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Common Patterns In Contemporary Marital And Parent-child Relationships

Russians tend to marry and bear children young. The average age at marriage in the late 1990s was 22, and the peak childbearing years were from 20 to 24. There is strong social pressure to marry; both sexes tend to believe that women in particular cannot be fulfilled if they never marry. In surveys, husbands and wives tend to rate their marriages as satisfactory and to explain that their families provide a haven in which one can be oneself, express opinions openly, and find emotional support (Goodwin and Emelyanova 1995b; Vannoy et al. 1999). Yet divorce rates are among the highest in the world and have been increasing since 1991 (Bubnova et al. 2000; Dyuzheva 1995). Alcohol abuse is blamed in a large number of the cases. Family tensions arising from unemployment, poverty, labor migration, disagreements about gender roles, and improved housing access (allowing divorcing couples to move apart) contribute as well. Also troublesome are high rates of spouse abuse, often rooted in alcoholism and patriarchal tradition (Vannoy et al. 1999).

Olga Zdravomyslova (2000) calls Russian families quasi-patriarchal. Her research shows that, though husbands and wives rely on one another for emotional support and help in decision making, men nonetheless have higher status, expect to be the main breadwinners, and leave most housework and childcare to their wives. Surveys suggest that preference for the egalitarian distribution of household labor is rising, especially among young couples, but in the majority of families, traditional gender roles are maintained. As in many parts of the world, more people espouse egalitarianism than actually practice it, and men tend to be more traditional in this regard than women. This means that, in general, men handle repairs and women are in charge of day-in-and-day-out domestic tasks, including the nurturing of children (Vannoy et al. 1999). Elena Breeva (2000b) found that, accordingly, adolescents indicated that they felt much closer to their mothers than to their fathers.

Although it is not unusual cross-culturally for children to feel closer to their mothers than to their fathers, the Russian situation has some unique features. As demonstrated in centuries of literature, art, and folklore, motherhood in Russia is held in special reverence. Even today, the traditional Russian image of mother is of a woman who is everloving and always ready to sacrifice for her children. Her ability to endure endless work and hardship in order to provide for family needs has earned her adjectives such as virtuous and strong (e.g., Hubbs 1988; Young 1996). Moreover, according to Russian sociologists, during the Soviet period, wives and mothers came to be the de facto family heads because their contributions—financial support plus domestic labor—were greater than men's financial support only. The Soviet socialist command economy further undermined men's position because at work there were few opportunities to exercise initiative. Their status at home thus could not benefit from prestige garnered at work. This pattern has persisted into the post-Soviet era (Zdravomyslova 2000).

At the same time, a backlash against maternal employment that began in the Soviet years has since accelerated. Having a stay-at-home wife has become a status symbol for young businessmen, and many young women would prefer to stay home if they could afford it. The difficulties post-Soviet women face in finding satisfying, well-paying employment and good quality child care are certainly factors. In post-Soviet Russia, women have suffered unemployment and underemployment even more than men. Moreover, cuts in state support to childcare centers and after-school programs have led to thousands of closings. High fees at remaining programs make them inaccessible for many families. As a result, across Russia, only 50 percent of young children attend preschool programs (Fillipov 2001). Contemporary messages from the mass media glorifying sexiness and passive femininity contribute to the devaluing of female employment. In addition, family histories are at play. Generations of Soviet children grew up with limited availability to their mothers and keen awareness of their mothers' exhaustion from coping with dual roles. Since the 1970s, the envisioned—but hard to attain—solution in many minds has been for fathers to earn enough to permit mothers to stay home (Attwood 1996; Ispa 1988; Vannoy et al. 1999).

In 1970, after several visits to the USSR, Urie Bronfenbrenner wrote about the devotion to children he detected everywhere he turned. In general, Russians are indeed a child-loving people. Family relationships tend to be close and children in particular are cherished. Yet economic hardship and the strain of parents' heavy workloads have had negative implications for a growing number of children. In 2001, childcare providers and teachers told Jean Ispa that, although most parents are committed to doing everything possible for their children, many are too harried. The educators worried about children from low-income families, where resources are stretched, but also about neglected children of the new class of well-to-do entrepreneurs. Many such parents spend long hours establishing and managing their businesses—and therefore very little time at home.

Another concern voiced by many adults reflect the belief that the advent of a "predatory capitalism" (Lisovskii 1999, p. 58) and increasing social polarization have challenged the traditional value systems and led to anomie and a "spiritual vacuum," particularly among the young. Oleg Karpukhin (2000a, 2000b) believes that many young Russians have become alienated from the cultural and historical values the Russian people have lived by and this has resulted in widespread anxiety and depression. In their place, he argues, has been the formation for youth of value systems gleaned from mass culture and mass media and at odds with traditional parental values. For many Russian commentators, such developments have resulted in a shift from consideration for family and others to a preoccupation with the well-being of oneself, a growth of immorality, and a loss of spirituality. Others note that many children, particularly in the large cities, are more independent, self-confident, relaxed, and entrepreneurially inclined than their Soviet-era predecessors.

As everywhere in the world, family attitudes and behavior in Russia differ according to adult educational level and occupational prestige as well as according to the personalities of the individuals involved. For example, when compared to manual workers, educated individuals and entrepreneurs tend to have more liberal attitudes toward divorce, to share more of their most intimate thoughts with their spouses, and to be more likely to espouse goals for children that are centered on developing curiosity and independence of thought rather than on winning obedience (Ispa 1994; Goodwin and Emelyanova 1995a; Vannoy et al. 1999).

It is also necessary to recognize the relativity of perceptions about value changes among Russian youth. Although Russian commentators worry about increases in anti-intellectual, instrumental attitudes, international studies suggest that many Russian young people still reflect traditional respect for parents and scholarship, especially when compared with their Western peers (Elliott et al. 1999, 2001).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsRussia - The Demographic Crisis, The Family In Soviet Times, Post-soviet Legal Codes Affecting The Family