Chapter 7: Men and Women


(NB: All of the images in this chapter are used for purely illustrative purposes. No implications are intended about the individuals in the pictures.)

Since the collapse of the communist system with its restrictions on travel for the vast majority of Russians, many more people in the West have encountered Russians than they ever did before. This has contributed to caricature images of ‘the average’ Russian man and woman. In this caricature, the average man is short and stocky, with no neck and a face like a prize fighter. This stereotype has persisted from Soviet times. The Soviet leaders (all of whom were men) were the Russian men most seen by the West; and neither Nikita Khrushchev nor an ageing Leonid Brezhnev did anything to dispel that image.

The caricature of the Russian woman, however, has changed dramatically. Before Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party (and thus, Soviet leader) the wives of the leadership stayed in the background. The popular image of the Russian woman tended to be either that of an Olympic shot-putter or a round babushka in a headscarf. I used to get incredulous looks from friends when I returned from the Soviet Union in the 1970’s saying how pretty the girls were. But Raisa Gorbacheva helped to change the image; and as more people encountered Russians, the stereotype of the Russian woman became very different: tall, slim, beautiful, with impossibly long legs.

In truth, it is not difficult to find men and women in Russia who fit these stereotypes. Stalin’s repressions saw millions of intelligent and intellectual men wiped out – far more than women – meaning that the average IQ level of Soviet/Russian men dropped significantly. But if women suffered less in this way, they paid for it in other ways.

‘Women’s liberation’ in the USSR meant that women were given the right to work and earn a living, but it did not mean as a result that Soviet men took on their share of the housework or looking after the children. As a result, many women were expected to perform what David Willis (see Sources) calls, ’the second shift’, ‘which requires that before and after their full-time work, they do all the cooking and cleaning of a regular housewife, without the labour-saving conveniences of the Western world.’ (p.170)

Most Russian women today – in the cities at least – can expect to have the labour-saving devices; but in a society which is still very patriarchal, many of them still carry out ‘the second shift’. (For a wry comment on this, see a quotation from Hedrick Smith in the Women section below.) At the time of the financial crash in 2008, there was a joke doing the rounds in the West which said, ‘What’s the definition of an optimist? A banker who irons five shirts on a Sunday evening.’ I got a blank look when I told this to a Russian, until I altered it to, ‘A banker whose wife irons five shirts on a Sunday evening.’

But if many Russian women have to perform most of life’s chores because their men-folk don’t see these tasks as suitable for them, a lot of Russian women don’t have a man about the house. The purges of the 1930’s and the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 saw more men die than women; and in the post-War period – continuing into the present day – the incidence of alcoholism, particularly among men, has led to a high divorce rate and a particularly low life expectancy for men.

Something else which these quotations reveal, though, is that this stereotypical gender imbalance – an abundance of beauty among the women and a lack of it among the men; hard-working, put-upon women and men who do not pull their weight – is not solely the product of the Soviet system. Carl Joubert was writing in 1904, having lived in Russia for nine years in the late nineteenth century and he was already very scathing of Russian men, yet full of praise for the women.






Men

(Image from Dobson, Grove, Stewart)
It is useless to disguise the fact, that all Russian men, from the Holy Tsar downwards, are, with few exceptions, moujiks … A moment of anger, a pair of flashing eyes, an extra glass of stara vodka, will suffice to reduce the polished Russian gentleman to the level of the moujik … It is only by travel in foreign countries that the Russian nobleman loses his moujik manners.
(Joubert, pp.36-38; 1904)

In Russia As It Really Is, Carl Joubert has no hesitation in describing all Russian men as ‘moujiks’ (‘muzhik’ in modern transliterated Russian). There is no direct English translation of the term, although ‘bloke’ is probably the closest word. The implication, though, is clear: it suggests a man who is ignorant and uncultured. Later in the book he launches another scathing attack on the moujik:

His ignorance is colossal; his patience is infinite; his stupidity is profound; and he possesses a humour of his own. Beneath these qualities there is a smouldering fire, which occasionally breaks out, and is at once suppressed by order of the Tsar; but it is never altogether extinguished, and some day it will get beyond control.
(Joubert, p.52; 1904)

The mention of the ‘smouldering fire’ getting ‘beyond control’ turned out to be a deeply prophetic comment. Just a year after Joubert’s book was published, in 1905, the first Revolution broke out; and, even more significantly, 12 years later the smouldering fire completely erupted with the two revolutions of 1917.

