The Death of Russian Womanhood

The post-Soviet era has marginalized a generation of Russian women who defined themselves by sacrifice in the name of a greater cause. Dmitry Shlapentokh examines their predicament, and suggests that Russia has suffered by losing the spirit that underpinned their achievements.

Valentina Tereshkova, the first female Soviet cosmonaut – indeed, the first woman to go into space – recently celebrated her 70th birthday. In an interview, she stated her only wish: to fly to Mars, even with a one-way ticket. It was an implicit wish for a spectacular form of suicide, for a spectacularly prosaic reason: the loss, experienced by thousands of Russian women of her generation, of her life’s existential foundation.

Tereshkova’s generation, though it encompassed almost the entire era of Soviet rule, had been raised in the tradition of Russian womanhood. Much older than the Soviet regime, this tradition emphasizes a spirit of sacrifice – not just for loved ones, but also for great causes such as revolution, state, science, or art – that is deeply hostile to accumulation of money and material goods as the goal of life.

After “perestroika” and the 1991 collapse of the USSR, these women did not change their lives and attitudes. They did not curse what they had glorified in the past and embrace what they had once condemned. They did not participate in “privatization” of state property or enter show business to make money.

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