Soviet Women in the Brezhnev Era

“Do you have any abortion pills?” Marina whispered. Stunned, I answered a vehement “Nyet!”

For seven months from September, 1979, through March, 1980, my first husband did research for his doctoral dissertation in Tbilisi, Georgia. I learned firsthand about the Georgian woman’s lifestyle, which contrasted with the image presented in Soviet propaganda.

Georgia lies 1,000 miles south of Moscow, bordering Turkey and the Black Sea, and was one of 15 republics of the former Soviet Union.  Americans recognize Georgia as Joseph Stalin’s birthplace.

As a 27-year-old American woman with knowledge of conversational Russian, I befriended several young Georgian women who wanted to improve their English. However, my friends preferred learning about the American woman’s lifestyle.

Typical of that eagerness was Marina’s question about “abortion pills.”

As Marina and I continued our conversation, I explained that American couples could choose from several birth control methods with abortion as a last resort.

“Aren’t there contraceptives in the Soviet Union?” I asked.

Marina replied that Georgian women did not want to take oral contraceptives due to severe side effects. Condoms were rarely available and unpopular with Georgian men. With abortion as the only reliable means of birth control, many women underwent at least one abortion yearly. (Marina, age 23, had two abortions within eight months after her first child’s birth.)

Because the Soviet state encouraged families to have many children, it did not develop another means of birth control. Instead, the government offered inexpensive abortions, which could destroy a young woman’s reproductive system if performed too often. It’s no surprise that abortion was the major conversation topic among Marina’s friends.

Our discussion on Soviet family planning made me realize why women asked me so incredulously, “Why don’t you have any children?”

Marina could not understand the dilemma that many American women in their late 20’s and early 30’s faced in deciding whether or not to have children. Like many Georgian women, Marina never doubted that she would have at least one child.

“Children make life worth living,” she told me. (Georgian families exuded a closeness that sadly was lacking in many American families.)

There was a saying among newly married Georgian couples that they were going to “stroll” a while before having children. How long could a couple “stroll” before the first child’s birth? Marina’s daughter was born ten months after the wedding.

Marina shared that more than one child per family was undesirable among young Georgian couples. There just wasn’t space when couples like Marina and Zurab, her husband, lived with their parents in cramped apartments. Unlike American couples, Soviet couples could not dream of buying a home because Soviet cities only had apartments. Lack of adequate contraception meant that women like Marina underwent abortions to control family size.

My frequent visits with Marina allowed me to observe how traditional Georgian male superiority and the Soviet system combined to complicate Marina’s roles as homemaker, mother and career woman.

Men dominated Georgian culture. The typical Georgian husband married to have a live-in maid to cook his meals, wash his clothes, and raise his children.

Georgians loved entertaining guests at home. Frequently, Zurab invited friends over for an impromptu, home-cooked dinner. (That’s how Marina and I first met.) Marina prepared food by hand because the Soviet government did not manufacture labor-saving devices, such as blenders and mixers. Following Georgian tradition, Marina did not dine with her guests. Instead, she sat in the kitchen when she wasn’t serving food. Her guests toasted Marina’s generous hospitality. Who washed the dishes? Marina washed them by hand since she never had seen a dishwasher.

Rarely did couples walk together in Tbilisi. Teenage girls walked arm-in-arm and giggled over pastries in the confectionary shops. Young adult women gossiped with friends while they did housework and cared for their youngsters. During workdays, their husbands drank toasts of wine, champagne and Georgian vodka. Tbilisi restaurants were filled mainly with male friends who toasted to friendship, recited poetry, and sang Georgian folk songs.

Georgian society had a double standard, like societies in many Mediterranean countries. A strict taboo prohibited Georgian men and women from becoming intimate before marriage. If a Georgian father suspected his daughter of breaking this taboo, he forced a wedding to take place immediately. Manana, a 19-year-old university student, complained that her father demanded that they share a hotel room when she visited her boyfriend. Manana’s father could monitor her activities more easily.

Georgian women were expected to be chaste before the wedding and to remain faithful afterward. Typical Georgian men, with dark hair and flashing black eyes, were notorious philanderers with women of other nationalities. Russian women often traveled to Georgia to have affairs with Georgian men. As a result, one Georgian acquaintance refused to allow his Russian wife to walk alone on Tbilisi streets.

When I walked in the park one day, a Georgian man approached me and assumed that I was a “loose” foreign woman (Georgians thought I was Eastern European). To impress me, he boasted that he had been stabbed by jealous husbands 12 separate times. When I asked if his wife was aware of his behavior, he replied that she would never find out because she was home caring for their infant.

Marina, like many Georgian women, received little help from her husband with parenting duties. Zurab drank with friends during the day, and at night he recovered from hangovers.

