sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

March 6, 2017

The Day of March The 8th

After seizing power in 1917, the Bolsheviks quickly embarked on a program of societal transformation. An integral part of their cathartic agenda was a replacement of traditional pagan and Christian holidays like Christmas or Maslenitsa with newly created socialist rites.  Arguably the most successful of the newly introduced “red calendar days”, the one that the country celebrated in earnest, was International Women’s Day, colloquially known by its temporal marking as the Day of March the 8th.  Not so coincidentally, March 8 was the most subversive of all socialist holidays, and by “subversive” I don’t mean “commie pinko”.

The origins of International Women’s Day are shrouded in mystery.  It first popped up in New York City in 1909 when women workers may or may not have held a strike on that date. In the coming years lady socialists around the Western world led their own strikes on or around March 8th.  One such demonstration in St. Petersburg in 1917 quickly escalated into the overthrow of the tsarist regime.  It is no surprise then that shortly after the October revolution the Soviets canonized the women’s solidarity day. It wasn’t until 1965, however, that the USSR made it into a major holiday giving workers the day off.

The early driving force behind the establishment of the Soviet holiday was a comrade of Vladimir Lenin named Alexandra Kolontai. Here is Ms. Kolontai explaining the meaning of the new socialist observance in a 1920 speech:

Women’s Day or Working Women’s Day is a day of international solidarity, and a day for reviewing the strength and organization of proletarian women. […]

Only the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of soviet power will save them from the world of suffering, humiliations and inequality that makes the life of the working woman in the capitalist countries so hard. The “Working Woman’s Day” turns from a day of struggle for the franchise into an international day of struggle for the full and absolute liberation of women, which means a struggle for the victory of the soviets and for communism!

One can celebrate many things — harvest, liberation from slavery, birthdays of people, countries and extraordinary historical and religious figures, but how does one mark the occasion of “struggle […] for the victory of communism” on behalf of the fair sex?

In 1965, when the Soviet subjects were allowed a day off to mark the occasion of female solidarity, Soviet women were obliged to work government jobs collecting government wages.  With professional opportunities being bleak and stay-at-home motherhood not an option, women were torn between not particularly satisfying jobs and not always appreciating families.  Without the free market working its magic to meet the needs of working families, this was a particularly difficult undertaking. American women justly complain about the double shift, but try working a double shift when you can’t drive up to a supermarket at 10:54 on Sunday night and buy everything you need to feed your family for a week.

There was also a problem with Russian men (and by “Russian” I mean the culturally Russian).  It’s not just that they generally believed women to be all around inferior, which they did and still do, but with the male/female ratio notoriously askew, there wasn’t (and there isn’t) enough of them.  And it’s not that there were so few of them, but that the ones who manages to survive wars and purges are often plagued by problems like sloth and alcoholism.  Women had to step up and do the men’s jobs, be strong when their men were weak.  Ladies were frequently seen on Soviet streets lifting and towing heavy objects, which was understood to be a problem, not a giant leap for womankind.  Those were not perky coeds who thought it would be cool to compete with men or be on equal terms with them, because they weren’t like their men at all.

Add to it the tragic but not frequently discussed at the time issue of abortion as birth control.  The exact number of abortions performed in the USSR is difficult to estimate because many of were done underground, but it’s not a stretch to say that all culturally Russian sexually active women capable of conception had more than one and often more than ten. This all took place against the background of high rate of alcohol consumption and other untreated mental illnesses.


I’m not sure who took this picture and when, but it appears to be from my birth city of Kharkov , and it is exactly how I remember the Kharkov’s dreary side.  It has the quintessential Russian feel — sure, the girl is hot, but look at the surroundings


In the 70’s and 80’s, when I was growing up, Kolontai’s talk of the overthrow of capitalism was absolutely alien to Soviet reality.  But oh, did we hear about the inevitable victory of socialist labor and other related topics!  Communist ideology was inescapable: pinned to the outer walls of highrises, spewed at politinformation meetings at work and schools, saturated on airwaves — virtually anywhere and everywhere, except for our apartments and especially our kitchens.  What Russian society craved at the time was an escape from the officialdom into a private world, interpersonal relationships, inner feelings.  Personal, not political, because personal was interesting and tangible, and political was gibberish.

