Russia starts to bloom around March 8. Sidewalks turn into flower stalls trading rubber banded tulips, red Soviet era carnations, bright mimosas, modest daffodils, endangered cyclamens and snowdrops, all overwhelmed by ubiquitous roses. Prices skyrocket as men roam the streets serving flower duty to the women in their lives.
Challenged by the recently popularized Valentine's observance, International Women's Day — once widely celebrated in the USSR and countries of Eastern Europe — still remains the official date of tribute to Russia's overworked and often neglected female population, while some of the former Soviet Republics have now shrugged it off.
The holiday actually started with a protest march by textile factory workers in New York in 1857, was sanctioned by German Socialist Clara Zetkin in 1911, trumpeted by the feminists in 1910s and 1920s, then went into decline, to be partially revived during the rise of feminism in 1960s. Russia jumped on the March 8 bandwagon shortly after the October Revolution of 1917, making it into a propaganda-laden day to mark the achievements of women-workers in the USSR. In 1965 it became a public holiday, when the supposedly liberated Soviet woman could take a break from work, and, perhaps, from house chores, if her husband and children were feeling generous. But flowers and small presents to women — young and old — have accompanied the holiday from the start.
In the Soviet Union, the reality of women's lives has long been out of step with the emancipation rhetoric, writes Thomas Rymer in the journal Russian Profile. When women joined the workforce, the state had little means to assist them in coping with their dual mother-worker role, and for most women a shift at work was followed by a shift at home. Add to this the shortage of men after World War II (which increased competition among women for husbands), and you had Rymer calls "a little prince mentality," where men expected their wives to take care of the children and do most of the work around the house. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the race toward capitalism, women's lives have taken different roads: some Russian women have taken up the "wife as a decoration" role, others have not changed at all, and still others have been plunged into even deeper misery. Yet today men are generally more open to helping around the house and taking care of children. Meanwhile, over a third of Russian women now put work and career ahead of motherhood, according to a poll published by Izvestia.
Russian women still have to put up with great inequality, and their lives have become demonstrably worse in the past 15 years in terms of education, employment, career, and security, according to a poll published by Rossiiskaya Gazeta. In the newly capitalist Russia, women are more likely to face employment discrimination, with employers reluctant to hire mothers with small children, or women who are pregnant or likely to start a family. It is doubly hard for women to get a job if they are over 35. According to Oleg Pilshikov, head of the Moscow Committee on Family and Youth, women are disproportionately representated among the unemployed. And, according to a joint study led by the Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative, women are still paid 36 percent less than men for the same work.
In today's Russia, March 8 has lost its feminist flavor. More and more it resembles a combination of Mother's Day and Valentine's Day, draining men's imagination and pockets. The date occupies second place (after New Year's) for flower and gift sales.
On March 7, the eve of the holiday, women drag home bagfuls of presents and flowers, returning late after the now popular corporate parties.
The next morning, men dominate the streets, scurrying about with bouquets and shopping bags filled with cakes and fruit for a yearly breakfast-in-bed treat. Some might venture cooking up a lunch, but few endure through dinnertime. By this time, things are starting to return to "normal." The woman is once again reclaiming the kitchen (and the man his spot in front to the TV), but, with the new generation of Russian women growing up, this pattern of celebration has a very limited half-life.
Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
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