Marina could not rely on others’ help. Her mother-in-law worked full-time, yet she often offered unsolicited parenting advice. A full-time baby sitter was too costly. Marina’s daughter needed to be toilet-trained before she could attend an inexpensive, state-run daycare.

Like most Georgian infants, Marina’s daughter did not wear diapers. “Diapers are not considered progressive, and they cause diaper rash,” Marina responded to my bewildered “Why?” Marina washed baby clothes by hand in the bathtub daily. (Who owned a washer or dryer?)

There were few food products for babies, so Marina prepared her daughter’s food by hand. She purchased poor-quality potatoes, carrots and onions from state-run shops. She also bargained with collective farmers at the farmer’s market for expensive fruits, vegetables, and freshly killed (or live) chickens. Sometimes, a relative from the country provided her with cheese, yogurt, and eggs.

Before becoming a mother, Marina worked on her college French literature major. After her daughter’s birth, she had no time to read or do research. Marina could not continue her career either. Although Soviet law guaranteed the right of equal employment to mothers, Marina was denied employment solely because she was a mother. She worried that she would be unable to re-enter the job market easily after her daughter went to daycare at 18 months.

Although Soviet women were highly educated and earned equal pay for equal work, the careers open to them offered low pay, low prestige and few male competitors. Men held most of the high-paying administrative and Communist Party positions in the former Soviet Union.

Thinking of the high status of American doctors, I asked, “But aren’t most Soviet doctors women?”

Marina replied, “Yes, that is true, but being a doctor in the Soviet Union offers low wages and little prestige.”

Because of limited career opportunities, Marina and her friends did not seek personal fulfillment through their jobs. Instead, they worked primarily to supplement the family income.

How did the typical Soviet Georgian woman cope with conflicting roles as subservient wife and mother and reluctant career woman?  My Georgian friends were not aware of the American Women’s Movement. They did not consider organizing such a movement in Georgia because they knew that the government disapproved of unofficial efforts to change Soviet society.

Georgian women rebelled against male superiority like American women did in the early 1900’s:  by cigarette-smoking. Most Georgian women only smoked in the privacy of their homes. Concerned Soviet citizens reprimanded women for smoking in public. During my visits with Marina, she asked me to peek through the living-room door to ensure that her mother-in-law did not catch her smoking. (Ironically, Marina’s mother-in-law also smoked secretly.)

Without a unified women’s movement, most Georgian women coped with their problems alone. Marina could not handle the duties of motherhood without help. After six months, her situation was so unbearable that she moved into her parents’ home for a few weeks. Although living quarters were more crowded, Marina was relieved when her mother helped her to care for the infant.

During this crisis, Marina asked if young American mothers went through similar ordeals. I replied that, although the average American woman complained about the spouse’s lack of cooperation at home, consumer goods such as diapers, baby food, and modern appliances made her dilemma more tolerable. Typically, she did not have to share her apartment involuntarily with an interfering mother or mother-in-law.

Liana, a 34-year-old university research assistant, no longer could cope with her alcoholic husband’s behavior. She divorced him after six years of marriage. (Alcoholism was a major cause of divorce in the former Soviet Union.) The divorce forced Liana to move to her parents’ apartment because the housing shortage kept her from living in her own place. Unlike many divorced American women, Liana could not fight for credit in her own name because there were no credit cards in the former Soviet Union.

Liana differed from earlier generations of Georgian women because she preferred learning about Western culture instead of cooking or sewing. Liana hoped to remarry eventually and raise a family. However, she chose not to rush into marriage until she found a man who would be willing to help with housework, cooking, and parenting.

Manana, the university student, had even more radical ideas about the traditional Georgian man-woman relationship. She wanted to live with her boyfriend to see if they were physically suited to each other. Manana and her friends assumed that all American teen girls lived with their boyfriends before marriage.

Although Manana was envious of American youth who were free to live together, she realized that living together wouldn’t work in Georgia:

“Here living together would mean living with my grandmother, my father, my sister, my brother-in-law, my niece, and my boyfriend.  How could we get to know each other under such crowded conditions?”

Women in Soviet Georgia in the early 1980’s faced the same challenges as American women regarding mixing marriage, a career, and parenting. However, Georgian traditions and a lack of basic consumer goods worsened the situation.

I was delighted to develop such close friendships with women of another culture. The experience not only gave me a broader understanding of the problems of Georgian women, but also made me realize how lucky I was to be an American woman in the early 1980’s.

[Photo courtesy of vintag.es]


Diane RussellDiane Russell joined OLLI in 2014. She has taken over 70 OLLI courses on leadership, radio, life story writing, Tai Chi, healthy aging, literature, science, politics, sociology, and humanities. Diane volunteers as a proofreader for the OLLI catalog and for OLLI Connects.


 

4 Replies to “Soviet Women in the Brezhnev Era”

  1. Very interesting, Diane, not to mention depressing. Reading this made me much more grateful for what I have here and how I was able to raise my own children.

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