BOOK REVIEW / Natasha and Yelena speak against the gloom: Front Line: Women of the New Russia - William Millinship: Methuen, pounds 9.99

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The Independent Online
WILLIAM MILLINSHIP, who witnessed the emergence of post-Soviet Russia as the Moscow correspondent for the Observer, has compiled a portrait of social and political change from the experiences of Russia's women. In his introduction, he says that he had come to 'respect their energy, quick understanding, thoughtfulness, strength, sense of humour and breadth of interests . . . I had seen that Russian women had had a particularly raw deal on the Soviet road to nowhere . . . how and why did they put up with it all?'

He is well rewarded for his interest. His interviewees, aged between 18 and 85, are a spirited and diverse collection of talkative women, from the manager of Russia's first sex shop, who claims she wants only to 'help people', to one of the first gay activists; from associates of Stalin and Brezhnev to a woman police officer with ambitions to go into business.

There is 72-year-old Zoya Zarubina, a former member of several Communist front organisations, who has never destroyed her party card - 'the party, in effect, left her'. Zarubina blames Russian women for the inadequacy of so many Russian men: 'The woman has to think about buying those pants and washing those pants and mending the shoes and getting the boy a job and so on. She forgets to teach the boy how to be a man and a loving husband and father.'

Another woman, asked in all innocence why women's groups did not lobby for changes to the government's non-policies on birth control and the staggeringly high abortion rate, demonstrates the gulf between rulers and ruled: 'I don't think we would ever manage that . . . there's a solid wall around the Kremlin.'

Admirable though his enterprise is as a way of presenting the variety of Russia today, this parade of Natashas and Yelenas - all identified, slightly patronisingly, by their first names only - tends to pall. There are just too many similarities and too few differences to sustain a volume divided according to broad themes, with 'women, sex and health', inevitably, at the start.

Besides, have we not heard for years about the harsh lot of Russian women, the hours spent foraging for a crumb to eat, the drunken, ineffectual men with whom they are saddled, the minute apartments? It is uplifting, of course, to learn that there is a spirit of entrepreneurship among Russia's women, that their love of art, music and theatre continues undaunted, that some women have not succumbed to the gloom that pervades so much Western reporting from Russia. But it becomes a little


What Millinship has done, however, is capture a singular opportunity, a brief period in Russian history when individuals not only had something to say and were free to say it, but also were also innocent enough not to fit their words to a political agenda.

This same opportunity is recognised and seized by George Urban in End of Empire (American University Press, dollars 21.95). The two books are written in entirely different registers, on ostensibly different themes; still, they have much in common. Like Millinship, Urban has spent time interviewing, and he has star players in his cast: Sidney Hook, Lord Dacre, Otto von Habsburg, Karl Popper. There are insights, and foretastes of the post-Soviet disorder, but much is already dated. Otto von Habsburg, for instance, foretells the imminent demise of the Soviet Union.

Lord Dacre suggests that imperial power can 'take the sting out of nationalism by removing the element of insecurity . . . people know where they are as parts of an empire', while Karl Popper counsels the then Soviet Russians to proceed slowly: 'You should go on with your system until another system has naturally replaced it . . . It is irresponsible to suggest otherwise. We had to work hard for our supermarkets.'

The chief difficulty with this book is Urban's decision to reproduce interviews verbatim: the questions are sometimes as long as the answers. I can almost hear him responding that accuracy must be preserved at all costs, that these transcripts need to be preserved for posterity and have been published now because they deserve a wider audience. All this may be true, but this format is not the way to attract that wider audience.