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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

Cover Story

One day when women can demand anything
By Ian Mitchell

In Britain, many women and quite a few do-gooders, and even some men know that March 8 is International Women’s Day. In Russia, by contrast, despite the almost complete absence of do-gooders, absolutely everybody knows about this feast of love for the fair sex. Is this because it is a public holiday, or could it be because, as one Moscow cynic put it to me recently, it is the only day in the year when Russian men do the dishes?

“Your husband doesn’t help you in the kitchen?” I asked an elegant young banker recently. She was the sort of person who, in Britain, would have an “other half” who would be full of the outward virtues of suburban living, such as waste recycling, envelope re-using and the “celebration” of women. “Yes, my husband helps me in the kitchen,” the banker replied, half suppressing a wry smile. “With eating.”

“Is Women’s Day any different?” I asked.

“Yes. It is a day when you can demand anything,” she replied. Then, smiling quietly, she said half-playfully and halfindignantly, “I’ve just remembered that I have not received the promised gift from last Women’s Day.”

“What was it going to be?” I asked.

“Underwear made from natural materials.”

The more conventional gift is flowers, which men give to their wives, aunts, mothers and even mothers-in-law.

“Why flowers?” I asked a Russian man gearing up for his annual close encounter with the Fairy Liquid.

“I like flowers,” he replied, “and I like women.”

By contrast, a female friend in Glasgow gave me a different insight: “Basically, your average Scottish woman invented liberation two hundred years ago, but kept quiet about it in the interests of survival.”

In countries which do not celebrate International Women’s Day as a public holiday (the IWD as it is known to the campaigning cognoscenti); the media focus tends to be more on public demonstrations of attitude. Thus in Glasgow the main news story last year was of a protest “in honour of IWD”. The target of the demonstration was the Chief Executive Officer of the Gap clothing empire who, the site claimed, is worth $11.5 billion, while the female workers in “his Russian sweatshops” are paid only 11 cents an hour.

“That type of sanctimonious twaddle makes my teeth hurt,” my friend said. “What’s that got to do with male attitudes in Glasgow? Most men I know probably think IWD is a contraceptive device.”

Clearly, though the day is supposed to be international, responses to it are not. So how did this controversial event originate?

The idea of drawing attention to the position of women in society by having an annual holiday for them was first proposed in the United States, when the Socialist Party of America declared 28 February a national holiday in honour of women in 1909.

This was part of the wider change which was radicalizing Western society in the late-Victorian and Edwardian period, when the civil rights of white women were, like those of children and the white working class, asserted for the first time as a group. It is necessary to stress that it was among white people that these rights were claimed, because blacks and other racial groups had relatively few champions.

Part of the reason for this change in attitude was widespread rejection of the Victorian stereotype of the dutiful woman who deferred in all things to her husband’s wishes and followed Queen Victoria’s advice in another area of domestic life to “lie back and think of England.” Actually, the diminutive Queen was highly unlikely to have said any such thing, as it seems, from recent research, that she and Albert enjoyed a very uninhibited sex life. Anyone who saw the film "John Brown", starring Billy Connolly, will also know that there are questions about whether the widowed Queen was eternally faithful to her husband’s chaste memory.

Any such lapse of decorum would have been a grievous sin in the eyes of most Victorians, but no information ever reached their eyes or ears. Discretion was the order of the day. Image was important, and there is no doubt that most Victorian women thought that the Queen was as demure and docile as the Royal publicity machine made her out to be and which was just coming into its own in those years.

Market flowers stalls enjoy a boom on March.
Russian stock

The first woman to rebel against this regime and make a national name for herself was Florence Nightingale, who went out to Scutari to help nurse wounded soldiers from the Crimea during the Anglo-French invasion of southern Russia in 1854. To her father’s fury, Miss Nightingale became a model for female devotion to career rather than to husband. She never married and perhaps in consequence, developed a neurotic, self-absorbed nature. Lytton Strachey wrote, in his famously iconoclastic book, Eminent Victorians (published in 1918) that the Lady with the Lamp was “a martyr to masturbation.” Surviving portraits show her as a sour-faced harridan who looked about ready for one of the three or four nervous breakdowns which she suffered while trying to make the world a better place at the expense of her own happiness.

By the early 1900's this drive for female autonomy had given rise to the suffragette movement which campaigned for votes for women in Britain and more general rights for women across Europe. Following their sisters in America, a group of women in Copenhagen campaigned for the formal establishment of an International Women’s Day, which was first celebrated in Germany and Austria on 8 March 1911. The movement quickly gained support in other countries, including Russia, where the 8th of March was still in February as the calendar had not yet been reformed.

It was on Women’s Day, 23 February 1917, that the first of the great marches which brought on the Russian Revolution took place in Petrograd, as St Petersburg was then known. The city authorities had announced that bread would be rationed from 1 March, bringing thousands of women out on to the street, where they were joined by workers from the famous Putilov (subsequently Kirov) works, one of the largest industrial undertakings in the city.

Amidst the women marching for International Women’s Day under slogans like “Bread for our Children” and “The Return of Our Husbands from the Trenches”, there appeared the first openly revolutionary banners. Most historians date the effective onset of the February revolution from this march, and certainly from this day. That is one of the reasons why Women’ Day came to be so seriously celebrated in the Soviet Union.

