The Caryatids Speak

by Marjorie FARQUHARSON (1980)

The first feminist journal has appeared unofficially in the Soviet Union. It is called Zhenshchina i Rossiya (“Women and Russia“) and declares on its title page that it has been written exclusively “by women, for women”. Women have contributed to it from a number of towns in the developed North Western region of the Soviet Union: from Leningrad and Arkhangelsk in the Russian Republic, Tallinn in Estonia, and Nizhin in the Ukraine. 

Since the journal first came out in September 1979 the KGB has warned three of its editors that it is “ideologically tendentious”. All three women have since applied to emigrate and so a second issue of the journal seems in doubt. Women and Russia, like many of its counterparts in the West, is produced by an editorial collective, and consists of articles, poems and reviews about the role of women. 

An underlying theme in the journal is that Russian women have in the past led the world in emancipation. The October Revolution of 1917 brought hopes of a new equality between people, which did not exclude the female half of the world. As Natalya Malakhovskaya says in her article on the “Maternal Family”, “Lenin’s words ‘From now on every cook shall direct the affairs of the State’ had a special resonance and prompted the hope of new relations between the sexes”. This hope of equality reverberated throughout the world and transformed it, but in the process Russian women were left behind. In the editors’ view their emancipation was halted during Stalin’s rule. 

Much of the journal is devoted to showing how Stalin’s legacy has affected women in the Soviet Union. There are articles on job discrimination; inadequate childcare facilities; poor social provisions for single-parent families; crude abortion techniques; and the conditions of imprisonment in a women’s prison in Novosibirsk. These articles suggest that the lives of Soviet women are doubly burdened. As their husbands’ wages are generally too low to support a family, most women are obliged to work. Over and above this, male attitudes demand that women shoulder all domestic responsibilities. This carries special problems. As few Soviet households can afford refrigerators, women must shop every day, and the shortage of shops and goods in the Soviet Union involves them in lengthy queuing after working hours. Several of the contributors refer to Soviet husbands who are “absent fathers”. Alcoholism among men is a common problem for Soviet wives and mothers. 

As the journal’s editors put it in their introduction:

“The ideals of the old patriarchy no longer exist — the ideals of the submissive woman, the resigned mother, the Angel of the Hearth — but the weight of tradition and of fossilised attitudes still make her the Caryatid of the Hearth, or, more exactly, of the communal flat. She cannot escape these inhuman constraints, and if she lowers her arms, the house falls down”.

A feature of the journal is its emphasis on religion. It contains poems on Tantric and Christian themes and an article by Tatyana Goricheva called “Oh Rejoice, you who are delivered from the tears of Avel”. She argues that the suppression of spirituality in the Soviet Union has created “human beings with only one dimension, without a sense of their own worth, a Homo Sovieticus who is de-sexualised”. Women have not been emancipated, but men have taken on a passive, traditionally feminine, role. She says: “In a society like ours, a man cannot be independent, cannot be responsible for his actions, or build his life freely and in accordance with his conscience”. She herself has rediscovered her spirituality and female sexuality through Christianity. 

Several of the contributors are artists and writers who have been involved in the wider dissident movement. Yulia Voznesenskaya (Okulova), who contributed her memoir of Novosibirsk Prison, is a poet who belongs to a circle of writers and artists in Leningrad dedicated to restoring old cultural values and creating a “Second Culture”. In 1976 she was sent into exile for five years for writing “anti-Soviet poetry”. When she made an unauthorised visit home to see her sick child, she was given a harsher sentence of two years’ corrective labour, which she completed in 1979. 

Tatyana Goricheva is one of the editors of an underground cultural magazine in Leningrad called 37, and is also a member of an unofficial Russian Orthodox Seminar group, which meets to discuss the problems of a religious rebirth in the Soviet Union. Seven of its members have been imprisoned or confined to psychiatric hospitals since the group began in the mid-1970s, and Tatyana Goricheva’s name has appeared on appeals for the release of the most recently arrested member of the group, Vladimir Poresh

The KGB have been quick to respond to the appearance of Women and Russia. In December 1979 they briefly detained three of its editors Yulia Voznesenskaya, Sofia Sokolova and Tatyana Mamonova — and warned them that they would be arrested if they produced another issue of the journal. 

In a letter of complaint to the Procurator of Leningrad, Tatyana Mamonova avowed her intention of carrying on her feminist activities. She said: “I consider feminism to be progressive and the feminist movement to be an essential part of the democratic movement as a whole.” Since she wrote this, however, there have been reports that all three editors have applied to emigrate from the Soviet Union.

The photo shows (left to right) — Tatyana GORICHEVA, Julia OKULOVA (Voznesenskaya) and Natalya MALAKHOVSKAYA

Index on Censorship, 3/1980