8 September 1995


United Nations
Division for the Advancement of Women
Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development


                          prepared by 

                     Nadezhda Azhgikhina  */

                         Ogoniok Magazin
                       Russian Federation

*/ The views expressed in this paper, which has been reproduced as received,
are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the United

     The issue of female characters in contemporary Russian media has never
been widely discussed in professional circles in recent years, nor was it
raised in society as a whole, and it was completely ignored by serious

     Yet, a closer look at the state of modern Russian journalism will lead
to the conclusion that this topic is not only relevant, but also extremely
productive.  Analysis of female images and portraits as found in the mass
media today gives us ample opportunity to form our own opinion on the nature
of changes at work in Russian journalism and, what is more, in society as a
whole.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that women's characters may
provide a crucial clue to contradictions inherent in present-day Russian
reforms, which are often so elusive and hard to identify.

     Before we look at the present-day situation, however, it is necessary to
say a few words on the background to this issue.  Throughout the Soviet period
images of women were extremely didactic and had most important ideological
function to perform.  At the same time, detailed analysis of popular female
images and stereotypes throughout Soviet history allows us to outline the
specific features and paradoxes of that era and to understand the essence of
what was one of the most dramatic social and political experiments of this
century.  Its main contradiction -- that between image and reality, between
declaration and the real state of affairs -- can be traced back to the very
first decrees of the Soviet government, which included that on the equality of
men and women.  This important innovation attracted masses of Russian women
and their contemporaries abroad to side with the Bolsheviks.  The problem lay
in the fact that the idea of women's emancipation was the product of advanced
liberal thinking, only to be found amongst an insignificant minority of the
well educated population of the country, while the majority of the Russian
people, two thirds to be exact, could neither read nor write, and lived
according to the traditional patterns of a patriarchal way of life.  So, in
effect, the declaration of emancipation condemned women to a double burden --
the new power demanded that she should take an active part in developing
industry, and at the same time, the national mentality insisted that she
fulfil all the traditional women's duties in the home.

     Right from the first years of the revolutionary era, two female images
began to dominate the mass periodicals: that of the woman-revolutionary,
inherited from the earlier Bolshevik Press, (the images that very soon turned
into idols), and a new image of the woman-enthusiast, the builder of a new
society.  Specialized women's magazines were set up to propagandize the
latter, such as "Woman-Worker", and "Peasant-Woman".  The ideology of these
new images was drawn from the main works of Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupaskaya,
in which the woman of the new era was presented as "worker and mother", and
from Lenin's famous idea that every cook in the land should know how to rule
the state.  Thus, the ideal woman was seen as a "political woman", an
enthusiastic and politically active builder of socialism, whose main energies
were directed at achieving social goals, not personal ones.  Such an image was
utterly in tune with the interests of the state which needed more cheap
labour.  In the 1930s, the image of a woman-revolutionary moved into the
background when repression and the revision of Bolshevik history began, and
the other image, that of an optimistic builder of a new world moved into the
foreground.  The visual images can also be of great interest here.  If we leaf
through "Ogonyok" issues of the 1930s, and it was the only national
illustrated periodical then whose ideological content at different periods of
the country's development provided a sort of barometer for the entire state of
journalism in Russia, we will hardly find any articles about the horrifying
court hearings of those times that shook the whole country.  Instead, there
are umpteen very optimistic, high quality photographs, almost seventy per cent
of which portray women-construction workers, peasants, pilots, parachutists,
teachers -- all incredibly happy in their work and life in the USSR.  These
portraits formed the basis of a collective image of an era, creating that
radiant image of life in the country behind an even thicker iron curtain. 
This image was preserved for decades in the eyes of the rest of the world. 
Journalists of the Stalin period were actively creating a new Soviet
mythology.  Here it is important to note the decisive role played by many
leading cultural figures in the work of newspapers and magazines.  All the
leading official papers, such as Pravda, Izvestia, Komsomolskaya Pravda (the
leading youth newspaper), and Piorerskaya Pravda (a newspaper for children)
published extracts from novels by the classic writers of socialist realism,
poems, as well as articles by the same authors on topical events.  In this
sense, it is possible to say that Soviet culture, and especially literature,
generously subsidized by the state, were a sort of "dream factory", while
periodicals were a "bazaar of dreams", tirelessly drumming new myths and
images into public consciousness, creating another reality, which many Soviet
People perceived as more real than life itself.

