Mother Russia: Russia’s guardian angels

Eleanor Surbey

Russia is a matriarchy.

How could it not be, when Russian casualties of the Great Patriotic War — the preferred term in Russia for the conflict on the Eastern Front during World War II — are estimated at almost 13 million? Today’s Russians growing up without grandfathers, fathers, brothers, were raised almost exclusively by female relatives. Devastating war losses, combined with an average female life expectancy ten years higher than that of men, have led to a huge population gap — currently, there are approximately ten million more Russian women than men.

And what are these surplus numbers of women to do? Wandering through various scenes of Russian life, I have noticed something which I will tentatively call “filler positions” – jobs created specifically for this female population, something for which there is no Western equivalent. Here are three examples.


The conductor

On every Russian bus I have travelled on, there has been a driver and a conductor- the conductor has always, bar one example, been female. Wearing a blue apron over her clothes, she waits extra-patiently for me, whilst I fumble in my purse for my twenty-five roubles which she will then exchange for a small ticket. It has no clear information on it other than “trolleybus ticket.” I suppose I could ‘go rabbit’ (evade the fare, as the saying goes in Russian) and re-use the dateless ticket endlessly. But this conductor knows who has or hasn’t paid, as she sits in her specially designated seat surveying the bus. In any case, I would never dare to try to avoid paying up – these women are kind and friendly, and I like them too much to disappoint them.

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The metro escalator security guard

The Moscow metro system is huge and sprawling. Trains running every ninety seconds link together over two hundred stations across the city. They speed through the contemporary and classical masterpieces which decorate the stations, past mosaics, art nouveau, chrome, marble, crown moulding. Art is buried deep underground in Moscow.

And when I say deep, I really mean it – the deepest station is eighty-four meters below ground. Standing at the top of the escalator, I feel dizzy – I can’t see the end. The descent down is long, longer usually than the metro ride I intend on taking. At the very bottom, as I step off, a little booth comes into view. It is in the middle of the four escalators, and inside sits a guard, usually a woman – she is wearing a neat navy uniform, her hair hidden under a cap. Escalator footage plays on the little screens in front of her, and she watches carefully, making sure everything is all right. I have never seen the guard changed, I have never seen one in any other country, but she is a fixture of the daily Russian commute. I like to think of her less as a ‘Big Brother’ watching over her passengers, but as more of a protective minder, keeping everything safe and in order.

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The museum guard

Russian museum guards are not like Western museum guards. Sitting in chairs reserved for them, one for each room, the women watch as visitors pass the art hanging on the walls. They take care of what they find beautiful. Female guards at Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery Museum who were interviewed by Andy Freeberg, spoke about how much they enjoyed being among Russia’s great art, surrounded by the history of their country. When I enter a room in a gallery myself, I am constantly aware of their presence behind my shoulder as I look at a piece of art from hundreds of years ago. One woman told Freeberg that she travelled to work even on her days off so as to sit in front of a painting that reminds her of her childhood home. They sit and watch, patiently.

Kugach's Before the Dance, State Tretyakov Gallery

Andy Freeberg – Guardian for Kugach’s “Before the Dance” (source: The Calvert Journal)


The women I have encountered in Russia are unsparingly hospitable. One day in my Moscow childhood, the woman behind a meat counter refused to sell my mother stuffed peppers, even though they were clearly marked as on sale. When pressured, the employee whispered, “don’t buy them – they’re old.” Another woman weighed my mother’s bag of oranges, pronounced them inferior in quality, tossed them in the bin, and got some fresh ones. A third woman grabbed a chicken out of my mother’s hands, berating her colleague for selling my mom a lesser chicken, and replaced it with a new one. I’ve never seen that sort of sorority and love anywhere else. You’re taken care of even if you are stranger, and if you’re a regular, then you’re part of the family and to be doted on.

