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In A Land Where Feminism is Still Taboo, Women Run The Show

Irkutsk, Russia; July 2 (RFE/RL) -- One thing is clear to those who know Russia and it quickly becomes apparent to first-time visitors: women hold this country together. They may not occupy the high profile-jobs or appear much on television, but they are the backbone of this nation. Feminism may still be taboo, but women quietly run the show.

In Soviet times, the babushka or grandmother, served as most families' babysitter, grocery-shopper and advisor. She could also be seen shoveling the icy streets in winter and guarding the halls of countless museums and ministries. She still does.

But these days, when economic reforms seem to have driven many men to the liquor bottle and the unemployment lines, causing a fall in men's average life expectancy to a shocking 57 years, women of all ages have stepped in to pick up the slack.

Walk around Irkutsk --a sprawling city of 650,000 in Siberia -- and you will see many drunk men, loitering in back alleys, crouching in doorways or knocking back beers on the banks of the Angara. Women are busy resurfacing the roads, driving the trams or more recently, starting careers. Eleanora Kez, editor of Irkutyanka, a monthly womens' newspaper, knows many such women. She is one of them. Three years ago, Kez started her magazine, initially with the support of the regional womens' committee. Irkutyanka was then picked up by the region's largest daily, East Siberian Truth, which made it into a monthly insert. Irkutyanka has boosted the paper's overall circulation, says Kez, and advertisers have begun to pay attention. "In our country, it's women who run the family budget," she explains, adding, "they hold the purse-strings and they are the main consumers."

Irkutyanka deals with many topics, with articles by and for women on everything from politics to sex, furniture shopping to womens' prisons. Kez says she does not yet have the resources to start additional publications, aimed at different interest groups. She explains, "That's why Irkutyanka tries to include everything that will help women, support them and empower them." As for the economic difficulties of post-Soviet Russia, Kez says women are often the ones who bear the brunt of the hardship. Not only must they act as confidantes to their husbands and families, all the while running the day-to-day household, but women's own salaries at work are almost always lower than men's. And when an enterprise decides to lay off workers, women are the first to go. Currently, says Kez, women make up 80 percent of all the unemployed in the Irkutsk region.

While most women must hold down one job or another to make ends meet, those who choose to pursue a career, often meet with little understanding at home. Galina Konstantinidi, who runs a successful office supply company in Irkutsk, encountered such resistance to her plans form her husband, that she was forced to divorce.

The list of women leaders in Irkutsk goes on. There is Irina Dyatlovskaya-Birnbaum, director of the non-profit Baikal Center for Ecological and Citizen Initiatives and Maria Safonova, a middle-aged English teacher, who decided two years ago to apply for an American grant to start Irkutsk's Citizen Information Initiative. The center helps link local students, business people and civic groups with their colleagues abroad, while providing the same service for foreigners seeking contacts here.

The Communists' regional campaign is managed by a woman, who sets the strict tone at party headquarters. While outside Irkutsk, in the industrial town of Baikalsk, Svetlana Volgina, the head of the local radio station, has just been elected to the regional legislature. Volgina earned local respect after twice traveling to Chechnya, where she captured the war's savagery on video and successfully delivered food and medicines to Siberian prisoners-of-war. Volgina is part of a local chapter of the Russian Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, which has played a key role in the anti-Chechen war movement.

In fact, Irkutsk has a long tradition of strong women. There is the oft cited case of the Decembrists, Russian reformists of the last century, whose wives accompanied them voluntarily into exile in Irkutsk, when their palace coup was foiled by the Tsar. In its early days, Soviet society promised revolutionary attitudes towards the role of women. Equality and new family structures were all promoted. But as the 1920s wore on, women soon fell back to more traditional roles - with the difference that they too were made to work to build Soviet society, in addition to caring for their families. And throughout, they too continued to follow their men into Siberian exile.

Some had hoped things would be different now - that women would be liberated by economic reforms. In fact, most women have been more burdened, but they are holding up better than men. Says Kez, "Women have a stronger survival instinct. And they also feel a greater sense of responsibility towards their familes." Galina Konstantinidi says that makes them "better administrators and better business people." It all begs the question: maybe Russia needs neither Yeltsin nor his Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov, but a woman instead.