Soviet Femininities: Nadezhda Krupskaya

When yesterday a young woman sat next to me on a metro train in Moscow, she cleared space around herself, pushing me aside, and spread her legs comfortably. She was talking on a mobile phone – loud and clear, – swearing occasionally. Her manner left an impression she was speaking to her “man.” No one but me paid attention. Another young woman stood in front of me. She had a long dark hair and her delicate hands were holding a “serious” book, judging by the cover. She was not wearing any make-up, her shoes were retro, and her skirt could have been worn with the same success a hundred years ago.


As far away as these femininities are from each other, they represent the remnants of the wide Soviet spread, and both used to be acceptable across social strata. Not as some kind of subcultures, but just as a large pot of Soviet soup. Surprise-surprise: we were not all the same! As I become older, I continue to appreciate the variety. On the train I was on my way to meet with old girlfriends and asked them whether these various types were still recognizable, and they quickly confirmed that these were still reproduced in new generations.


The first lady of the USSR, Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya (1969-1939), was probably a pioneer of a type of “comrade femininity,” which I fancy. It’s a pity not much known about her in the English-speaking world (unlike Alexandra Kollontai). Lenin’s wife did not swear in public, as my train neighbor did, but no one would call her charming or, as an idiom goes, “easy on the eye.” She was Lenin’s comrade, a friend in the struggle. She was his companion. And she was not insignificant. She spent years in Siberian exile and prisons (they actually got married in Tsar’s Gulag), in Europe helping the revolutionary work, and after the Bolshevik Revolution she studied the boy scouts movement to create a similar organization with the communist content for Soviet children, which she did, and in which I participated fifty years later.


There are lots of libraries named after her, literary and educational prizes, and a chicken farm. Though one recent study claimed that her bad cooking contributed to Lenin’s high cholesterol (because she only made eggs), no one is taking Krupskaya’s name off the streets in Russian cities. This was the first Soviet role model for women: no reference to cooking, no make up, no charm, no children, and a lot of commitment to revolutionary work. Just imagine a first lady like that.