Russia’s general attitude towards women is difficult to qualify. From a Western point of view, it is usually described as a mix of chivalry and sexism. Think “bags being carried for you because you’re not strong enough to do it yourself.” I can’t speak for Russian women — all I am qualified to do is discuss my own experiences as a foreigner, and as a woman living in Russia now, I wouldn’t say that it is any more sexist than anywhere else I’ve been. I once stood outside a Starbucks in London for twenty minutes waiting to meet up with a former classmate of mine, and was catcalled more than I’d ever been anywhere else. One time, when I was in Saint Petersburg, I was eating a khachapuri on the way back to my apartment, and the man I was walking by said “bon appétit” to me. That’s the closest approximation I can think of, when coming at it from a Western standpoint.

As I was planning this article, I discussed the above observations with my host mother Marina, a woman who has essentially become my Russian mother, feeding me endless quantities of kasha and smetana, warning me to wrap up even when it’s 15 degrees out, and who silently — and 100% correctly — reorganises my room so it looks better. I absolutely adore her. I got a lot of my case endings wrong, but the conversation was still punctuated with “ya ponyala,” meaning, “I’ve understood,” and people here don’t mince words. They say what they mean, which can be jarring when your culture usually says one thing and means another, but it is never malicious. So when Marina says she gets me, she gets me. Her reaction was exactly what I expected. “Of course people here take care of you. That’s what you’re supposed to do.” There’s so much truth about Russia in those two short sentences: a sense of duty to others not out of force, but out of genuine concern and care. The watchful eye of Russia’s women takes care of all the country’s children.

 

Love letter to my female friends

Abigail Smith

With my undergraduate degree firmly behind me, I can say with absolute clarity that the greatest thing I gained from university is my female support network. Having only graduated in June, and still living in Cambridge, I am sometimes tempted to revisit my favourite college habits. One evening I found myself back in the college chapel with a few friends, listening to some live music. As talented as the performers were, I became immediately aware of a group of girls, lying on some bean bags, relaxing and laughing together. Their closeness and comfort around one another made me acutely aware that my university experience had been defined, elevated and promoted by the women I befriended.

I was lucky with the women I met at university. My best friends and I were placed in the same staircase, something I will forever thank our housing officer for. We were all incredibly different. In our style, our academic interests, our experiences. For some reason though, we all seemed to click. By week two we were getting ready together, confiding in one another about things we’d left back at home and about our inevitable insecurities at entering this new world of Cambridge.

We would spend hours with each other in a bedroom, sharing tea, biscuits and the latest snippets of our university experience. Of course, we did the ‘big’ things too. We went to May Balls together, we watched each other graduate, went out for dinner, celebrated and made speeches at one another’s 21st birthdays. However, for me the strength of female friendship is best encapsulated by those hours busy doing nothing with one another. Lying on the bed, watching clips of Beyoncé, complaining about our workloads and sharing our small, everyday achievements. The highlight of a night out was not the sweaty dancing at Cindy’s but the hours early in the morning when we’d come back, dissect the night’s events, overanalyse our emotions about our now cold cheesy chips and garlic mayonnaise.

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When I went on my first date I had these girls around me, doing my makeup, my hair, styling my outfit. Rather embarrassingly, we also rehearsed exactly how I would greet the guy. With the same rigour as any sports coach, they tried to teach me how to give a hug and a kiss on a cheek without either giggling or accidentally head-butting them in the process. One friend even had to push me out the door when my nerves got the better of me. They also stayed up that evening, gathered in one room to hear how it went. They’d already poured me a camomile tea and had a barrage of questions about how it had gone.

Of course, these are light-hearted events. We have been through difficult times as well. It is at these moments of crises that the women around me have made me realise that friendship is not transactional. Friends are not there for you because one day you’ll be there for them. My friends have been there for me even when I haven’t deserved it. We have of course argued and disagreed or grown distant. However, there has never been a point in those arguments, even with the anger and intensity of the incident, where I have stopped loving and respecting them. They haven’t missed a Bumps that I’ve rowed in, nor have they complained whenever I talk incessantly about the latest progress of my crew. They’ve also made me develop my own thoughts and interests. Two of my friends are the reason I proudly call myself a feminist, and feel comfortable to assert my place in the lecture room, the boathouse and now, the office.

