Nov/Dec 2018 Current Moscow Time: 16:38:44
18 November 2018


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Russia's Woman Question

Maria Zakharova, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Information and Press Department

 

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Russia's Woman Question

by Natalia Beskhlebnaya
Translation by Glen Grover

In its March/April 2018 issue, Russian Life ran an article in the history of women in Russian diplomacy. As part of that interview, correspondent Natalia Beskhlebnaya interviewed Maria Zakharova, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Information and Press Department. An agreed-upon condition of that interview was that Russian Life would translate and post the full transcript of the interview online. It is reproduced below.


Russian Life: You were probably warned that I want to discuss women…

Maria Zakharova: And Weinstein?

What do you think about Weinstein?

I think that this is an extremely important story and that its significance still isn't appreciated. But it’s interesting from a completely different point of view. This situation reflects a paradox. In a country that is the leader in terms of the main indicators of freedom and openness, since it’s been a pioneer on many of these issues, there are dozens of affluent and accomplished women who for decades could not speak publicly on issues that they themselves considered so important. How something like this could happen and continue over a span of many years is astounding! In my opinion, this brings up the question of whether we have to completely reevaluate the criteria for the concept of “freedom.” This situation has gotten thousands of people to “rise up,” including opinion leaders (they join protests, dress in black, cancel multi-million-dollar deals). And it turns out that the point is that for some unknown reason, women, whose lives are in the public eye and who did everything to expose the slightest nuances of their lives, couldn’t speak about this. It is an existential issue.

When you lived in America, did you have a feeling that something was not right in this area?

Of course! If we’re talking specifically about the area of gender relationships, there is a lot that is abnormal. For example, for me male chivalry has always been the norm, the norm that came from Western civilization: allowing ladies to go first, opening doors, helping carry heavy things, giving up your seat in the subway. For us that represents the moral code of a cultured person. However, what I saw in New York shocked me. Out of fear of accusations men don’t show any signs of attention, on dates women give flowers to men. I was astonished!

You have a very feminine and striking image, and it creates quite an impression in the West. Is that intentional?

I don’t want to resist my nature; I’m a woman, my parents and Lord God made me that way, and I don’t understand why I’m somehow supposed to change this nature. Again, thanks to nature and higher powers, there’s no need for me to fight that which is inside of me. There are people who have problems with this and we need to regard this with understanding. But I feel wonderful in the body that was given to me.

Do you use this as a tool?

No, I never do that. I think that one needs to be honest and achieve professional goals only through professional skills. I find it insulting when people imply that gender factors helped me achieve some of my professional milestones, that I, for example, used my “feminine charms” or that my advancement was “on orders from above” – that’s not how it was, and I won’t put up with that. Even when I was a schoolgirl I knew this topic would come up and that if I was going to be beyond reproach, I would always have to get good results: in school I got the medal for being first in my class, I graduated from the institute with honors, I defended my dissertation – all of that serves as a sort of shield against insinuations about a “gender factor.” I’m asked if I’m offended by attention from men? Of course not! As a matter of fact, the way I look isn’t always an advantage. For some people it’s the exact opposite, they don’t like it, and for that, I sometimes pay a price. That’s why dress codes were thought up. Norms of outward appearance and behavior at work to minimize the damage of our personal assessment of one another. But I think it’s idiotic when a dress code erases the distinction between a man and a woman. There is no need for us to deny our nature, whatever it may be.

I think it’s idiotic when a dress code erases the distinction between a man and a woman. There is no need for us to deny our nature, whatever it may be.

But these offensive insinuations you mentioned have a context, the idea that these “feminine charms” were the only way to help build a career.

That certainly doesn’t apply to work at the MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs].

And MGIMO [Moscow Institute for International Relations] used to not accept women at all.

Yes, there were areas in the USSR where women traditionally didn’t do well, and nobody even considered the possibility that they could. In some cases, that was wrong, in others, this approach was based on traditional culture, on our way of life. For example, going abroad implies bringing your family. Living on different sides of the ocean from your family is rather hard, and what is the husband to do if he’s not part of Ministry of Foreign Affairs system? I think this was one of the main factors. There were probably other factors that were less logical and more biased.

Did you sense this bias when you were studying at MGIMO?

Yes, there were of course, individual instructors.  Most of the students were female…

Because it was a journalism department?

