Where have all the babushkas gone?

Forget marrying a rich American: for the Russian middle-class woman, a better life means aerobics and Benetton. Foreigners may bewail the power of international capital, but elegance and the money with which to purchase it were precisely what was not available under dull utilitarian communism.

One of the strongest fashion trends this winter – or so my newspaper tells me – is going to be Russian style. The term may appear self-explanatory, at least in Chelsea and Knightsbridge, but for someone like me, who views Russia from a variety of angles, some further information is required. I am relieved, therefore, when I read on and find that the new vogue does not dictate baggy polyester and headscarves, for Russian is no longer synonymous with Soviet. What the fashion editors have in mind are hand-embroidered gowns, floor-length coats, and lots of fur. If we consumers do as we are told, there will be sheepskin everywhere by November. The theme is Julie Christie’s Lara in the film version of Dr Zhivago, not street-sweeper chic.

It is unlikely that many Russian customers will buy into the trend. The days of fake Levis and printed tee shirts may be gone, but fashion-conscious Muscovites still look to France and Italy, not Russia, for their inspiration. To verify this, you only have to visit Moscow’s refurbished Passazh, the gleaming mall near the Petrovsky Boulevard, you only have to wander down the hill towards the former TsUM, which these days makes Bond Street seem cheap, or better still, to toy with Kenzo and Dior among the tinkling fountains and crystal at GUM. “She won’t be able to afford anything here,” I overheard a Russian woman hissing to her friend when I last did exactly this. “She’s obviously English.”

GUM, which in its revamped glamour now hosts regular international fashion shows, holds special memories for me. In 1983, embarking on a month-long language course, I decided to beat the Soviet winter blues (and to compensate for the unreliability of the hot water in my hotel) by visiting the steam baths, the banya, in Neglinnaya Street. Regulars there assured me that I had to bring a woolly hat (the steam, they said, would induce headaches otherwise) and a pair of rubber flip-flops. The first I borrowed, but the second called for a shopping trip, and I set off for nearby GUM. It takes an effort to believe it now, but back in those forgotten days the store’s top sellers included glum-faced matryoshka dolls, nylon tablecloths, and outsize coats. Many of its stalls, indeed, were empty, since the mighty planned economy could not produce sufficient meretricious tat to fill the huge glass space. When I stumbled upon the one shop that displayed women’s shoes, I had to bargain, not about the price, which was modest, but about my suitability as a purchaser. There was nothing unusual about this, either. “We didn’t win the war,” I was once told by a stallholder, “so that people like you could buy our things.” The GUM vendor ended up throwing the rubber shoes at me.

Had I decided to take up swimming instead of steaming myself, I discovered, my problems would have been far worse. As if to confirm that state industry could produce plenty of fabric for all, the only size that costumes seemed to come in then was vast. Today, those awesome heaps of nylon, like the empty shops, are just a memory. Assuming that I could afford the prices, in fact, I might now have more trouble finding something large enough to fit my English frame. The ideal shape and weight for women in Russia has shrunk dramatically since communism’s fall. Diets rule the lives of millions, while classes in aerobics, power yoga, and something called “shaping” draw regiments of devotees. “We don’t eat after six,” a young colleague informed me recently. “Sometimes I don’t eat lunch either. You get used to it.”

The way you look at all this depends in part on politics. It would be easy to equate the dictatorship of fashion with capitalist exploitation, the (literally) naked outlines of which were evident in the early days of market liberalization 15 years ago. Like parts of South America before it, eastern Europe’s transition to democracy began with free elections and inflation before progressing to pornography. Women’s bodies, so recently encased in overalls, were now stripped bare and used to sell commodities. In a cash-poor but sensation-hungry economy, the breasts and bottoms were more likely to adorn key rings and matchboxes than sports cars, but so much flesh dangled from eye-level metal pegs and stall fronts in 1991 that a walk in a Moscow street market was a little like blundering through a butcher’s cold store just before Christmas. Few women welcomed such exploitative vulgarity – though journalists alleged that a poll of schoolgirls had established that the career most aspired to follow was hard-currency prostitute – but the prudishness of Soviet public life was blown away at last.

