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Sex after the fall
In some ways my personal and political ties with
The ties began with CHOICES, the women's medical center I
founded in 1971. and around which I've built my life
and work. In the 1980s, as the immigration policies of the
Thinking about her and the conditions of her life, I began
to have dreams and fantasies of going to
The two feminist publishers had dreams also: Dreams of giving Russian women dignity, autonomy, and choice -and they viewed me as the vehicle to help make those dreams a reality.
Two weeks after they left
Taking little time to say yes, three months later I was on
my way to
As the plane began its nine and a half hour flight, I
recalled a different time 10 years earlier when I first traveled to
Now, here I was again -in
My hosts had arranged for us to stay in a pre-revolutionary
mansion called Perendelkina that now functions as a
government artist colony where pensioned writers and old artists retire. Perendelkina is in a so called "green zone" 20
minutes outside of central
no. Everything is a struggle: at least one to two hours a day are spent negotiating .and navigating just to he able to get from one place to another -or trying to find a phone that works.
Our first lunch at Perendelkina combined politics and poignancy. Apologizing fur the co for the country's economic crisis, an attentive staff served us a meal of boiled eggs, bread, cheese, squash and oatmeal. In the evening we were taken to an extraordinary banquet at the Artist Guild. The hall is a famous meeting place for intellectuals, artists and writers of the Russian intelligentsia. Oak-beamed walls and ornate glass chandeliers were the background to a pianist playing Chopin and Rachmaninoff with an occasional American favorite like "Feelings" thrown in.
I was aware as I looked at the table spread out with caviar, lox, sturgeon and vodka that my hosts had gone to unusual expense and time to produce this. The dinner continued for hours with each one of us in turn rising to propose a toast, then drinking our vodka "to the end." One of my hosts rose and expressed her gratitude for my coming and for the chance to exchange ideas. She asserted that the country needs women to take it in hand and lead it out of crisis.
There was an easy affection, an ability to touch and to connect with each other's eyes and energies without the need for continual translation -and there was also a strange tension and excitement in the air. As I looked about me I saw that people had broken up into small groups and were discussing potential business deals -everybody was hustling!
There was a keen awareness that with the fall of communism
people were able, indeed, desired, to show creativity and entrepreneurial
spirit. One person rose to toast capitalism -and I found myself saying
"Yes, capitalism, but capitalism with a conscience!" The next day
brought meetings and interviews. I spoke with Dr. George Kavkassidze,
who specializes in infertility, which has reached epidemic proportions in
Most of the women that I spoke with seemed to be insulated
from feminist thought and the feminist movement as we know it in the
An interesting thought then occurred to me. There is no word
for "counseling" in the Russian system, because they don't perceive a
need for it. Abortion is not only the status quo, but the only choice the
majority of women have to control their fertility. There is no organized
opposition on religious or moral grounds (although there is a growing right to
life presence in
If I bring in the concepts of "choice" and
"responsibility," the need for women to think deeply about birth
control and abortion, the need even for counseling prior to abortion, will I be
adding to an antiabortion groundswell? Will I inadvertently be introducing
anxiety or guilt to an already overburdened and oppressed female population?
After all, the slogan of many pro-choice activists in the
The day of the Educational Symposium, I awoke with an intense feeling of excitement. This was the day I would make my presentation and challenge the assembled feminist physicians and journalists to create a truly revolutionary society - a society where women's lives really count for something.
At the symposium, I spoke of how reproductive freedom must be the bottom line of women's autonomy. If a woman cannot decide when, or whether, to bear children, the other choices in her life are diminished. The availability of legal and safe abortion is critical to her health and quality of life. But, it is not enough. Without full information about all reproductive and sexual issues, access to abortion is an illusory freedom.
I stressed what I know to be true in the most personal and political sense, that "there is no choice without knowledge. If we accept that the exercise of free will defines what it is to be moral and frilly human, then women who lack the information to make choices will be destined to remain second-class citizens."
