I think I’ll start by trying to explain something that I’ve tried to explain to many people since 2012, when our headlines started featuring the Russian women who go by the name of Pussy Riot. First things first: Pussy Riot is not, and never was a punk band in any real sense. Most of us reading this site are connected to the punk subculture in a real way, so we, unlike the white collared news editors, know that there is some sort of unwritten requirement of some sort of indefinable tribal nature, and not everyone who jangles on an out of tune guitar and shouts is inherently a punk or a punk musician. They never played a punk show, and they didn’t even really exist as a band. They were a loosely organized collective that occasionally used (cacophonic) music as part of their mini-protests. The major event where they criticized Putin on the altar in Moscow’s Church of Christ the Savior that sparked their arrest is also one that would get you arrested here in the US. If you don’t believe me, go to the biggest church you can find this Sunday, get on the altar and start yelling about, say, Obama’s use of drone strikes and how that makes him a fucking war criminal.
While there still exist some social issues in today’s Russia, most notably a ban on gay pride parades, we also caught article after article about the problems women face, since these 3 women were apparently arrested just for being female, most of which rooted in the imaginations of the government employees commissioning these “reports.” What do feminists in America seek? Many things, including equal access to education, jobs, and pay. As for this pursuit of equal status, we can look at one particular movie that portrayed ordinary life in 20th century Russia, and while the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the social progress made is still seen today.
The 1979 Soviet film Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears shows a great sense of social mobility, one that stands in stark contrast to how Americans were portraying the Soviet Union at the time, and one that specifically shows women climbing ranks much more than in the US. Instead of those Ayn Randian nightmares of mindless drones who are only numbers (Anthem) or half-witted idiots who resent the successful so much that the latter have to form a secret society where they are allowed to evolve (Atlas Shrugged), we see somebody move through the ranks of a Moscow factory, all the way to the director’s position, based on her merit as an intelligent person and hard worker.
The main character is Katya, who is ardently studying chemistry to get into a university while working a factory job. In an early scene, she is seen fixing a problem on her machine. Her supervisor makes a remark, and she simply replies that she isn’t about to sit around and wait for the repairman.
Katya is interviewed by a local TV station about her skills in the factory. The reporter and, more notably, the director of the news show are women. The first woman news anchor in America was Pat Harper in 1975, whereas this scene in the film takes place almost 20 years prior in 1958; women in the news in US film have usually been shown as having to overcome many odds that men do not have to (see: Anchorman, while obviously satirical, is also reflective of a real period in our history.) Paul Schindler, a journalist and expert on media portrayals of journalism, states, “when we get to the 1980s and 90s, we finally begin to see a few female journalists who represent the actual, working version of a modern…newsroom.” (“Women in Journalism Movies”). It should be emphasized that the news director is here in an even higher position than the ones the US was just starting to accept when this film was released.
The movie is far from a picture-perfect feminist story – for example Katya has a child as a result of a sexual assault, the power paradigm which yields these horrific acts of violence against women obviously still in play in 1950’s USSR. We could make note of the fact that Katya basically tells her assailant to fuck off, and proudly raises her daughter, Alexandra, on her own.
Katya goes on throughout the years, the film following her and her friends to 1979, and it turns out that she became the director of the factory at this point. She no longer lives in a kommunalka (Soviet style communal apartments, often housing multiple families) like we saw her in the beginning, but rather in her own large apartment. In fact, her friends Liuda and Tonia have their own apartments, too.
The end of Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears focuses on Katya getting married. She has pronounced very strict requirements for men, and finally ends up meeting Gosha, who is charming and takes her on a few dates. Gosha has friends with Ph,D.s who are portrayed as ordinary, which speaks more to the possibilities in the USSR. The friends speak highly of Gosha, and though he has faults, and there are arguments between him and Katya on screen, the film ends as though they are to be wed.
The shitbag father of Katya’s daughter, Alexandra, returns at the end of the movie as well. Katya once again tells him to fuck off when he finds out that Alexandra exists and he wants to meet her.
I can’t stress enough that everything shown in Moscow seems to be so very ordinary in that there is no special attention drawn to any of these things that in US film are usually arduous plot lines in themselves. An American version of Katya would first be portrayed as “crazy” for thinking she could run a factory or be a chemist, then she would see a series of obstacles almost comic in their abundance, ultimately with her success as being what is referred to as a “Cinderella story.” She is also not overly, or even mildly, sexualized as a character. It’s simply a snapshot of how socialist life is supposed to be.
Please, next time you consider accepting wholesale a headline about the plight of women in Russia, be sure to remember that women there were enjoying all matter of success decades before in the US, where we still have never had a woman head of state, and when we do we’ll talk about “first woman” as if we were the first place on Earth to do such a thing, blissfully ignoring Angela Merkel’s global status, or heck, Russia’s Catherine The Great of the 18th century. The gains made under socialism are wholly irreversible, and amidst a constant stream of anti-Russian sentiment in the media, this is a good example where we can instead say, “Look at what they’ve done there, how can we live this way, too?” No single state is perfect, so while we may have better LGBTQ rights in America, the women of Russia have been ahead of ours by leaps and bounds. There are things we can all learn from each other, and I think Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears provides a nice glimpse into a different approach to social issues.