Your Cambridge experience will be defined by many different facets, but never forget how important those small moments are with the friends you love. It is so easy to take the everyday moments for granted, the small gestures, even someone leaving a glass of water out for you beside your bed when you’ve had one too many tequila shots as a fresher. These quotidian experiences are the tapestry of friendship and love, and they are certainly my fondest memories of being a student.

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Cover image sourced from every-passing-moment.blogspot.com

Virginia Woolf: An exhibition inspired by her writings

Rosie Chalmers

The Fitzwilliam Museum’s autumn exhibition is not just inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf, but also by her character and ongoing legacy. The collection is an explosion of art and writing exploring androgyny, still life, stream of consciousness and countless other themes. It features the work of many queer female and non-binary artists and the journey of establishing a space in the art world. This space is claimed with ferocity, tenderness and determination. The work and their creators resist passivity and the possibility of ever being someone else’s muse with the same skill and grace we find in Woolf’s work. Even the frames are unique with no uniform look, while France Lise Mcgurn’s colourful line drawings cover the walls, countering the clinical blankness we expect in galleries.

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Claude Cahun “Autoportrait” (Institute of Modern Art Valencia)

Walking in, you are greeted by exquisite portraits from painters such as Ethel Walker, one of several female artists from the nineteenth century whose work is shown at the exhibition. Walker’s portraits are sensitive and thoughtful impressionist depictions of women in her life and in the public sphere, including Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister. Bell’s own self portrait is on view alongside her beautiful tapestry and home furnishings, which are displayed in the gallery concerned with creating a ‘room for one’s own’. Ultimately the exhibition centres on this idea of self-portraiture both in classical painting and in the modern work featured. Zanele Muholi is a South African artist whose stunning photography uses self-portraiture to fashion their identity, refusing to “become a subject matter for others”. Muholi’s work is definitely a highlight, with dramatic black and white accentuating the contorted body that gazes back at itself. The French sculptor and photographer Claude Cahun also investigates this with tiny photographs that play with clowning, make up, unnatural positioning and a manufactured identity for the camera. The circus aspect to the pictures both mocks and challenges ideas of gender stability. Undeniably the pieces on show are connected by theme rather than time period or form, which creates a sense of exhilaration at seeing all the work thrown together. Walker is noted for striving to create a space for queer identity and androgyny in the art world towards the beginning of the 20th century, and the exhibition spills out from this goal, as if charting the development and challenges of those who have taken up where she left off. It seems as if the artists are reaching out to each other over the century’s distance and striving forward in harmony, building off what has gone before. As Woolf herself wrote to succeed and create we must “think back through our mothers”.

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Zanele Muholi “Somnyama Ngonyama” (Yancey Richardson Gallery)

The cases dotted throughout the galleries sustain a strong connection to aspects of Woolf’s life, such as her interaction with the suffragette movement and her friendship with some of its leading figures. Woolf’s relationship with Vita Sackville West is also tenderly acknowledged in the display of letters between them that begin “Dearest Creature”. But the exhibition also stays true to its focus on her writings as it explores the modernist form of stream of consciousness that Woolf utilised. The films shown explore how this form manifests itself. The ‘Wedding Loop’ by Canadian visual artist Moyra Davey is a particularly mesmerizing encapsulation of thought, anxiety and compulsion. Her recorded narration is interspersed with film of her house, of the places she visits and a recording of a wedding she took in 1980 that she compares to a wedding party she attends in 2017. However Davey is too articulate to ever slip into easy nostalgia. We only see glimpses of her pacing body, but her grating voice has a mysterious authority as she charts her life in the flow of consciousness: “I wipe dust off my mother’s rubber plant in the hall…improbably I try to read the Illiad…she turns to me and says part of me wants to die”. The modern day Mrs Dalloway, Davey’s piece is undoubtedly one of my favourite among these works. I encourage everyone to escape the library in the middle of the day and sit in front of this complex film, and let the images and words wash over you as I did.

