I notice that #Babushka has been trending on Twitter this week (yes I have a bit too much time on my hands). In the USA a ‘Babushka’ is simply a headscarf tied under the chin and apparently it’s the hottest ‘must have’ in the world of fashion at the moment in part thanks to someone called A$AP Rocky (who I’ve never heard of) and Frank Ocean (who I nearly have).
In Russia of course a Babushka is not a bit of cloth:
noun(in Russia) an old woman or grandmother.
I’ve quickly come to realise that Babushkas command a special place in the culture here and in seriousness fulfil a vital role. We have much to learn from these formidable women. You can’t miss them because even in the harshest weather they seem to spend much of their days outside gathering together on park benches, jumping queues, walking their tiny dogs and scowling (before, if you’re lucky, often breaking into a smile which can light the harshest, darkest day).
It’s rather inspiring and humbling to see the elderly insisting on being active, respected participants in a city which is ‘modernising’ and changing at a pace which can be dizzying. Further West, even in France which prides itself on creating spaces (cultural, physical and psychological) which allow the elderly to fully participate in full social lives, Le Grannies are often seen as feeble – afraid of crossing the street alone, chiding rowdy teenagers or even having a valid political opinion.
I’m thinking that my Welsh friends are already starting to wonder how the ‘Babushka’ stands in comparison to the Welsh ‘Mam’ and its worth reminding us what Wikipedia says about Mams:
‘The Welsh Mam (mam means "mother" in Welsh) was an archetypal image of Welsh married women that emerged in 19th century industrial South Wales. Described as "hardworking, ‘pious’ and clean, a mother to her sons and responsible for the home", this image of women was depicted in Richard Llewellyn's 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley. The mythologised Welsh Mam was seen as a matriarch ruling her household, but in reality many Welsh women were economically dependent upon male wage-earners, and suffered poverty and ill health exacerbated by regular childbearing.’
Well I love a Welsh Mam as much as the next Welsh-Late-To-Mature-Man who still lives at home and expects his 75 year-old arthritic mother to continue to do his washing. But they don’t really bear comparison other than some universals like ‘Hardworking’, ‘Ill-health’ and ‘Child-bearing’ although of course there are a couple of commonalities which make their experience similar. Babushkas aren’t just Mams in Furs with Sharp Elbows.
There’s an argument that Babushkas have been the vital glue which has held Russian society together, particularly throughout the traumatic and often chaotic decades since the end of WW2. I asked someone recently what was the experience of Russian women in public when it comes to harassment and abuse in public and semi-public here in Moscow. She said:
“I’ve experienced just about every form of sexual harassment and worse. In my experience the most helpful are older women who are fearless and ruthless defenders of younger women. Run to them!”
Of course that response in itself reveals a whole set of ambivalences about the experience of Russian women. But one thing can’t be argued – Babushkas are tough and they’ve had to be. Post-Revolution the Soviet Union aggressively promoted the institutional and legal equality of women; they needed as many workers and as much talent as possible but as so often the case it didn’t actually improve the reality of womens’ lot. Hedrick Smith a former Russian Correspondent for the New York Times observed:
“Under capitalism, women are not liberated because they have no opportunity to work. They have to stay at home, go shopping, do the cooking, keep house and take care of the children. But under socialism, women are liberated. They have the opportunity to work all day and then go home, go shopping, do the cooking, keep house and take care of the children”
Adversity made Russian women as tough as hell. The terrible casualties that Russia bore in the Second World War, and the internal purges which followed, decimated generations of Russian men resulted in a massive gender inbalance. Russian Women had to fulfil every role and function. That demographic gap has slowly decreased but of course for older women – the Babushkas – the disparity remains – history can’t be re-written.
And of course life is still really tough. Russian pensions are tiny, around £160 per month, and so Babushkas have to work and often the jobs available are Government and Civic jobs, public jobs and so you will see them in the metro, in the museums – stern faced and unyielding. I admire and respect them enormously – a living, breathing, scowling manifestation of the rise and fall of a great empire and indomitability of a people.
They have a power these Babushkas. Unlike young Russians they vote and so of course politicians court them and care for them. So they should and there’s a lesson here for all politicians. All Hail Babushkas everywhere. Welsh men do your own washing FFS) and Frank Ocean and A$AP Rocky (?????) – wear your Babushkas with respect.
I leave you with Raisa Gladskikh a 90 year-old Instagram addict. The description of her account says, “I’m still living, collecting praise and even taking selfies.”