As some of you might know, this past Sunday, March 8th, was International Women’s Day. In Russia, this is a national holiday that comes with a Monday off of work and lots and lots of tulips. Like a combination of Mothers’ Day and Valentine’s Day, International Women’s Day is a holiday to celebrate all women and their accomplishments, achievements, and contributions to the family and society. Women of all roles, positions, and classes are celebrated with flowers, sweets, dinner, or some other method of saying “thank you.” Restaurants and stores hold sales and specials during the days leading up to March 8th, and it is easily one of the most widely recognized and honored holidays in the calendar. Both men and other women buy gifts for mothers, teachers, daughters, grandmothers, girlfriends, etc. As a foreigner without any blood relatives here, I wasn’t really expecting anything for the holiday. However, when I arrived home today I found my bed laundered and made, my laundry piles folded, and a vase of three tulips on my freshly cleaned desk, all from my host mother and brother. These gestures, which I could have been baffled by or at least found mildly invasive, served to remind me that even though I am not a blood relative of Svetlana and Sasha, they have taken me into their home and treated me not as a guest, but as a family member who deserves beautiful tulips on Women’s Day like the rest of the family. Though on most occasions, such as Valentine’s Day, I would prefer chocolate over flowers (one dies, the other is edible and delicious), the symbolism of the red and yellow tulips, so cheerfully occupying a vase on my desk, is not only a gesture of thanks and appreciation, but also a celebration of the coming spring, something I’m waiting for with baited breath.
Of course, even though she is not my birth mother, I absolutely had to give Svetlana, my host mother, a gift as well. While I did not get the chance to buy her a souvenir or trinket in Saint Petersburg, where I spent the weekend, I made sure to pick up three (even numbers are only for funerals) yellow tulips for her on my way home from the train station.
Women play a variety of different roles in Russian society: mother, grandmother, teacher, caretaker, housekeeper, cook, boss, worker…the list goes on. However, as far as I can tell, one idea remains fairly constant in the collective Russian attitude towards women. Women take care of the house and the home, and men take care of them. This idea may seem a bit outmoded to some Americans, but the sentiment of “men must care for women,” is prevalent in many aspects of society. For example, I’ve had doors held for me, bags carried, drinks paid for, and generally have been treated very well, if much more delicately than I usually appreciate. My interactions with Russian men have ranged from positive to entertaining to offensive but hilarious, and unlike some of my friends, I’ve had the good fortune to have thus far had no encounters with aggressive Russian “alpha males,” to whom no means yes for a much longer time and with much more persistence than American males could ever dream of mustering.
Regardless, women here face an interesting paradox. Men see them as weaker and less capable–a return to “traditional” values–but it is the women who hold together the home, the family, and often also earn the money. My host mother, though in her seventies, still works as a doctor, cooks dinner every night, and manages to care for both herself and those around her, including this hungry, frazzled American. Her daily routine reminds me of an anecdote my Russian professor told me last year, which ends by stating: “Women do everything, men do all the rest.” While this is clearly not always the case, especially these days, it lends a certain insight into the psyche and ideals of the Russian consciousness and the national perception of women, who can and must do everything they can, except carry their own bags home from the store. Russian women in particular deserve to be celebrated for this reason, because as I’ve made very clear, they truly deserve it. No matter how society views women, whether as helpless dolls, empowered Amazons, or somewhere in between, their contributions to the world we live in are not only useful, but absolutely necessary for life and survival.
Three of the five ACTR girls on the ice in Petersburg! While I don’t have a picture of my flowers (they’re wilted now), this picture was taken on Women’s Day!