Posts Tagged ‘Women’

In Praise of Ukrainian Women’s Legs

In Praise of Ukrainian Women’s Legs

December 16, 2011  |  Comments Off

So far, December has been a remarkable month. In the decade or so that I have lived in or visited Ukraine I have never known a warmer December.

In November 2001, I arrived at the local airport in a fashionable cashmere overcoat, but within a few days I had bought a drab and inconspicuous, yet practical “dublenka,” a long sheepskin leather jacket lined with fur. And the excruciating pain in my ears – inadequately defended by a wool beanie – was relieved by the purchase of a “ushanka” (literally, an ear-hat): a leather garment thick with fur, but blessed with ear flaps that can be tied under the chin, or on the crown of the hat. If these garments had been grey in colour, rather than dark brown, I would have been indistinguishable from an average army recruit, and with bushier eyebrows I could have been mistaken for a young Leonid Brezhnev. When Gerald Ford wore a similar hat for a visit to the Soviet Union in 1974 it was taken a sign of détente, but in my case it was quite simply a sign of frostbitten ears.

The new outfit – yet to make its way to the catwalks of Paris or Milan – served to make me both inconspicuous to the local population, and to keep my vital organs functioning, albeit sub-optimally.

The air temperature that day in late November was -18 degree Celsius (a large gradusnik – the lovely colloquial Russian name for a thermometer – that stretched five stories in height on a Stalin-period building informed me) and by early December the mercury had receded to -25 degrees Celsius. Since then we have had several years (3 if I recall correctly) when December temperatures have dropped below that level, and nearly all the years have been below -10 degrees Celsius in December.

The natural consequence of this, of course, is that the locals wrap themselves up. Previously svelte forms of young women take on the plumpness of fattened geese destined for the Xmas table, and men assume the shape of Bibendum, colloquially known as the Michelin Man. Here, long-johns have never been either fashionable, or unfashionable, just simply necessary. Layer upon layer of cotton, felt, synthetics, and skin from every kind of animal – endangered or otherwise -are deployed in an attempt to keep the cold at bay. And for men, in particular, facial hair is trimmed.

The coldest I have experienced was about -35 degrees Celsius near to Lake Baikal in Central Siberia in 1980. Those in our party with moustaches and beards were preyed upon by the clean shaven, as the latter playfully tried to snap off frozen slivers of hair from the hirsute; air exhaled from nose and mouth froze facial hair within seconds. Bushy eyebrows were also prone to attack. Only later was I told that, in earlier decades, a Soviet with facial hair was a sign of the man’s status: he had access to good clothing and warm conditions in the depths of winter.

“Where is all this leading?” You may be asking.

Well, a consequence of the freezing conditions is that for months on end the only female legs a Ukrainian man might see are those of his beloved wife. So, this is, understandably, a difficult time for many men.

Not this year, however, with temperatures still hugging zero in the middle of December, withdrawal symptoms are still at bay and long, shapely legs – usually clad in stockings, but sometimes au naturel – are still sights on the city’s pavements.

In fact, according to my records – I’ve kept a record of the UWLI, “The Ukrainian Women’s Leg Index” (pronounced, “Yuli”) for nearly a decade (I know, sad but true) – no other year has provided a sighting so close to the end of the year. And during four particularly cold years I made no sightings at all in the month of December.

If I was a bird spotter (of a different kind), today’s pleasure would be like seeing a small flock of migrating birds blown off course by a freak weather event. Colourful but muted, they scuttle along the pavement briskly and with intent, for the temperature is still cold, stopping occasionally to gaze at a shoe shop or fashion shop, only to disappear moments later into the arms of an excited companion or those of a less excited manicurist.

It is a small pleasure at a grey time of year, but a welcome one. Please do not begrudge us this rare treat, faced, as we know we are, with months of concealment.



June 2, 2010  |  Comments Off

To say that Ukrainians love their children more than other people love theirs, is a naïve thing to say. But there, I’ve said it. All because I can’t help thinking that there is something to it.

Certainly in Soviet times a newborn represented something beyond the state; a promise of a better future. It gave meaning to adult lives in a country where a man or woman’s potential was achieved rarely, and where other distractions such as foreign travel, or entertainment such as films, literature, and cinema were restricted.

Today, I’d like to share with you three stories of childbirth that I can confirm are true. They provide some insight into life in Ukraine and Russia.

The first concerns a woman who left Ukraine to give birth in Moscow in the belief that the facilities are better there. She signed a contract for several thousand dollars with the doctor who would deliver the child and who would pull together the team necessary for the delivery. Everything looked very professional.

Whilst the woman was in labour, just before the epidural was administered, the anaesthetist shocked the labouring woman by telling her that she wanted more money if she was to remain in the room. The woman agreed and, thankfully, everything went smoothly, and the delivery was successful. As is often the case in Russia the baby was tightly swaddled and separated from the mother for 24-hours. The mother was told that this procedure would give her time to recover her strength.

The second example is of a friend who gave birth in Ukraine. She chose carefully the hospital where she wanted to deliver, and consulted with, and was accepted by the head doctor. There was no discussion of the cost of the service, but it was unambiguous that the mother was expected to pay the people involved in the process, and for any equipment used (which her family purchased from the pharmacy situated in the foyer of the hospital.)