Some might say that this next comment from Joubert –

…Alexander II made him a free man in name; but he omitted to teach him what freedom means, and the moujik has never been able to find out for himself
(Joubert, p.55; 1904)

– is still true today. In Soviet times neither the muzhik nor anyone else in society was able to understand what freedom meant. And, despite glimmers of freedom in the 1990’s, it has not appeared since. Many Russians who tasted freedom in the ‘nineties have resorted to the Soviet censor of their youth, which means that they sacrifice freedom of speech or association in order to have a quiet life and perhaps preserve one important freedom – the freedom to travel – that they did not enjoy in Soviet times.

Joubert does have a kind word or two for the muzhik, even if it is as a backhanded compliment, having started by calling him ‘a very stupid fellow’ –

The moujik is a very stupid fellow; but even in his stupidity there is a rough humour, and at times he is very merry. One can never feel dull with him…
  It is as a family man that the moujik shows to the best advantage. He is a good husband and father, and his mother he always places before himself…He is perfectly satisfied with himself, and riches for him are a sufficiency of black bread and salted herrings and a little vodka…He will steal when there is no chance of detection and lie as a matter of course.
(Joubert, pp.56-57; 1904)

– and concluding by saying that he will steal and lie. But the comment that, ‘one can never feel dull with him’ took me back to an incident in Tatarstan in 1992.

I was there gathering material for a radio programme. Taking a break because it was a public holiday, my local helpers took me for a picnic in the countryside outside Kazan. A local man, Engel, came upon us. Undoubtedly, he was attracted by the vodka bottle, but we fell into conversation. He then took us back to his lonely house on the edge of a wood, where he stoked up the banya (bath-house). Much drinking was done and toasts were raised to friendship. Before we left, Engel scribbled a note for me, which I still have. It reads, ‘Don’t forget, friend! The years go by, but may friendship last forever. With deep respect, Engel.’ (He had been named after Friedrich Engels, one of the authors of The Communist Manifesto. As a way of trying to divert people’s attention from religion and ‘Christian names’, the Soviet authorities encouraged people to use the names of the Communist greats, or even words linked to industrialisation, such as ‘Tractor’!) Engel had shown one of the great traits of Russians: boundless hospitality.

Time and again one comes across examples which suggest that if you scratch a Russian man you will find the muzhik below. The anonymous woman whose diary was published as A Woman In Berlin, which recounts the horrific tales of the mass rape of German women which took place when the Soviet Army reached Berlin at the end of April and beginning of May 1945, (and who had visited the USSR before the War) makes the trenchant observation that,

Western traditions of chivalry and gallantry never made it to Russia.
(Anonymous, p.90; 1945)

(Image from Dobson, Grove,
Stewart)
As the narrative explains, this is not simply because of the vile behaviour of many of the all-conquering Soviet soldiers at that moment. The diary contains many surprisingly dispassionate and very astute observations about the Russians’ behaviour. And the attitude to women of many Russian men was described 40 years later by David Willis:

Russian men…expect their wives to stay out of the way, to shop, clean, and cook, to bear and look after the children, and to fulfil their conjugal duties on demand. In the tradition of a thousand years of Russian history, the man drinks enormous quantities of 90-proof vodka or illegal home brews (samogon) and is often drunk and abusive at home. He spends most nights with his male friends rather than with his wife and children. Wives, on the other hand, are expected to be sober, modest, virtuous, and uncomplaining.
(Willis, p.168; 1985)

Sadly, it would not be difficult still to find such examples 30 years on. Even official statistics acknowledge that between 12,000 and 14,000 women are killed in Russia each year because of domestic violence. And in the parts of Ukraine occupied by Russia in 2014, there are accounts of women being told to sit at home, subjected to curfews, and even being publicly beaten and humiliated if they broke these rules.