No, that’s just how it was at the time. In 1993, all the country’s customary norms, canons, and stereotypes collapsed. It was then that people started thinking that higher education wasn’t necessary, that what mattered was material wealth. A wild, totally unregulated market cropped up, where you could become an overnight millionaire and the state no longer put any limits or controls on you. Young men were being told that now was the time to go into business to get rich quick – the faster you joined the rush, the better. Why waste time on an education? Government was looked on as some sort of vestige of the past, so boys weren’t going to MGIMO and the Institute started to be more eager to accept girls. Our year had 15 Mashas, 13 Katyas, and 10 boys – that was the joke. Other years were 50/50 maximum. And there were teachers – both men and women, which is important – who would come up to us and say, “There goes government money down the drain.” Or, I remember, there would be more than 20 people in a section with only two of them being men, and the teacher would say, “Oh, well, at least we’ve got two to work with.” This was very upsetting, but moments like this were also motivating.

And there were teachers – both men and women, which is important – who would come up to us and say, “There goes government money down the drain.” ...This was very upsetting, but moments like this were also motivating.

And was it more difficult for women to get into the MFA?

No. I remember well that when I was a student, announcements for openings at the MFA were even published in newspapers! By 1998, the situation had already changed, but government service still didn’t interest anyone. There were rumblings, first signs that interest would make a comeback, but they paid peanuts. The salary that I received for the first four years or so was only enough for public transportation and the simplest lunch possible. And to basically stay afloat I had to work on the side, because I was seeking not just independence but survival. Thank God, I had a place to live. I lived with my parents, had clothes to wear, a few basic things (provided by my parents). And to have my own money I did translation work. I listen now to how those experts on anything and everything criticize us. But they either don’t remember or don’t want to remember the realities of how we lived in the ’90s.

But it was the ’90s that gave women the opportunity to enter the MFA, and therefore gave you the opportunity to have a career.

I’m not denying that, I don’t have a black and white view of different times. I can see all the different shades of color when I look back at them. For example, regarding the Soviet years, I always say there was good and bad. After all, the Soviet era gave us a solid foundation for the legal framework of women’s lives. You and I never had to fight for a lot of things. Even theoretically no one ever could keep women from working, driving a car. It is possible that in some families husbands were against these things, but that is a matter of interpersonal relationships. For me, an absolutely monumental achievement was Valentina Tereshkova’s flight into space. I don’t know who made that decision, but no matter how it was packaged, it was a breakthrough in the affirmation that women could excel in any sphere, not only here but throughout the world.  There is nothing more symbolic that one can imagine, and this was an achievement specifically of the Soviet era.

For me, an absolutely monumental achievement was Valentina Tereshkova’s flight into space. I don’t know who made that decision, but no matter how it was packaged, it was a breakthrough in the affirmation that women could excel in any sphere, not only here but throughout the world.  There is nothing more symbolic that one can imagine, and this was an achievement specifically of the Soviet era.

As of right now are there any countries where women are serving as Ambassador of the Russian Federation?

Changes are right around the corner. I can’t give you the specifics, but the question is being addressed. And it’s important to understand that it’s not a matter of a special search for the right candidate or any special quotas for women – it’s just a natural process.

In general, how many women are in the MFA?

If we’re talking about clerical work, this area is traditionally occupied by women. If we’re talking about women in diplomatic positions, then there are fewer of them. Each year young diplomats enter service at a 70-30, 65-35 men to women ratio. But we’re living at a turning point when the women who studied at MGIMO in the ’90s and then entered the MFA have served their way up – in our case serve is the very word, and I don’t mean it negatively – to leadership positions. These are division directors, department heads, general consuls and ambassadors. We have a certain gradations of positions. There’s the concept of position and the concept of rank. Climbing this ladder takes time: until you’ve gone through all the steps you aren’t eligible to be an Ambassador.

So right now, new times are approaching, where more women will be among the ambassadors of the Russian Federation?

It’s already happened. There have been four women during the Russian period who have held the position of Ambassador or Permanent Representative in various international organizations: Valentina Ivanovna Matviyenko (Ambassador to Malta and Greece), Olga Yakovlevna Ivanova (Ambassador to the Republic of Mauritius), Eleonora Valentinovna Mitrofanova (Permanent Representative to UNESCO in Paris), and Ludmila Georgiyevna Vorobyova (Ambassador to Malaysia). 

Our mentality, as you mentioned, is such that it’s more difficult for men to move for a woman, how do you see that?

Now I see a huge number of cases where this is not a problem, where men go along with their wives and work in IT or journalism. Now everyone is in motion, and our communication capabilities have changed: while in the past calling overseas was a major event, today you can call as much as you want, and practically for free. But still, it isn’t easy, of course; my husband and I have lived apart for several years, and I know what it’s like having to fly to see one another. But, after all, we see cases where a family fails the test even when they’re living together, and there is the opposite case, where both she and he are diplomats.