I when I set out to write this post, I tried to look up the quote I picked up in one of my seminars that went along the lines that the anti-Soviet was Soviet too.  I couldn’t trace it, unfortunately.  It could be attributed to a well-known dissident for all I know, it could be late Soviet folklore.  The idea here is that everything political is deeply flawed, that the Soviet system wrapped its subjects in the blanket of politics and that politics became inescapable, and that even to resist Soviet reality with a different kind of politics, like the dissidents, was to give into the Soviet system.  Living a private life unbothered by the powers that be was, from that perspective, a true act of radicalism.


Soviet kitsch: postcard cuties bring early spring flowers to their love interests

And those, on this day Russian men give their women flowers, perfume and chocolates and children surprise their mothers with handmade crafts.  Wives and mothers spend the A.M. hours in the kitchen toiling on the labor-intensive mayo-based salads for the holiday feast to be spent with family and close friends.

The irony of the situation was quickly noted: on the supposed women’s day off it was women who busted their butts while, in best case scenarios, men relaxed in front of the television sets. (Worst case scenario? They were drinking someplace.). To offer help with housework this one day a year was considered an act of a true chivalry, but I’m not sure it ever happened, or, if help was offered, it was accepted (because who can trust dad to boil the carrots, right?) or if the offer extended beyond the manlier tasks like vacuuming the rug.


More Soviet kitsch: Serenading mom on March 8. Note the apron on the dad

The men watched tv, first national channel mostly — the other two channels unwatchable–skipping the Supreme Soviets session honoring some proletarian femmes, perhaps noting a program that bemoaned the way women are treated in everyday life and always enjoying the operetta.  Lots of it was aired that day, with the aria of Boni from Imre Kalman’s Silva deemed particularly good fit for the occasion:

“One cannot live without women in this world, oh no,” croons  Boni. “As the poet said, they are our happiness.”  Organizers of #DayWithoutWomen please take note.

When the Soviet empire came crumbling down, some socialist holidays were disposed of, but there was broad consensus that the New Year’s Eve, which still remains the most important holiday throughout the Russian cultural space, and Women’s Day are worth keeping.  It remains a deeply ingrained part of post-Soviet tradition.  Ukraine’s controversial Institute for Historical Memory proposed abolishing this vestige of Communism a month ago this year, but that fell of deaf ears; March 8 is genuinely popular in this set in its ways country.

In Russia and its former holdings the holiday  continues to functions as a combination of Valentine’s Day and Mothers Day, but with a Russian twist.  It’s perfectly normal for a Russian publication to make a list of hottest female politicians in the country, just to celebrate the womankind.  A more western-oriented feminists in That part of the world, both of them, look at March 8 traditions with suspicion these days, but they are marginal creatures.  There might be a different way to authentically commemorate a women’s day, but, not unlike the real communism, it hasn’t been tried yet.

America doesn’t need International Women’s Day because our consumer-oriented, individualist society developed different, better ways of showing appreciation of women. When Valentine’s Day and Mothers Day are true people’s holidays, March 8 was an occasion celected by the state that Soviet society made its own.  And yet there is something that we, feminists especially, can learn from this Soviet holiday, namely the idea that private life is worth living for its own sake, that at the end personal happiness is all that matters and that it shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of second wave feminism.

I want to leave you with a song by Alla Pugacheva, a spirited redhead with clear, powerful voice, who, in the 70’s and 80’s became the embodiment of personal, not political turn in the Soviet psyche.  She sang of feelings and relationships, love and artists, childhood and motherhood, and it resonated.  I didn’t appreciate Soviet pop at the time, but now, looking back, I get the phenomenon.  So here is One Million Scarlet Roses, her mid-80’s megahit we expected to hear on the first national channel at prime time on International Women’s Day.