Writing in the early twentieth century, Hugh Stewart suggests that changes for the worse in Russian peasant men came about only in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, which may be somewhat fanciful.

(Image from Dobson,
Grove, Stewart)
Within recent years the fine physical type of the Great Russian has somewhat deteriorated through insufficient nourishment. He is a tall, well-built man with a singularly dignified face, broad brow and nose, small eyes, white teeth, and flowing beard. His movements are grave, and yet capable of extreme vivacity. In speaking he uses lively gesticulations. The mass of light brown hair is parted in the middle, and shaved off behind at the nape of the neck, so that at the back it falls like a dense curtain, cut evenly above the tanned wrinkled skin. The splendid white teeth, perpetually polished by the black rye bread, which is the staple food, are not so characteristic of the younger generation.
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, pp.302-303; 1913)

Hedrick Smith’s picture of the peasant 70 years later, though, sounds very similar:

The peasant men were silhouettes of darkness – dark, rumpled, tieless jackets and pants; thick, dark, scratchy wool overcoats; dark workmen’s caps or fur hats; black rubber boots or black shoes unshined for generations
(Smith, The Russians, p.250; 1977)

and neither are Vasily Grossman or Laurens van der Post exactly flattering.

Pavlyukov…seemed a real son of the people with his wide nose and forehead…
(Grossman, Life and Fate, p.289; 1960)

The men with their grey-blonde faces varied from pale intellectuals with eyes of a deep burning blue to large, broad men with the frames of Japanese wrestlers, suet-pudding faces and smallish deep-set grey eyes. Most of the men were clean shaven though a few still had goatees…
(van der Post, p.26; 1965)

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, too, paints a picture of what he considers ‘a typical Russian’ in his short novel, For the Good of the Cause:

Nature had given Ivan Grachikov rough-cast features: thick lips, a broad nose, and big ears. But, although he wore his black hair brushed to one side, which gave him a rather forbidding look, his whole appearance was so unmistakably Russian that no matter what foreign clothes or uniform you might put on him, you could never disguise the fact that he was a Russian born and bred.
(Solzhenitsyn, For the Good of the Cause, p.77; 1963)

The post-Revolutionary Russian satirist, Mikhail Zoshchenko, underlines the point I made in the introduction to this chapter, and this remains an issue in Russia today.

In our, so to speak, proletarian country the question of intellectuals is a pretty touchy one at present. The problem of cadres has not been solved in a positive sense and especially, excuse the expression, in the case of potential husbands. It’s plain that there aren’t many eligible intellectual men nowadays.
(Zoshchenko, p.185, Dont Speculate, Не надо спекулировать, 1931)

The author can vouch for many decent men to be found in Russia. But it is interesting to note that It can, indeed, still be difficult for a woman to find an eligible intellectual husband in Russia.




Women

And, truly, that morning she was very pretty.
  The youthful freshness of a slightly sleepy face. The careless stream of blonde hair, slightly tilted nose, clear eyes. And the figure, slight in stature, but well-rounded. They were all extraordinarily attractive.
  There was the enchanting carelessness, you might even say slovenliness, of the type of Russian woman who jumps out of bed in the morning and unwashed, with felt slippers on her bare feet, begins to bustle about her house.
(Zoshchenko, p.13, What the Nightingale Sang, О чем пел соловей, 1925)

These quotations are far more flattering to women than the ones above are to men; and there are many more of them. This may partly be because most of the authors are men. But it is certainly the case that, despite Russia being a patriarchal society, women hold many areas of life together, be it the family or the workplace. There is an ancient Russian myth that the world is carried on the back of three whales; I have often said that it is more accurate to say that Russia is carried on the backs of its womenfolk. And it is true, too, that you come across far more good-looking women in Russia than you do men – despite what Hugh Stewart thought a hundred years ago!

