There are so many—so many women I've met, so many stories I've heard—and so many warnings I was given, warnings that came down to the same fear, "I don't want my family to know. I don't want my relatives to hear what I think. I don't want my friends to jeer at me, get disappointed in me, point fingers at me. I don't want any trouble." And yet all of them were talking to me, for hours, often stumbling over words, unable to stop. They all wanted to share. They wanted their stories to be heard. And I told them I'll make them heard. I asked if it was okay for me to write their stories down and post them on my blog. Some women happily agreed. Others told me it's okay only if I change their names. Some flat out refused. The stories they told were not always their own—they were stories of their girlfriends, their sisters, mothers, aunts. Stories like the stories Lyudmila Petrushevskaya was writing down, stories forbidden to be published in the Soviet Union because they revealed the ugly truth our government didn't want people to know. These stories still happen today. Stories connected to today's atrocities like the recent law change in Russia that made domestic abuse not a criminal offense but an administrative one. If Putin signs it, it will mean only concussions of broken bones will lead to criminal charges. Think about it for a second. And now think why these women were afraid of me sharing their stories. In light of this I have decided to write all of them anonymously, changing names and genders of their children or friends where I saw appropriate, retaining original stories in such a way that it wouldn't pose danger to the women who shared them with me. If you see anything that reminds you of someone you know, it's because these stories are typical. Which is a tragedy. These stories are our stories, no matter where we live. These women are us, and so the names don't really matter.
Most stories even started the same. Many women who wanted to meet with me couldn't get away from their kids—they were unable to secure time alone. "Just had a fight with my husband," was one greeting I got. "My husband's plans changed," was another. "I don't have anyone to leave my baby with," was another common one, not because there were no grandparents or babysitters, but because there was no husband, or any father figure whatsoever. "I had my baby for me. I realized that if I wait any longer, I might not want any kids at all." Often there is no money to hire someone, and daycares aren't trusted. As are schools. As is any hired help, unless it's a friend or a friend of a friend. Or a relative, provided there is no familial conflict which is a typical bitter standard.
I'll start with Marina. Marina has a beautiful baby girl Elizaveta who is just beginning to walk. Marina said she has decided not to give Elizaveta any vaccination shots. She landed on a risk list and was visited by Органы Опеки (Child Protection Services). They looked over Elizaveta and the apartment, to make sure it was suitable for a child, and they told Marina she's on a risk list now. She has heard from friends that if a neighbor complains, say, of crying noises, or maybe seeing the mother spank her child, the CPS people will be back and can take the child away. For abuse. Or it could be for neglect—if you don't have a crib, for example. Marina doesn't have one because she doesn't want one. She's scared she'll have to borrow one, in case they show up. The law is slippery, and mothers live in fear. "It's like 1984 in real life," Marina said. "I don't want my daughter to have shots. Why can't I make this decision for my own child? What's criminal about it? I want to escape the city, to live on land. I want to own my own land, grow things myself, and live on my own. I don't want any neighbors, don't want anyone bothering me. But I can't do it. Because I'm a woman. A woman living alone in a remote area with a baby..." She didn't finish the sentence. "I have friends who are anarchists, the Tolstoy type. I've lived in communes before. If one voice was against a decision, that decision wasn't made. I only trust other people, my friends. Nobody else."
Marina planned to have a baby. But many women with whom I talked didn't. Two, in particular, had their babies after they'd decided to part with their husbands. Both had grown children, teenagers and older. Their stories are so identical, I'll combine them into one, and I'll call this one combined woman Yelena. Yelena complained to me some years ago that she couldn't stand her husband. Not only did he cheat, he had trouble with work, lazed about on the couch and drank himself stupid, so she frankly wanted to kill him. He drove her up the wall. But then, they went on a holiday. It began with him becoming a "holiday dad." He visited on weekends and holidays, bringing gifts, taking Yelena and their son to places, and on those days Yelena could stand him better. Then on one such holiday, after some good food and a few drinks, she forgot she hated his guts and ended up pregnant. She decided to keep the baby and quit her work. It brought them together, she said. "It was like a new cement. I don't need him. Why the fuck do I need him? Drunk out of his mind, staring at TV. But with a new baby boy we suddenly got busy. It's like a mire, it sucked us both in, and how could I part with him then? I spent half my life with him. I'm used to him." "Are you happy?" I asked. Yelena balked. "How can I answer that? He's family now. If I cut him off, it's like I will cut off a part of myself." So after their second son was born, they moved in back together. But when we tried to schedule a meeting, she couldn't get away from her three-year-old son. Her husband wasn't available to watch him. Yet when alter I came over to her apartment, he was home doing nothing, while she was cooking, looking after their son, entertaining me, and barely sitting down for a moment, hovering around in an apron. "I have a house full of boys," she joked. And there was sadness behind the joke. The household is sitting on her shoulders, and she's working and providing for her family while her husband has been out of work for the last two years. "Why don't you dye your gray hair?" she asked me. "I don't like how it grows out later, the roots," I said. Only later did I think I should've said, "Gray hair is beautiful, Yelena, that's why," but by then it was too late. Yet today one woman in a souvenir shop told me, "I like it how you're wearing your gray hair and not dyeing it." I said, "Thank you. I think gray hair is beautiful." She was surprised at my words, and we talked about the role of the woman in Russia, her value that's placed on her beauty, much more so than in America, with women forced to wear furs (I haven't seen that much fur in a long time—nearly every second woman was wearing a fur coat and a fur hat), heels, and thin tights in freezing weather, checking themselves in mirrors and shop windows and fixing their hair and makeup in restrooms. "Mademoiselle!" A man clad in boyar's coat grabbed me by the arm in the street, by GUM. "Let's take a picture together! For memory!" I wriggled my arm out. "No, thank you."
