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America Needs Babushkas, Too

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SEVERAL times a week, the Russian evening newscast, News 1, features a trim, polished woman as its anchor. With her dress-for-success suits, tasteful jewelry, neatly styled hair, and artfully applied makeup, she typifies a new generation of Russian women. To viewers watching her on C-Span 2, in fact, she and the women who appear as reporters on the program bear a striking resemblance to their female counterparts on American newscasts.

What a contrast between these young glamour women on Russian TV and the babushkas, or grandmothers, whose pictures have appeared regularly in Western newspapers in recent months. With their shapeless figures, weathered faces, dark clothes, and ever-present scarves tied under their chins, they symbolize Soviet women of earlier generations, whose lives are marked more by hardship than by conventional definitions of success.

Yet for all their plainness and lack of professional credentials, the babushkas are emerging as national heroines, the invisible glue holding Russian families together. All through this lean winter they have been photographed waiting in long lines for meager supplies of expensive food. Some have appeared in new roles as sidewalk entrepreneurs, selling possessions to earn extra rubles. One woman tried to trade an old sweater for fish. Another held strings of dried mushrooms.

But lines and street-corner commerce constitute only part of a babushka's responsibilities. Back home, out of camera range in living quarters that often house three generations, she typically spends long days cooking, cleaning, and caring for grandchildren while the children's parents work. In her role as keeper of the hearth, she transmits values, preserves traditions, teaches religious beliefs, and passes along family stories.

Self-sacrificing to a fault, a babushka has no chance to consider retirement in the Western tradition. She has no need for over-50 magazines with names like Modern Maturity and New Choices. By American standards, she holds a position that is largely unenviable, although within her own country she is reportedly both revered and feared.


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