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.

Putin’s Soap Operas

I noticed a new trend in Russian soap operas: the small town folk theme. Townspeople are now the main characters, and a small town, a cross between a city and a village, is their backdrop. These new productions rely on multiple layers of cinematic familiarity. First, they have the same features as pre-war Soviet, Stalinist films: shiny and aestheticized old-style machines (ambulances, household products, tools, all local, not imported), women and men with pure and noble souls, often expressed through reserved sexuality or simply the absence of sex, just kisses and repressed hugs, and of course, bad characters are selfish and wear mini-skirts.


Second, the only food eaten by these Russian souls is Russian. TV ads interrupt this goodness with their offerings of Italian pasta and Asian noodles. Just as the ads fade on our Japanese- and Chinese-made screens, the audience can switch back to pre-imported life. The characters do not shop in supermarkets, they are rarely seen shopping at all (another familiar trope of evil consumerism). When food appears, it’s usually presented as a blessing from “the grandma’s garden.” The table with familiar all-Russian offerings is the only table around.


And of course, the aesthetic familiarity of Russian extended communal life. Everyone is helping each other, lending money, time, expressing care and non-stop concern. A woman-cleaner notices something bad is going on behind a building, and immediately calls the police. She knows the policeman by name and they save lives. A lead character works tirelessly and faints from fatigue because she is so devoted to her community. A man only thinks about larger good and not sure how to reconcile this communal ethic with his all-to-selfish love for the simply dressed, always ordered-hair, heroine. Non-Russians are nowhere to be seen. Come to think of it, no references are made to the outside world either. No one is watching current news on TV, or playing computer games. They do use cell phones though.


These small towns look like phantom territories from Shaymalan’s films. TV crime dramas, often set in large cities and popularized in the 1990s, are considered now as too rough for Putin’s Russia. The government-controlled channels want to present a softer, better image of the country. On the other hand, if one shows a Russian village with only kind doctors, sober tractor drivers, unpolished but quaint surroundings and working machinery, Russian audiences would laugh out loud. This is a smartly constructed non-land of Russianness that has never been and will never be.


For an American counterpart, I would suggest Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. “Townspeople” in this series also act as a backdrop for topics that frequently take on nation building themes. Their main audiences (let me make a wild guess here) are white / Russian women of reproductive or peri-menopausal age, drawn to the emotional side of nation building on television: a love story. If children and extended family are involved, it’s for the better as there are even more opportunities for tearful moments. They are well done, I must say. I found myself crying.