July 23, 2012

Was The South Always Different?

Filed under: relationships — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 2:17 pm

A sophomore from Athens Amber Estes wrote an advice piece on how to find husband in college (via Instapundit).  The college years seem be a good time to pair up, especially when the men are conveniently pre-selected to meet certain minimum requirements, but some parents disagree.  In her cover story for The Atlantic, for instance, Katie Bolick recalled that her mother suggested that her college boyfriend break up with her daughter (many years down the road, her dad lamented that she’s unlucky in love).  A while ago, Penelope Trunk broke the mold recommending to start the husband hunt “early”, by 24.  I commented back then that’s what’s shocking about this statement is that 24 is considered early, and I think Estes might concur.

In the mid-90s, when I transferred to Berkeley in my junior year, I started out under the assumption that everyone would be looking for a spouse.  After all, this is what I knew in the Soviet Union where by the time they received their diplomas most women were married, likely had children, and possibly had already divorced.

It’s not just that I personally didn’t exactly follow Amber’s advice — I shopped for some outrageous get ups at Mars Mercantile and wasn’t too shy to parade them around campus, for instance — or that I didn’t do the Greek scene, which seems to be her thing.  I struggle to think of a single Berkeley alumni my age who married her college sweetheart — not sorority girls, not Russians, not anyone.

I found that few students were interested in romance, and that the relationships that did form on campus were often of the transient kind — one night stands, “open” relationships, or the ones that simple didn’t last long.  We were busy: the curriculum was fairly demanding, and we were on the studious side.  It’s worth noting that the atmosphere was cliquish and students didn’t talk much to each other.  Perhaps feminism played a role, and young men were unsure of themselves.  More importantly, there was the prevailing assumption that the 20s are not for childbearing.  Many of us were graduate degree-bound, and even the ones who weren’t didn’t want to be bound to a single individual at that stage.  If I mentioned wanting to have two children by the time I’m 30, other students thought it was crazytalk.  Most of them didn’t worry about such things.

They also, if you find this information relevant, didn’t think I was a motherly type.  My retort was that nearly everyone is a motherly type.  I eventually lost touch with my college friends, but I do know that at 33 I was among the first to get married, and at 34 I was among the first to give birth.  Personally, I found it very difficult to start a family in my 20s.  Perhaps I was doing it all wrong; I didn’t bake cookies for bf’s buddies as Estes suggests.  To the contrary, DH’s old bandmate called me a Zionist bitch, and I am still damn proud of it.  But I suspect that the less confrontational women fared worse than me when it comes to love, mainly because they didn’t plan for it.

I do see quite a few professional Bay Area mothers who started having kids in their late 20s.  But even within this “young mom” demo, I’m yet to meet a single woman who married a college sweetheart.  It could be sample bias, of course, but it might just be that around here we are not wired to meet our men on campus.  So either there is some kind of emerging trend for earlier marriage or the South is just different.

May 12, 2012

The Obama Family Values

Filed under: politics, society — Tags: , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 4:24 pm

Blogger buddy Conservatives on Fire brought up the subject of the FLOTUS in re ‘Bumster’s not at all clear opinion about men marrying multiple women:

I think he would say he is against polygamy. He wouldn’t stand a chance in a fair fight against Moochelle.

Michelle certainly doesn’t strike me as the type who would allow a second wife on her premises.  But wait!  On her edutainingfamily trip to Africa last June the glowing First Lady paused with her daughters next to Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s polygamous leader.

Michelle Obama Jacob Zuma

3/4 of the First family meets President Zuma.

