The Russian holiday


In the twentieth century Russia suffered greater losses than other nations: the First World War, the Revolution and civil war, Stalin’s GULAG, the Second World War – and mostly, though not entirely, the casualties were men.

Still, Russians honour the Women’s Day – a holiday unknown to most countries outwith the former Communist bloc. Inaugurated originally by the Bolsheviks, it quickly lost its political connotation and became a private celebration and a reminder of how special Russian women are and how we Russians are different in a few small but important ways.

‘Women’s Day in Russia’, says Olga Binda, a PR director of law firm Muranov, Chernyakov and Partners, ‘can be seen as a counterbalance to the Army Day. Yet, March 8 is more than that - it is an indication of the very special role that women play in Russian society.’

‘Russia is often seen as a male society,’ she continues, ‘but it is not. Behind every successful man there is a successful woman. Though most Russian companies are headed by men, the second-in-command is almost always a woman and few decisions are made without her.’


Stronger than men

One summer day in 1902 Feona Sharapova threw herself out of the window of the Kaluga District Court building after the court ruled that she was to be forced to live with her husband. When people reached her she was barely alive and they discovered a vial of poison in her pocket.

At that time a wife was obliged ‘to obey her husband as the head of the family, to live with him in love, respect, and unlimited obedience, and to render him all pleasure and affection as mistress of the household.’ She had to live with him in all circumstances except his exile to Siberia, ask his permission to enter employment, go to university or even get her own passport. Imperial Russia was indeed a patriarchal society.

Russian women shouldered their rights, grudgingly, as a heavy burden that men were unable to carry

What is striking, though, is that Russian women did not actually fight for their rights. While in Europe suffragettes were smashing windows or setting off bombs, towns in Russia were comparatively quiet.

In many respects a Russian woman was in a more privileged position than a woman in Western Europe or the United States. While in France parental authority was assigned exclusively to a father, Russian law did not discriminate between parents.

Also, the law, at least in theory, made a husband criminally liable for injuring his wife or exploiting her sexually. In most European countries spousal rape was only criminalised recently, in the second half of the twentieth century, and the attitude to violence was well expressed in a famous statement: a husband can beat his wife with a stick no wider than his finger.

But most importantly, a married woman in Imperial Russia could control her property including her dowry. This economic freedom provided her with some counterweight to what was otherwise complete subordination to her husband - a privilege that western women did not enjoy until the mid-nineteenth century.

When the Bolsheviks came to power they simplified marriage and divorce, gave women the right to vote and the same rights over property as men. Most importantly though, the Soviet law de facto favoured women in matters related to the upbringing of children. Yet in view of the way that the twentieth century affected Russia, this was not a favour but a necessity: women were to step in for their men.

‘My grandmother is eighty six,’ Olga Binda says, ‘She came through the Second World War, and she told me that during the war men broke and gave up more easily and more often than women. Women were stronger than men.’

Russian women have never asked for more rights and did not fight for them in the streets: they shouldered them, grudgingly, as a heavy burden that men were unable to carry.


Knight in shining armour?

There was a time when an English or German boyfriend was the embodiment of a young woman’s dreams. ‘I can’t speak for all Russian women’, Olga continues, ‘but for most women I know nationality does not matter – though there are some who strongly favour Russian men while others go for westerners. The days when a man could charm a girl with his passport, as was often the case when the Iron Curtain had just been raised, have gone.’

Russian women no longer view foreign men with the exuberant joy and naivety of the 1990-s. Moreover, though a person and not a nationality comes first, there are legal matters that make them wary of such relationships.

Natalia, 33, works for a German company in St. Petersburg. Her boyfriend is from Frankfurt. She likes him but does not plan to marry nor is she going to register him as the father of her child. The mere thought that if something goes wrong she might get involved in a cross-border legal wrangle over her parental rights makes her sick.

The child’s fate, not family finances, is the major source of anxiety: when a marriage ends women are often ready to accept informal – which usually means unenforceable - agreements on separation of property and alimony, but they rarely give way when it comes to custody.

Research conducted by L. Shvetsova and I. Muravieva among couples in Moscow reveals that only in one in four divorces commitment to pay maintenance was fixed either in a separation agreement or by the decision of a court. Gullibility does not usually pay off: according to the report in 44% cases women do not actually receive alimony.

Mothers, on the other hand, are less flexible in matters concerning the upbringing of their children. Russian law is traditionally ‘mother-friendly’ and a woman in Russia when getting married usually assumes that if the relationship were to break down she would automatically obtain full custody over her children and could return to her home country without the father’s permission.

In practice things are very different. Foreign courts often take a different view about which of two parents is to bring up the children, and their positions on the desirability of children being moved to Russia are not always to the mother’s advantage.

Even if a mother wanted to stay, she might be forced to return home. Many countries practice an ‘immigration try out’ regime for foreign wives: they are issued temporary visas and to extend the stay a woman must get written consent from her husband, just as was the case a century ago.

Russian law is ‘mum-friendly’ and a woman can assume that she would automatically obtain full custody over children

Russia is not a signatory to the 1980 Hague Convention, an international treaty which requires countries to send abducted children back to the jurisdiction of their previous country of residence. This convention, it is hoped, should stop children from being abducted by parents: a legal battle should be fought first before a child is moved. The reality is that as soon as a mother reaches the Russian border with her child, it becomes exceptionally difficult to return them to the father’s country.

Though this may sound good news for a Russian woman, it is not always so. Foreign courts, faced with the prospect that any decision in her favour can be final, will be extremely cautious. And husbands in shaky marriages should think twice before agreeing to let the children go to Russia on holiday.


That special inequality

The peculiarity of Russia and its difference from western society is that here women are visibly subordinated to men while in reality they play a very significant role.

‘Western women tend to see their men as partners,’ says Olga Binda, ‘for them the relationships are among equals. Russian women, by and large, are more devoted and less rational. They would not leave a sinking ship, whether in business or family, but try to stand by their men.’

Whether this is true is a matter of opinion, not science. Some data do indeed suggest that Russian women tend to support their men in the times of trouble even though men rarely reciprocate. In cases reported by the incarceration system, for example, 50% of men in jail keep their families and get regular help from their wives. If, on the other hand, a woman is put in prison, she stands no chance of saving her marriage: in 98% of cases she will be divorced and almost never receive help from her husband.

‘Women,’ Olga goes on, ‘would not go for open confrontation with a boss, but would try to direct him gently towards what they think is right. Because they see the situation from slightly different perspective, their advice is often worth months of a man’s work.’


March 8, 2010
text: E. Andreeva
picture: Friday -



Why Russians celebrate the Woman’s Day