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The first ladies' club Women: Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Yeltsin have common issues despite their vastly different backgrounds.


MOSCOW -- One endures endless gossip about a philandering husband. The other puts up with constant and nasty speculation about her husband's drinking. One is a tough-minded lawyer, the other a grandmother who boasts about her homemade dumplings.

They grew up in different generations, a world apart, in cultures with wildly conflicting ideas about gender. And yet, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Naina Yeltsin insisted yesterday, they are profoundly alike. They are both women with the same kinds of cares. The two first ladies had their own summit yesterday, while the men were off giving speeches and not solving the problems of the world. Theirs was a panel discussion called "Russian Women on the Threshold of the 21st Century."

The meeting, held in a small auditorium before an audience of several hundred charmed women, began with talk of kids and dogs and favorite recipes -- this is Russia, where women are expected to cherish the traditional values, and the sponsor was the magazine Domashniy Ochag, Home's Hearth (the Russian version of Good Housekeeping).

The magazine's editor, Yekaterina Stupakova, introduced Yeltsin as a grandmother and mother of two daughters. She introduced Clinton as the mother of a 19-year-old daughter. And she introduced the other six panelists as doctors, lawyers, government officials, advocates for children and abused women but especially as mothers.

One panelist quickly asked Clinton how she spent time with her daughter. Did she cook with her?

"There are so many ways mothers and daughters spend time together," Clinton said, mentioning sports, travel, discussing movies and, yes, even cooking. "We cook together. Not well, I might add."

What worries her, she said, is that in today's busy world, time spent at home with children has become threatened, and children aren't getting the love and attention and discipline they need.

"What do you cook together?" Stupakova persisted.

"I thought I said enough," Clinton said pleasantly, repeating she doesn't cook well. But she obliged with an anecdote about how she always cooked homemade applesauce for her daughter when she didn't feel well. Shortly after the family moved into the White House, such an occasion arose, and Clinton began searching for the proper pots and pans.

"You would think I had asked for the nuclear code," she said. Aides went about, saying meaningfully, "She wants to cook." Clinton finally succeeded in making the applesauce, but decided there was too much heat in that particular kitchen. "There are a lot of people whose jobs depend on me not cooking," she said.

Clinton-watchers, who have been scrutinizing the first lady's body language for clues to her feelings toward her husband, will want to know this: "We just got back from a vacation where we were able to cook for ourselves," she said.

Naina Yeltsin spoke enthusiastically about cooking pelmeni, the dumpling-like and hugely labor-intensive national dish. "I never use mechanical devices," Yeltsin said. "Sometimes we do thousands. My children and grandchildren love to eat what I cook. My family loves the product of my own hands."

Stupakova, a striking businesswoman, said she hoped she could get the recipe.

Domestic violence

Marina Pisklakova, director of a women's crisis center in Moscow, made a heartfelt plea on behalf of the women here and around the world who suffer from domestic violence, an issue that was hushed up during the Soviet years.

And, according to the official line, women were not discriminated against either. They were expected to work just like men -- though they never had equal representation in the Kremlin or elsewhere among the elite. "You should not keep silent," Pisklakova told the audience. "Each of us personally should feel responsible for helping his neighbor."

Yeltsin said that as far as she knew, domestic violence and discrimination were something new, brought on by the pressures associated with the transition to a new way of life.

"We never heard about discrimination, as far as I remember," she said. "I worked equally with men. Now I know life has become more difficult. Now I know the salaries of women are lower."

The law doesn't offer them sufficient protection, she said, and they're unfairly burdened, expected to do all the work at home and have jobs outside the home as well.

"A woman is like a vase of the finest crystal," Yeltsin said. "We should protect it so that it doesn't crack."

Then the conversation began to head where Clinton had been diplomatically nudging it.

"I think many American women have the same difficulties combining work outside the family and work inside the family that women in Russia do," Clinton said.

"We are working to increase the supply of quality, affordable child care," she said, among other efforts to give women the support they need so they can make decisions in their life that are best for them.

"We should support each other and do more to help each other," she said. "In effect, most women are holding down two full-time jobs, one they get paid for and one they do for love."

Influence with husbands

Here in Russia, the Yeltsin family has been under attack from critics who say that the financial oligarchs who pull strings from the shadows manipulate President Yeltsin through friendships with his family.

"No," Naina Yeltsin said firmly, "he has never listened to my advice. They say on television the president listens to his family too much. But he doesn't. Only an expert in diplomatic science could give him advice he will listen to. He's a difficult man to deal with."

Hillary Clinton said her husband gets advice from a wide range of people, so it's impossible to say he takes the advice of any one person.

"My husband and I have worked together, I guess about 27 years," she said, ever since law school. They've spent a lot of time on the same projects, she said.

"We talk together constantly," she said. "Of course, given the position he's in, the ultimate decision is his."

Then someone wanted to know about the Clinton dog. Hillary Clinton quoted Harry Truman: "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

She nudged the conversation once more, going on to announce a series of programs America will sponsor here, setting up 10 law clinics, training judges in handling domestic violence cases, expanding Junior Achievement programs.

The women in the audience loved it.

"I like Hillary Clinton very much," said Galina Alexandrova, a 45-year-old bookkeeper. "We have the same problems. Her support is very important to us. Talking about dogs, children, discrimination It's our real life."

L Yekaterina Bashina, a 26-year-old financial analyst, agreed.

"You can't solve all the world's problems in one hour," she said.

Pub Date: 9/03/98

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