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Gwen John “Self portrait 1902” (Tate)

It is a wonderful and uplifting exhibition that I intend to revisit again and again before the term is over, especially because there’s so much to see. I could watch the films on repeat for hours, and living next door, that’s probably what I’ll end up doing. There’s a sense of excitement both intrinsic in the collection and in the genuine fondness for Woolf and her writing that seems to emulate from the visitors. The exhibition is overflowing with brilliant feminist work rather than searching for token female or queer artists. There is also real enjoyment, as the gallery is buzzing with chatter throughout the day. Whether it’s the man chuckling “she’s in bleeding la la land,” after gazing at the living statue photographs, the school kids furiously sketching the sculptures, or the students, who like me, are clutching their tote bags and lusting over the first editions of To the Lighthouse, everybody seems enraptured by the kaleidoscope of art on display.

Cover image – France-Lise McGurn “Puttanesca” (Bosse and Baum)

 

A note to my fresher self

Astrid Godfrey

So the borderline obligatory photo of you in your gown by the Jesus horse has been taken, your dad has returned to London (though he’s going to be back in Cambridge the next day because you decided to put your medication in the freezer instead of the fridge, rendering it unusable… but for now he’s gone), and you have embarrassed yourself in front of people you barely know at the first bop. Seven days later and you still feel as clueless as when you arrived. Freshers’ week was a frantic rush, equally enjoyable and stressful, sociable and isolating, and now you are stuck in your room, faced with your first essay of term and not really knowing what to do now that your life isn’t being scheduled for you by the student union.

If I had been able to talk to you, if your future self had been able to reach out across the gap in time, here is what I would have said.

Rather counter-intuitively perhaps, my advice for you can be broadly categorised as “care less”. Scary, I know. You’ve always really cared about your studies – that’s why you’re here. But, trust me, caring a little bit less can make you a lot happier. Cambridge isn’t the glittering golden ideal you’d envisioned, so stop putting pressure on yourself to be the perfect student you think you should be.

Reading lists are not exhaustive so stop panicking when it gets to mid-week and you haven’t read everything you thought you needed to. Read less but read better. Don’t be afraid to spend time thinking. Don’t be scared to experiment with new essay styles. Ask questions. Be inquisitive. Make the most of the amazing academic opportunities you worked so hard for. You spent the last four years jumping through GCSE and A level hoops – now is the time to think creatively again, to find what you’re studying exciting again. And don’t worry if you can’t get an essay in on time, your supervisors are more lenient than you think.

Have more fun. Don’t be afraid to go out one night due to the fear of being hungover the next day because, trust me, there are many more people at lectures hungover like you are (and that’s okay! Because having fun is okay!). And if you don’t want to go clubbing, take advantage of the other opportunities available to you. In second term you are going to see a really good play at the ADC, and you will enjoy the feeling of having had a night off work and leaving college, even if the theatre is only around the corner. Go to the Fitzwilliam Museum. Go to the Botanic Gardens. Join that band you want to join. Try football and rowing – no one is going to laugh at you for having a go so don’t let that fear prevent you from experiencing something new. Visit friends. Cook together. Spend less time worrying and more time relaxing. Don’t be afraid to prioritise your mental health. If you’re tired, don’t keep working. Sleep. If you’re anxious, don’t keep working. Find a way to calm down. If you’re down, don’t keep working. Take my advice – breathe, look around and worry a bit less.

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First college formal

Julia Lasica

Sitting at my first college formal of term, I found myself amid buzzing chatter; around me, smiles and laughter teemed cacophonously along the rows and rows of people, all of whom seemed to have endless topics to talk about. Struggling to understand how all these people had so much to say for themselves, how they had accomplished so much in the summer just passed, how they were so interesting and driven, I sat mute. A close friend sitting next to me tried to tempt me into conversation, asking me, tragically, what my favourite colour was. Apparently, I didn’t even have a good enough answer for that. Taking the easy way out, I excused myself and quickly left the hall.

As I fixed lights to my bike and peddled away, I wasn’t quite sure what I was planning on doing. I cycled to Grantchester. The road along which I passed was pitch black and my feeble bike light barely pierced the darkness as hedges rose up around me. Flowers stood motionless and tall in the village itself, sound muffled by the thick, cold blanket of autumn. It didn’t hold the same charm of the humid, long afternoons of summer, when I had stepped through the greenery hanging heavy into the narrow walkways. I cycled back to Cambridge, slightly nauseous from the feeling that I had encountered a place, which I believed I had known so well, cloaked in an unfamiliar, unwelcome disguise.

