Since the reign of Peter the Great in the early 18th century, Russia has done its best to copy Europe. Today, reminders of this “Europeanization” abound, but are no more obvious than in the world-famous Pushkin Museum, which proudly exhibits mere plaster replicas of European sculptures. And while the Emperor’s efforts are reflected in modern society, so too are the copy’s imperfections.
In the past month in Moscow, I have judged the city to be successful in reproducing European cities both architecturally and artistically. Quaint streets lined with outdoor cafes, parks with precious fountains and embellished bridges extending over the Moscow River are reminiscent of European culture. However, socially, the city has failed at replicating modern Western ideals of gender equality — in the words of singer Jenny Lewis, “it’s a bad man’s world.”
I recognized this the moment I crossed the hatch on the Aeroflot plane bound for Moscow; I felt as though I were crossing the Rubicon. An almost palpable change was twitching in every thread of the scene. Though I anticipated my previous European adventures to ease the culture shock, shocked is what I very quickly became.
Passengers were greeted by two white-gloved stewardesses dressed appropriately for 1920s Americana. Complete with matching heels, side caps and scarves, the uniforms were only further enhanced by tall, thin frames and pretty faces.
I made my way back to business class, recalling how my mother jocularly renames this section “steerage,” even though we have never flown first class. I usually eschew my mother’s sharp comments, but that day marked a rare occasion; her tongue-wagging was justified. As I sat just behind first class, I felt like a peeping tom, analyzing exactly what a couple hundred extra dollars gets you 36,000 feet in the air.
Once all passengers were seated, the female flight attendants began servicing travelers, starting at the front rows and working their way back. Their technique was magnificent, closest in style to the “bend and snap” from "Legally Blonde." And judging from the strained necks of my gentlemen counterparts, I guessed I wasn’t the only admirer.
As we waited in line for our turn on the runway, the stewardesses approached the end of first class. And instead of breaching the barricade of business class, they whisked the curtains closed, ensuring privacy of the majority male first class.
Soon, our servers came: two guys whose “technique” wouldn’t have appealed to the first class passengers. I didn’t mind so much, as the gender of my flight attendants does not often pique my interest. But I just couldn’t help notice the obvious coincidences: two modelesque female servers in a male-dominated first class and two average male servers in an average business class. Call me feminist or call me crazy, but you can’t call me unobservant.
At the time, I thought that such a preoccupation with gender roles was possibly unwarranted. But, in a fit of metaphoric fancy, I wondered if the microcosm of the plane mimicked that which I would find upon landing. Indeed, I now confirm this speculation.
The observations slowly crept upon me as I meandered through the daily life of a Muscovite. But the sum total only pointed to one conclusion: First class consists of mainly men, and not only on Aeroflot.
I initially noticed how unusually long hair is in vogue. I possess this feature too, and I do not outright condemn it to representing an oppressed womanhood. However, in combination with the manner of dress — flowered patterns on long dresses, lace-embellished blouses and petite footwear — the look recalled the opinion of long hair during America’s women's suffrage movement of the 1920s.
Then I became aware of women’s dress code regarding religion, truly the opiate of the people. When entering Russian Orthodox churches, women’s heads and shoulders must be covered, minimal makeup should be worn, especially if planning to venerate the icons, and we must wear either a skirt falling below the knee or pants with a shawl wrapped around the waist. I would be totally okay with this if men had comparable restrictions. However, as usual, the requirements for men’s dress are much less strict. And while mere fabric cannot bear the weight of social commentary, it is the prescribed manner in which such fabric is worn by each gender that blatantly shows gender inequality.
But alas, my fear that Russian women fall outside the realm of “Europeanization” was allayed when I caught a glimpse of red hot platforms beneath one woman’s modest robes.
I’m not saying that the dawn of gender equality in Russia will be defined by risqué church-wear and male model stewards, but rather when society holds women and men to the same expectations, in clothing and every part of modern day, European life. Then, Peter the Great’s goal of transforming Russia “from a medieval society into a modern European Empire” would be that much closer to attainment.
Marjorie Ferrone is a College junior from Houston studying geology. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.