Until the last few days of February, it was way below zero centigrade since November, with February record lows at -25 or so. I stayed in, walked the corridor for exercise, and sent Larissa, my strong Russian wife, to the store with her trusty backpack. Recently we had snow on top of snow, and February winds. In honor of my amazing wife, and in recognition of Russian women everywhere, I wrote this for March 8, International Women's Day.
A phenomenon... the Russian Woman.
I encounter a new woman in old New Jersey
On February 17, 1998, twelve years ago, I met a friend for breakfast shortly after noon at the Flemington Coffee Shoppe. Half way through our meal of eggs, bacon, and laughs, I saw a lady sitting alone at the counter.
Thinking back, I realize she was presenting her best... well-dressed, posture, everything in place in sort of a mysterious way. A little later, I told my breakfast companion, "You know, I'm not leaving this place without talking to that woman." He replied, "How're you going to do that, Bobbie?"
As we stood to leave, I walked over to what was now two woman and asked, "Parlez-vous Francais?" The late arrival, a Ukraine, said... "We Russian", not pleasantly. I kept the conversation going and got phone numbers, intending to call Larissa, the first, and classier woman.
What was the special attraction 12 years ago?
It was a combination of things... Larissa's pretty face, her good posture even though she was sitting on a counter stool, her understated attractive dress. Sometimes less is more... as were her demure smiles and conversation.
Taking the big view...
Russians have a vantage point different from that of Americans. Most still tend towards a collectivist, not individualist view... speaking more about we than about I . Their long and often sad history has a lot to do with how Russian women think, their attitudes, and how they act.
A well-ordered, law abiding society, replaced with bezpreedile
Soviet life was replaced in the early 90's with a social order marred with poor police protection, crime, inflation, poverty, and alcoholism. This беспредел... pronounced bez preedeel meaning lawlessness and corruption... most evident in the 90's and elements of this equation continue to varying degrees to now.
Hard facts of Life in Russia...
73% of Russians live in cities. The average Russian makes much less than people in Western Europe and America. Inflation was 11.9 % last year, and 14% the year before. Compound inflation has made people on fixed incomes poorer than in 2000.
Inflation compounded 2000 - 2010 in America is around 25%... In Russia, it's around 270%!
There are 92 men for every 100 women. In most of the world the average is 102 men for 100 women. Men on average live to be 62, while women survive to 74. Heavy smoking and drinking disables and eventually kills many men in their 50's. Even before alcoholics are taken out of the equation, there are many more eligible women than men.
Women are stronger in health and emotions...
Women present a symbol of hoped-for stability in the topsy-turvy Russian world. Men depend on the women to make sense of the present chaos and malaise. Women help build a refuge at home from this unstable environment.
Older Russian women are used to simple cooperative living...
Some communal apartments remain in St Petersburg. These have a room for each family unit, a central kitchen with a table or more, and a toilet. If children had good grades, they were allowed to be a part of the Pioneers, and when older, the Komsomol.
Many large families of multiple generations lived in just a few rooms. Even today, most Russians sleep throughout there lives on pullout beds or sofas with removable bolsters. I know no one who has two toilets in one apartment.
Kitchens were small, tables small, furniture crowded much of the remaining space. Positive results of this crowding... Russian women are used to the give and take necessary for a happy family life, and also ready for a positive change!
Most women carry groceries all their lives...
Most women in their forties and beyond use transit and walk. The older the population, the less likely they have ever had a car. I see women lugging plastic bags filled with groceries, or toting them in a backpack, or pulling a loaded collapsible shopping cart... hard physical work that they do with resignation.
Once home with those heavy groceries, they spend hours cooking
Russians now can buy prepared meals, frozen vegetables, and cans. Russian women use these products sparingly, preferring to buy fresh vegetables, fresh fish... they say, what's a fish cake?... fresh from the butcher meat and poultry, fresh bread with no preservatives.
They see time in the kitchen as time well spent. The result is delicious food rarely available day- to-day in the United States. Sometimes after a good meal, I think Russian cooking is a good enough reason to come here to live!
Russian women always look good...
Personal appearance is a top consideration for most Russians, and especially for women. They do not throw something on to go to the store, but rather, like my mother in the 1950's, get dressed carefully in a feminine way. Russian men are used to being around carefully dressed women and usually do not like the casual American look.
No matter how busy or how tight the budget, the women dress well. Russian women tend to be high achievers but don't feel this in any way precludes their interest in appearing traditionally beautiful.
No woman will race out of the apartment without first checking the mirror for last minute touches on makeup and hair style.
And it's also the expression on their faces...
But it's more than how she dresses. It's her demeanor. A Russian woman has excellent posture... no slouch... and keeps a dignified expression on her face. Smiling is done in a reserved way. A Russian smile typically doesn't show all the teeth and bridgework.
Not crazy for things...
Americans don't realize how materialistic they are. By comparison, most Russian women are happy with little, and understand there are other things than material wealth to consider. Maybe this is because most of them lived in Soviet time when there was a socialist ideal.
What you have, you do not waste...
Russian women, especially those living in the old Leningrad, now St Petersburg, that had the Starving Blockade are not wasteful. Food, even if a little off, is usually used somehow... perhaps to make kefir. If you want to be silently disliked, leave a 'polite' bit of food on your plate after each meal. Better to clean the plate with bread.
A babuska's place is with her grandchildren...
It's understood that if the grown daughter is working, the mother will if possible step in to help raise the grandchildren. Tourists comment on how often they see babuskas with young children.
The Russian Woman is used to permanence...
Most Russian women are used to making long term commitments. If they promise something, they mean just that, and expect others to have the same mentality. Friendship isn't viewed as a 'when convenient' item. Superficial is never applied to the usual Russian woman.
Russian women are used to permanent, life-long relationships. Even now, it is difficult to move city to city, and most people don't want to. They keep up with friends from their childhood and early work days. Birthdays are remembered with phone calls, not cards, from all their many long time friends.
How are spouses from the West viewed and treated ?
Russians still talk about 'beyond the granitsa' the border, when first identifying where someone comes from. In Soviet days people were discouraged from being too friendly to foreigners. Western spouses that live in Russia are still a rarity, but are treated with warmth and respect by the Russian woman's friends and family.
Russian woman still have a feminine ideal...
Russian women accept a feminine role as normal and desirable. What makes the difference between her and a woman in France or the United States is the order of her priorities. Nurturing and comforting are high on her list.
A top holiday in Russia...
For Russian woman, International Women's Day, is their special day, observed carefully by men since 1911. Valentine's Day gets a nod but no real attention outside of the advertising world, which would love to transform it into the money grabbing saint day it has become in America. Most Russians assume that this International Day is truly international but actually it is limited to Russia, China, Vietnam, and a few other countries.
Wherever, remember to honor the ladies of all ages on March 8, 2010!
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