Mrs. Raisa Gorbachev, wife of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, died this week, succumbing to leukemia at the age of 67. The world has extended its condolences to her grieving husband, a man who transformed the world as he transformed his country. Few doubt that Mr. Gorbachev could have achieved what he did without his wife — an independent, self-assured woman, whose bold sense of style shattered the image of the invisible Soviet woman — at his side. According to his memoirs, she was his companion and partner throughout his life, and an invaluable adviser during his political career.
Mrs. Gorbachev’s high profile shocked a country whose guiding principle was “domostroi,” a rigidly patriarchal code of behavior in which women are rarely seen and almost never heard. The continuing power of domostroi was revealed in a study by the United Nations Children’s Fund, released earlier this week.
The study notes that the transition from communism in the former Soviet bloc has hit women especially hard. Of the 26 million jobs lost since 1989, 14 million belonged to women. Domestic violence is rising, standards for health care have plummeted and birth rates have fallen. Worse, women are losing the ability to change this state of affairs: Educational opportunities are evaporating and the number of women serving in legislatures has plunged. Second-class status is being locked in.
Women are losing control of their lives. The communist system’s commitment to equality may have been more formal than real, but it still produced results: health care, education and employment opportunities. Those gains are at risk, and entire generations will suffer as a consequence. Those who would like to honor Raisa Gorbachev’s life will do what they can to remedy this appalling state of affairs.
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