Militaristic ideas and gender stereotypes can dominate one’s early life in Russia — as public holidays in honour of the country’s military and women show. Русский
“Mummy, do you know that all the daddies went to the war and they all got killed?” my four-year old daughter Olya asks me.
Olya goes to the ordinary state nursery school next to our block of flats in sleepy southwest Moscow. She spends her days, from 9am to 6pm, in a two-storey building clad in dirty-yellow tiles. Every evening I quiz her about her day at school, whom she played with, what games they played and what topics the teachers talked to them about. After a year and a half, my daughter has finally started telling me what she has learned during the day without prompting.
“The daddies went to the war. It’s just men that go to war: women don’t go and they don’t let children go,” Olya announces categorically.
I try to refute her statement: I tell her that, sadly, both men and women have gone to war.
“No! The nursery teachers know everything! Women don’t go to war,” she insists.
I find it hard to believe that, in country that sent over 800,000 women to war, a woman’s role is seen in terms of her ability to cook and do housework
I don’t know what to do. I can feel anger towards the teachers and the fear of losing my child’s trust welling up in me. Shaking, I go and look for a photo of my grandmother, who served as a corporal in an anti-aircraft brigade during the Second World War. My daughter can’t contradict this evidence: “the teachers weren’t wrong, they just forgot.”
I sigh with relief: I find it hard to believe that, in country that sent over 800,000 women to war, a gender-orientated perception of occupations is now in force — that a woman’s role is seen in terms of her ability to cook and do housework.
Olya, meanwhile, is still sharing her new knowledge with me.
“Mum, the Americans — they are enemies.”
“Americans are not our enemies,” I hasten to tell her. “There are good Americans, bad Americans, all kinds of Americans. There are good people and bad people – it doesn’t matter where they live.” I’m glad my grandmother explained everything to me in similar simple words.
“But Americans enter other countries. Those are bad Americans.” She’s not giving up.
“But, you know, Russians also go into other countries and also behave badly. In Syria, for instance…” (I think I might be about to start a fierce debate with a four-year old child.)
It’s even scarier to realise that Olya somehow knows about Syria, and is evidently also aware that Russian troops are fighting there.
“Ah! But the bad Americans are the Chinese ones.” Olya finally loses her train of thought and with it her interest in our conversation. She turns on her side and falls asleep.
I find all this both funny and sad, because I can’t understand why a four-year old child needs to be told about enemies, China, Syria and a war where you have to kill people. Why does a child need this propaganda?
Every evening I realise that I’m finding it harder and harder to challenge this world view that my child is being fed, with nothing but my parental authority to fall back on
The next day, I try to ask the nursery teacher whether she had done some “awareness-raising” with the children, and whether they had talked about the hateful Americans and Russians in Syria.
The teachers admits to having only talked about the Second World War — it’s coming up to 23 February, Defender of the Fatherland Day. “And the Americans…I don’t know, maybe they heard it from each other,” she waves her hand towards the part of the room where the children are playing, and then walks towards them.
I’m left still wondering why there’s so much militarism in Russia’s pre-school facilities.
A Kalashnikov for three-year olds
In Russia, 23 February is a public holiday. In the Soviet period, it was known as Red Army Day, but after the collapse of the USSR it was renamed Defender of the Fatherland Day. Now, many decades after its creation, this celebration has lost its exclusive military character, and is seen as a day to celebrate boys and men, whatever their age and whether or not they have served in the armed forces and what their attitude is to war in general. The military connotations, however, remain — all males are lauded as Defenders of the Fatherland.
In an attempt to instil love of their homeland in their charges, nursery and school teachers often see 23 February celebrations, replete as they are with military paraphernalia and tales of war and army life, as a special day and a fun time for all.
Our nursery’s hall has the standard decorations for any special event in any Russian nursery school — a Russian flag hanging on its wall, and a string of cotton pennants and balloons in the red, white and blue of Russia’s tricolour stretches from one corner of the ceiling to the other. A record of military marches starts up and a platoon of paratroopers appear from behind a curtain — five and six-year old boys in blue berets, striped vests and trousers [children in Russia only start school at the age of seven – ed.]. They are holding plastic Kalashnikovs and start dancing in an imitation of military drill, raising and lowering their arms in time to the music.
