Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

The Sociopolitical Role of Motherhood in Russian Cinema

Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

The Sociopolitical Role of Motherhood in Russian Cinema

Article excerpt

The relationship between motherhood and society is universally complex, but even more so in the Russian context. The building of Communism altered women's social role, and the fall of Communism in 1991 altered it again. Before 1991 women were deemed worker-mothers--builders of both the national economy and the nuclear family. In return, they received assistance from the state, including free education, access to paid work, flee nursery schools, generous maternity leaves, and medical care. The state deemed domestic work as women's "natural" domain. Men, by contrast, had a higher social status, but narrower roles in the building of Communism. The Communist Party devoted great attention to the role of women because the rearing of the new Soviet generation was in their hands. Motherhood was glorified as a form of civic duty. But this fusion of two roles, worker and mother in one person, was doubly onerous: A typical week in which a typical mother juggled both professional and family responsibilities was described by Natalia Baranskaia in the groundbreaking book, Nedelia kak nedelia in 1969. By taking on traditionally male functions in addition to their female roles, women were turned into a third sex (Attwood 352-57). The political priority of women's over men's social responsibility elevated the agenda of women in Soviet society, while marginalizing men's role in harnessing the family to societal change. The role of fathers in raising children was mentioned very rarely in the press; they appeared only in a negative capacity, in connection with abandonment or alimony (Issoupova 38).

During wartime, the maternal figure also served as a symbol of the nation. In the Soviet era, Mother Russia was portrayed as a monumental and heroic figure, with large statues honoring her--as, for example, Rodina the largest free-standing statue in Europe atop Mamaev Hill in Volgograd, the City of Heroes. Even in post-Soviet Russia, a whole issue of the journal Moskvichka (No. 17, 1996) was devoted to this theme, and was rich in heroic maternal imagery during the Chechnya war. One Chechen mother appealed to Russian mothers: "Dear Russian women, take your sons from Chechnya and we will take our sons"--a plea which implied both maternal love and national authority (Issoupova 44-45).

Yet despite this legacy, much did change after the fall of USSR. An analysis of articles in journals such as Materinstvo showed that maternity was no longer a state function. The concept of duty was replaced with individual choice and responsibility. Before 1991, a large family was viewed as a heroic service to the motherland. Now, as responsibility for reproduction shifted to the private sphere, some considered child-bearing ill-thought, self-indulgent, and impoverishing. Pleasure was now private, as was financial responsibility. Women's contraception beyond abortion was now discussed in the press, whereas abortion used to be the sole contraception method before 1991 (Issoupova 40-42). The collapse of state support now made almost impossible the Communist-inspired role of a worker-mother.

Several factors made the worker-mother motif more exaggerated in the Soviet context than in the West:

1) The women's liberation movement of the 1960s in the U.S. did not take root in the US SR (Field 609). Even today "institutionalized feminism is an unfamiliar phenomenon" (Attwood 354); both men and women in Russia deem child rearing and housework to be female responsibilities.

2) Soviet society was more puritanical about feminine issues. It was considered uncultured to talk publicly about abortion, contraception, feminine hygiene, or pregnancy, and so Russian women lacked American women's degree of information and control over their bodies. Erotica, too, had no place in discourse or in film (Brashinsky and Horton 14).

3) The Russian babushka was central in helping her working daughter to rear the grandchildren. She thus substituted for Western household conveniences, such as a washing machine, microwave, cutup meat packages, convenient supermarkets, a car, and other liberating devices, lacking even today in much of Russia. …

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