The caring state: how Russia’s new babushkas are filling in the welfare gaps

Expectations of babushki taking care of their grandchildren, shaped by the Soviet history of family and economic policies, are hard to implement in a radically different post-socialist context.

Inna Leykin
25 September 2017

Vyborg playground. Photo: passer-by/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Some rights reserved.Little Alesha is pushing his stroller down the boulevard. While he practices his new walking skills, Nadia, Alesha’s mom, laments the insufficiency of daycare in the city: “I’ve heard that there is a new law now, according to which they must offer you a slot in a municipal daycare when your child turns three. Still, I hear about all these kids who couldn’t get in. I have no idea what I am going to do. I wanted to get Alesha into daycare soon, when he turns two, but I hear that it’s close to impossible these days.”

Nadia lives in a large provincial city that, similarly to other cities in Russia, suffers from a shortage of daycare facilities, which often contradicts the official state rhetoric encouraging women to have multiple children. Although this issue has been at the centre of national and regional politics, municipal and regional governments find it hard to keep pace with the growing demand for daycare. Nadia’s older daughter is in municipal daycare already. After she was born, Nadia took maternity leave and stayed at home for 18 months. Less than a year after resuming work, she got pregnant again and took maternity leave again. Nadia can, of course, stay at home until Alesha turns three, she told me, but it is hard on the family financially (as only the first year and a half are paid) and she was actually eager to go back to work. I asked Nadia if she was considering private daycare or a nanny. “No,” she replies without much hesitation. “It’s either municipal daycare or babushka [grandmother]. I don’t trust anyone else when it comes to caring for my kids.”

Nadia’s story is only one of many I heard during the year I spent in a large provincial city in the Urals, where I was conducting an ethnographic study of Russia’s so-called “demographic crisis.”

While encouraging young families to have more children, the state fails to provide them with adequate childcare support. Thus, freshly baked parents turn to babushkas as a means to navigate their lives in a new economic and political environment - but grandmothers are not as readily available as one may expect them to be.

The Great Expectations: Babushki and the new political economy

The expectations of babushki — poignantly named by Jennifer Utrata “the reserve army of feminine self-sacrifice” — caring for their grandchildren are framed by socialist and postsocialist experiences. It is no secret that relying on relatives and networks of close friends was a crucial skill in the context of the Soviet economy of shortage. Socialist political economy shaped the structure of kinship care and domestic labour.  Intergenerational residence, for example, was an inextricable part of the Soviet experience — a goldmine of Soviet jokes about in-laws and a space where gender inequalities were cemented and normalised. Consider this example:

Son-in-law says to his friend: my mother-in-law has never been foul-mouthed with me. Friend: lucky you, she must be a very kind person. Son-in-law: no, she is not kind, she is mute.

Thus, while the housing shortage could lead to not-so-peaceful forms of co-existence, it also facilitated social and material support, strengthening expectations of intergenerational care (who is taking care of whom).


“The majority of children in our country have been raised by a same-sex couple: a mother and a grandmother”. Source: Atkritka.comThe relatively young age of a mandatory retirement for women (55) and particular gender expectations turned grandmothers not only into primary caregivers for their grandchildren, but also made household labour into their primary responsibility. Grandmothers navigating the perils of queues and dragging their grandchildren to music schools and dental appointments became a hallmark of Soviet existence. When a few years ago the state banned adoption of children by gay couples, the Russian internet responded with a meme that is representative of the role of babushka as an important cultural anchor: “The majority of children in our country have been raised by a same-sex couple: a mother and a grandmother”.

However, the expectation of a relatively young babushka caring for her grandchildren and taking care of the household does not easily align with new post-Soviet realities. Emerging state policies, growing economic inequality and demographic changes occurring in contemporary Russia have a direct effect on ways familial care is perceived and enacted.

