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Drive north from Moscow, and the road passes Foolish Women Ville (Durikino).
Drive east, and you will come upon the village of Silly Lady (Durovo).

What misfortune or humourlessness in their rural past induced Russians to fix the stigma of stupidity on their places of living — and put the blame firmly on women?

In the village where I spend my weekends (Johnnyville, Ivanchikovo), the village women say the boot is on the other foot.

It is the village men, their husbands first of all, who are the stupid ones. If it weren’t for them, for their drinking and laziness, they claim, the potato fields would be planted quicker; the goslings would not have been eaten by the crows; and the sheep would already be fat.

When the village women talk about politics, they are even more emphatic that the stupidity of men is the root of all Russia’s current troubles.

They are sure of their opinion because each of the village houses receives television, and during the referendum campaign last month, as well as the earlier sessions of Congress, the women watched closely.

Newspapers aren’t delivered to the village, and the nearest town where they are sold is about an hour away by foot and bus ride. What the women know, they see, hear and smell. In any case, it is too expensive nowadays for them to afford to buy newspapers when they cannot pay to feed their animals.

The village women were talkative about how they voted.

Masha, a 60-year old who is married to a second husband, says she voted for President Yeltsin on question 1, and against his economic policy on question 2.

She says she trusts the President, but feels shame at his television appearances. She believes he wasn’t in control of himself – like her husband. She voted in spite of what she believes are his faults, because, like marriage, having made a choice for Russia’s leadership, Yeltsin is now the one, and she sees no other.

However, she can see plenty of alternatives to the government’s policy. She enumerates down to the last kopeck, egg and loaf of bread how ruinous the President’s reforms have been for the village and her family. For this reason, her vote for Yeltsin isn’t her mandate for him to proceed on the same course. She would rather hope that having benefitted from her vote on the first question, he would pay attention to her vote on the second. Having no choice except Yeltsin is regrettable, she thinks, because he may continue making the same mistakes. But there is one thing she is sure would be worse. That is a return to the past and to Communist rule.

That is what she trusts in Yeltsin — he isn’t taking Russia into a future she believes in, but he does stand in the way of going backward.

She knows there is a Congress deputy for the region, and she remembers he once appeared at the sovkhoz which employs most of the villagers.

They killed a cow in his honour, Masha recalls — which on reflection she thinks was entirely out of proportion to the benefits he
has brought, or he has promised, the local community. He and the Congress can’t be a realistic political alternative, she is sure. From what she has seen on television, their debates show only that they can’t make up their minds on what is to be done.

That makes her uncomfortable. Decisiveness, even under the influence of alcohol and even in the direction of mistakes, is more understandable to her than vacillation and uncertainty.

Sasha, her husband, can be drunk by midday and desperate for vodka by the mid-afternoon.

He voted no on all four of the referendum questions. To hell with them all! is his opinion — but it was a view he preferred to express by going to the polls, rather than by not voting at all.

Other men in the village shared his opinion, but they divided between staying at home on referendum day and voting yes on all the questions.

They watch television like their wives; they don’t read newspapers.

They also say they suspect the President is a heavy drinker. But for Sasha and the other village men, that only goes to prove
what a real muzhik he is. Compared to Yeltsin, who can act, the Congress can only talk. The talking makes the parliament appear to be nothing more than a “bazaar”; the Congressmen “just a bunch of snout-bangers”.

Regarding Russian politics at the moment, the men of Johnnyville share the same view as the women — the Congress has not provided any alternative to the President; or that is the way they see the situation on television.

The difference between the men and women is in the political choice they would like to exercise, if they could — if they thought expressing an opinion would make a difference.

But is this difference worth taking seriously? Is it anything more than the prejudice of Foolish Women Ville? An example of rural stupdity?

Much was said during the referendum campaign, and following the result, to suggest that conservative thinking in the Russian countryside is a powerful source of resistance to the President’s reforms — and ought not to be taken seriously.

In other parts of the world, however, the political opinions of women can be an independent force, and politicians risk defeat if they ignore the gender gap when it appears. This is an issue that has so far escaped the focus of the sophisticated political debate in Moscow.

One reason is that there are almost no women engaged in the debate itself.

Another reason is that there is almost no opinion poll evidence to to show whether Russian women are thinking differently from the men.

Vladimir Boikov, the head of the Institute of Complex Social Studies at the Russian Academy of Management, believes there is a gender gap in Russian politics, but he is not convinced it is a large one.

In a nationwide survey he conducted just before the April referendum, he found that Russian women voted in favour of Yeltsin by a slightly larger margin than men — 60 percent compared to 57 percent.

On the question of support for the President’s economic policy, the women voted slightly more negatively than men — 4 9 percent compared to 51 percent.

The gender gap was much wider in their responses on the two questions of pre-term elections. Women were more opposed than men to new presidential elections (a gap of 4 percentage points); and more opposed to new parliamentary elections (a gap of 9 points).

Boikov believes that parallel surveys of men and women at the time of the presidential election in 1991 showed a similar, but small difference. Women voters, he says, were more supportive of Yeltsin than men.

The reason for their vote, according to Boikov, is that Russian women are more opposed to the Communist past than men.

“In the presidential election, this was not a vote for Yeltsin, but a vote against the CPSU”, Boikov says. “In the April referendum, a vote for the President was also a vote against the return to power of the communists. The personal rating of Yeltsin, when this is all that is asked, is very low — less than a third. But when Yeltsin is presented as a choice between him and others, Yeltsin is always preferred.”

To Boikov, the polling evidence he has seen indicates that Russian men and women share this attitude, and that the gender gap is less influential as a result.

What his surveys also suggest is that the gender gap would be much wider if Russians had a choice of alternative social and economic policies.

According to Boikov, the reason Russians do not see such a choice,and are consequently misinterpreted when they vote the way they have recently, is that television plays such a dominant informational role. The state monopoly of television, and the relative inaccessibility of competitive newspapers, has created the impression that public opinion trusts the Yeltsin message, and believes there isn’t an alternative to it.

The evidence of the polls indicates that it is untrue that the Russian countryside is opposed to reform.

Exactly what the country people favour, however, isn’t clear from their votes, because the women differ more strongly from the men than has been understood to date.

If you go to Foolish Women Ville and ask for yourself, the women won’t be afraid to explain.

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