The women…are not so good-looking as the men.
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.303; 1913)

As we saw above, Carl Joubert is scathing of Russian men – the ‘moujiks’ – but clearly his opinion of Russian women is much higher:

The girls I have always found well educated and versed in several languages.
(Joubert, p.35; 1904)

This was a sentiment echoed 70 years later by George Feifer.

The government of the period may be cruel, the muzhiks drunk, the gentry or the intelligentsia snivelling; but the women are noble.
(Feifer, p.438; 1976)

Not only noble, but it seems that somehow in a country which did its best to annihilate the upper classes, many Russian women today show a level of breeding which is less obvious in their menfolk. When compared to women in the West, too, Russian women often stand out for their femininity and because of the smart way in which they dress. The more cynical among the men dismiss this as being because they are simply trying to attract a husband in a country where the competition is not balanced in their favour. Whatever the reason, it cannot be denied that you see more well-dressed women in Moscow or other Russian cities than you see in many Western cities. This is despite what large numbers of writers and observers of Russia have recognised as the tough time which women have had both before the Revolution and after it:

The Soviet Union is a hard, masculine country. To be a woman there is generally a hard and demanding task.
(Willis, p.167; 1985)

The daily effort to survive in post-Communist Russia became a kind of trench warfare, with women, as usual, in the front line…
  …Russian women had had a particularly raw deal on the Soviet road to nowhere. As the shortages of just about everything worsened during the Gorbachev years, it was women who did most of the queueing in empty shops, the majority of them hunting for food, clothes, vodka for their men, sweets and exercise books for their children or grandchildren. They put in time in the queues before, after and often during their working hours – for the great majority had jobs: as teachers, doctors, shop assistants, tram drivers and even in road repair gangs. In the streets you saw elderly, headscarved women plodding along with heavy plastic bags full of bread and potatoes, and young, slim women whose bodies were bent by the strain of lugging a single shopping bag.
(Millinship, pp.ix-xi; 1993)

Time and again this aspect of the life of the Russian woman comes up; what David Willis (above) called ‘the second shift’.

…in addition to full-time outside employment, the Russian housewife may be faced with the daily martyrdom of queueing for food and other household necessities, besides having to do housework, and to feed and clothe her family. Meanwhile her allegedly equal spouse is playing dominoes or drinking with his friends.
(Hingley, p.157; 1978)

And as if the drudgery of everyday life wasn’t enough, Soviet women who tried to appear feminine could be criticised for it:

‘For seventy years society actively desexualised women. When a beautifully dressed and made-up woman appeared in a film, you knew she was a villain. The heroine wore a dressing gown or an apron. She had smiling eyes and a flag in her hand, cheering the news of industrial success.’ [Yekaterina Sobchik, Psychologist]
(Millinship, p.48; 1993)

Laurens Van der Post made the following observation while travelling through Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Express:

Every now and then women in felt boots, grey, dusty, worn overalls and with woollen scarves round their heads, appeared doing heavy repairs on the track…I found it a mournful sight and one more example of the primitive content in the Soviet concept of life…In practice it seemed to me that the women, whose nature also commits them to child-bearing, worked far harder than the men in Russia.
(van der Post, pp.214-215; 1965)

And these words told to David Willis bear out the idea that Russia is carried on the backs of its womenfolk.