Judicial Watch criticized the trip which cost the American taxpayer nearly half a mil:

The professed purpose of Michelle Obama’s trip to South Africa and Botswana was to encourage young people living in the two growing democracies to become involved in national affairs; and during her scheduled stops in Pretoria and Cape Town, South Africa and in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, the First Lady used the opportunity to speak on education, health and wellness issues.The trip also included such tourist events as visits to historical landmarks and museums, plus a nonworking chance to send time with Nelson Mandela, a meeting that Mrs. Obama described as “surreal.” The trip ended with a private family safari at a South African game reserve before the group returned to Washington on June 27.“This trip was as much an opportunity for the Obama family to go on a safari as it was a trip to conduct government business,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “This junket wasted tax dollars and the resources of our overextended military. No wonder we had to sue to pry loose this information.”

In the course of that wanton trip Michelle introduced her young daughters to a polygamist.  Do we really need to take her historic husband as an historic authority on family in this country?

As a side note, I’m mystified by what Africa means to the Michelle Obama.  On that 2011 trip she was clearly delighted to meet black African leaders.  Before she became the First Lady, she went to Trinity United whose leader Jermiah Wright traveled to an Arab African country, Libya, in 1984 when the US imposed sanctions on that state sponsor of terrorism.  The late flamboyant Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, of course, had quite a harem himself.  Michelle married a man with ties to Africa.  So it looks as if she’s enthralled by the continent.  At the same time, she’s undisturbed by polygamy practiced by Africans, although she probably doesn’t want something like that for herself or her daughters.  What gives?  Are Africans some kind of noble savages in her mind?

April 13, 2012

Time for a New First Lady?

Filed under: parenting, politics — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:08 am

Working overtime to turn out that Sarah Palin demographic, aren’t we?  I doubt there is a better way to boost the voter turn out than to tell them that they are worthless.  CNN commentator Hilary Rosen summarily insulted millions of mothers when she declared that Ann Romney didn’t work a day in her life.  Romney is a mother of five, and as we all know, parenting is basically a form of idling.

The Romney family

Possibly too picture perfect

Raising five boys is not exactly my idea of rest.  When we had our first, DH used to joke that he goes to work to relax.  Children are demanding physically and emotionally, sleepless nights, aching arms and all that.  Then there are readjustments.  I remember shortly after my first was born I missed a new mom meet up because the baby peed on the changing table, and I just had to disinfect half the room.  A few years down the road, and I laugh at how freaked out I used to be by bodily fluids.

Your typical mother spends her days with somebody just as smart as she is who is willing and able to dedicate all his time to figuring out how to outsmart her.  Our bosses had other ways to keep themselves busy.  Even when everything is peachy-rosy, children pepper us with questions, like “How do you know when to put macaroni into the water, and how do you know when they are done, and why?  Why?  Why?”  And me, I’m just trying to figure out where to move the progeny so that she doesn’t end up spilling boiling water all over herself.

There are no charts, no grades, no yearly evaluations, nothing that tells her how well she’s doing and where the whole project is heading.  The responsibility is enormous, too.  It’s not like I’m drafting some silly letter.  Unlike in business, if I fail, I can’t start over again, at least not with the same child.

Of course, Barack Obama had to pipe in to offer his invaluable opinion on motherhood.  Turns out, Michelle didn’t have “the luxury” of staying home.  The questionable truth-value of his statement aside, it has “class envy” written all over: Yes, not every man can support a family on his salary alone, but we should applaud for Mitt for being able to do so.

Ann Romney raised her large family, setting an example of fulfilling motherhood, but what about Michelle Obama?  FLOTUS thought it necessary to inform the country about her daughter’s weight gain, which was an exploitative way to launch her anti-obesity campaign.  She raised a few eyebrows when she let her thirteen year-old daughter vacation abroad alone with some freinds.  Is spending vacations with one’s minor children too much of “a luxury” for the first family to afford?  Well, no; not when the First Lady is busying herself trying to figure out how to get the government to play daddy.

Earlier this year, FLOTUS rolled out a $3.2 billion healthy lunch program aimed to improve nutrition in the nation’s public  schools.  Some of her recommendations, like low sodium content were never scientifically proven to have positive health effects, but never mind.  Since the funds necessary to cover the program are at most 7% of Obama’s beloved Buffer tax, it shouldn’t be a big deal.  No mother will lose sleep worrying whether or not her children and grandchildren will be able to pay for Michelle’s school lunch program.