And is it true that earlier the MFA had rule that this type of family wasn’t allowed?

It’s possible that there were some unspoken rules, but for as long as I’ve worked there, I see two scenarios: those who entered the MFA as a couple after graduating from the institute. They either go together or one of them puts his or her career on hold for the other. As a rule, of course, women do this when they have children. And it also happens that they meet at work and their history together begins, where they need to find a compromise. They get help from the personnel department. They could be sent to the same country. They could leave and return on the same day. Or, they might have to wait: one of them might leave and the other had to join in, let’s say, six months.

And tell me about handshakes. Do women shake hands?

It is necessary for men, but for women, in my opinion, it isn’t. It’s a situational question and it depends on rules in the particular country. Before I left for New York for work, I read all the available books on protocol and concluded that currently protocol is very flexible; it depends on what parties have agreed to and on what is expedient for the moment. For example, we all wondered whether a woman should wear pantyhose in the summer. We get a visit from a French delegation and they don’t wear pantyhose, but some come “buttoned down from head to toe,” even from Western countries. About handshakes—not long ago we had a delegation in Saudi Arabia led by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The king welcomed us and he shook everyone’s hand. And so, when he held his hand out to me I, naturally, answered with my hand. But the people who were standing behind me didn’t see that it was the king who initiated the handshake. They started to tell me that it’s prohibited, here they don’t shake hands with women. The handshake occurred and everything was fine.

Does it matter to you whether or not they reach out to shake your hand?

No, it doesn’t. I don’t like all these discussions why do they this and we do that. It’s not difficult for me to respect their traditions. We also have things that are important for us and ask that those things be observed. They offer me an abaya when I’m in an Islamic country, but I prefer to travel in my own clothes. I wear a beret that won’t slip instead of a head shawl, so I feel comfortable all while respecting their traditions; a long skirt, dark colors, but I’m wearing my own clothing.

Do you agree that women need to work harder than men to achieve the same success, all other things being equal?

Of course, and this is true for most of the aspects of our lives.

When was the last time there was a situation that someone insulted or hindered you because you are a woman?

If we’re talking exclusively about work, there was this jerk, just a couple of months ago, who made a remark of that sort, that I couldn’t do something there due to this very reason. But in terms of being denied some career opportunity, I can’t remember it being done behind my back or in front of my face. My colleagues and I argued about this subject when I first started, especially with those who were 20-30 years older. It was very interesting. They said to me: “Well then? What is it like at consulates? It’s constant incidents with Russian citizens. What if you have to go out to identify a corpse, will you go?” I said: “What’s the big deal? A female doctor has to work with the terminally ill, operates, goes out on calls, etc.” But if you look at it, they’re saying you can’t do something, not because you’re a dumb blonde, but because they’re trying to protect you, look out for you. Of course, I could have slammed the door and left, but I wanted to slam the door and stay. And that’s what I did.

But if you look at it, they’re saying you can’t do something, not because you’re a dumb blonde, but because they’re trying to protect you, look out for you. Of course, I could have slammed the door and left, but I wanted to slam the door and stay. And that’s what I did.

Doesn’t it seem to you that this idea of protecting the dainty woman by not allowing her to do certain kinds of work is directly related to the chivalric code that we discussed earlier, the lack of which surprised you in New York?

No, I don’t think so. That’s exactly what chivalry is: a good way, without crossing the line, to stay within the limits of how the Almighty together with nature created you, your mom and dad, and so on.

But when they hold the door for you, they are emphasizing that you need to be protected and you can’t do everything yourself.

I do need to be protected that way, I agree with that!

Then they shouldn’t let you near the corpses.

Well, you can take anything too far.  If we’re talking about identifying corpses, then firstly, even men might not be able to handle it; secondly, if the situation allows, a man can offer to go in a woman’s place, and the woman can either accept or decline this offer, but be grateful for it. And for her part, a woman can offer to take a male-colleague’s place when there is a need to help a nursing mother, child, etc. The man can accept or decline, but also be grateful. It’s all very simple: work should be done by the person who can do it the best.

But earlier you agreed that, when faced with two individuals with equal abilities, the employer will choose the man and not the woman!

It happens. But that is why we have our life – to prove ourself. Some women simply don’t have enough patience. Or a woman might go to a different area, succeed, and then call to say: “Well, how are you doing there? You doubted me and now I own your company.” Just, for example.

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