It was good to see more women dressed for comfort rather than trying to look beautiful—three years ago, when I visited last, it wasn't the case. One of these women was Nina, dressed in a comfy puffy coat with a hood, wearing underneath it a simple sweater, jeans and sneakers. Her story is that of a civil husband (they never married) who came and went for close to twenty-five years, dangling her a carrot of a possibility of it all working out (i.e., marriage), showing up one moment, disappearing another, siring two daughters in the meantime, and then suddenly marrying another woman whom he just met. Nina said, "I still love him, I guess. It's been years now, but I can't seem to be able to move on. He doesn't give me money for my girls either. Instead, he brings groceries twice a month. He doesn't trust me with money. Thinks I'll spend it on something stupid. Can you believe it?" She laughed a small bitter laugh. She works full time, pulling the household herself. She has a beautiful apartment, living there with her mother and two daughters. "Do you regret it?" I asked. "No," she said. "But sometimes I'm so mad at him. Why couldn't he just be honest with me?"
Another story is that of Valentina. Valentina had a son with her husband. She is very small; her husband is very tall, almost twice her size. The baby was so big, she had to deliver him via a c-section. When she decided she wanted a second child, it took her over two years to talk her husband into adopting a baby. He was very much against it at first, dismissing the whole idea as ridiculous. ("Why would we want someone else's child??") But Valentina was afraid of getting fat and of having another c-section. She wanted a baby girl, and she wanted to keep her husband. "It was fate," she said. She got a call from the adopting agency, and the baby was barely a few weeks old. She was very happy, but she dreaded what her husband might say. He saw the baby and fell in love with her, and so Valentina was lucky to keep her figure and not have another c-section, but their friends and relatives still frown upon the decision, seeing darkness in the baby's complexion, claiming there is "southern" blood mixed in, and overall not being happy with the adoption as a concept. Valentina so far was able to ignore the naysayers.
Galya's story is that of a marriage to a man from Turkey who married her to be docile, cook for him, clean for him, and produce children. "Turkish men love marrying Russian women," her friend Sveta said. "Because Turkish women are very independent and are fighting for their rights nowadays. They wouldn't let men treat them this way. So they turn to Russian women." Galya's husband would yell at Galya for making his tea too weak. And she would take it. "She looks ten years older than she is," Sveta said, shaking her head. "It's her own fault, really. She lets him treat her this way, and she says nothing and takes it. He picked her because she is silent and she works. All Russian women are this way. And no Turkish woman would marry before she is thirty years old and has established her career. And we Russian women?" She looked away. "We're told we're old maids at twenty-five."
These ideas about marrying young are implanted in young girls' minds by their own mothers who are terrified that their girls will end up alone, old crazy spinsters. The story of Katya is such a story. Her mother controlled her life to the point of picking her wardrobe. "You have to marry before you turn twenty-five or no one will take you," she told Katya. "Don't buy books. Don't go anywhere. Study and get yourself ready for a good husband." Katya went to study in London and there she has met a man she fell in love with, another student. He was a successful broker, made a lot of money. She wanted to elope with him, but it would mean giving up her studies for which her parents have paid. So Katya dutifully broke off the relationship and successfully graduated, then returned to Russia and is now still living with her parents. She is thirty, and her mother berates her constantly for not having married on time, as though Katya's life is over.
There are many more stories, and I will continue sharing them in the next post, Part 2. And maybe even Part 3. For now I'll stop. Finished typing this while sitting in Sheremetyevo airport, waiting for boarding to New York. Share your stories below, and ask questions. I'll try to answer as many as I can. XOXO