It’s true that obesity has reached epidemic proportions in this country, but it is really a symptom of a larger social malice.  There are too many single moms out there, and obese children often come from broken families.  A large number of working moms are for one reason or another unable to feed their children good food.  In any event, students are known to reject healthier alternatives.  It looks like family food culture is what probably matters most in combating obesity.  Maybe it’s time to hear what a stay at home mom can say about this issue.

January 14, 2011

Non-Sentimental Education

A cousin of mine has her kids in a local public school.  She tutors them every night, not because they are behind, but to keep up with the Asians.  Russian Jewish families generally look at Asian families with admiration, and there is certainly a lot of commonalities between the cultures.  Multiple generations often live under the same roof — check.  Kids play classical music and get into good schools — check.  Women are always put together well — check.  Al in all, a hard-working successful professional community, like ours.

That Asian parents are demanding is well known.  Last weekend mommy wars went ethnic when Amy Chua, an Asian American mother, published a Tiger Mother polemic in lieu of her forthcoming book.  I more or less agree with her general outlook on a parent’s role in her child’s education:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

[…]I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

Growing up I had multiple conversations with my mom about finding fun in difficult things and blah-blah.  I intend on imparting the same wisdom into my children’s heads, and I don’t think it will be easy, at least not initially.  Since many Soviet teachers were on the sadistic side, I initially found the gentle American pedagogy a relief.  It didn’t take long, though, to realize that self-esteem movement is a dead end.

I realize that Chua’s own Tiger mother persona is to an average Chinese mom what Woody Allen is to a Jewish son: improbable.  Yet I have no doubt that the events she described happened.  The centerpiece of Chua’s article is her campaign to get her 7 year-old daughter to play a piano piece correctly.  Here is how she sets the scene:

Lulu was about 7, still playing two instruments, and working on a piano piece called “The Little White Donkey” by the French composer Jacques Ibert. The piece is really cute—you can just imagine a little donkey ambling along a country road with its master—but it’s also incredibly difficult for young players because the two hands have to keep schizophrenically different rhythms.

Chua’s husband is white, which makes her daughters part Caucasian.  So, little white donkey and its master, huh?  I know, I have an excessive amount of lit crit behind my back (and by “excessive” I mean “any”).  Still, I can’t help wondering if she imagined her daughter as that cute little donkey and herself as her master.  We mothers certainly wield a lot of power over our kids.  Chua seems to rejoice in it.  Did you know that Chua once ruined a family vacation?  And that she thinks of herself as “maybe a little dominant”, and would like to have a beer with Barak Obama?  Well, the way she throws around military metaphors, she’d better get ready to meet Sarah Palin.

Steely eyes, no?

Now that I got that observation out of the way, go ahead and read Chua’s description of the day-long donkey struggle during which meals were revoked, future celebrations canceled and bathroom breaks forbidden until her daughter polishes the piece.  For goodness’ sake, it’s like nobody had successful children before!  And what do we mean by success in this case?  Chua’s daughter Lulu no longer plays piano, she plays violin.  So, I suppose, the point of the whole exercise was to play some recital.  Still, Chua is quite proud of her achievement.

Chua does get spectacular results long term: Both of her daughters are musical proteges, and, I imagine, they do great in school.  Their education is not yet complete, but I have little doubt that they will turn out well.  Since both of her progenies are easy on the eye, and considering that Asian women are in high demand these days, Sophia and Lulu should have little problem finding suitable mates and having children, perhaps becoming Tiger mommies themselves.  Perhaps Chua has figured out the way to raise young women in the early 21st Century US of A.  But what if she had boys?

I live in a Bay Area neighborhood where new middle class families settle.  Some of them are Asian, many mixed Asian and white.  You know, of course, what I mean by mixed Asian and white: Asian women and their mild-mannered husbands.  An Asian man married to a white woman is an anomaly.  Considering that a boy’s relationship with his mother foreshadows his relationship with his wife, white women may find it challenging to fill Tiger mothers’ shoes.  Perhaps Western women are not interested in dating and marrying men who became successful on their parents’ orders.

