- Soviet People with Female Bodies: Performing Beauty and Maternity in Soviet Russia in the Mid 1930–1960s
This work by Yulia Gradskova analyzes constructions of femininity within the parameter of everyday practices in Soviet Russia from the 1930s until the late 1960s, giving an account of related norms, perceptions, and values. In other words, the book examines what it meant to be a female-gendered Soviet citizen. Gradskova's piece is an important contribution to the growing field of gender historical studies in East Central Europe because it studies the realm of the intimate, as opposed to political movements like feminism. Unlike Elizabeth Wood's The Baba and the Comrade, 1 this book does not focus on women's transformations from prerevolutionary women to Soviet women in the public sphere. Instead it centers on the metamorphosis of femininity in the private sphere. The touchstones of womanhood in this work are narrowly defined as beauty and maternity (P. 10). By examining the relevance of often forgotten aspects of Soviet [End Page 558] women's lives, Gradskova breathes new life into Soviet gender studies and provides an inside view into the everyday struggles to be a woman, to be beautiful, and to be a mother.
Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman's concept of the practice of "doing gender," meaning "creating differences between girls and boys, women and men, differences that are not natural, essential or biological," 2 is of great importance in this work. Gradskova utilizes it by interpreting femininity as a category of gender-centric differentiation with the foils of beauty and maternity (Pp. 25-26). Foucault's notion of the "medical gaze" from his work The Birth of the Clinic is used to criticize medical authority subordinating women in Soviet maternity wards. Congruently, the idea that "discursive practices shape normality and its opposite − abnormality" (P. 24) is crucial in determining the accepted and the aberrant in beauty and maternity. Naomi Wolf's idea that "all women who work outside the home today are subject to the politics of beauty, which requires not only an additional workload in the form of domestic chores but in beauty qualification," 3 is preeminent to Gradskova's arguments that her interviewees had to sacrifice time, money, and effort in order to be beautiful and feminine despite extenuating circumstances such as war, famine, disease, and poverty.
Gradskova gives a human face to Soviet practices of beauty and maternity through oral histories of women who lived during the studied period. Interviews with a diverse group of older former Soviet women form the backbone of her research. Еducation, place of birth, region, ethnicity, generation, occupation, marriage, divorce, number of children, ideas of taste, and the ways they defined femininity by shared experiences of practicing beauty and maternity were taken into consideration in the selection of interviewees. Collective history is a delicate task with interviewees from the former USSR. Gradskova argues that, in contrast to the former Socialist Bloc in East Central Europe, the Soviet experience in Russia has not been reinterpreted as overwhelmingly negative. Yet value judgments about this experience are not important, for oral histories "…reveal unknown events" and "…tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, and what they now think that they did." 4 [End Page 559]
Gradskova solidifies her findings on gender, beauty, and maternity in the Soviet Union through photography. It is noted that pictures were used on special occasions to celebrate what was beautiful, pleasant, and worthy of commemorating. Most pictures from the 1930s and 1940s were taken only on occasions such as a work-related staff photo, a new dress, or the birth of children. From the 1950s through the 1960s it became important to photograph people while they were on vacation, when they were at home, and during recreation. An important discovery is that pregnancy and infants were rarely depicted. Gradskova concludes that pregnancy was too ugly and unpleasant to photograph. This...