Lessons from Post-Soviet Motherhood

By Katya Mushik

I am the first-generation daughter of a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant. There are many lessons I’ve painstakingly had to learn of what Post-Soviet motherhood is really like.

Lesson one: don’t date Slavic men.

One evening in Ukraine, I walked into a modern, multi-colored apartment with my mother. We’re in Obolon, the upper echelons of Post-Soviet suburbia. For the first time, I meet my mother’s high school friends, Nadia* and Alida*. They immediately greet us with an open bottle of champagne and fresh strawberries.

Sitting down, they recollect and reminisce – memories from high school in Soviet Ukraine. There are three things they have in common: they are all married, they have children, and they are in their early fifties. My mother, who immigrated from Ukraine in 1993, catches up with her friends. She hasn’t seen them for nearly thirty years. 

Alida, a mother of two daughters, lives an ideal life. She stays at home in her overly pink apartment, while her husband works full time to support her and the family. Nadia, on the other hand, experiences a much different life. Working part-time as a volunteer nurse and as a stay-at-home single mom, she has two sons, one an adult and a younger son who lives with her. After thirty years of marriage, her husband grew tired of the monotony of family life and left her and her two sons for a twenty-something year old woman.

This still occurs, even today in modern Ukraine. Unfortunately, at the kitchen table, it passed as another one of those casual stories. 

My mother, though shocked, laughed it off. She advised me half-heartedly, “See! This is why you don’t date Slavic men…”. Despite it all, Alida claimed to be a new and modern woman. (Later, she admitted to my mother that she is suffering from depression and can’t find a way out). 

My mother tied together values of motherhood with her journey through immigration. She met my father in Ukraine at age twenty-four and, within three months of dating, married each other and left for America that same year. They are still married to this day. My mother, rather than having children at the young age of twenty like her mother and grandmother did, waited. When I ask her why, she says, “I wanted to become financially stable first. With your father and I. We waited five years and had you at thirty. We wanted to make something of ourselves first. Get degrees. Pay for our own condominium.” Arriving in the United States with only a thousand dollars and little-to-no English, my mother survived, and, eventually, was lucky enough to thrive. From being a young immigrant in Los Angeles in the 1990s, she transitioned into motherhood, soon settling down in the suburbs west of Hollywood.


Lesson two: trauma is generational. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union disrupted both the socio-economic states of these countries and the mindsets of these people, especially women. How would they continue living?

Even after immigrants leaving the Soviet Union, their pasts continue to linger. This resonates among many children of Slavic parents, even in the United States.

I was a test-trial for my mother. The guinea pig in her first trial of having a kid. She incubated me in a pseudo-American household, with just the right settings to have me grow into an academic and extracurricular-minded kid. 

Beyond being her first child, I am a living testament to her success as an immigrant mother who grasped her first taste of what it’s like to live the American dream.

I am also living testament to the idealized societal pressures of Soviet life that never left. Communism impacted my mother. She is hard-driven, determined, and extremely nifty at working both a full-time job and being a wife and mother.

The “double patriarchy” [1].

Soviet mothers teeter-tottered between the patriarchy of their “spouses” and the “masculine authority of the state”1.

Gender “equality” did not mean rights for women – or as human beings – rather, it signaled their “equal participation in the paid labor force” [2]

Soviet women were both mothers and wives, but also “genderless utopian machines” [3] for the state. 


Lesson three: motherhood evolves yet nothing really changes.

Over a year ago, at my university I enrolled in a course called “Women in Russia”. The curriculum and reading revolutionized my knowledge about Soviet womanhood. However, I didn’t need a course to tell me what I already knew about Post-Soviet women.

Not too long ago, The Moscow Times created an online platform interviewing daughters, mothers and grandmothers to highlight the transition from motherhood in the Soviet Union to today. On their platform, they write:

The 19th century poet Nikolai Nekrasov famously said that Russian women could “stop a galloping horse or charge into a burning house.” More than a century later, the resilience that quote evokes still rings true.

In today’s Russia, however, a different idiom is being used to describe the position of women in society: “If he hits you, it means he loves you.”

Under the current regime, conservative values have become more deeply entrenched…

Gradually, women are raising their voices. 

Beyond the news cycle, however, women are rarely given a platform. [4]

From all over Russia and across Former Soviet countries, women are redefining motherhood for themselves.

I’ll never forget the lessons my mother continues to teach me – they are embedded within the voices of her intergenerational past. My great grandmother survived the holocaust; my grandmother gave birth to my father in a village shed on her own; my other grandmother gave birth to my mother at twenty years old; a few years later my grandfather left her for a younger woman. Nothing really changes. But the lessons remain.

Strength. Courage. Perseverance. 

Though these characteristics came out of a dark place of patriarchy and social disorder, the lessons that came with them never left. They are passed down from grandmother, to mother, to daughter. I carry with me both their traumas and their sense of strength. It’s a double-edged sword I am willing to live with.


*names changed to protect privacy.

Endnotes:

[1] Victor Tupitsyn (1997) If I were a woman, Third Text, 11:40, 85-93, DOI: 

10.1080/09528829708576688 

Link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/09528829708576688 

[2] Nanette Funk (1993) Feminism and Post-Communism, Hypatia, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Autumn, 1993), pp. 85-88 

Link to this article: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3810371 

[3] Victor Tupitsyn (1997) If I were a woman, Third Text, 11:40, 85-93, DOI:10.10/09528829708576688

[4] The Moscow Times. Mothers & Daughters (web). Link to this site:https://mothersanddaughters.themoscowtimes.com/?utm_source=themoscowtimes&utm_medium=banner&utm_campaign=970

Katya Mushik (she/them) is a third-year undergraduate student at the University of California, Davis, where she studies International Relations and Russian Language, with a focus on Peace and Security and Eastern Europe. She is currently researching Russian and Ukrainian feminist protest movements for her Senior Thesis.

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