Russian Feminism, From a Distance

There is no doubt that Tatyana Mamonova, who was arrested and exiled from the Soviet Union in 1980 for her underground feminist writings, had led an interesting and dramatic life. Unfortunately, the same adjectives cannot be used to describe her latest book, "Women's Glasnost vs. Naglost: Stopping Russian Backlash." The title (naglost can be translated as brazen insolence) promises a book that gets to the heart of a backlash against Russian women. Mamonova, who lives in the United States, obviously chose the word to draw a parallel with the much-discussed backlash against feminism in the United States. But the book, the bulk of which consists of question-and-answer interviews with women of the former Soviet Union and American women of Russian and Ukrainian descent, draws no conclusions and probes no issue more deeply than is possible during a brief interview. Mamonova's selection of women is puzzling, possibly because until this year she was refused permission to travel back to Russia. A lecturer on the university circuit and publisher of a bilingual Russian-English woman's journal, her interviews were conducted either by mail, on the telephone, or with women from the former Soviet Union whom Mamonova met during their travels in the United States. They include a philosopher from St. Petersburg, a teacher from Riga, a lesbian activist from Connecticut whose parents emigrated from Ukraine in the 1940s and a musician from Armenia. One of the more interesting interviews is with a Russian journalist, Yelena Khanga, author of "Soul to Soul: The Story of a Black, Russian-American family, 1865-1992." Khanga, who is black, Russian and a woman, worked in America during the early glasnost years and has a unique insight into racism, anti-Semitism and feminism in both the United States and Russia. Interestingly, she says she faced more problems because of her American ancestry than because of her color. Khanga bemoans what she sees as a loss of values among today's young Russians, pointing to the prevalence of beauty contests: "I was in Russia watching TV during the years when the economy was going way down and the prices were going way up, and I saw this contest where girls were being given cars and money for beauty when people are starving," she tells Mamonova. "It wasn't the contest that was immoral in my opinion, but when people are in desperate times and the country has the nerve to advertise someone getting a million for good legs, that is immoral." The fact that glasnost has brought a mixed bag of change is a common theme expressed by Mamonova's interviewees -- more freedom, but more responsibility and chaos, too. Though women in Russia are experiencing varying degrees of success in juggling career and family, many of Mamonova's subjects have left to work or study in the West. It is they who, when talking about their own or their mother's life, draw the most telling picture of the difficulties faced by Russian women. One successful interview offers a view into a Russian intellectual's determination to raise a daughter her own way, and not as a Soviet product. This is with the daughter of a Russian feminist writer who worked with Mamonova in the 1970s. Lada Smirnova, the daughter of the poet Kari Unksova, recalls her mother sending her 20 kopecks for a badge she desperately wanted as a child on a school vacation. "Here's your 20 kopecks," her mother wrote, "but I would really like it if you thought about this -- of what use will a Duny badge be to your immortal soul?" "Women's Glasnost vs. Naglost" seems like a book from a different era, that time when Americans were still unsure whether Russians were ordinary people or aliens and were willing to plow through a series of relatively dry interviews to learn that, yes, Russian women study and get harassed by men and worry about their children and have a tough time getting their husbands to share in the housework, just like their counterparts in Des Moines, Liverpool or Toulouse. It is a shame that Mamonova did not extend her introduction, which chronicles the emergence of independent women's groups in the 1980s and offers a lively and perceptive interpretation of attitudes toward women and feminism in present-day Russia. The format she chose for the book, which closes with some of the lectures that Mamonova gave at U.S. universities in recent years, is unfortunate. It is not a bad idea to let women speak for themselves, but it may have made a more interesting book if Mamonova had put her considerable knowledge to work by drawing conclusions of her own. Or better still, she could have written a biography of her life as an underground feminist in Soviet Russia. Her own experiences, and the persecution they led to, would probably go a long way to explain why Russian women are in the situation they are in today. "Women's Glasnost vs. Naglost" by Tatyana Mamonova, Bergin & Garvey, 184 pages. Available from publisher at 88, Post Road West, Westport, Connecticut, 06881, US