colored glasses. When Boris Yeltsin handed the country's leadership to President Vladimir Putin in 2000, the country began to shift its focus inward. Putin has tightened control over both the government and the press, says University of California, Berkeley, Russian Professor Harsha Ram. "There is a radical concentration of political power in the Kremlin, which has created a controlled democracy," Ram says. While there was a flourishing free press in the mid-1990s, most of the news Russians now receive, he adds, is also heavily slanted.
Professor Michaels paints the current political situation even more dimly: "As the hope for a Russian democracy begins to dwindle, the country is left with an authoritarian, capitalist regime," she says.
Women in Russia
The role of women has shifted considerably over the course of Russian history. In the early days of the Soviet Union, Lenin enacted legislation giving equal rights to women. But, in the 1930s, Stalin's neoconservative policies led to another shift, in which an emphasis was placed on family values and motherhood, which became redefined as patriotic. Women who had more than 10 children would be awarded the status of “hero mothers.” However, even during this time, women were expected to be workers as well. To this day, the value placed on femininity and domesticity persists, and Russian women are expected to cook, clean and raise children.
In traditional Russia, there was no question that a woman would marry and have children at a young age, usually in her early 20s. But women were never confined to their homes. In fact, many of them had to work in difficult jobs such as construction and even mining to support their families, especially during and after World War II to compensate for the men lost at the front. Yet even during the years of the Western “Women’s Lib” movement, Russian women never considered this kind of work liberating. Instead, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when new economic opportunities opened up for all, one of the most prestigious choices for a woman was to choose the luxury of just being a homemaker.
Today, many Russian women still marry young, but like their counterparts in the United States, Western Europe and Japan, they are also putting energy into focusing on their careers. Russians view the Western concept of the feminist movement in a more negative light and often both men and women will joke about misguided attempts to erase the distinctions between men and women. Although many Russian women do work full-time, their job is not usually paramount to their identity; femininity is generally just as important. After years of being cut off from European fashion, expensive makeup and designer brands, many boutiques have appeared in Moscow to cater to the affluent, urban woman. For the rest, traditional gender roles and manners still play a big part in defining the relations between men and women. Economically, despite the fact that Russian women continue to earn less than men, they have found a successful niche in many of the new industries such as advertising, marketing and design that have appeared since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The emergence of a new popular culture in Russia has transformed society and initiated changes unprecedented since the Bolshevik Revolution. Among other things, says professor Ram, the advent of new television programming and different ways of thinking about sexuality opened up post-Soviet society, which began to enjoy expanded personal and cultural freedom. While Russians have borrowed some aspects of today's popular culture from the West, such as the hit American television show Sex and the City, they have adapted these concepts to fit their own redefined society. No longer do American television shows and Brazilian and Mexican soap operas reign supreme in Russian households. People now are more inclined to watch domestic programming, where their own lives are portrayed.
Traditionally, the Soviet education system has excelled in subjects such as math and sciences. More recently, says professor Michaels, the instruction of history and journalism has improved with the infusion of new ideas. One major benefit of the fall of Communism, adds Michaels, is the freedom to travel. "A few are reaping the real benefits of travel, psychologically, socially and materially," she says. Funding from U.S.-based organizations such as the Soros Foundation has also supported development in Russian education. Michaels reports, the majority of doctors in Russia are women, a trend that has predominated since the late 1930s. However, doctors in Russia have nowhere near the status or income that they have in the West.
The declining population in Russia has led some to worry about the future of the nation. Experts predict that the population, which totals 142 million, could halve in the next 50 years. Many factors, including a collapsing public healthcare system, have contributed to this decline. Also, many parents in prosperous urban areas are having fewer children than before because of the dramatic rise in housing and other living costs.
With 68 abortions per 1,000 women, Russia has one of the highest abortion rates in the world. Last year, abortions exceeded births by more than 100,000. Poor health and botched abortions have made 10 million Russians of reproductive age sterile, according to a recent report about demographic changes published in the Los Angeles Times. Russia legalized abortion in the 1920s but banned it under Stalin's regime in 1936. It was only in the 1950s, during the de-Stalinization period, that abortion was once again legalized.
While people in the former U.S.S.R. once lived almost as long as Americans, the life expectancy of a Russian male has decreased significantly, and now is lower than the retirement age. The average Russian man lives 56 years, 14 years less than a Russian woman and 13 years less than an American male.
During World War II, Russia lost more men than any other nation, resulting in one of the lowest male-to-female ratios in the world. The gender imbalance remains in Russia to this day.
Four major waves of Russian migration in the past century have created sizable Russian communities in parts of the United States. One of the largest Russian immigrant populations lives in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, New York.
Nicknamed "Little Odessa," Brighton Beach is home to many Russian Jewish immigrants who left the former Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s. Other large Russian communities exist in Chicago and Los Angeles.
In Brighton Beach, the Russian language is heard in many places, from the outdoor markets to the grocery stores, and Russian street signs dominate the neighborhood. In 2006, Alek Krasny of Brighton Beach became the first member of the area's Russian community to be elected to the New York State Assembly.
The first wave of migration took place after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the next after World War II. In the mid-1970s, Russians began to emigrate to the United States but stopped during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The late 1980s under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev saw the final wave, and many who were denied permission to emigrate to Israel settled in the United States.
Cultural ties between Brighton Beach and Russia remain strong. DVDs of Russian films and television shows can be bought in many Brighton Beach boutiques. Balzac Age, Moscow’s version of Sex in the City, can be found on the shelves in New York, the home of the series that was the original inspiration.
Additional reporting: David Ritsher
SOURCES: BBC Worldwide Monitoring; Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex, and Society Since Gorbachev by Adele Marie Barker; Los Angeles Times; The Moscow News; TheGlobalist.com; Victoria Gamburg.