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.


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.


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.


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