One attribute of the post-Soviet reality that still shapes the practices of care in Russia: the retirement age for women remains 55, though not many can afford retiring at this age and therefore continue being part of the active workforce

What is interesting is that while clearly failing in their explicit goal to transform people’s reproductive decisions, Russia’s new demographic policies and state discourse on the demographic crisis have been rather influential in affecting the redistribution of care in post-Soviet Russia.

In order to understand this new redistribution of care, it is imperative that we take seriously a temporal gap between the cultural expectations of kinship care and a new regime of care circumscribed by a new political economy. As people try to reconcile between competing expectations of care, this gap transforms practices of kinship and social support and indexes the ways in which people if not necessarily resist then creatively reconfigure official expectations expressed in state discourses and programs.

Babushkas vs. nannies

One attribute of the post-Soviet reality that still shapes the practices of care in Russia: the retirement age for women remains 55, though not many can afford retiring at this age and therefore continue being part of the active workforce.

Older women’s participation in the workforce is accompanied by the commercialisation of domestic labour. Over the last two decades, a whole new service economy has sprung up offering private daycares and nannies. Most women I have interviewed considered nannies or private kindergartens as options to rely on. Yet, the unease that young mothers felt about these services was also evident. Perhaps not all of them were as confident in their answers as Nadia (who just said “no” to nannies and private daycare). Many expressed their clear preference for a relative, and more often than not this relative was a babushka.

I ask Lina, a woman in her late twenties, about what she is going to do next month when her maternity leave ends and she is expected to return to her job in the regional government’s legal department: “No one knows my child as good as my mom,” she replies. “She is the only one I can really trust.” Lina continued by sharing a story that she had heard from a friend of a friend about a series of unreliable nannies that cemented her reluctance to use their services. Indeed, the “sadistic babysitter” is a persistent protagonist of multiple urban legends circulating in Russian media. Some of the women I spoke to referred to several TV shows that had exposed nannies’ violence and made them understandably reluctant to use this option. “It’s different with nannies, even if I put a hidden camera in the flat, I can’t really trust her,” Lina concluded.

It is, however, not easy for Lina to make her dream arrangement happen. Although officially a retiree, like most women in the “grandmother” cohort, Lina’s mother is still working, and though Lina understands the economic and personal motives for this decision, she is, nevertheless, dissatisfied with it. There is also a significant geographical barrier — a hallmark of urban life — to consider. “We used to live in the same neighbourhood, but my husband and I moved away to a neighbourhood where we could afford to buy our own apartment. My mom is some 40 minutes by bus away from where we live. But without traffic, it’s not that bad.” In the end, Lina hired a nanny for four days a week and her mother and Lina alternate for the rest of it. “Kuda devat’sya. Nothing I can do,” she told me.

While encouraging young families to have more children, the state fails to provide them with adequate childcare support.

Unlike Lina, Olga, another young woman in her early twenties, was not yet employed when her first child was born. She was a student and resolute to finish her university degree. She was able to go back to school fairly soon because her mother asked to be named a primary caregiver of her grandson and thus became eligible to the paid maternity leave from her workplace. Olga told me that it was a better solution for all of them. Olga’s mother was still working as an engineer and she heard about another grandmother who took maternity leave to take care of her granddaughter. It is a provision made possible by a relatively egalitarian law that provides families with an opportunity to employ other kin as primary caregivers and thus with a paid maternity leave. It allowed Olga’s mother to remain on the workforce and help her daughter raise her child while she continues her education.

Babushka as a main caregiver is an option young mothers are aware of and consider using, even if in the end they take maternity leave themselves. Interestingly enough, during my long-term fieldwork, an option of a father taking maternity leave instead of his wife came up only once — and even then as a joke between a husband and a wife meant to offset some of the anxieties in anticipation of a new baby.

In other words, while the egalitarian nature of the current maternity policies allows families to employ other relatives as caregivers, the gendered expectations of kinship care make babushkas the most available option.

