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 and in 2017 lawmakers passed a bill to decriminalize domestic violence.

Gradually, women are raising their voices. In 2018, more women put themselves forward in presidential elections than ever before. And although the #MeToo movement has yet to take off in Russia, several female journalists pressured a lawmaker into apologizing after accusing him of sexual harassment.

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

The Moscow Times has crossed the country to hear women talk about their experiences of life in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

We asked three generations from five families about work, marriage, love, sex and everything in between. This is what they said.

Anna Shishko

73 years old, born in Moscow
Widowed with one daughter

I was born right after World War II into an aristocratic family. After the revolution, the Bolsheviks took away our country home and we moved into a communal apartment in Moscow.

My parents took up jobs at factories. Life was difficult at first: We were branded lishenets [people stripped of voting rights] and our neighbors were criminals.

I remember when Josef Stalin died we all wore black armbands and my father was in tears. There was this strange ambiguity: On the one hand, we felt a love for our country, but on the other, my family had been robbed of its property.

My first school was an all-girls school. I remember walking past Andrei Tarkovsky’s home on the way there, and stopping to listen to the music playing from his apartment.

Eventually, we moved to a different neighborhood and I was sent to a mixed school. There were no social differences there: The children of train drivers and academics all studied together.

In my second year, a famous all-boys boarding school in Moscow shut down and the students – mostly the sons of military staff and diplomats – were transferred to ours. They swore and behaved like hooligans, but they brought with them an air of freedom and self-expression. They wrote us love letters and fought for our affection.

We felt like women for the first time.

Love and inspiration

From the eighth to the 11th grade, I had this literature teacher, Irina Bashko, who was an incredibly fascinating woman. She came from a respected family of Kiev academics and was a very independent thinker. She even spent time in a Ukrainian prison for her dissident views. Through her, I was exposed to a range of Russian literature.

I went on to study literary editing at a humanities university. My parents wanted me to study maths, but I didn’t listen.

In my life, I’ve only ever had two loves. I met my first husband when I was about 18. I became acquainted with his brother at an parade, and he invited me to their home for dinner.

That’s when I first set eyes on him. He was ten years older than I was, but it was instant attraction. He was a wonderful person, and although he came from a simple background, he collected books, was a talented painter and introduced me to wonderful music. He worked as an aerospace engineer at Bauman University.

A year later we married. At 21, we had our first and only daughter, Olga.

My husband always felt that I shouldn’t work as much, and that I should be a stay-at-home mother. He didn’t care for my creative pursuits whatsoever.

He had a crowd of drinking buddies and spent all of his free time with them. I couldn’t handle the drinking anymore, so when I was 30 I decided to leave him. A few years later he died — Olga was 12 at the time.

A second chance

Almost ten years later, I met Anatoly while on a walk. He was 11 years younger than I was. Sometime later, he somehow managed to figure out where I lived.

He loved my daughter, and was a good father figure to her. He supported my creative ambitions and would help me write my screenplays. He really wanted to have children together, but I couldn’t do it.

Nobody should have more than one family, it’s not right. We never married. Eventually he left without a trace after a death in his family.

I never stopped working – even when I was seven months pregnant. My relatives would watch my daughter while I was at work as a schoolteacher. The thought of quitting my job never even crossed my mind.

I’ve always been very committed to my work, but deep inside I still feel I’m a person from the East.

I always had this feeling I should have stayed at home and looked after my small tribe.

More from this family
Alisa Dmitriyeva
Olga Shishko