It is women who hold family units together in the Soviet Union against the opposing forces of confined living space, red tape, and vodka… ‘There can be families without men,’ [sociologist Viktor Perevedentsev] said, ‘but not without women.’
(Willis, p.181; 1985)




‘Soviet women never had an easy life. If you go back before the Revolution, very few women had a leisurely time. It’s the destiny of Russian women to carry the burden, because the males are not really much help. Traditionally it was like that, and it is still. A very few – probably the younger generation – help a little but the rest just don’t. A Russian man is patient and understanding when he has a female boss, but when he comes home, he just sits there and waits for everything to be given to him.’ [Zoya Zarubina, Educationalist]
(Millinship, p.15; 1993)

Willis describes the Soviet Union as a ‘hard, masculine country’, and in many ways modern Russia is still. One aspect which has changed in post-Soviet Russia is that they can now freely buy goods that they need or desire, such as sanitary towels (a major shortage in Soviet times) and cosmetics.

In the section of Chapter 5, Russians en masse, Willis makes the point that in some of their behaviours the Russians reveal their Asian side. These alarming comments from a hundred years ago suggest that when it came to marriage there was a very strong Asian influence in Tsarist times:

A proverb: ‘Beat your wife like your fur’; but the principle is not carried beyond the reasonable limits of corrective castigation permitted to or usurped by the male the whole world over, and in the very same aphorism it is followed by the saving clause, ‘and love her like your soul.’
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.307; 1913)

It is horrifying to think that only a hundred years ago an English writer could talk about ‘the reasonable limits of corrective castigation’ by a husband of his wife. Another change since then is reflected by one of Stewart’s co-authors, Grove, when considering how a rich man might choose his wife.

It is not long since that the beauty of a lady and her chances of making a good marriage were calculated very largely, if not mainly, by her weight and stoutness. No rich man would marry a thin girl; it would be a reproach to him and a bad advertisement for his business.
(Grove in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.169; 1913)


Nowadays plenty of wealthy Russian men ‘trade in’ their long-standing and long-suffering wife for a slimmer and younger model – from the President down. At the same time, Stewart noted that other, more rational, factors played a role, at least in some parts of the Russian Empire.

They [the White Russians] have a proverb: ‘Take not her who is covered with gold; take her who is clothed in wisdom.’
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.406; 1913)

[In Little Russia] The parents confine themselves to the sensible caution: ‘Choose a bride not with your eyes, but with your ears.’
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.416; 1913)

Writing a little over a decade after the Bolshevik Revolution, Dreiser claimed that a young woman’s position vis-à-vis marriage had already changed significantly.

What difference is there between the unmarried girl today in her position and attitude to life and the former times? Formerly, the girl had no choice whatever in the matter of marriage. Her parents arranged the union without consulting her wishes and she was a wife and mother and nothing else. Now the girl is absolutely free to choose whom she wishes and to live with him only as long as she wishes. There is no social compulsion to remain with a husband, if she does not want to do so.
(Dreiser, p.83, 11 Nov 1928)

Nonetheless, radical ideas of free love espoused at the time of the Revolution by Alexandra Kollontai and others were quickly stifled by the state under Stalin. Divorce may have been permitted, and in 1920 Russia became the first country to legalise abortion. But as the Soviet leadership began to worry over the size of the population (driven down significantly and increasingly by Stalin’s system of prison camps) in 1936 abortion was made illegal. The ban lasted until 1955. Shortly before it was lifted a law was introduced forbidding Soviet citizens from marrying foreigners in another desperate move to try to increase the population.

Stereotypes tend to develop because there’s an element of truth behind them. And the following chronological description of the buxom appearance of ‘the Russian woman’ suggests that there was a reason for it.

