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When Barbie Conquered The Soviet Union

Barbie first appeared 50 years ago this month, but she invaded the Soviet Union in the 1980s
Barbie first appeared 50 years ago this month, but she invaded the Soviet Union in the 1980s
It just so happened that I was apparently one of the first people in the Soviet Union to get a Barbie doll, which was ironic since I was one of those relatively rare girls who simply didn't play with dolls.

But one time my favorite uncle, a prominent physiologist, returned from a business trip to Denmark with a long, narrow box. My mother told me it was a Barbie.

I remember how we carefully opened the box and pulled out a tiny, well-proportioned woman, like the fairy who emerged from a walnut shell in the old fairy tale. Her short, ethereal negligee, her manicured fingernails and toenails, her shapely plastic legs with those tiny knees, her miniscule light-blue high-heeled shoes! And the tiny fashion magazine that came in the set! When I grow up, I'll make myself one of those outfits, I thought.

I didn't play with this doll either, although for an altogether different reason: This was obviously a creature from another world. I don't know who was more excited -- me or my mother. We sat her down on a little doll's chair, and there she sat -- illuminating everything around her with her presence.

And she's sitting in front of me right now. As Barbie celebrates her 50th birthday this month, I pulled her out of a box to take one more look. She really is something from another world. At least, that's what Irina Khomenko, head of the pedagogical department of the Herzen Pedagogical University in St. Petersburg, tells me.

"I think the appearance of Barbie in the Soviet Union was a clear declaration that women have bodies," Khomenko says. "I remember all our dolls were shapeless, breastless, with indefinable gender characteristics."

And they were either babies or toddlers or little girls.

With Barbie's arrival, Khomenko said, "suddenly we [had] a doll that allowed girls to project their own behavior into the future. It enabled her to think of herself as a little woman, a future woman, to form clearly feminine characteristics. I think for the most part this was a good thing. Because it is completely different playing only with little babies -- there aren't very many plots to be rehearsed except mother and daughter."

That is, bathe her, put her down for her nap, give her her medicine.

"But Barbie played the role of a model that enabled our girls and boys -- later, when other toys appeared -- to project models of their own family behavior," Khomenko said. "That is, thanks to Barbie, girls began to think about their social roles. As paradoxical as it sounds, they no longer had to view themselves just in the role of mother, but in the role of women -- pretty, flirtatious, complex."

Seeds Of Family Conflict

I also spoke to Sergei Babashov about Barbie. Babashov was a physicist in Soviet times and one of the few who was able to travel abroad. Of course, Barbie was pretty expensive for Soviets abroad back then, so Babashov brought his first one back not for his daughter but for his granddaughter.

"My granddaughter was five years old back in the 1980s when I made a trip to the United States," Babashov told me. "I brought her a Barbie and she was thrilled. Played with her all the time. But at the time, my mother-in-law got sick and she was jealous of my granddaughter and her doll, of the fact that she always carried Barbie around. My mother-in-law forced the girl to put the doll up on a shelf and my granddaughter was so angry, shouting that it was her doll. But my mother-in-law wouldn't relent. So, we had a family conflict over Barbie," he said.

Babashov continued: "The next time I was in America, I told the story to a professor friend of mine there. The next year, he came to St. Petersburg and brought with him another Barbie. And he asked me, who should he give it to -- my granddaughter or my mother-in-law? Having two Barbies settled the conflict. One of them sat on the shelf, since she was the granny, and my granddaughter played with the other."

Among the popular Soviet toys at the time, there were construction sets from which you could build a little Kremlin or Lenin's mausoleum. Then along came Barbie, who looked like some sort of ideological challenge, embodying all those things that were silently or openly scorned -- cosmetics, fashion, the human figure.

"Another world had arrived," Khomenko says, "and that world was more aesthetic than the things we were producing in Russia. In this regard, you should recall the dolls of the pre-revolutionary times -- which were also richly dressed in lace and curls that the girls could brush and braid."

Khomenko continued, "I think Barbie returned us to the aesthetic of the toy and enabled us to understand that toys form a certain taste in children, as well as civic or maternal qualities. It may be that the toys that our girls played with only in the role of mother contributed to the attitude in our society that women should be completely occupied with the family, as a nurturing mother, as a result of which she stopped being a woman at some point."

Barbie, Khomenko said, "began to return to girls, and then to young women and then to women, another function -- not only as child-rearer or mother, but as a genuine woman."

Barbie arrived in the Soviet Union alongside the changes ushered in by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Together with chewing gum and blue jeans and Snickers and other attributes of the new world that was opening up before the Soviet people. She became, herself, a symbol of perestroika.

Tatyana Voltskaya is the St. Petersburg correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.