     Talking about the nature of journalistic images and their influence on
readers in the Soviet period, it is important to note their principal features
-- a surreal perception of the world by Soviet citizens, their inability to
distinguish lies from the truth -- a phenomenon studied by the Soviet
philosopher Merab Mamardashvili.  Women's images were an integral part of this
new mythology; an entire gallery of heroines of different ages and
progressions was created, which appeared in the periodicals next to the
portraits of real women, immediately lending them the traits of mythological
characters.  Tractor-driver Pasha Angelina, the pilot Marina Raskova, the
partizan Zoya Kosmodemianskaya were known to everybody in the land.  A typical
woman of the Stalin period was completely devoid of any playfulness or
coquetry, which were declared to be harmful bourgeois influences, let alone
sexuality.  Of all feminine manifestations, only motherly love in moderate
quantities was tolerated; women actively mastered men's skills, acquired
education and took part in public life, joining the Komsomol and later the
Communist party.  This new type of woman, unknown in pre-revolutionary Russian
journalism, prevailed throughout the Stalin period and took firm root in
people's consciousness.  Of course, this stereotype had nothing in common with
Russian women's real life that was full of hardships.  After Stalin's death,
during the Krushchev's "thaw", the situation changed, and journalism, as well
as public consciousness, ceased to be so monolithic; new notions about life
and human beings took root in liberal thinking, new magazines appeared in the
1960s, which launched long polemical debates.  Liberal intellectuals, striving
for change, put forward two alternatives to orthodox socialist propaganda: 
democratic one, which followed a Western model, and a "nationalist" one, that
idealised the patriarchal Russian past.  Polemical discussions in periodicals
seemed to deal exclusively with cultural and literary issues, but in essence
they dealt with the contemporary political situation in Russia.  The authors
of the "Western-oriented" magazines and newspapers such as Yunost and the
Literary Gazette argued with the "nationalists" from Our Contemporary,
Molodaya Gvardia and Literary Russia.  It is revealing to note that both
trends had their own female images, which were widely discussed.  "Westerners"
put forward a bourgeois ideal -- a lovely girlfriend, deliberately indifferent
to politics and public life, in contrast to the official "political" woman;
their heroine was interested in men, sex, clothes, was dependent on men in all
respects, in other words, she was a "private" woman.  "Russophiles" took as
their ideal the Russian peasant woman of former centuries, who lived according
to the laws of Nature, in keeping with traditional patriarchal ideas, of which
she was the main vehicle, according to the views of those who created this
image.  It is also revealing to note that both of these "alternatives" on
offer created hypothetical female images, proceeding not from real women
living in this country, with their own problems and interests, but from
mythological constructions, thus creating a new mythology to replace an old
one, which also had nothing to do with reality.  The old mythological
structure, however, was not going to go away so easily, and clung hard to all
available straws, mainly official propaganda and state documents that
supported various artistic works, trends or publications, acknowledging them
as models.

     During the period of "stagnation" under Brezhnev in the 70s and early
80s, a rather peculiar situation took shape in journalism: the mass media, as
well as Soviet culture as a whole, consisted of three layers 0 the official
layer, the dissident one, and an intermediate layer, balancing between the
other two, but nevertheless legal. (See Mikhail Kapustin).  Women's images
were different in each of the layers.  The official propaganda (Pravda,
Izvestia, Woman-Worker (Rabotnitsa), Peasant Woman (Krestyanka), etc.) were
promoting a portrait of a "political" woman.  A characteristic example of such
image-making may be found in the writings of the famous woman-journalist from
Komsomolskaya Pravda, Inna Rudenko, who wrote dozens of essays about women who
were social activists, principled Communists, collective-farm workers,
weavers; examples for Soviet girls were provided in the life-stories of
heroines -- a Doctor of Science and a mother of ten children, who symbolized
the limitless opportunities open to Soviet women.

     The dissident "samizdat" newspapers and magazines did not show any
interest in women's images or women's issue as a whole.  (the topic of women
is virtually absent in dissident writing).  Exceptions were the radio
programmes and articles about women-dissidents, such as Larissa Bogoraz and
Elena Bonner, where the style and manner of presentation were close to that of
official propaganda, but with the opposite ideological thrust.

     The "marginal" publications, that is, the relatively liberal, such as
the Literary Gazette, Yunost, Znamya, energetically promoted the "private",
non-political image of a woman dependent on men, mild and lacking any fighting
qualities.  I should like to emphasize that such an image was regarded by the
majority of democratically minded journalists as unquestionably progressive
and democratic, as a real alternative to any totalitarian image.  There was a
popular saying at that time that it was the civic duty of our women to be
women after all, that is, to look after their family, husband and children,
rather than worry about their careers.  It was used in at least one article
out of three, but the women-journalists who used it were not going to devote
themselves to their homes, although they actively defended the idea of women's
"natural inclinations".  This image was also hypothetical and did not reflect
reality.  The great actor of that era, Arkadi Raikin, a Russian Chaplin, used
to say in one of his TV sketches that "the children in this country would be
much happier if their fathers would earn a bit more, and their mothers would
work a bit less!"

