In Russia, women are queens for a day; Today, it's flowers, perfume and poems, then back to work


MOSCOW -- It's not quite fair to say that pictures of men in suits, with the occasional men in uniform, dominate the newspapers here. Only the other day, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright was shown gingerly patting a boxer -- the Czech president's dog Sugar -- in a photo illustrating an article about the popularity of pets in France.

("Not only in France are politicians attracted to dogs " the caption began.)

Still, women get scant press here. Most papers are full of the people who run things, and they're all men, interspersed with a few actresses or lately, Monica Lewinsky. This weekend is the huge exception.

Today is International Women's Day, so designated by a world conference of socialist women in Copenhagen in 1910. The day was first observed here in 1913 and, after the Russian Revolution, was celebrated "to mobilize women who have been liberated from the social yoke and have received equal rights with men for active work in all areas of economic, sociopolitical and cultural life," according to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia.

Since 1965, International Women's Day has been an official day off work, perhaps to make up for reality -- women were not, in fact, liberated from the social yoke but firmly harnessed to it. They still are.

Women may drive tractors and dig ditches -- they certainly shovel most of the snow -- but after they're done, theyare expected to shop, cook, do all the housework, take care of the children and happily stay at home while their husbands go out to drink vodka with friends.

In return, on Women's Day, they get flowers and perfume and the right to be waited on -- unless their husband has invited guests, in which case they have to work harder than ever, cooking for a crowd.

Women's Day has turned into a combination of Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, with men expected to lavish flowers, sentiment and whatever else they can afford on their wives, lovers, mothers, daughters and colleagues.

Festive banners stretch across the city's main streets, addressing "Dear Beauties of Moscow" and wishing them joy, goodness and love.

This weekend, the newspapers are full of stories about women, with love poems scattered among them. There are many photos of women, on their wedding day, behind sewing machines, even in suits and occasionally in military uniform (though these soldiers are trying on lipstick.)

Besides publishing profiles and feature articles about women, the newspapers have been full of advice, for men and women alike.

"To give a present on the occasion of March 8," the newspaper Izvestia wrote earlier in the week, "it is necessary to have at least three things: a woman, money and imagination."

For most, the imagination stops at flowers. Today is the biggest day of the year for flowers, which have been expensive in recent years because they are almost all imported from the Netherlands. One rose costs $2 or more, and a carnation $1 or a little less in a country where families live on about $400 a month.

"Of course, I always buy flowers," says Dmitri Ryabov, a businessman, "but I look for a surprise, too. I avoid the commonplace, like say a frying pan."

Alexei Samolyotov, a television reporter, says he always buys his wife yellow chrysanthemums along with something expensive bought at the last minute. That present, his wife, Irada, declares, is always inappropriate, and even though she gave him a list of books she'd like, she's sure he'll give her something expensive he picked up at the last minute that she doesn't want.

When Izvestia asked women what kind of present they dream of receiving, in addition to the required flowers, 20 percent said a trip, 14 percent said beautiful clothes and 12 percent said a washing machine. When asked what they actually thought they would get, 18 percent said perfume, 12 percent said cosmetics and 12 percent didn't know. Nine percent were sure it would be "something insignificant."

An Izvestia poll asked 800 men in Moscow and St. Petersburg to list their most beloved women. Seventy percent said their wife; 54 percent also mentioned a daughter; 40 percent included their mother, and 10 percent included their mother-in-law.

"Mothers should have taken first place on the list," the newspaper scolded, "but the men polled were of different age groups, and not all of them had their mothers now."

As usual, television networks had a series of broadcasts planned for the holiday, beginning last night with a showing of Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct" and including, today, what was translated as "In Jazz There Are Only Girls" (better known in America as "Some Like It Hot" and starring Marilyn Monroe.)

One channel will show a documentary, "Our Mother Is a Hero." Others have scheduled concerts of romantic music.

All celebrations end abruptly tonight. Tomorrow morning, women will be fighting for a seat on the bus and contending with higher unemployment and lower pay than the men around them.

As for Madeleine Albright, she was lucky to be photographed with the dog.

She last made big news in February, when she infuriated the Communist leader, Gennady A. Zyuganov, because the United States was bombing Iraq.

"She is a woman, after all," he told the Reuters news agency. "Rattling rockets and bombs -- it is simply against nature. She is bringing shame on the entire female sex and the female tribe."

Instead of sending off bombs, he said, "love, respect and beauty should emanate from a woman."

No doubt, American women have yet to be "liberated from the social yoke."

Pub Date: 3/08/99

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