When labour started, she checked into the hospital, and the next day gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. Mother and child were united moments after the baby was born. Before checking out, the mother paid all members of staff who had assisted in the process (including those who had cleaned the room) and she also paid for the room where she stayed for 48-hours.

The point that strikes me from these two anecdotes is a point I make in the chapter “Sex and the Soviets” in Among the Ukrainians: in Russia childbirth is seen primarily a population issue, whereas in Ukraine childbirth is a family issue. It’s a small but subtle difference. In the chapter I also look at how this influences the way in which women are seen in the two countries.

My third anecdote concerns a village family in Ukraine. The family’s younger daughter was 3-months pregnant, and so she got married with her boyfriend. When they learned the unborn child was a girl they were overjoyed. They wanted a girl very much. But it was more than that: the girl’s niece-the extended family shared the four room village house-was also pregnant with a girl.

As in second example, they found a doctor that would make the delivery, though their funds were more limited and, therefore, their choice of doctor was limited.

When labour contractions started the girl rushed to hospital, but it was soon evident that she was passing blood. The doctor ordered gas anaesthetic to be administered, whilst a Caesarean operation was performed. When the girl came round, she was told the baby had been born dead, and that she did not need to pay for the room, the doctors or any of the staff. She was given the baby wrapped in a blanket and she buried it in the village cemetery. She was given no explanation as to why the baby had died, and back in the village she received no counselling. Her niece’s healthy daughter is a daily reminder of a daughter she might have had.

Sex and the Soviets

Sex and the Soviets

March 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

Putting together this chapter – Sex and the Soviets - was one of the funniest and most frustrating pieces of the jig saw.  The ground covered includes the role of women, why women chose prostitution, Masochism, abortion, pornography, childbirth and sex stings. The major part is an eye-opening discussion with two prostitutes; a mother and her daughter. I called perhaps a dozen girls-I won’t go into how I came to have so many phone numbers-trying to get some of them to talk to me about their life as a prostitute. Most wanted nothing to do with me, a smaller number simply didn’t believe I only wanted to talk and tried to lead me on, and finally I found Larisa and her daughter.

Whatever your view of the morality of their work, I don’t think you can read their story without agreeing that together they are a winning team.


Perhaps I’ve read too many books or seen too many films, but I just had to ask if Larissa ever spied on the men she had sex with.

“Only once do I recall something comical happening to a girlfriend,” she said as crease lines appeared on her face. “She was in middle of it — it was a new client — when the door burst open, a man entered, switched on the lights, and took some pictures. Their faces must have shown such surprise.” Remembering this, she rocked with laugher. “Needless to say, she never saw that client again.”

Most commonly, it seems, this sort of client was working for an embassy or was a politician, and the photos were taken as a future “insurance policy.” The information sat in a file somewhere until the important man needed to be coerced in some way. Genuine examples are difficult to come by, but one case involved a plain, vulnerable but intelligent Ukrainian girl, Nora Korzhenko. It is narrated in her book, I Spied for Stalin, and in her husband’s response, a book called A Spy Called Swallow. The books tell the story of Soviet spy, Nora Korzhenko, who in 1942 was assigned to seduce British Embassy naval attache, John Murray and to encourage him to work for the Soviet Union. The young and impressionable Korzhenko (code named “Swallow”) fails to complete her assignment and the two fall in love and flee Moscow for a new life together in England.

Whirlybirds and Witches

Whirlybirds and Witches

February 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

The science of flight and Ukraine have had a love affair for more than a century. Many will already be familiar with the names of Sikorsky and Antonov, whose agile helicopters and big birds, respectively, have served us equally in peace time and war.

Fewer will be familiar with other ingredients that I weave into the story of Whirlybirds and Witches. They include the remarkable people who conquered aircraft spin, designers who were decades ahead of their time, and pilots you would not want to encounter in a dog fight.  Only a few, perhaps, are aware of the remarkable role played by Ukrainian women in this story of flight. In war time, women pilots harried the occupying German troops invoking constant restlessness and in peacetime they broke numerous flight records. They clearly provoked something in Stalin; he is rumoured to have been the lover of one woman pilot, and he was the pallbearer to another.


Undaunted by the experience, Valentina followed her father’s footsteps and went on to become the country’s first woman instructor, teaching hundreds of men to fly at Tula Institute.

Valentina’s co-pilot, Polina Osipenko, shared a similar ambition but had a very different upbringing. Osipenko was head of a chicken farm near Kyiv when she fell in love with a military pilot working at the Kacha Flight School. She enrolled at the school and started out by working in the canteen making breakfast for the pilots, but before long had inveigled her way into the pilot training programme. She excelled at training and was transferred to Kharkiv where she married Alexander Osipenko, who later became a famous general and Hero of the Soviet Union.

Over the next three years, in flying with fellow navigator and pilot, Russian-born Maria Raskova, Grizodubova and Osipenko set several new women’s distance world records and were awarded The Order of Lenin. (Nowadays, it seems somewhat quaint to be awarded a medal for making a four-hour flight, but then it had all sorts of implications for military supremacy.) The three women enjoyed working together, and with Stalin’s support — it is thought that Raskova may have been his mistress — they embarked on a flight across the Soviet Union.