I then thought of the meadows opposite the Granta, and of the way that the lights, strung over the pub, reflected on the water below. Walking down to the very edge of the bank opposite the pub, I sat and looked. I took in the dimness of the road, and how it snaked into the Granta’s brightness, how the sounds of the conversations were contained in that small establishment, drifting only as a hum to where I sat. My body became heavy with calm. I watched figures walk across the pub in the reflection on the water. Their silhouettes would obscure patches of the shifting light, crossing the water as they headed out. I put my knees to my chin, hugging my legs, and saw that at my feet, a little flower was bowing its head. Its petals trailed softly on the surface of the water, radiating out little streaks of light, criss-crossing between the stars and clouds reflected from the sky above. The pack of career leaflets sitting in my bottom desk drawer, the feelings of unworthiness and a lack of achievements, all the books which had piled up on my desk over summer, faded away.

Beginning of term playlist celebrating female artists

Cambridge Girl Talk committee

As term starts and we all begin to scurry around, socialising, working, getting into a routine, we in the Girl Talk committee decided that it would be a good idea to compile a playlist of songs by fem artists that we have relaxed and grooved to this summer. Never underestimate the importance of taking an hour for yourself every day to sit or dance and be, so as to ward off all that is overwhelming you. And while you are sitting or grooving, have a listen to these wonderful ladies who have blessed our airwaves and who help us feel and forget.

Writing about her first choice for this playlist, “La Luna” by Lucy Schwartz, our superwoman co-chair and head of admin Bea said, “I love this song because it reminds me of walking home on a warm soft evening.” In-keeping with this warmth, Bea also chose “If you’re gonna love somebody (acoustic)” by Jones and Florence and the Machine’s “South London forever”, keeping summer and nostalgia alive for a little longer this term.

Co-chair and blog editor Blanca’s first song, “I say a little prayer” by the queen Aretha Franklin who sadly passed away this summer, leaving a legacy of empowerment and amazing music, is a go to for any cloudy morning or any morning at all when you need some hope and joy. “My mum plays this every day and dances around the kitchen, so I just automatically feel uplifted and get a burst of love at the first sound of it. I can’t help but cry “I’m in love with youu”, trying to echo Aretha’s soul and filling my breakfast with emotions.” Blanca also hosts a CAMFM radio show, Chicas Chats n Choons, that plays only music by women and non-binary artists, and the other staple songs that she plays for energy in the morning are “Girls just want to have fun” (Cyndi Lauper) and “Talkin’ bout a revolution” by Tracy Chapman. “Any time that an essay crisis or a wave of insecurity brings you down in the morning, listen to these powerful women and remember that you will be okay!”

Julia, our blog subeditor, picked “Lagoon” by Laura Misch, saying, “I chose this one just because it was such a relaxing, chill summer tune, and I love the woodwind that accompanies her voice. The aesthetic is just amazing.” Julia also wanted “Words” by Naaz to be on the playlist because “the words of her lover are put at the centre of this song, and she talks about the way they’ve changed the way she sees the world which is very sweet and explores a connection different to a purely physical one – it’s like a meeting of two minds.” Talking about her third choice, “Focus” by H.E.R, Julia said, “this is slightly sadder, but it puts a feeling that a lot of women feel to music in a very beautiful, elegant way.”

Anna, our lovely artist in residence, chose two absolute classics that bring us all happiness– “I will survive” by Gloria Gaynor for a boost into confidence and independence, and Francoise Hardy’s “Dis-lui non” for some of the same feelings but in a French mood. Bang them on and remember how strong you are!

