The Real Housewives of the U.S.S.R.

The not-so glamorous details The New York Times conveniently left out.

The Holodomor memorial in Kiev, Ukraine, commemorating the systematic starvation of the Ukrainian people under Stalin in 1932–33

The New York Times recently published an Op-Ed with an eye-popping claim: for all its flaws, the Communist revolution taught Chinese women to dream big.

This was not the first piece published by the New York Times exploring the glories of socialism as they relate to women. In August, anthropologist Kristen R. Ghodsee attempted to answer the greatest question of the 20th century, in Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism (oh — you weren’t wondering that?).

I almost feel sorry for Ghodsee: she did what her advisers taught her, traveled to Bulgaria, chatted with some locals, then came back to the States, chatted with some academics, then back to Bulgaria, then wrote her Op-ed. Unfortunately for her, the Twitter predictably exploded. First, the subject matter is rather giggle-indusing. Secondly, what’s with the GULAGS and Holodomor?

Finding What We’re Looking For

In the 1920's, an American anthropologist (and a libertine) Margaret Mead traveled to Samoa and wrote a book about the wonderfully relaxed islander girls who have healthy, satisfying sex life and never experience an adolescent crisis. Her conclusion was that Western children are harmed by puritanical mores.

In the 1980's, Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman released his own study of Samoan adolescents, finding very different attitudes towards premarital sex. He discovered that Mead was hoaxed by two Samoan girls who span tall tales about their sexual escapades. Anthropological establishment hates Freeman.

Since the 1920's Western anthropologists have been on the lookout for some “other” who has a secret to fulfilling sexual life. If Mead was in awe of what we now call the third world women, now we have Ghodsee and the women of the second world. Ghodsee’s argument draws on one 1990's study of orgasm in East and West Germany, interviews with several women in Bulgaria and Germany and selective historical data.

In regard to her understanding of history, I want to first quote a correction to the op-ed:

An opinion essay last week about Eastern European women’s lives under Communism misattributed responsibility for enacting women’s suffrage in Russia in 1917. It was achieved under the provisional government in July, not by the Bolsheviks, who did not seize power until November.

Soviet Promises, and Reality

Now that we got the natural rights bit out of the way, let’s discuss the list of goodies the Warsaw Pact countries gave to their women: education, guaranteed employment, maternity leaves, pre-schools and abortions. Ghodsee is convinced that all these goodies freed women to pursue romance.

For an honest look at the everyday life of a Soviet woman I strongly suggest Natalya Baranskaya’s classic 1968 novella A Week Like Any Other. It’s protagonist, Olya, is an educated and ambitious young Soviet mother attempting to balance work and family, and failing.

One of the downsides of the socialist-style, top-down women’s lib was that although many men had no objection to their women entering the workforce, they still refused to share in housekeeping duties. Ghodsee mentioned reeducation classes for men (we call those workshops or retreats) but those typically fell on deaf years. Soviet men did no woman’s work. Olya’s husband who is, by Russian standards, a good husband (that is, educated and sober) feels free to make the most insulting jokes about his wife’s double shift.

That’s in the Soviet Union, and I’m in no position to speak of other Eastern European countries. I want to borrow the authority of Czechoslovak-born supermodel Paulina Porizkova:

In Czechoslovakia, women came home from a long day of work to cook, clean and serve their husbands. In return, those women were cajoled, ignored and occasionally abused, much like domestic animals. But they were mentally unstable domestic animals, like milk cows that could go berserk you if you didn’t know exactly how to handle them.

That’s also from a New York Times op-ed, by the way.

There’s an old Soviet joke describing the Soviet workplace: “We pretend that we work, and they pretend that they pay us”. Many families found it impossible to make the ends meet on the government salary alone and turned to black market gigs to supplement their incomes. In the late 80’s in particular, when due to poor Soviet management the country was hit with inflation, it wasn’t unusual for women to work triple shifts: one at the government work, another at a paid gig, and then a third one at home.

Ghodsee insists that her informant in Bulgaria had plenty of money working a government job and, being a single mother, didn’t need any man to support her. She felt free to pursue romance. Interesting. It must had been very different in Bulgaria.

When middle class American families occupy stand-alone houses with yards, Soviet families lived in overcrowded high rises with in-laws and, quite often, roommate families. Communal living was typical, apartment shortage, common. I suppose communal apartments presented plenty of opportunities for amorous exploits, though I’m not sure it counts for better sex life.

The crown jewel of today’s mainstream feminism is abortion. Soviet women had lots and lots of them, the official number was between 6 and 7 over the lifetime, but that was largely because Soviet women couldn’t figure out how, even with parents and grandparents working around the clock, to feed another mouth. In other words, nothing to celebrate.