     So, it is not surprising that with the beginning of "perestroika" the
idea of women's "natural inclinations", together with other liberal ideas,
started playing an ever increasing role.  In his numerous speeches and the
book "Perestroika and the new thinking" Mikhail Gorbachev talked and wrote
about the necessity to free women from an excessive load at their workplace. 
The idea of "natural inclinations" was predominant in all discussions on the
"women issue" between 1986 and 1991; however, serious discussion about the lot
of women in the period of "perestroika" was never undertaken in the mass
media.  For instance, "Ogonyok", a most avant-garde perestroika magazine, only
carried one article devoted to women and that was to mark International
Women's Day on March 8, 1988.  The essence of the article was that the main
problem in the life of women today was the low salary of their husbands.  At
the same time, journalists started writing about prostitution, women's
alcoholism, drug addiction and crime among women.  The leading liberal papers
of those times, such as The Moscow News and the Literary Gazette, often wrote
about women's prisons, nuns, hermits, nymphomaniacs and drunks (both men and
women) and practically nothing was ever said about ordinary women. 
Politicians, following in the footsteps of editors, believed that the women
issue did not exist in this country and the only thing to be done to make
women's life easier, in their opinion, was to set her "free" somewhat from her

     The period between 1991 and 1993 was marked in journalism by the advent
of a really free press.  Censorship did not exist officially, magazines and
newspapers were springing up like mushrooms after rain, and in 1992 alone more
than 400 new magazines and newspapers were registered, which means more than
one a day!  The market economy emerged and female images turned out to provide
a most profitable commodity in this new situation.  As a matter of fact, this
became clear earlier, when it was discovered that newspapers covering the
first ever beauty contest in the country sold better than the others.  After
1991, the image of the fashion model and beauty queen, came to reign supreme
in the mass media, successfully replacing the "political" woman.  This change
occurred very smoothly, since the consciousness fostered in the totalitarian
system, as well as the surreal view of the world previously on offer had
prepared the audience to accept yet another stereotype, instead of any real
heroine of the time.  Beauties in bikinis, their interviews and press coverage
of beauty contests started to appear not only in "lightweight" publications,
but also in "respectable" ones.  The apotheosis of this change, I believe, was
the publication in the Communist newspaper Pravda, famous for its puritanism,
of an article about Julia Kourochkina, the winner of the Miss Universe
contest.  She was enthusiastically described as a true Russian patriot.  The
photographs matched the tone of the text.  Today, TV programmes and
publications aimed at young people provide a good deal of space and time to
advice as to how to become a photo-model, rather than how to enter a
university.  Faces of beautiful women fill the pages of magazines and the TV
screen, famous TV anchor-women and announcers emulate the new stereotypes at
the expense of their own personalities, and this drastically affects the tone
of programmes.  The second most popular image is that of a faithful companion
-- good housewife, mother and friend.  A "girlfriend of a businessman" is yet
another category mentioned in one of the TV programmes.  This image appears
more often in new, expensive publications intended for "new Russians", such as
"Domovoi" or "Imperial"; it is also promoted in numerous new publications for
women, such as "Provornitsa", "Sudarushka", "Natalie", and in TV advertising. 
Even the traditional "ideological" magazines "Woman-Worker" (Rabotnitsa) and
Peasant-Woman (Krestyanka) have started using this stereotype more often in
their quest for new readers.  The third most frequently used image in the mass
media is a "marginal" woman -- the nymphomaniac, prostitute or criminal. 
These types can be encountered in the scandal-ridden gutter press, as
represented by Moscovsky Komsomolets, Private Life, Scandals, Megapolis
Express, Aids-Info, accompanied by semi-pornographic photographs and collages.

There also exist specialized editions devoted to these topics.  Less popular
is the image of the business-woman or woman-politician.  Articles and
interviews involving such women usually stress that they are either devoid of
all feminine traits, as in the article about a famous politician, member of
Gorbachev's Supreme Council, Galina Starovoitova, or a successful career is
presented as a chance happening, an exception, which, however, does not
prevent her from being a "real woman".  This type of articles can be found in
practically all types of publications, and such TV programmes with the same
"message" can be seen on all channels.  The most absurd of them are "I
Myself", "I am a Woman", and also the "The Queen of Trumps".  Two more images
should be mentioned, that of the poor old woman beggar, the victim of
privatisation, and the ugly and aggressive feminist, who is usually depicted
as an actual incarnation of Evil.  The latter has come to take the place of
the "enemy of the people".  Western feminists are portrayed as the enemy
incarnate, and in the imagination of the author, usually a woman, they are
aline not only to men, but have nothing human about them at all.