Maternal capital: unintended consequences

While Russia’s emerging monetised welfare regime may help some individuals to avoid falling into poverty or unemployment, it also revitalizes some of the traditional expectations of care. In 2007, after Putin famously called the Russian demographic situation “the most acute issue facing contemporary Russia,” the government launched a new pronatalist policy, offering women a one-time monetary incentive to have multiple children. The lump sum of a little over 450,000 roubles (£5,700) can be received when a child turns three.

Called “Maternal Capital,” this policy aims at changing reproductive strategies of Russian women — and by extension men — by incentivising them materially. Defined by the state need to resolve its demographic crisis, this policy targets young families that are considered to be “the demographic reserve” of the country — a concept coined by sociologist Zhanna Chernova.

Statistically speaking, Maternal Capital has not been successful in changing people’s reproductive decisions (although there are attempts to argue that the policy actually succeeded and reproductive attitudes have changed and are now transforming the overall fertility rates in the country). Nevertheless, as the following example demonstrates, monetised welfare policies affect how care is practiced and distributed. In this example, Maternal Capital is used to reconcile the lingering cultural expectations with challenges posed by growing social and economic inequality.

Masha, a single mother of two had been struggling to make ends meet when we met for the first time. I met her when she was in her mid-twenties, divorced, raising a daughter and working at a market research firm. She moved to a big city from a much smaller provincial town to study at the university. She met her first husband while still a student. They got divorced fairly soon after her first daughter was born. He then moved to a different city and has not been present in his daughter’s life ever since. Masha got married for the second time when her daughter was four years old and soon her second daughter was born. Throughout this period, Masha’s mother who still lived in a small town, some two hours away from the city, used to come and visit for extensive periods of time to help Masha with raising two small kids. Masha’s mother received disability benefits from the state because of her extremely high blood pressure and so was not working although she was very busy cultivating her home garden, which was a steady channel of food supply for Masha and her children.

Babushka as a main caregiver is an option young mothers are aware of and consider using, even if in the end they take maternity leave themselves.   

When, after the birth of her second child, I accompanied Masha to the retirement fund responsible for issuing Maternal Capital certificates, she joked, like many other women I spoke with, saying that she can probably frame the certificate and hang it in her bathroom because she can hardly see how it can be useful.

When I met Masha again, three years later, she was divorced for the second time, living with her mother and two children in a small apartment she bought at the outskirts of the city. I asked how she managed to do it. Even before divorcing her second husband, Masha was looking for a small apartment she can buy using Maternal Capital when the state amended the law and allowed to use the Maternal Capital certificate for the mortgage before the child turns three. It was close to impossible, she told me, as the real estate prices in the city, even in the most remote neighbourhoods, were far from affordable. Masha’s mother was practically living with her by then, caring for the children, especially for the younger daughter who was still waiting to be placed in the municipal daycare. In the end, Masha’s mother sold her apartment in a small town contributing the sum, along with the Maternal Capital, to the down payment on a flat in what looked like a dilapidated apartment complex on the outskirts of the city. In effect, the Maternal Capital contributed not to the restructuring of Masha’s reproductive decisions but rather to the redistribution of care in her family.

Yet again, the “Russian same-sex family” — the mother and the babushka — has established itself. The state in this example, although clearly ceasing to play an ultimate role in structuring people’s life course as it did in the Soviet period, continues to play a pivotal role in shaping forms and practices of care.

The expectations of care from kin and from the state are shaped by the Soviet legacy. But Russia’s new neoliberal economic and political arrangements are rarely in-tune with these expectations as well as with the state’s pronatalist rhetoric. Trying to reconcile work, family and marriage, young women creatively utilise state policies and reconfigure resources available to them through their personal networks.

We should understand interactions between the Russian state and its citizens in terms of their relations of care. Intergenerational care and the state childcare support are only two of many examples of these relations. There is an ingrained expectation that the state should and will care for its citizens. Providing care marks a person and the state as good and decent, while failing to provide it is interpreted as a form of disrespect and ingratitude. Even when these expectations fail, Russian citizens find ways to mobilize the state in order to maintain their relations of care.


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