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.

Olessya Bondarenko

36 years old, born in Krasnoturinsk
Works in urban planning
Married with two children

Early memories

As a child, I was a Mowgli-type tomboy, curious and running around barefoot all the time.

My older sister was very different: While I walked around the city in my underwear, she was a “proper girl.”

My father was a city official and my mother a leading doctor, so our family was always in the spotlight. But I nevertheless had a very free upbringing.

Most of my friends were guys, and it was never a problem for me to bring them home or have them stay over. Every summer we would go to our dacha outside Krasnoturinsk, where I’d get in trouble with a whole gang of local children, most of whom were boys.

I remember the summer when puberty hit. My body was beginning to change and one of the boys said: “You’re not one of us anymore”. I was very hurt by this because I felt that I was still the same person.

Teenage years

I spent my teenage years in Yekaterinburg. It was the era of raves and nightclubs, and I frequently went out, sometimes even on my own.

Gangsters would shoot each other in the streets in broad daylight. But again, I was never afraid, I’d often walk home alone at night. I guess this was because there was a strong community there, and you always knew people around.

Drug abuse was everywhere. Many people I knew quite well became addicts, including an ex-boyfriend of mine who I was deeply in love with. One time I invited him over to my house and a syringe fell out of his pocket. I immediately realized what was happening.

During my first two years I had to wear a uniform at school, and then they stopped requiring it. Then, from ninth grade when I switched to a private school, I had to wear a uniform, but I really enjoyed it. My mom would make collars for them and they were always very pretty.

Outside school I could wear anything and everything. Wide pants, crazy colorful shirts – I’d dress like a freak through and through, and my mother actually saved all my clothes in our attic as a memento. A huge thanks to my parents who tolerated all of that, because looking back the clothes were quite ugly!

I never spoke much to my parents about the clubs and drugs, but because my mother was a doctor, she already knew it all. They also knew my friends – musicians, artists, openly gay people – and so they had a hunch about what we got up to. But there was never any judgement, or probing. As long as they knew who I was spending time with there were no questions.


At 19, I moved into my own apartment for the first time. I was unpacking my bags when I saw a pack of condoms. I immediately knew my mother must have packed them.

She actually gave me a book on where babies come from when I was six. The week after I went to school and began telling my classmates how it all worked. This obviously upset the school administration. They called my father and said: “We understand your family lives a certain way, but could you please spare the other children?”

In ninth grade we had a philosophy teacher who devoted a few lessons to sex education. But you’d never see that in a state school.

To this day in Russia, education regarding the topics of contraception and abortion are still stuck in the Middle Ages. My mother’s stories about illegal abortions have influenced my views on it, and I believe women should have the right to choose.

It’s a very personal and difficult situation for every specific individual and no one has the right to judge from the outside.

At 26 I met my husband in Moscow, and we got married three years later when I found out I was pregnant. We ourselves never felt the need to tie the knot, but it was important to his parents. My mother said that she’d support me in any decision I make, but stressed the need to compromise.

At that moment I really struggled with that idea, it was just against my nature. At first my my husband was the one sort of putting pressure on me, but eventually I thought: “Well if this person loves me so much, why don’t I do something for him in return?”

I don’t regret it one bit now. Our wedding was amazing.


My first child wasn’t planned at all. I think you can never really plan for it, and that’s the beauty of it. Having a child strengthens the love between two people, childless couples often break up.

Right before the birth I was planning to move to New York to study singing. I was a bit disappointed I wouldn’t be able to go, but everyone was so happy and supportive, that it improved the experience of being pregnant.

I was the first of my group of friends to have a child. This tendency to have children at an early age in Russia is becoming a thing of the past.

I really blossomed during both of my pregnancies – it felt like a reincarnation. Children are the best teachers, they teach you patience.

Work life

The first time I ever faced gender discrimination was at my first job. I was 16 and MTV Russia opened a branch in Yekaterinburg. It was the channel’s heyday: there were programs about local musicians and guest musicians who’d come to visit from abroad.

MTV was a symbol of the 90s and Western-style freedom. But me and another girl working there weren’t allowed to take part in the cooler and more experimental projects. They thought we were incapable of conducting interviews for example. This shocked me a bit because I had never encountered this sort of discrimination before.

Together with my sister and our best friend, I run an urban planning consulting agency. Major clients often struggle with that idea, especially in the Urals. I’ll meet with some local businessmen for the first time and they’ll belittle me and call me a “devochka.” But the second you sit down with them and discuss the project, and show that you know what you’re talking about, they listen.

No matter what, I always want to remain a girl. I don’t want to have to “hang balls” on myself and have to act all masculine.


Generally in Russia you see aggressive behavior towards pregnant women or disabled people, or anyone considered to be weaker.

Surprisingly, more often than not this aggression comes from women. It should be the opposite: women should understand each other through these feminine vibrations, but in Russia it seems many women are motivated by spite or jealousy.

Regarding harassment in general, I’m sure there are thousands of incidents that happen behind closed curtains, but unfortunately in Russia people just don’t take an active social stance. Nobody really has opinions about anything, or if they do, they generally keep silent.

There was a law passed in Russia a few years ago that decriminalizes domestic abuse. This is horrifying and dangerous.

More from this family
Lyudmila Bondarenko
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