Another revolution that's left out the girls

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Indy Lifestyle Online
YOU MAY wonder what I am doing here at the offices of Peasant Woman magazine in Moscow. This is not exactly my natural venue, I do not do agriculture in any form, not even rustic sentiment. I am interested, though, at a time when freedom of the press is up for grabs in Britain and the Communist Party is on trial here in Moscow, in how the business of change and freedom has affected women, and especially the women's press.

In a vintage 1984 issue of Peasant Woman, for instance, along with tips on health and housing there is a guide to fixing your hair in a manner both trichologically stylish and, presumably, ideologically correct. In a 1992 issue, she can read her horoscope.

In the Eighties, Peasant Woman had the biggest circulation of any magazine in the Soviet Union. Galina Semionova, the former editor (now consultant) was, as a member of the Politburo during Gorbachev's rule, the highest ranking woman in the government. She does not, however, resemble a peasant.

In a black and white silk dress, Ms Semionova is a vivacious green-eyed blonde. More French movie star than ex-party member, she smokes and talks in her wood-panelled office which, with its ranks of plastic telephones, is a legacy of the old system. In the corner is an ancient red silk Soviet flag with yellow fringes.

Peasant Woman, which is celebrating its 70th birthday, was founded when there was an enormous gap between women in the city and women in the countryside; more than in any other industrialised nation, there still is. Its purpose in those heady post-revolutionary days was to narrow the gap. It was also a call to arms, its purpose to attract women to work when working women were much in favour: an almost iconic image of the revolution was, of course, the milkmaid in braids driving a tractor.

When Ms Semionova took over in 1981, 'we decided that if peasant women lacked anything, our journal would do its best to help. We also published literature of very high standards' (even if sometimes the illustrations look more modest bodice ripper than high art). Circulation soared from six million to 22 million.

And then everything changed. Suddenly, you could print anything. Journalism became a fashionable profession for young women; you could write the truth; you could even write what you felt. But would anyone hire you?

Andrei Ostalsky, the hip foreign editor at Izvestia, says: 'We are still an exceedingly sexist society. Women are underpaid and underprivileged. For instance, at Izvestia, although we like to think we are trying to make things better, there are no women in the foreign department or on the editorial board.'

Changes are in the works, though. Like everyone else, Izvestia, needs circulation and advertising. Like everyone else, it has been slow to clock that women are consumers. Readers, even] At Izvestia, style pages are on their way.

None the less, the two main images of women in the Russian press are of the old-fashioned fatty in an overall, cleaning, or the naked beauty queen. Women's issues have always had a shaky passage during any revolution, both in and out of the media. Whatever the fantasy - happy Soviet worker on that tractor, new Russian business girl - when it comes to the nitty gritty, she still does the shopping. When it comes to change, women are usually told to shut up and put up. Even among Moscow intellectuals, at a time when everything is up for grabs and there aren't any rules, the subtext is: 'We'll get to your problems later, dear, can't you see we're making another revolution right now?' The problems of women in the media and the media's problems with women only reflect the real world. As Ms Semionova ranges through this marshy territory, it all has a startling familiarity.

The economic changes have hit women hardest. Minimal as social services were, much as they made you dependent on the state, they were free. Women have the same old problems they always had, and the added economic adjustments to a market economy rushing at them with inescapable force. In Russia, says Ms Semionova, 70 to 80 per cent of the unemployed are women. She adds: 'The government doesn't understand that without changing conditions for women, nothing will ever change.'

It's a bleak picture. When Peasant Woman recently conducted a survey to see how women were handling problems connected with reform, most opted for 'passive positions'. How to improve your situation? 'Save money,' most said. 'Rely on your husband.' Few were eager to retrain, most didn't know what they wanted to do anyhow, and as things got worse, frustration rose and so did crime. Whereas four years ago, one in 10 women in jail was in for a serious crime (murder, say) now it's one in three. There is more child abuse. More domestic violence. More rape. When it comes to violence against women, says Ms Semionova, 'there is now a feeling you won't be punished'.

'Who will help?' she asks. 'The general press just says 'We are concentrating on other very difficult matters right now'.'

It isn't easy. Women's magazines are considered less 'important' than other publications, which carry barely any news about women's issues. If there's a problem getting paper - and everyone has problems getting paper - women's magazines have worse problems.

In Russia a new women's movement is emerging out of desperate economic need and the chaos of a political crapshoot. Here, though, it's set against a history of unbelievable oppression and misery for women crossed with an Eighties passion for money, for things. How much it costs, whatever it is, is the main topic in Moscow; young women wannabe business girls; current high style Moscow style is whore chic complete with briefcase.

There is, Ms Semionova argues, the danger of an 'uncaring, immoral society'. Call it Russians with dollars . . .

'Our magazine tries to encourage ethical values. If you don't cultivate the spiritual, new antagonisms will emerge,' Ms Semionova says. The desire for change may be terrific, but the old-style Utopian rhetoric often lingers on.

But what about all this freedom, all this glut of information, all these gonzo young hacks letting it all hang out? Will an entirely unfettered press free women? Will it free anyone?

'I debate this with myself all the time,' Galina Semionova says earnestly. 'Journalists must be free, but tactful and delicate.'

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