The girls take no part in the military performance: in Russia, anything to do with war is an exclusively male occupation
Around the stage are benches for the audience. The first few rows are occupied by five- and six –year old girls, wearing dresses and wide ribbon bows in their hair. The girls take no part in the military performance: in Russia, anything to do with war is an exclusively male occupation.
“What will you be when you grow up?” a five-year old girl in a long, traditional style dress asks a boy in a striped vest.
“A soldier, of course! I’ll defend my country,” the boy answers, and then a group of boys in the same costumes run out onto the stage and dance to the strains of the popular song, “We are now soldiers”.
Russia has no national standard for events connected with public holidays. In Moscow, a city resource centre licensed by the mayor’s education department produces recommendations stating that celebrating national holidays is desirable. So, for example, fathers who happen to be soldiers may take part in 23 February celebrations, while preparations for International Women’s day should include giving presents to mums.
But state nurseries and schools have the right to hold different kinds of events to celebrate these two days. “On 23 February, you might have sessions about courage and invite war veterans, whereas on 8 March the children usually give concerts and invite mums and female teachers,” Andrey Lukutin, the centre’s deputy manager, tells me. Schools, Lukutin says, choose their own type of event — there’s no rigid format. And this was confirmed by two resource staff working at different nursery schools in, and on the outskirts of, Moscow.
At the same time, according to national Ministry of Education recommendations, schools’ basic curriculum should include lessons and activities designed to instil in pupils “an understanding of Russia’s key national values, such as patriotism, the family and morality”.
“Children have individual personalities. Some like war games, pretending to be soldiers. Others may be brought up in a family with pacifist traditions and want to avoid such games”
But how these recommendations are interpreted by public officials at the local level can be seen in the decisions taken by regional and municipal education departments around the country. According to documentation in Russia’s Unified Information System for Procurement, the municipal district council of Lyubertsy, a town in the Moscow region has allocated 2.6 million roubles (£36,211) to organising events to promote “civic-patriotic and spiritual-moral awareness” among young people. The list of appropriate events includes a “Conscript’s Day” event and a “Defender of the Fatherland” military-patriotic game, complete with army uniforms. The scenario of this event should include some training for the young men’s military service.
“Children have individual personalities. Some children like playing war games, pretending to be soldiers, fighters. Others may be brought up in a family with pacifist traditions and want to avoid such games,” says Elena Morozova, a paediatric clinical psychologist. “But we need to remember that war means tragedy, sorrow, misfortune and killing. If a child accepts the idea of war, perhaps they don’t feel pain – or at least not enough. And dressing children in army uniforms is early militarisation.”
Morozova feels that it would be better to mark 23 February in schools by stressing the element of defence: “a defender is not just a fighter – he could be defending a girl, for example, or a principle. The way it is celebrated now develops neither manliness nor patriotism. Children need to be in a more childish, fantasy — and kind-hearted — environment. There should be a celebration of the strength of your spirit, not your fist.”
A woman’s place is in the kitchen
Women too have their special date — 8 March, International Women’s Day. This day, first marked in 1911, was created as a sign of solidarity in the battle for women’s rights and emancipation, but in Russia it has acquired a diametrically opposite meaning. On 8 March, Russian women receive flowers, congratulations and wishes that they will always remain “beautiful”, “loving”, “kind”. In other words, that they will fulfil traditional women’s roles: “keeper of the hearth”, “mother” and “wife”.
On 8 March, schools and nursery schools usually organise pupils’ concerts where mothers and grandmothers receive best wishes for the next year — this holiday has turned into Mothers’ Day, any connection with gender equality has flown out the window.
Many children have no idea what they are celebrating: these 8 March events often end up as an all-purpose celebration of Mothers’ Day, the coming of spring and ancient Slavonic cultural traditions.
“My daughter had to take part in a competition in her nursery’s 8 March celebrations: the kids had to show how they helped Mummy at home – because cooking is what mums do”
“I sat in the school hall before this performance,” one mother told me, laughing, “and heard these three-year olds discussing what kind of special date it was – someone’s birthday, perhaps, or the start of spring…Then one of them got it: ‘it’s the Day of the Eighth Mother!’”
“My daughter had to take part in a competition in her nursery’s 8 March celebrations: the children had to show how they helped Mummy at home. They had to sort plastic onions, carrots, courgettes and potatoes – because what mums do is cook,” says Nina P, a Moscow resident.
