Street Life SAMOTECHNY LANE: Where women tune in to Russia's `Oprah'

FOR THE typical Russian husband, who pays attention to his wife once a year, there was an alternative this International Women's Day to rolling home drunk and thrusting into her hands a bunch of wilting mimosa. He could roll home drunk and give her a copy of the new bestseller Women's Stories. The only snag was, she had probably been out already and bought the book herself.

Women's Stories is based on a confessional television series of the same name. It is hopeless to make a social engagement for a Tuesday evening, as all the bars are empty, the streets are deserted and the blue light of television screens flickers from every home. Russians are glued to a show hosted by the peroxide blonde Oksana Pushkina, the closest they have yet to Oprah Winfrey.

Each week, Pushkina interviews a famous Russian woman about her private life. There is no studio audience. They just have a heart-to-heart chat. Compared with Oprah, the programme is tame. But it breaks ground in Russia where, until recently, Raisa Gorbacheva was the bravest woman here, because she dared to appear in public with her husband, Mikhail, and show that she had something of a personality herself.

The heroines of Women's Stories are mostly unknown in the West, although two names mean something outside Russia. Nanuli Shevardnadze, wife of the Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze, enlivens a dull account of being a political spouse with a description of how her husband howled in an ice-cold Jacuzzi for 10 days when trying to stop smoking.

Lyudmila Rutskaya, wife of the Afghan war hero and Russian politician Alexander Rutskoi, gives a much franker interview about how, on the eve of their 25th wedding anniversary, the man for whom she had sacrificed her own career ran off with a younger woman.

"I did not attach much significance to it at first," Mrs Rutskaya says. "I thought, `He's grey-haired, it's just the male menopause.' But when the articles started appearing in the papers, I realised he had gone completely off his head. At his age, biology takes it toll. He flew to Argentina with her. He came back, I looked at him and noticed he was wearing cosmetics - women's face cream. I said to him, `Sasha, how long have you been using women's face cream?'"

Pushkina, who learnt her interview techniques while working at American television stations, says courage and determination are the qualities her subjects have in common. She answers critics, who accuse her of banality and muck-raking, by claiming to give comfort: ordinary Russians recognise their own problems in the struggles of the stars and know that they are not alone.

If Russian women had hard lives in Soviet times, when the Communists paid lip service to equality while sending them out to work in road gangs, then their lot has scarcely improved. The Russian woman still faces a low glass ceiling at work and does everything at home for the man who might, if she is lucky, wash the dishes on Women's Day.

The celebrities in Pushkina's series probably had servants or dishwashers but their hearts were still broken by unfaithful men, who left them to bring up the children alone. Larisa Latynina, the woman who trained Soviet gymnasts including Olga Korbut, describes how her husband would go off on "business trips", returning a few days later with large sums of money. Only after he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison did she learn that he was a swindler. His downfall ruined her career too, for the Soviet authorities said she could not be trusted to travel abroad and denied her an exit visa.

Hardship, however, has made Russian women strong and Pushkina believes the time is right for feminism in this most sexist of countries. It should not reject men, she says, because they are victims of the system too. Rather, it should be a hearty babskoe dvizhenie (lasses' movement) of capable and talented women, ready to help each other and do good in society.

Pushkina believes there is no reason why a woman should not one day sit in the Kremlin. The interview that gave her most satisfaction was with the democrat Galina Starovoitova, shortly before she was assassinated. "She was a klassnaya tyotya (a cool auntie), the nearest we have had yet to a woman leader in Russia."

Helen Womack

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