Given the conditions in Russia at the time, the appeal is not hard to understand. The appeal was understood by the Soviet regime which, at least to begin with, had a genuinely open attitude towards the problems of women. Aleksandra Kollontai, the well-known advocate of “free love”, was put in charge of a new governmental organisation for women. It embraced feminism and worked for causes like Women’s Day until Stalin abolished the agency in 1930.

In 1920, Kollontai published an article about Women’s Day in which she wrote; “This day was to be a day of international solidarity in the fight for common objectives and a day for reviewing the organised strength of working women under the banner of socialism… Away with inequality, lack of rights and the oppression of women - the legacy of the bourgeois world!”

The following year Lenin gave his imprimatur to the concept. In an article in Pravda on 8 March 1921, he wrote, “The essence of Bolshevism and Soviet power is to expose the falsehood and mummery of bourgeois democracy… But you cannot draw the masses into politics without drawing in the women as well. Under capitalism the female half of the human race is doubly oppressed. The working woman and the peasant woman are oppressed by capital… And they remain in household bondage. They continue to be household slaves, for they are overburdened with the drudgery of the most squalid, backbreaking and stultifying toil in the kitchen and family household.”

It was engineering and the consumer society which liberated women from domestic drudgery, not socialism or genderblind worker and peasant solidarity. Despite this, there is no doubt that International Women’s Day is associated with the social advances which were made in the early years of communism. It was significant that in the first year of its independence from the Soviet Union, Estonia abolished Women’s Day. Armenia did the same.

However, many of the formerly Soviet republics still celebrate Women’s Day, including Turkmenistan, where all women were supposed to receive presents from the Turkmenbashi, President Saparmurat Niyazov. It will be interesting to see what happens this year, on the first celebration after his death.

Women’s Day in Russia is, of course, a very serious celebration. It has wholly lost its socialist overtones, and now is just an exercise in human communication. Occasionally it gets rather cheesy, like the international kissing competition in Perm last year. But generally it is just plain nice.

Perhaps it is the charming aspect of this holiday which moved an American journalist in Moscow to write, a few years ago: “Thank God there is no Women's Day holiday in America. I can imagine the layers of irony and suppressed desperation that such a holiday would bring out. The whole inter-gender sickness would gurgle out of the social sewer grill every year on cue: ‘Oh, I'm sooooo happy you're celebrating me.’ ‘This holiday is so sexist, you know? No, just kidding! I'm not into that whole PC thing?’ But why do I torture us both, readers, with horrible reminders of the repression? We're not in America.”

Even afer a great grueling race
from Murmansk to Vladivostok
these participants in the
Expedition Trophy 2006 Race
find flowers on Murch 8.
Russian stock

My favourite comment on 8 March comes from a Russian friend of mine in Edinburgh. I think she catches the spirit I most associate with the Russian approach to this sort of thing.

“The 8th of March! I really miss it as a person who misses love. It used to be a day when all of us were just adored! Every woman was wrapped with love, admiration and rapture; everyone was special! The 8th of March used to mean bunches of mimosa and champagne and loads and loads of wonderful compliments!!! You know men love with their eyes, they love the looks and appearances; but women love with their ears, they love what they hear. Oh, yes, we love sweet words! And the 8th of March was just the day for compliments. For men, words do not cost much, they drop out of your mouths and are forgotten, but we, stupid women, remember and appreciate them and believe that we are SPECIAL!!! None of us can survive without sweet compliments; we need them more that food. I do not know what's happening now in Russia, many good things have gone from there, but I do believe that the 8th of March will never disappear from our life.”

How would you respond to this appeal?

On 23 February (8 March by the modern calendar) 1917 the Petrograd Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party issued a leaflet which said:

Proletarians of All Countries Unite!

Comrade working women! For ten years now women of all countries have been marking 23 February (8 March) as the day of working women, as the women’s “May Day”… It is already a long time since hunger drove women into the factories and for a long time now women, just like men, have been working all day at their machines. The factory bosses squeeze the sweat out of us just as they do with our male comrades. They imprison us for striking the same as the men, and, both we and the men have to fight the bosses. But women have only recently joined the workers' family, they are often still fearful; they do not know what to demand or how to demand it. Their ignorance and timidity has always been used and still is used by the bosses. On this day, comrades, let us think in particular about how we can defeat our enemies, the capitalists, as quickly as possible. Let us remember those near and dear to us at the front, let us remember the hard struggle through which they wrested every extra ruble of pay, every extra hour of rest, from the capitalists, and every freedom from the government. How many of them were sent to the front, to prison or into exile for their bold struggle! You have replaced them in the rear – in the factories and plants – and your duty is to continue their great cause. This cause is the liberation of all humanity from oppression and slavery. This terrible war is already in its third year. Our fathers, husbands and brothers are dying. Our nearest and dearest return home in a wretched state, as cripples. The Tsar's government sends them to the front, gets them injured and killed, and does not trouble itself about feeding them. Our children are going hungry. How many of them are now abandoned or have lost their parents? They are running wild, and many of them are becoming hooligans. Many girls, still children, have been driven by hunger onto the streets. How many children stand at machines, doing backbreaking work until late evening? Misery and tears are everywhere…. It is the government's fault that you are starving. It is the capitalists which are at fault; the war is being fought for their profits. And it is high time we told them: enough! Down with the criminal government and its whole gang of robbers and murderers! Long live peace! Down with the autocracy! Long live the Revolution! Long live a Provisional Revolutionary Government!

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