Lissie, one of our events managers, selected four songs for various moods in summer. Patti Smith’s “Because the night” is the first on her list – “this summer I bought a Patti Smith album during a particularly rainy and unhappy day and then went home, put this song on and vented out all my feelings. This is the best song to shout in defiance of whatever is bringing you down.” In a different vibe, Lissie chose the everlasting “Valerie” by Amy Winehouse, saying “nothing new, but in case you had forgotten about this wonderful, wonderful cover here is your reminder. The one to blast when you’re ecstatic, confused, despairing and everything in between.” Next up is “Crush” by Tessa Violet. “This silly happy pop song celebrates the giddy feeling of an early crush or a summer fling. It awakens the teenage girl in all of us we too often try and bury. Play it the next time you fall in love with a complete stranger in the library.” Finally, Lissie chose “Girlfriend / Damn, Dis moi” by Christine and the queens, “the perfect song to groove to in your room. Talking from a place of androgyny and female masculinity, this addictive French hit is a f**k you to any idea that a woman can’t be a confident, sexual and proud independent being.”

Our other events manager, Johanna’s songs are “Rain girl” by Yaeji, “Gucci Ice Cream” by Girls in the Yard and “Prayer song” by Noname. The first “because it’s a really serious club song when you first hear it but then you listen to the lyrics and realise it’s a massive meme – she is just a boss!” “Gucci Ice Cream” because she got obsessed with the show “Insecure” and especially the soundtrack which is full of these “no scrubs” type anthems. Finally, Johanna chose Noname because her new album is “FANTASTIC!”

So this is our beginning of term fem playlist – something for everyone and for every mood. Take some time for music and celebrate women with us!

A Cambridge bubble in summer and the healing power of a long journey

Alicia Lethbridge

A lot is said about the existence of the Cambridge bubble. It is discussed in welfare meetings, student articles and daily chats with friends. This ‘bubble’ is what makes us think that our incomplete essay is a life or death situation, that five hours sleep is utterly normal.

It is often assumed that the simple act of leaving Cambridge can burst this bubble, however I think this is a myth. I spent the first half of my summer still caught up in it, finding stress in everyday activities and inventing impending deadlines for needless tasks. In the first week of the summer I took a trip to Spain with some friends. Surely four days on a sunny European beach would firmly boot my brain out of Cambridge mode. Or so I thought. Instead I sat there, sandy and sunburnt, while visions of missed internships and empty CVs flashed past my brain. The occasionally competitive and always fast-paced nature of the last eight weeks had taken a hold of me and would not let go. This pointlessly stressed out mindset permeated into conversations with close friends over supposedly relaxed lunches. How I ever managed to jump from noting the lack of vegetarian options at a restaurant to discussing my lack of work experience is beyond me.

It took a long car journey from London to rural France to finally haul me out of this funk. As the jumbled sound of my dad’s voice and Elton John’s Tiny Dancer lulled me in and out of consciousness, I leant against the car window, letting each of my thoughts float away with the landscape that whizzed past. The constant churning of information and worries in my head calmed, as I watched the trees and bushes converge into a long green blur. As far back as I can remember these yearly journeys have been soothing experiences for me. I can’t count the number of hours I must have spent with my cheek pressed up against a car window, leaving a small round smudge when I peeled myself away. Perhaps the knowledge that I was heading towards the place I had spent countless happy summers in, or the new focus on the simple task of moving furniture also helped me shed the last of my Cambridge mindset. Either way, when I stepped out of the car onto the gravel road, wet from a storm that had followed us throughout our journey, I finally felt relaxed.

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It took me a long time to figure out that my earlier stress was simply a remnant of my attitude over the last term, and that I hadn’t simply undergone an immense personality change from a chilled-out person to a picky panicky mess. While the attitude I adopted during my time in Cambridge may have helped me complete essays and survive the hectic nature of term, it was simply impossible to live with it all year round. Packing the Cambridge bubble in my suitcase for the summer had led me to pointless arguments with parents and friends and the inability to truly recover from a busy year.

This year the bubble will remain firmly in Cambridge. In fact, I also intend to pack it away during term time and escape it even when I am still physically here. My tiring work-obsessed mindset will now only be called upon occasionally, when I need some adrenaline to propel me through an essay crisis or an extremely busy day. Although I do not have any 8-hour car journeys planned soon, I will try my best to get back to that soothing mindless feeling. Maybe by watching someone mow perfect lines into the college lawn from my bedroom window, or by focusing on the sound the rain makes hitting my concrete balcony outside. For me at least, escaping the Cambridge bubble means much more than just escaping Cambridge.