The Russian peasant-woman has not much time to devote to nursing her babes; she has to be out working hard in the fields or elsewhere, and cannot take her infant with her.
(Grove in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.257; 1913)

Almost all the mature women were short and stocky as if raised to fetch and carry burdens up to the limits of their strength. But occasionally I saw young girls taller and slimmer as if better food, sport, automation and increased leisure were beginning to have their effect in producing a more elegant type.
(van der Post, p.26; 1965)

It’s hard to imagine altering a single detail of ‘Auntie Zina’s’ countenance. Every feature and bulge of this quintessential Russian babushka is in place, starting with the round, frostbitten face and ending in legs grown loglike with the arduous years.
(Feifer, pp.49-50; 1976)

The peasant women with broad, flat faces and cheeks worn smooth as the wood of a well-used washboard, were sturdy as workhorses. They sat on benches like men, legs spread, hands clasped around their bellies, not a trace of femininity about them. The contours of their bodies were lost under layers of faded, shapeless clothing.
(Smith, The Russians, p.250; 1977)

…if there is any symbol of authority in the Soviet Union that is above question or argument, it is the sturdy babushka who takes tickets, hangs up coats, opens (and closes) doors, oversees the entrances of the higher class apartment houses.
(Shipler, p.325; 1983)

The ideal shape of woman in Soviet art has undergone a dramatic transformation in the past generation; you seldom see these days those classically buxom peasant wenches of socialist realism, with their enormous haunches and milkchurn bosoms.
(Walker, p.182; 1986)

Feifer puts this is some sort of context:

Faces that speak of peasant hardiness, refined but not smothered by city living: an intriguing combination of sensuousness and innocence. Bodies muscled by walking and work, protected against the cold by a coating of fat, yet surprisingly supple and lithe. A light growth of leg and body hair; rarely the stout squatness of the popular Western image of Russian women. Most will turn quickly to that after marriage and children, but in their youth the stereotype of Olympic gymnasts is closer to the truth. ‘Fresh, sturdy, comely, smiling’ – just as Tolstoy wrote of the peasant girls of his prurient youth.
(Feifer, p.166; 1976)

Undoubtedly the look of Russian women has fascinated observers of the Russian scene for a very long time, and continues to do so. Perhaps the look of all women continues to fascinate men and women; but observers of the Russian scene seem to agree with the younger Alexandre Dumas, quoted by Laura Claridge, that the ‘double inheritance as Asiatics and Europeans’ gives Russian women a certain je ne sais quoi.

Alexandre Dumas fils described the kind of Slavic woman Tamara [de Lempicka] most nearly exemplified: ‘These ladies [are] endowed with a fineness of sensibility and an intuition far above the average, which they owe to their double inheritance as Asiatics and Europeans, to their cosmopolitan curiousity, and their indolent habits…these strange creatures who speak every language, hunt the bear, live off sweets, and laugh in the face of every man who cannot master them…these females with voices at once musical and hoarse, superstitious and sceptical, fawning and fierce, who bear the indelible mark of the country of their origin, who defy all analysis, and every attempt to imitate them.’
(Claridge, p.3; 2010)

In appearance they [the Bashkirs] are a good-looking, finely-proportioned race, especially the younger women, whose delicately moulded oval faces and slender figures contrast with the grosser charms of the Tartar beauties.
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.366; 1913)

‘There are some magnificent women in the Ukraine! There’s one I used to visit in 1941, when we had our HQ in Kiev…She was a real beauty – the wife of someone in the public prosecutor’s office…And I’m not going to argue about Kuban either. Yes, I rate Kuban very highly indeed – the number of beautiful women there is quite remarkable.’
  Darensky’s words had an extraordinary effect on Bova; he started to curse and then gave a cry of despair: ‘And now we have to make do with Kalmyks!’
  ‘Wrong!’ said Darensky emphatically. He then became surprisingly eloquent about the charm of these swarthy and high-cheekboned women who smelt of wormwood and the smoke of the steppes. Remembering Alla Sergeyevna, he concluded: ‘You’re wrong. There are women everywhere. There may be no water in the desert, but there are always women.’
(Grossman, Life and Fate, pp.368-369; 1960)

For other observers, it may not be the Asiatic roots that mark out Russian women as special; rather a certain femininity which the rigours of Soviet life never managed to crush completely.

