Traditional Russian womanhood is a thing of the past

The generation of women who grew up under the Soviet Union had something in common with the past: the age-old spirit of sacrifice

By Dmitry Shlapentokh  / 

Sat, Apr 07, 2007 - Page 9

Valentina Tereshkova, the first female Soviet cosmonaut and the first woman to go into space, recently celebrated her 70th birthday. In an interview, she stated her only wish: to fly to Mars, even with a one-way ticket. It was an implicit wish for a spectacular form of suicide, for a spectacularly prosaic reason: the loss, experienced by thousands of Russian women of her generation, of her life's existential foundation.

Tereshkova's generation, though it encompassed almost the entire era of Soviet rule, had been raised in the tradition of Russian womanhood. Much older than the Soviet regime, this tradition emphasizes a spirit of sacrifice -- not just for loved ones, but also for great causes such as revolution, state, science, or art -- that is deeply hostile to accumulation of money and material goods as the goal of life.

After "perestroika" and the 1991 collapse of the USSR, these women did not change their lives and attitudes. They did not curse what they had glorified in the past and embrace what they had once condemned. They did not participate in "privatization" of state property or enter show business to make money.

These women -- and Tereshkova is undoubtedly among them -- were shocked by the changes they saw before them. Indeed, probably more horrifying to them than the collapse of the Soviet regime was the rampant prostitution of daily life, for it negated the meaning of Russia and of Russian womanhood.

What, then, might a woman of Tereshkova's generation think of the changes during President Vladimir Putin's term in office?

One should be fair to Putin's regime. Along with its restraints on liberty and its dramatic increase in the power of the Kremlin bureaucracy, Putin has overseen the rise of a Russian middle class that has become increasingly similar to Western middle classes. There has been no "return" to pre-revolutionary or Soviet times, despite the regime's attempts to appropriate the symbols of Czarist Russia.

The prostitutes who lined up throughout downtown Moscow in the era of president Boris Yeltsin have disappeared, and "dressing to kill" for a casual walk has gone out of fashion. But the Putin regime still bears greater resemblance to the Yeltsin era than to any prior period.

So do most of the new generation of Russian women and men: In their modern, calculating minds, there is little place for sacrifice, whether for family, art, culture, or science. As a result, the Putin era has become utterly sterile, producing no great works of science, literature, or art. Such pursuits have simply become unfashionable -- something that has never happened in modern Russian history, not even in the darkest days of dictator Stalin's purges.

This culturally desiccated world is much more alien than the red desert of the Martian landscape that Tereshkova and her cosmonaut friends -- including her husband -- dreamed of in their youth. The collapse of the country for which she lived underscores her overwhelming sense of tragedy.

This might seem strange to the Western mind, for which the great Soviet space achievements and the USSR existed as separate entities: while everyone praised Soviet science, very few admired the totalitarian USSR. But for Tereshkova and other women of her generation, the great Soviet state and the daring achievements of Soviet science were inseparable. The grand expansion of the Soviet empire enabled humankind's exploration of the cosmos and its potential expansion beyond Earth.

It is understandable that the collapse of the country, and of the spirit that nurtured Russian intellectuals -- regardless of their political beliefs -- for generations, is unbearable for Tereshkova and people like her. But Tereshkova's dream about travel to Mars is not just suicidal nostalgia for a time when she was young and surrounded by people ready to sacrifice their lives for a greater cause.

In fact, the allusion to space exploration has another dimension: great achievements are not bound to one's time or place of origin and can be transmitted to other cultures and generations. Tereshkova's dream is a symbol not only of her desperation, which is the desperation of the creative mind in today's Russia, but also of her continuing belief in the great potential of the human spirit.

Dmitry Shlapentokh is professor of Russian at Indiana State University, South Bend, Indiana. Copyright: Project Syndicate