On Tuesday 8th March, Russia will join many other countries around the world in celebrating International Women’s Day. On this day Russians give gifts to their mothers, wives, sisters and other important women in their lives, incorporating celebrations normally associated with Mothers’ Day or Valentines Day into one occasion. It has been a public holiday since 1965, and in the Soviet Union the efforts of working women and those who had defended the country during the Great Patriotic War were especially commemorated. To celebrate, we’re sharing the stories and achievements of some great Russian women who you may not have heard of.
Olga Bergholz (О́льга Бергго́льц)
Olga Bergholz was a poet who lived and worked in the Soviet Union. She is especially well known for the radio broadcasts she made to the people of Leningrad (today St Petersburg) from 1941 to 1944 whilst it was under heavy siege from Hitler’s invading forces. Originally a journalist, she would later channel the tragedy of losing two daughters to illness and her husband during Stalin’s purges into her poems. The other themes of love, faith and heroism served as great inspiration to the people of Leningrad following her regular poetry readings on the radio, where she worked. She wore a tin brooch in the shape of a swallow on her lapel, symbolising that she and indeed the whole city were waiting for correspondence from the rest of the Motherland, and the swallow still serves today as a symbol of the resilience of the citizens of Leningrad during the brutal siege in which as many as 800,000 people are thought to have died.
Alexandra Kollontai (Алекса́ндра Коллонта́й)
Alexandra Kollontai was a politician and the most senior women in the early administration of the Soviet Union. Fiercely intelligent from a young age, she grew interested in Marxist ideas and became a member of the Russian intelligentsia, which led her to become well acquainted with one Vladimir Ilycih Ulyanov, otherwise known as Lenin. After the revolution she became the People’s Commissar for Social Welfare, thus becoming one of the most prominent women in the Soviet government. One of her most well known achievements in this role was the creation of the Zhenotdel, or Женотдел, which aimed to help realise the Soviet Union’s goal of achieving gender equality. She was also one of the world’s first female ambassadors, serving as the Soviet Union’s ambassador to Norway, Mexico, and Sweden between 1923 and 1945. She was an advocate of free love and lesser taboo surrounding sexuality, and believed traditional family institutions to be highly repressive of men and women, views which were extremely radical at the time.
Irina Ratushinskaya (Ири́на Ратуши́нская)
Irina Ratushinskaya is a Russian dissident and writer, best known for her poetry. It was this for which she was sentenced to seven years in a labour camp in 1983, followed by five years of exile, due to her poems being viewed as sources of ‘anti-Soviet agitation’. Whilst in prison, she was forbidden from writing but evaded this by scratching her poems into a block of soap until they were memorised, when she would wash them away. She wrote 250 poems in this manner. She was released early in 1986 on the eve of a conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, and was stripped of her Soviet citizenship. After living in the United States, where she was poet in residence at Northwestern University, and in London, she fought to return to Russia and educate her children there in 1998, and has since written a memoir detailing her time in a prison camp, as well as more poetry.
Vera Mukhina (Ве́ра Му́хина)
Vera Mukhina was a Soviet artist and sculptor. One of her most famous pieces, the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman monument, in which a pair of figures hold their hammer and sickle heroically forward, is regarded as an iconic and pioneering piece of Soviet Realist sculpture, and earned her the title of People’s Artist of the USSR. Her skill and artistry gave her power and influence within the upper echelons of the Communist party, and is credited with using this to halt the destruction of the Freedom Monument in Riga, Latvia, her family’s native land, which had been due to be replaced by an enormous statue of Stalin after the Soviet Union’s annexation of Latvia in 1940.
Chulpan Khamatova (Чулпа́н Хама́това)
Chulpan Khamatova is a Russian actress and campaigner. After quitting studying maths and economics to pursue an acting career, she became a well known figure within Russian theatre, and drew international attention when she featured in the German film Good Bye Lenin! in 2003. Since 2006 she has been more well known in Russia for her charity work after she founded the charity ‘Gift of Life’ (Подари жизнь) which helps children suffering from cancer and blood diseases and by the summer of 2009 had raised 500 million roubles in just 3 years. She took to the international stage again when she was one of 8 flag-bearers who carried the Olympic flag into the stadium in the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games in 2014.
By Elizabeth Rushton