The speech was received extremely well. The audience was
intense, like sponges soaking up every word. Most interesting, I found a piece
of anti-abortion literature on a chair as I left the hail. It was exactly the
same propaganda that the anti-choicers thrust into
the hands of patients every day at CHOICES except that it has been translated
into Russian and printed in
Along with translated literature, T-shirts and magazines, I had brought 7,000 condoms with me to distribute after the presentations. Suddenly, the well dressed professional journalists, feminists and physicians turned into a swarming mob. We were surrounded and pushed and shoved as a frenzy of hands reached out to grab the condoms. I was left breathless and amazed.
While condoms are the only birth control method produced and
I was still recovering from the onslaught of grasping hands,
when I found my way to the ladies' room. I was with my translator, who was part
of my staff, and with whom, before leaving for
The next day my staff was scheduled to perform abortions and
Norplant inserts at the state teaching hospital,
I looked at their faces and into their eyes. What I saw there were the thousands of women before them whose hands I'd held. We are all sisters.
The staff at the hospital was extraordinary -eager to learn -eager to please -eager to participate with me in a joint capitalist venture. The abortions cost 900 rubles, which equals $3.00 -less than the cost of a McDonald's hamburger and about one week's average salary.
The next day brought a meeting at the Russian Family
Planning Association; it was to produce an historic feminist act. Formed nine
months earlier and existing on donations and government subsidies, the
Association is the major voice in
Grebesheva, having produced one film on the horrifying state of abortion care, was raising funds which she hoped would educate people further on the Russian abortion system. She envisioned producing 12 hours of tape of individual women telling about their abortion experiences. It seems that having 15, 20 or even 30 abortions does not equal coming to terms with it. Most women are ashamed to talk about their abortions, and doctors, with their fanciful prescription for birth control, do not help them break the silence: They tell them if they worked harder, they would not have time to think about sex and, therefore, would not get pregnant.
My mind immediately flashed to all the soap box actions I had arranged in the American abortion wars -all the "My name is Joan or Ruth or Karen, and I've had an abortion" feedback that led me to the knowledge of how important it is for women to own that experience.
When I suggested to Grebesheva
that we replicate this in
The next afternoon brought over 30 feminists together to share information at a "Feminist Round Table." Writers, scientists, journalists and representatives from governmental agencies engaged in lively dialogue. A self described radical feminist made the distinction between women who were part of the "women's movement," and women who called themselves feminists. Women who were part of the women's movement believed in a philosophy of "women are people, too," whereas feminists wanted to change the patriarchy. I asked whether it was the difference between being a liberal and a radical, and she said it was much greater than that. Another raised her voice to say that it didn't matter what women called themselves, "all women are feminists and fighting for the same thing."
And still others said that they never thought of using the word sisterhood, that the concept was always one of "brotherhood." Women never considered themselves unequal or oppressed because they believed the propaganda fed to them by the communists that men and women were truly equal. At that point, Grebesheva came into the room and, not taking time to remove her coat, proceeded to read the letter she had drafted to Yeltsin. I watched the faces -pleasure, pride, anger, anxiety. Some got up to sign, some left the room and some watched transfixed. A feminist movement begins?
The mixture of the spiritual and profane surrounded me.
Lunch in a
Conversations in the hotel leapt into my memory. They continued to affirm that the personal is the political. The one with Maya, for instance, a Russian chemist who was my liaison, who stated, "You can build a clinic for the elite. We can treat women who are part of the government or married to high government officials." I explained that I would have no part of that -my clinic would offer the highest quality care to all women regardless of who they were. Fees would be based on an ability to pay, so that if there were any profit to be made it would not be made off the backs of the poor .Maya listened to me with amazement and said, "But that is not what we do here -you must be a Christian." I replied, "No, I'm a Jew and the Jews taught before Jesus (who was also a Jew) about equality and social justice." Maya in formed me that she knew nothing of Judaism because it was so suppressed. She also told me she had been taught that "Capitalism is cruel."
Then, there was Svetlana, a dark eyed Russian journalist,
who was writing a newspaper piece on my visit. We had gotten into a discussion
about Stalin's criminalization of abortion, when she put down her pen and said
quietly, "You know, there was some good in what Stalin did. If he had not
criminalized abortion, I would not be here." I responded that Stalin's
motivation was to populate
I was being moved and challenged on all counts. So much of myself elicited through these extraordinary meetings so much to give back.
Now, once again in
Note: Merle Hoffman is planning to open a clinic in
Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women's Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.
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