     This means that ordinary working women, who make up the majority of the
female population, and their lives and interests, are not adequately reflected
in Russian mass media today.  This opinion is confirmed by the latest
research; according to the results of the analysis of newspapers in the first
six months of 1995, conducted by the Association of Women-Journalists, only
about 10 per cent of all descriptions of women had anything to do with
"normal", "ordinary" women, the rest were concerned with marginal groups --
prostitutes, businessmen's girlfriends, pop stars, etc.  It would be
interesting to note that the more elite a paper, the more frequent is talk
about the real image of woman.  On the whole, the situation appears serious,
especially if we take into consideration the numerous problems facing Russian
women today.  Russian women are indeed the forgotten step-daughters of the
reforms, bearing the burden of unemployment (70 per cent of the unemployed are
women), inflation, the final collapse of the health care system and social
security, and finally, negative moral pressure exacerbated by mass culture. 
Here we cannot avoid mentioning pornography.  Pornographic publications
reached their peak in 1991-1993, coinciding with the complete freedom of the
press.  (At present, a certain stabilisation can be observed in this field). 
This phenomenon is easily explained by the fact that for decades sex was tabu,
and besides, a talk about anything erotic was understood as the freedom of
self-expression.  Paradoxically, Gorbachev's decree in the late 1980s about
efforts to curb propaganda of violence and pornography produced a backlash and
only strengthened the tendency, since the decree was regarded as a step
backwards to totalitarianism.  As soon as the tabu was lifted, practically all
publications paraded pictures of naked or half-naked women, considering them
to be a sign of freedom, and feeling it was their duty to publish them. 
Erotic programmes began to appear on TV, they are shown at any time of
day;cable TV shows practically only erotic films.  After 1991, special
publications intended for porn-fans started to appear, such as Man, Mister X,
Andrei (a version of Pent-house), Mahaon.

     More respectable new magazines, such as Tovarishch, Superman, offer
milder versions of porn, using basically Russian models.  Women's porn and
semi-porn magazines began to appear as well -- Miss X, She; pornographic
photographs are regularly published in the newspaper Women' Affairs.  The
gutter press encourages the opinion that women read as much porn as men (the
Express-chronicle newspaper devoted a whole article to that subject and you
can often come across the idea that the profession of a prostitute is a
perfectly natural one for a woman.  The topic of prostitution became a topical
issue in Gorbachev's time, after the film "Intergirl" was shown and there were
discussions in the press (one author maintained in his article that all Moscow
schoolgirls want to become prostitutes.  In the post-perestroika period the
topic was adopted by the mass media industry as a whole.  There are
publications like "Red Hat", for instance, which advertise brothels and
saloons of "erotic massage", magazines for international introductions like
Amour, similar programmes on TV (e.g. Aerotics in Moscow).  Western
Pornographic publications also appear in the Russian market; it is possible to
buy Penthouse and Playboy on ordinary bookstalls, as well as their German
editions, and recently a Russian version of Playboy came out, in which first-
rate Russian journalists and writers publish articles and stories, and the
editor-in-chief is a well-known music critic and TV anchorman.  Russian
society, which has not yet invented a mechanism for fighting pornography and
has no experience of coping with freedom of the press, is literally drowning
in this flood of low-quality literature.

     Even famous women-politicians and public figures are sometimes abused in
the gutter press, and you may see a porno collage or drawing including the
face of a famous politician.  The New View (Novy Vzglyad) magazine, for
instance, published an article in June 1994 which was entitled "Bitches -- Big
and Small", in which all famous Russian women-leaders of the past and present
were derided, and nobody even thought of taking the authors to court, while if
the subject had been man-politician proceedings would no doubt have started.

     To sum up, we can say that women do not find the support they need in
the Russian mass media; at the same time, no mechanism exists to protect the
public against pornography and degradation -- the law on mass media is
imperfect and little-developed, and professional organizations do no pay
enough attention to the issue of women's images in the mass media. 
Independent women's organizations that sprang up recently in Russia have not
yet established adequate contacts with the mass media and probably here there
is plenty of room for the positive joint action in the future.  On the whole,
the situation regarding the existing images of men and women in the mass media
can be characterised as serious, and one that demands urgent attention and
action.  A society brought up on stereotypes, with a subconsciousness lacking
any foundation in reality and a host of unsolved problems facing it, obviously
cries out for real images and portraits which are no less necessary than
before for true democratisation that has yet to take place in Russia.



1. Merab Mamardashvili.  The Way I Understand Philosophy.  Moscow, 1989.

2. Mikhail Kapustin.  The End of Utopia.  Moscow, Politizdat. 1990.

3. Nadezhda Krupskaya.  Articles and Letters. Moscow, Politizdat. 1979

4. Mikhail Gorbachev.  Perestroika and the New Thinking.  Moscow, Politizdat,

5. Perestroika and Soviet Women.  Cambridge University Press, 1992.

6. Nadezhda Azhgikhina.  Legacy towards Women --"Democratizatsiya".
  Washington. 1993, #3.

7. Research Materials of the Association of Women Journalists. 1995.



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