“But the thing is that I don’t do the cooking at home,” continues Nina. “I work all day and the nanny collects my daughter from nursery and feeds her. So when the nursery teacher asked her whether she helped me in the kitchen, she said, ‘No’. The teacher told her that this wasn’t good, but she’d have done better to tell her that women’s abilities are not limited to sorting onions and carrots.”
According to psychologist Elena Morozova, it’s important to talk to children in the run-up to 8 March, and find out what they want to be in the future. “Little girls might well want to be doctors, teachers and so on, and not just mummies giving birth to children and bringing them up.”
Girls don’t play with cars
“My daughter tells me there are boys’ games and girls’ games,” says Natalia A, who lives outside Moscow. “Before she went to nursery, she had no idea that only boys should play with toy cars. But now it turns out that girls should play with dolls. No one actually forces them to. But the fact that it’s talked about, and the teachers don’t say anything or explain that anybody can play with cars, that’s what worries me.”
On the question of what other parents think about this gender divide, Natalia says that she has tried to raise it with other women whose children attend the same nursery school, but none of them are bothered about it. “One said to me that if you don’t teach children the differences between boys and girls, the boys will grow up gay. And she also claimed that because women have become too independent, men are becoming gay because they don’t get enough snogging.”
Symptoms of patriarchal traditionalism are also flourishing in Russia’s business world, where men are seen as breadwinners and women as homemakers
A joint study [link in Russian] by Moscow’s Institute of Education Higher School of Economics and the European University Institute in Florence has shown that Russian women have 1.4 times the chances for promotion to senior positions compared to their male colleagues, thanks, among other things, to their higher academic achievements. Women are, however, slow to take up these chances.
The authors of the study believe that Russian women are held back in the workplace not only by a lack of state maternal support, but a persistence of gender stereotypes. Employers are much more likely to promote men, who are not entitled to paid parental leave. So women become accustomed to discrimination, lower their expectations and don’t apply for managerial jobs. This means that, despite their higher academic credentials, women have a lot less real chance of building a professional career.
Another study, by the Higher School of Education’s Dmitry Kurakin and Yulia Kosyakova, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Employment Research in Nuremberg, shows that inequality between men and women in the workplace has increased since the end of the Soviet Union [link in Russian]. The authors believe that cultural stereotypes that relegate women to “domestic” roles and ignore them as educated and competent workers have increasingly taken hold in Russia’s public consciousness.
Symptoms of patriarchal traditionalism are also flourishing in Russia’s business world, where men are seen as breadwinners and women as homemakers. And Kurakin and Kosyakova see the revival of religious faiths, both Christianity and Islam, as playing their part in the rise of gender inequality.
Fighting for attention
“The kitten is a girl, and the puppy is a boy. Boys look at girls. Boys fall in love with pretty girls” - Olya is role playing with fridge magnets while I’m finishing this article, working at home at the weekend.
“And ugly girls?” I ask her without thinking, my eyes still on the screen.
“They don’t fall in love with ugly girls, just pretty ones”. Like most children, Olya likes everything in life to be cut and dried, with no exceptions, nuances or reflection.
“Who’s the prettiest girl at nursery?”
“Nastya. All the boys look at Nastya,” Olya answers sadly. Her theory about pretty girls is losing some of its attraction.
Later on, at bedtime, I spend another hour teasing out of my daughter what the teachers had actually said about the how the world works. This is how I discover that nursery life is dominated by a simplistic vision of male-female relationships, an abundance of gender stereotypes, a denial of homosexuality and a belief that homosexuality can be avoided with the help of conversations on the impossibility of boys loving other boys — the division of the world into “us” and “them”.
Every evening I realise that I’m finding it harder and harder to challenge this worldview that my child is being fed, having to fall back on the strength of my parental authority alone. I’ve only got one hour before bedtime at my disposal, and children can spend up to 12 hours a day in nurseries and schools.
A private nursery school and school is one way out of this problem — parents have more influence on the educational process there. But for most Russian citizens, this alternative doesn’t exist: fees for private preschool education can represent up to 80% of an average salary, depending on which region you live in. Private nursery schools in Moscow charge between 30,000 and 50,000 roubles (£421- £701) a month, while official figures put average monthly salaries in the capital at around 62,000 roubles (£870).
All that remains is my hope is that the two hours per day during the week and two (if we’re lucky) days off at the weekend is enough to form our children’s perception of the world on our own terms.
Translated from Russian by Liz Barnes