Copyright The Wall Street Journal
August 30, 2005; Page A10
MOSCOW — For the greater part of the 20th century, Russia’s population suffered from the nightmare of wars, repression and perpetual hunger. There was the famine of the Civil War, the famine of the years of Collectivization and the famine of the Second World War. It almost seems as if the relative prosperity of recent years has engendered a peculiar reaction of the flesh, something almost akin to gratitude. All across the country, a plethora of beautiful girls has sprung up.
With bared midriffs and piercings, they are outwardly very like one another. In fact, there is an immense gulf dividing this throng of beauties. One group is astoundingly uneducated; their lives consist of nightclubs, concerts and narcotics. The other (and these are many) is just the opposite. They are highly educated, and have plunged rapturously into the ocean of literature now being published in Russia — those famous books by which the world lived in the 20th century and which have only now come to us. These women study with merciless obstinacy, hours and hours every day. Each knows several languages. In spite of their youth, they have already visited the great capitals of Europe, as if realizing the dream (so recently unattainable) of their grandmothers and grandfathers.
There is yet another amazing group among our new youth. Their fate, as a rule, was chosen by their parents, themselves generally former athletes. Therefore, they correctly recognized the value of a very small ball which very quickly helped their Cinderella daughters turn into real princesses. The story of the father of the Williams sisters taught them a great deal. Our Russian parents entered this vicarious competition with gusto. Notwithstanding the difficulties, they brought their little girls to wherever the ace coaches lived, to those who could see the value of their “human material”: little girls, hungry for success, ready to fight Russian-style — that is, to the death. Anna Kournikova was just a testing of the waters. She was the necessary sacrifice to intoxication. Maria Sharapova — who takes her athletic grace to the U.S. Open this week — is the next, and more impressive, stage. Watching her illuminate our lives, one can only think of what passed before in Russia.
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“A chicken’s hardly a bird, a woman’s hardly a person.” This is a common Russian saying and it reflects the Russian way of thinking. In spite of the complete absence of women’s rights in 18th-century Russia, there were five empresses of Russia who presided over the lives and deaths of their subjects. This historical paradox would recur in an inverted form — with the attainment of equal rights in the 20th century, Russian women vanished from political power and from political life in general. The Bolshevik radicals who established holidays in honor of women’s rights made their absence from politics a fixed tradition. There was not a woman to be found in Lenin’s or Stalin’s Politburo. Stalin himself (as his wife would later write sadly in her correspondence) tended to replace the word “woman” with the somewhat crude and common “baba.”
After his own wife committed suicide, Stalin had the wives of many of his closest associates imprisoned. In the theater at the traditional state holiday concerts, only men sat in the Government Box. The sole aspect of the life of the country where women truly retained equality of rights was in labor. Women worked alongside men or even independently of men in the most taxing and unhealthy industries. Woman the Hero of Labor, Woman the Worker — this was a central image in prudish Soviet literature, from which sexual thematics were excluded.
Party leaders lived meekly with their ugly old wives who never appeared in public. Only under Khrushchev did the first woman appear in the Politburo — Ekaterina Furtseva, known as Catherine the Great. As Minister of Culture, she believed unquestioningly in the slogan: “There is no sex in the USSR!” and fought mercilessly for morality in art. Yet the entire elite was well aware of her torrid affairs: scarred veins on her wrists bore witness to her ill-starred passion.
Amid all this, however, a covert sexual freedom coexisted with the complete Absence of Sex. We must not be surprised, then, at the stream of passionate Priestesses of Love pouring out into the world after the disintegration of the USSR and at the thousands of prostitutes currently filling the cities of Russia. This state of affairs issues primarily from the prevailing moral condition, and only secondarily from the standard of living. It issues from the 70-year exile of God from the country, a land where only airplanes remained in the heavens.
The first shock of Gorbachev’s new era was his appearance on the television screen together with … his wife! This was the true beginning of Perestroika. For the first time, the wife of the General Secretary ceased to be “the Empress of the Dark Chambers.” And this wife even dared to speak her mind on matters of politics! This was received with bewilderment by the majority of the populace, and in particular, by women. Immediately, there arose one of the most dangerous of Russian rumors: that the wife rules the husband. It was one of the main reasons for the decline of Gorbachev’s popularity. The wives of subsequent presidents made their appearances on screen, but they took the experience of the Gorbachevs into account: First Ladies now conducted themselves with extreme modesty. They remained what women were supposed to be in Russia — mere women.
A woman in Russia lived through her family. And she had to have a husband. The key role for women in the USSR was to be a “warrior’s holiday.” “A man knows the happiness of one who receives; a woman knows the happiness of one who gives” — this was the dream and the rule.
With the advent of Perestroika, all this began to change. The first Russian businesswomen came onto the scene. It was in business, not politics, that the road to true gender equality in Russia began to be laid. The first businesswomen were poor young girls when Perestroika hit. Now they’re over 30. They can be found in the most varied professions — from advertising firms to travel agencies, from computer companies to mass media agencies, from law firms to major commercial enterprises. And professional sport, too, one must remember, is foremost a business. They arrived speedily at a new slogan for the independent Russian woman: “If pants must be hanging in the closet, they might as well be mine!” They can have children without husbands, they can leave one husband for another — the important thing is to live as they like, not as he likes. They’re finished with the “warrior’s holiday” for good.
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A prosperous businesswoman invited me to dinner. She owns a fashionable Moscow boutique. Five of her colleagues were also present at our late gathering. She had brought in a well-known chef from Paris for one night for this affair. Throughout the evening, I listened to their stories — about their youth, where they left their poverty and a good deal of humiliation. Readymade theater played itself out before me, and its central theme was entirely new for Russia: the path to independence from men.
Recently, I witnessed something now possible only in Russia. I completed a book on the great and enigmatic Russian Emperor, Alexander II, and decided to speak about the book at one of Moscow’s largest auditoriums, the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, seating 1,500 people. Orchestra tickets cost $50 apiece. This is a large sum of money in Russia, yet the hall was filled to bursting. Eighty percent of the public was young, for the most part young girls. The evening was recorded and replayed on TV over three days. The ecstatic cameraman repeatedly cut to the faces of the lovely young women in the audience who, for over three hours, listened in rapt silence to a tale of the history of their Fatherland. This new generation of women promises to become the most successful in Russia’s history.
The role of the Tennis Lolita, of the Beauteous Champion, is but Russian womanhood’s most public face. Miss Sharapova, or those new little beauties who are now to be found in every corner of boundless Russia, have discovered a road to the fairytale. The Russian Invasion of the tennis Klondike is in full swing. But there is a world beyond tennis, and they will have it, too. The Russian girls are coming. They don’t want to change the world. They want to conquer it.
Mr. Radzinsky, a playwright, is the author of “Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar,” forthcoming in October from the Free Press. (This essay was translated from the Russian by John William Narins.)
EDVARD RADZINSKY – The Wall Street Journal
Copyright The Wall Street Journal