The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung is represented by six offices throughout Eastern Europe. Through our work at these locations, we aim to expand the scope of action available to women, promote women’s emancipation and self-determination, and generally advance and promote feminist politics.
The projects conducted at these locations are supervised in the offices by eleven project managers who have gained a great deal of knowledge on these topics, not only through their work with the project partners or in their own projects, but also through their own first-hand experience of the transformation. We asked Nelia Vakhovska from our Kiev office about her experience living through this period.
Nelia Vakhovska (born 1980) works as programme manager in the RLS Regional Office in Kiev.
Translated by Hunter Bolin and Louise Pain for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
What kind of world were you born into?
I was born in 1980 into a typical working-class Soviet Union family. My parents moved from their home village to the closest small city at the age of 20, but they still retained a strong connection to “their” village. My father worked as a driver for a company that provided technical support and servicing for the surrounding kolkhozes (collective farms). My mother—the high achiever—was the first member of her family to graduate from university as an economist. However, this had no real effect on our actual family life.
My childhood was still shaped by patriarchy. After she finished university, my mother remained a housewife instead of seeking paid employment, which was relatively unusual and made her an exception to the rule. She took care of me until I started school at the age of seven. She took care of the entire household, the vegetable garden, and our animals. We were almost self-sufficient: we had pigs and chickens, sometimes even a cow. My father earned a modest wage and helped with the cattle, chopping wood, and all kinds of repairs and handwork. He never touched “women’s work”. He went hunting and picked mushrooms not—just for fun, but to provide for us—and taught his only child things he considered to be practical: there were lots of sports and many walks.
My mother started working in 1987. She worked in the district bakery, which supplied almost 60,000 people with baked goods, pies, and soft drinks. She worked in administration and was responsible for the distribution of much sought-after goods. This allowed her to establish an extensive network of “special relationships”, which enabled her to organize some things herself that were otherwise difficult to obtain. My mother’s new job also changed her relationship with my father, which became increasingly conflict-ridden. My father accused her of having abandoned us and of not managing the household properly. She, on the other hand, thought that he was a bad provider and therefore a weak man. Both felt trapped in their assigned gender roles, but neither of them managed to break free from them. Their respective parents fuelled this conflict.
My mother terminated her second pregnancy, which she did not want. Women were entitled to make this decision on their own, but female doctors often took a repressive approach towards their female patients.
She wanted to get a divorce. As a single parent with a good education, the state certainly would have provided her with work and a place to live. But in the end, she was afraid of following through with this.
What did your life look like when state socialism collapsed?
When Germany was reunified in 1991, I was 11 years old and a member of the Young Pioneers, an organization whose rituals had long since lost their meaning. Life up to that point had been monotonous.
After the fall of the Wall, we were overwhelmed by the perceived splendour and luxury of consumer culture: chewing gum in all different kinds of flavours, jeans, and other clothes—not the ones from the GDR, but “really cool” ones from the West. You could now secretly watch Hollywood blockbusters and porn movies in so-called video salons, where they were screened on TVs with VCRs set up in a basement and set to unbearably bad music.
All of a sudden, miracle healers, esotericists, and missionaries of all kinds were coming to our school, and teachers and students alike naively listened to their stories, fascinated, just as indigenous people once were by the colonizers’ glass beads.
What did the collapse mean for you? How did your life change afterwards?
The world fell apart. In many families, someone lost their job. People suddenly learned what poverty was. Police officers became bandits, and bandits became businessmen.
My father wasn’t paid for several months, causing him to sink into a depression. My mother essentially became the sole wage earner. We were allotted two plots of land (about 0.3 hectares) and began to plough them by hand. Both of my parents stole from their workplaces, usually groceries that were available in the kolkhozes or the bakery, while their superiors took over entire companies, cars, and anything else that could turn a profit.
Everything fell apart. There was one year when I didn’t even get new socks. My mother cried when she was finally able to buy me a pair of trousers. I didn’t understand why she was crying. I was happy.
The “new rich”—guys in raspberry-coloured suit jackets brandishing guns, surrounded by beautiful, stoned women—slowly made their way from our TV screens into the real life of our little town. They created a permanently threatening atmosphere that made you feel insecure, especially as a young woman.
From a feminist perspective, what would you describe as the greatest loss of this time?
The feeling of security—it never returned. I was socialized with the attitude that you can’t rely on anyone, especially as a woman.
How would you describe this period?
It was a crime. It lasted almost 20 years and robbed people of their dignity. I still get angry when I think about that time.
If you were to describe the situation today, what would that look like? What influence does modern-day capitalism have on gender equality in your society?
The transition we lived through to this wild, unfettered capitalism, with its rampant poverty and unstoppable rise of conservative ideologies, has strengthened patriarchy much more than it has promoted gender equality. The demand for gender equality is all well and good, but it should have been raised much earlier and with a greater sense of urgency.
The developments of recent decades have led to the abolition of some repressive norms: homosexuality has been decriminalized and sterilization is no longer a prerequisite for changing one’s gender. The list of professions that are prohibited for women has been abolished.
But on the other hand, women’s economic rights and many of their freedoms have been even more severely restricted. National conservatives of all stripes are pushing women back into the three “Ks”: Küche, Kinder, Kirche (kitchen, children, church). People who have a minority sexual orientation are still sometimes beaten to death on the street.
I am not of the belief that the Soviet Union was a great system, but the fight for our rights should have taken a different path than the takeover of capitalism.