The Sputnik Generation: Gender Roles as Defining Personality

In Ch. 3 of “Russia’s Sputnik Generation: Soviet Baby Boomers Talk about Their Lives”, editor and historian Donald J. Raleigh interviewed Natalia P. to discover what values, events and ideology shaped the formation of Soviet identity during 1960s and 1970s in the Soviet Union. Natalia P. is a language enthusiast, professor of foreign languages, mother and wife. Throughout this chapter, Natalia reminisced on her childhood during the Khrushchev era (1956-1964) and her adolescence and young adulthood during the Brezhnev era (1964-1982). When discussing the factors that shapes her own identity, Natalia pointed to her family values and credits her father as someone who taught her the importance of character and having strong principles in a society where bribing and using others to one’s advantage were common practices.

Through her own recollections, however, it is evident that Natalia’s own self-understanding comes from her strong identification with being a woman. When asked if she ever read any samizdat publications or participated in the dissident movement, Natalia replied “…it passed us by. You have to understand that it was all young women who studied in [her department]. We were not at all interested in politics. We were basically interested in boys and romance and…studying. Therefore samizdat didn’t circulate among us” (108). Raleigh also explicitly asked Natalia to explain how her gender defined her own identity and questioned whether her life would have been different if she had been born a man. To this, Natalia replied that she currently occupies a “exclusively man’s job at work” (108), adding that she was the only female department head (“can you imagine?” (108)) and claiming that she would like to “very much like to be a woman again, but I don’t like emancipation. What is, is. It’s too late” (108).

Although Soviet ideology emphasized gender equality (especially during the 1920s and 1930s), the reality and actual experiences of women in the Soviet Union shows otherwise. By claiming that females aren’t interested in politics, or that there are certain male positions, Natalia P. is making broad claims, yet is showing that her own self-understanding rests on this gender distinction. Was gender equality really as important in Soviet everyday life as it is ideologically claimed to be? For Natalia P, gender equality does not seem to be an issue. Indeed, her own identity rests on the fact that women and men are not equal. However, was this statement as universal as she claims? Did women feel unequal to men, and if so, was this a problem for their self-understanding?

One thought on “The Sputnik Generation: Gender Roles as Defining Personality

  1. I’m not sure if Natalia was stating that men and women are not equal, but rather that men and women are expected to occupy different spheres in society, whether these spheres are equal or not is rather unclear. Natalia seems to be plagued by the expectation society places on a woman’s role – which results in her having to choose between family life and work as the focus of her attentions. Women in particular struggle to find that balance between family and work because there are such high expectations to fulfill “potential”. What kind of potential did the Soviet Union have in mind for young women though? Natalia gives an example of a young woman who did not fulfill her potential because she found fulfillment in family as opposed to work. However, is this not what the Soviet Union prepared her for? What is the idealized role of a Soviet woman? Is she expected to be both a worker and a mother? If a women does not have children then does she also fail to fulfill her “potential”, while the same failure occurs if she does not pursue a professional career? What is the definition of Soviet success for a woman as compared to a man?

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