MOSCOW -- Alina Zasukhina saved a lot of money in the early '90s teaching Russian at an American university, so when she came home two years ago she bought the family a $2,000 used car. The problem is that the 39-year-old professor is not allowed to drive it. Her husband, who uses it around town in his work as a lawyer, forbade her to get a driver's license.
" 'A woman shouldn't drive, it's not her place,' " she remembers him saying. "I thought it was strange, because I bought the car."
As economic reform sweeps Russia and brings new goods and the foreign concepts that go with them, women like Zasukhina are caught in the crosscurrents of social change. And "the woman driver" has become the symbol of the collision between new freedoms and the mentality of old traditions.
The debate over who can drive has split families, as is the case with Zasukhina's household: She cites driving as a contributing factor to her pending divorce.
Other families, though, have easily grasped the concept that mom can better haul the kids around, carry more groceries home and make life easier for everyone if she drives.
But in the nation that sent the first woman into space and chiseled the image of a female tractor driver into an archetype of Soviet womanhood, perhaps no other subject can so quickly inflame a civil conversation.
The number of private cars has increased by 60 percent in the five years since the end of the Soviet Union, and that has been exceeded by the increase in the number of women at the wheel of the country's estimated 14 million cars.
Driving schools are reporting record enrollments of women. At the Kievsky Driving School, women now account for the majority of the annual enrollment of 2,000, up from an occasional female just five years ago.
Behind the Wheel magazine, which has reported on drivers' license records for a decade, reports a "big burst" of licenses issued to women in the past two years: About 40 percent have gone to women, compared with 10 percent in the early '90s and less than 5 percent in the 1980s.
"In Soviet times cars were expensive and [reflected] the stereotype of control and power for men," says Olga Lipovskaya, of the St. Petersburg Center for Gender Studies. "Now that cars are affordable, if you're a woman driving a car it's a symbol of your own assertiveness and independence. It suggests you can conquer the male world."
"My soul was singing, new horizons were opened," journalist Svetlana Bulashova rhapsodied in an article about learning to drive in the Russian edition of Cosmopolitan. "Now I can depend on myself, go anywhere, anytime I want and I can accomplish more."
That's just the kind of sentiment that makes 27-year-old businessman Kyril Sheshev practically paw the earth.
"My wife will never drive," he says, looking at a male colleague in the passenger seat of his BMW. "We don't like women driving."
He goes on to claim Moscow's infamous traffic-choked streets are a function less of the increase in cars in the city than of the increase in women drivers. "There are a lot nowadays, and the traffic is more congested because of their timidity. Women lack the character to be bold, and they slow everything down."
The ambivalence toward women drivers affects both genders and every class.
Take Ludmilla Zhurina, who as head of Moscow's equivalent of the American Automobile Association is supposed to champion the rights of the driving public.
"I have a license," she says. "But I don't drive. I think that driving should be left to the professionals." ( Chauffeurs and truck drivers in Russia are almost exclusively male.)
"It's a disturbing idea," is the reflexive answer the otherwise open-minded Yasha Rizhak, a recent college graduate, gives to the thought of his mother or sisters behind the wheel.
"I never thought about driving," says Galina Gerasimova, a 38-year-old accountant who doesn't have any female friends who drive. "My husband drives so he can take me wherever I want to go."
Even Zasukhina, the professor who taught in the United States, admits that she always thought of women drivers as unfeminine. She cites a popular 1980s television miniseries, "Winter Cherries," as the quintessential portrayal of the woman driver. One of the heroines was an unattractive, chain-smoking taxi driver.
"I was raised to think it was a bad idea for women to drive. It wasn't until I saw it in America that [I understand] all women, young and old, drive cars very well," she says.
Taking the 10-question written test and the driving test is only a minor hurdle. There is also a required three-month, $300 driver's training course. But a woman can neither enroll in the course nor take the driver's license test without a note from a gynecologist vouching she has no "ailments," such as pregnancy or breast-feeding.
Once on the road, women must face Moscow's hostile streets.
Mechanics often refuse to deal with women, telling them to send their husbands in, says Alexander Fyodorov of Autopilot magazine, which is being redesigned to cater more to a female audience.
The city's ticket-happy traffic cops are mere trifles for women drivers compared with many angry male drivers who seem to troll for trouble.
In one not uncommon incident, a male driver impatient with a slower female chose to drive into oncoming traffic to pull alongside her. Screaming, he made several rams at her fender before moving on with a shake of his fist.
But all the controversy gets left in the dust when a woman finally has the freedom to get behind the wheel.
"I lived my whole life till the age of 40 knowing for sure I'd never drive but it was a terrible waste of time," says Marina Lemutkina, a researcher in Moscow for the Christian Science Monitor who just received her license. "Things have changed both in the economy and personal freedoms."
The car she inherited from her father sat idle on blocks for two years before she could muster the courage for a driving course.
She says she still breaks out in a nervous sweat when she drives, only takes the car out early in the morning or late at night, and has learned a new vocabulary of curses from those thrown at her by male drivers.
Svetlana Khazanova, 32, got her license because her husband's post-Soviet prosperity meant that they could start shopping all over town and the kids could go to private schools a long distance from home. She says her first day behind the wheel three years ago was memorialized by these remarks by a male driver: "Hey, broad! You have a washing machine, why do you need a car?"
Her bangle bracelets jangle against her Rolex as she lifts her hand in mock shock at that insult many miles and two new cars ago.
"I think probably men don't like to see an independent woman. But my husband's attitude is great: The more I drive, the less problems for him."
Pub Date: 8/06/96