Only when Alexei had reached a state of calm and peace did Julia, that selfish, sinful but seductive woman, agree to appear. And she appeared – her black-stockinged leg, the top of a black fur-trimmed boot flashed by on the narrow brick staircase, and the hasty sound of her footsteps and the rustle of her dress were accompanied by the gavotte played on tinkling little bells from where Louis Quatorze basked in a sky-blue garden on the banks of a lake, intoxicated by his glory and by the presence of charming, brightly-coloured ladies.
(Bulgakov, The White Guard, pp.175-176; 1926)

…the modern Russian woman seems both morally and physically equipped to defend herself. She often looks capable of husband-beating if necessary. Even if physically weaker than the male, she is likely to possess greater stamina and force of character.
(Hingley, p.156; 1978)

Near the door thousands of stilettos slide and shuffle on black ice, somehow always keeping their immaculate balance. (Oh, nation of ballet dancers!) Thousands of platinum-blond manes brush against bare, perma-tanned backs moist with snow.
(Pomerantsev, p.13; 2015)

Van der Post spent his last evening in Moscow in a Youth café. After hearing a poem recited by a young medical student about a girl who at first seemed ordinary, but then struck the poet as being full of mystery, the following conversation took place:

‘It’s strange about women,’ another young man began to tell me as I listened carefully – for I always wondered about the quality and texture of relations between the sexes in Russia, so matter-of-fact, almost coarse-grained, did they appear on the surface. ‘Once I met a girl at midnight by the Moscow River. She was a stranger, beautiful and limping. I wondered why, until I saw she had on only one shoe.
  ‘Hullo, Cinderella,’ I exclaimed. ‘You’ve missed your coach, and lost your slipper!’
  ‘Oh, no,’ she answered, ‘I’m just an ordinary girl walking home. After work all day in a stuffy office and an evening of night classes I was enjoying the fresh air and moon so much that I foolishly kicked my foot out and my shoe shot off into the river!’
  ‘Just wait,’ I told her and I dashed away, got a taxi and took her home…She was really beautiful!’
  ‘What’s become of her?’ I asked.
  ‘I do not know,’ he answered gravely, ‘because I never saw her again.’
  ‘Why on earth not?’ I exclaimed. ‘Didn’t you like her?’
  ‘Of course I liked her,’ he answered. ‘But you see something rare happened to us both that night that belonged only to that moment. I would have spoilt it all had I tried to see her again. It is all right if the ordinary girl becomes mysterious and beautiful, as did the girl in the poem. Then you must go on. But how wrong to let the beautiful and mysterious girl become ordinary! It would be a kind of murder. Have you ever thought why Dante did not follow up his vision of Beatrice’s face by trying to get better acquainted? Why, if he had, he would never have written The Divine Comedy.’
  That story, I felt, put Russian metaphysics fully in their place.
(van der Post, pp.306-307; 1965)

A reality check comes with this bitter comment by a female Russian writer about a woman’s role in Soviet society:

‘Soviet women have been put into production and taken out of reproduction.’ [As told to Hedrick Smith by a female Russian writer.]
(Smith, The Russians, p.177; 1977)

Many women in Soviet times had only one child despite wanting more because they could not afford to give up work to have a second or subsequent child.

Finally in this section, is one of my own favourite personal reminiscences of the beauty of Russian women. In 2001, at an art exhibition in London, I was talking to the then Russian Ambassador to the UK, Grigory Karasin, and his wife. The Ambassador knew me well, and was aware that I tended to ask probing questions at press conferences. Before we parted we had the following exchange (in Russian):

Dalziel: Mr Ambassador, do you know what was the greatest secret of the Cold War?
Karasin (hesitantly): No, Stephen…tell me…what was the greatest secret of the Cold War?
Dalziel: Mr Ambassador, the greatest secret of the Cold War was that the most beautiful women in the world are in Russia!
(Dalziel)

At which point I kissed the hand of the Ambassador’s wife; she beamed, and Karasin gave a great laugh and shook my hand warmly.



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