Feminism or no feminism, the allure of a Western man is his independent spirit.  “Mama’s boy” and “trust fund baby” are terms of derision.  (Asian American men can not in all fairness be described as either one of those.)  In Western cultures children claim a lion’s share of credit for their success.  And so American parents feel compelled to step aside at some point, and let their children develop on their own.

Chua singles out the self-esteem movement as a reason for the failure of Western education.  Self-esteem is a fairly new educational philosophy. The education establishment only embraced it in the late 1970s, and large segments of American parents still don’t buy it.  Before self-esteem there was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who preached “natural education”.  In his enormously influential Émile Rousseau painted a romantic portrait of a child naturally developing his inner goodness.

First edition of Emile, 1762.

I don’t particularly like Rousseau.  He is the original proponent of child-centered education, and his prescriptions are often ridiculous: No swaddling!  No books until age 12!  And yet a Western parent is a romantic at heart.  What I mean by “Western” is any parent who raises his child within the framework of  Western thought.  In Western tradition rout memorization in and of itself is seen as insufficient.  We want to raise explorers and inventors.  Our view of scientific discovery is Romantic in its essence.  I want my kids to be instructed by teachers who are demanding, yes, but also inspiring, and in that I’m indebted to Rousseau.

In Rousseau’s vein we want our children to develop character and moral sense, although our ideas of morality might differ from his.  Moral education includes socialization of children.  Of course, none of it should preclude  a parent from giving a good structure within which to explore.  We cringe at Chua’s description of her power struggles, even though she does seem to get results.  She tells us nothing about the essential goodness in her daughters, only “crucial [need] to override their preferences”.  It’s not about self-esteem, it’s about the sense of discovery, the independent mind and the autonomy of the pupil. 

December 12, 2010

That’s What my Mother Said

Filed under: relationships, society — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 5:18 am

Via Instapundint:

[C]ombining a high-powered career and motherhood and doing both well is impossible. It’s time we stopped feeding girls the fairy tale that they can do it all — and I agree.

But, more than that, I think most women — if given a truly free choice — would choose to stay at home and look after their children in their infancy.

The trouble is that most families rely on the salaries of both parents, so it’s not really an option.

It goes without saying, although it sometimes seems we are expressly forbidden to say it, that having a rich husband would provide that option.

That’s more or less what my mother said.  Being a product of the Soviet Union, she had no hang ups about feminism, and no hang ups about wealth.  To Russian women of her generation the idea of being a housewife was both radical and practical.

So I went out and married a musician.  Mind you, I married a musician who also had a viable career.  Now I’m a stay at home mom, still a feminist, and very, very busy.  Unlike the women whom Frances Childs describes, the women who married men an income bracket or two above my husband, I don’t have the time for hair appointments.  I hardly find time to see my dentist.  I can only wish we had house help, but, being a wimpy mom, I call my mother whenever things get out of hand.

Never had to do those, though.

There is no cognitive dissonance between being a feminist and marrying a man able to support his family, I think.  We don’t check our feminist credentials at Labor and Delivery Department of the local hospital.  One can be both a mother and a feminist; after all, mothers have their say in our society.  Moreover, after spending several years tending to a young family, many women re-enter the workforce.  Man and women change careers mid-life, so why not view motherhood as a career detour?

With that in mind, though, there should be no “equal pay for equal work” whining for women like me.  If I were to return to work immediately after my first child was born, most of my income would go to taxes and childcare.  If financially this move made little sense, emotionally and intellectually it made even less sense.  As exasperating as motherhood can be, this is hands down the most satisfying stage of my life so far.  While I am plotting my return to work in the near future, I realize that my career will unlikely to recoup after the years I spent with my babies, and that even after I will return to work full time, I will still have to prioritize my family.

That’s all right, though.  There are give and takes in life.

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