Abortion wasn’t free — not exactly. Illegal abortions were expensive and unsafe. If a woman wanted a safe abortion with anesthesia, she’d have to bribe a doctor. In the novel The Free World Canadian writer David Bezmozgis writes about a Soviet Jewish family immigrating to the West. In a subplot he describes a woman pressured into abortion by her boyfriend who then pays for it with a jar of caviar. It’s a rare literary treatment of a common Soviet malady done with an anthropologist’s eye.

It’s true that the government provided for education (not counting the bribes to college admissions, etc.) and arranged employment. However, with the government bureaucracy in charge of the process, the people didn’t have very much choice in it. Soviet women ended up in jobs they didn’t particularly like or want, even if they put a high priority on personal life and would have preferred to stay home with their children. It was widely believed that women were too distracted by family and were generally inferior to men, therefore managerial roles and prestigious positions were typically reserved for the stronger sex.

Our mothers did have arrangements to drop us off in government pre-schools once their maternity leaves ran out. Maternity leaves were generous to be sure, nine months, if I remember correctly, but one problem with maternity leaves is that, unless they extend to high school graduation, they are never generous enough.

I remember really wanting to go to a pre-school, and then hating it as soon as I started. I hated everything about it: the gross food they served, the bullies running around unchecked, the long naptime, having to sit at the desk with some boy as a partner. That was one of the best pre-schools in the city in the late 1970's.

Corporal punishment was widespread. One of the teachers once slapped me so hard for not wanting to eat their soup, my nose bled. Bright red drops were floating in the bowl. When I told my mom about it a few years ago, she was flabbergasted and asked how come I didn’t tell her at the time. Soviet mothers didn’t know that five-year-old kids don’t tell on adults. Nobody educated them to be good consumers of childcare — or good consumers of anything.

So, yes, on paper Soviet Union looked great for women: education, work, more work, more work, abortion, leaving kids in an institution that wouldn’t be allowed to operate in the United States. Wonderful. Go out and pleasure yourself. I’m surprised that Ghodsee, a Berkeley-trained anthropologist, took Soviet propaganda textbook for background information instead of looking into a more people-centered social history or taking a folkloric approach.

Hindsight Through Rose-Colored Glasses

Ghodsee interviewed several women who waxed nostalgic about their sex lives “under” socialism and pitied their daughters who, they said, are too tired and busy for sexual fulfillment. As a student of Soviet nostalgia Ghodsee should know: memories are imprecise and selective. To quote an old Soviet song: “When we were young and spewed beautiful nonsense, blue fountains splashed and red roses bloomed.”

We in the Soviet Union didn’t necessarily know we had sex at all, let alone that we had better sex.

In the late 80's, during Perestroika, US-Soviet TV bridges with live audience in the USSR on one end and the US on the other became popular. Or at least they were popular on the Soviet side. There was an audience of Soviets and an audience of Americans, all ordinary people, presumably, discussing their concerns on live TV. During one such broadcast personal life was the subject matter and when the discussion turned to intimacy, one very Soviet middle age lady named Ludmila Ivanova got up and said: “There’s no sex in our country!” Younger generations could not stop laughing, naturally. I’m sure Mrs. Ivanova had plenty of sex in her own time, she just didn’t know what the word meant and she wanted to let American audiences know that there was no pornography in the Soviet Union.

There was a lot of odd modesty, if we can even call it that. For instance, young women wearing something showy, and not necessarily even “slutty”, rely on being berated by some babushkas sitting on a bench in the courtyard of their apartments. On the other hand, parents were too shy to have a birds and bees talks until it was too late — if ever.

None of it prevented loose behavior, of course. In part, because Soviet-style modesty lacked a tangible enforcement mechanism, in part because alcoholism contributed to loosening of sexual mores and in part as an escape from the public and political.

I’m not sure how accurate a comparative sociological study of female orgasm in East and West Germany can possibly be and why it should be projected into the whole Eastern Europe. But if the female “other” behind the Iron Curtain enjoyed a better sex life, it’s probably not because of some sort of superior socialist organization but because we had more constraints on sex while the West was liberated.

Ghodsee’s best source, a Bulgarian woman named Ana Duracheva said: “The Republic (misnomer for the socialist Bulgaria) gave me my freedom, Democracy took some of that freedom away.” And that is just sad. Here in America no political entity gives us freedom; liberty is God-given. Some in Eastern Europe don’t get it. No wonder they are nostalgic for the “good old days” of socialism. What a care-free serfdom it was!

Some Americans don’t get it either, which is a much, much bigger problem.

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