An Angry Women’s Day in Russia : Protest: This year, parties yield to demonstrations. A human rights report catalogues nation’s rampant sexism.


In the voice of Lyudmila Vinnikova, single mother of an only child, the anger and resentment of millions echoed off the Kremlin walls on Wednesday as she observed International Women’s Day by denouncing the holiday as a Soviet leftover and a patronizing farce.

“The government doesn’t listen to women at all,” complained Vinnikova, whose 20-year-old son, Yuri, has been sent to fight in the hated war against breakaway Chechnya.

“We thought these horrors were over when we left Afghanistan, but when it comes to military adventures nothing has changed,” said the St. Petersburg salesclerk, one of thousands of women across Russia who bypassed holiday parties to protest the bungled Chechnya invasion endangering their sons.


A mood of revolt against the empty symbolism of Women’s Day was also apparent in a larger, louder protest by those nostalgic for the Communist era--anti-reform forces dominated by struggling pensioners, teachers and laborers whose living standards have drastically worsened in this turbulent time of change.

“Long live the Communist Party!” and “No more wild capitalism!” were the chants and banners of the 1,000 or so disgruntled demonstrators in October Square.

Across Russia, women made clear this year that they will no longer be pacified, as they are being asked to shoulder what they see as an unfair, increasing burden.

Their complaints were borne out in a damning report on the status of Russian women issued on the international holiday by Human Rights Watch.

In “Neither Jobs Nor Justice,” the agency’s Women’s Rights Project accused the Russian government of open discrimination against women, denying them equal access to employment and failing to take seriously their increasing reports of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The report’s chief author, Regan E. Ralph, praised Russian women activists for making long strides toward bringing the issues of discrimination and domestic violence to public light.


“What we haven’t seen is any kind of response from the appropriate government officials,” she said in a telephone interview from her Washington office. “The Ministry of Labor says it is concerned, but does absolutely nothing to stop discrimination in the workplace.”

Interior Ministry officials concede that violence against women is a growing problem, “but they deny their own complicity in it by failing to take action.”

The report chronicles dismissive treatment of women’s complaints about sexual harassment on the job, about blatant discrimination against female workers throughout the work force and about the notion prevalent among law enforcement officials that women are at least partly responsible for sexual assaults against them.

Women account for two-thirds of Russia’s jobless, and the figure surpasses 80% in urban areas, the report said.

It criticized antiquated government prohibitions against women working in some traditionally male-dominated occupations, as well as the lack of government sanctions against employers who advertise their openings “for men only.”

Political leaders in the Soviet era hailed Russia’s treatment of women as superior to the West’s, boasting of full employment and showcasing their token female cosmonauts and tractor drivers alike.


But even then, women complained privately of the dual burdens they endured, as few men considered housework and child-rearing their responsibility.

Despite official claims that all that has changed, the endemic attitude toward women as men’s inferiors was apparent in holiday messages sent out this year by senior Russian officials and mass media.

Kuranty, a Moscow daily, noted that the day honored “our charming friends who decorate everything not with their strength, but with their weakness.”

Russia’s parliamentary Speaker appealed to “sweet and nice women--the better half of society--to help the Russian people not to embitter their hearts and souls at the present hard times.”

Even President Boris N. Yeltsin described Women’s Day as “the warmest of holidays, when we strive to say to women all the good things we didn’t manage to say earlier.”

The newspaper Izvestia broke ranks to concede that “Russia has done very little for women.” It remains a society of “the guys” in which all important decisions are made by men, more due to the people’s mentality than because of outdated laws, the paper said.


The hundreds of women who gathered around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier just outside the Kremlin’s west wall invoked the widely unpopular war in Chechnya as evidence of the low esteem in which their government holds public opinion.

“I’m concerned that women have no say in the fate of their children,” complained Natalia Nelidova, an academic with the Institute for Humanitarian Research who took part to show solidarity with the grieving mothers. “Some aspects of our lives have improved in recent years, but regarding the rights of women, it is worse now than a decade ago.”

One tearful mother, who would identify herself only as Natalia, said she was hiding her conscript son with friends in Moscow and fighting off army attempts to have him prosecuted for refusing orders to go to the Chechen front.

“They threaten to put our children in prison for refusing to take part in a criminal action,” the mother of three boys said in a frightened whisper. “I don’t trust anyone in this government. We have no rights.”