Those early years of transition also revealed something about the true nature of Soviet equality. Pornography, after all, assigns women a passive, almost mindless role, while teenagers can only want to be high-earning tarts (or trophy wives) if they see no more fulfilling (let alone exciting) possibilities for their working lives. In Soviet times, though supposedly equal, women had learned to accept lower average pay and poorer prospects than men, as well as shouldering the extra burdens of housework and childcare. Meanwhile, Russian culture was steeped in chauvinism and awash with alcohol, which meant that women’s emancipation too often amounted to the freedom to do manual work for poor wages and then clean up after a drunken, faithless, or at best unappreciative man. There were almost no female politicians, few high-flyers in film-making or literature, almost no women diplomats. Women were not considered important enough to deserve glamour, or even pairs of jeans in their own size. They were the majority of the population, and in many cases the most dedicated shoppers, but their tastes and sensitivities had never given party bosses pause. It took a while – some years – before New Russian commerce woke up to the power of the female purse. Meanwhile, millions of teenagers, brought up to expect little at home, cherished their private dreams of rich Americans, escape.

A version of that coddled, secondary role is still a fantasy for plenty of my Russian friends. It might be nice to chuck the job, pay someone else to do the housework and devote one’s time to manicures and lingerie. “Those shoes,” a friend gasped as we stood outside a storefront in the black November slush one afternoon. She pointed to a pair of exquisitely impractical winter sandals, velvet covered and sporting a feather on one of the straps. “They would be just perfect for stepping from one Mercedes into another.” We laughed in disbelief but also in solidarity, for these days we are equals, both of us women who make their own choices. A market researcher, expert in the changing whims of Russia’s consumers, she drives an Opel and she paid for it herself. The first years of the post-Soviet experiment may have been overshadowed by the values of the past, and it is still no easy matter for women to make their way in Russia’s semi-criminal economy, but at least there is more to life than grooming oneself up for a late night’s work in a bar.

As women’s prospects have changed, so has the market that must service them. Russia’s super-rich may well be all that keeps haute couture from bankruptcy, but its middle class now shops at Benetton and Next. You don’t have to marry an American any more, in other words. If you have a job, you can probably buy the handbag or the new jacket yourself. Some foreigners may shrug, bewailing false consciousness and the power of international capital. But when it comes to beauty, to the small things that lift the spirit, almost every former Soviet female agrees. “We don’t want the Palace of Culture named for Lenin,” a protest song of the 1980s insisted. “We want the Theatre of Fashion named for Nina Ricci.” Choice, elegance, something to enchant and distract the eye – those were the things that dull utilitarian communism always overlooked.

I don’t live a velvet kind of life and I won’t buy the fur, but I do applaud Russia’s women. For generations, they were prisoners in a society dedicated to drabness, the presiding spirits of which, from brown-suited Lenin to stodgy Mr Brezhnev, gave no encouragement to the feminine. There were queues for everything, appalling sanitary and medical provisions, unrelenting work. It is amazing that millions kept their dignity, carved out a personal style, despite it all. “We always tried to do something,” women veterans of the Red Army have told me. “We would do our hair nicely, or make a skirt out of blankets. It was important.” It was important in the 1980s, too, when friends would contrive stunning outfits, cutting, sewing, saving. The ugly dresses and rubber shoes that I saw in the shops could rot there as far as they were concerned. If Russian style could really mean cultivating a discerning individuality, contriving beauty in a difficult and often ugly world – well, that would be worth queuing for this

Published 13 February 2006
Original in English
First published by Index on Censorhip 4/2005

Contributed by Index on Censorship   © Catherine Merridale / Index on Censorhip / Eurozine


Published in

Share article


Subscribe to know what’s worth thinking about.