American and Russian women who remember the danger of the Cold War understand the stakes of this year’s summit.
By Nadezhda Azhgikhina
When I was in school, we had civil defence classes. We were shown models of American missiles aimed at the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and we were taught to use gas masks. We Moscow students did not believe that the United States would attack our country. We read Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut, and we knew that the best Americans were always anti-war. However, my first American friend, Cathy, whom I met in Moscow in the perestroika years, did believe when she was a child that the USSR would attack America. She told me how she would wake at night in fear and decided to study Russian so that she could explain to the Russians that they should not bomb peaceful American cities.
In 1991 we were together at the barricades defending the White House—the name for the Parliament here in Moscow—during the coup attempt, and when women were asked to the leave the barricades as the action heated up, Cathy made a fiery speech declaring she had the right to defend democracy in Russia, since the future of the whole world depends on it.
That was 30 years ago. The historic meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev had already taken place in Geneva in 1985, starting the process of nuclear disarmament, and everyone remembered Gorbachev’s words at the summit: “This is not only the decision of presidents; this is the decision of our citizens and the intelligentsia of our countries.” Russian and American scientists, writers, journalists, artists, students, and ordinary people tried to bring down the Iron Curtain from both sides, tried to hasten the joint construction of a new world free of the arms race, hatred, and enmity. We understood that it was more important for all of us to fight common challenges, to defend the fragile world we live in.
The women of both countries played an enormous role, which is often forgotten. It was Gorbachev who opened new opportunities for women in the USSR to form organizations and councils in the workplace and women’s discussion clubs; he understood that women could suggest new approaches to realizing the ideas of perestroika and become a new resource. He opened vistas for women. The equality proclaimed in the Soviet constitution was not supported by equality of opportunity, and while women were more qualified and educated, they were rarely in decision-making positions. Women faced a double burden, outside work and family care, in a patriarchal society.
The independent women’s movement inspired by perestroika quickly became an important component of the democratic process in Russia. Women formed clubs and organizations in big cities and small towns, and they tried to improve daily life and comprehend events in the country and world. The impact of new cooperation between Russian and American women cannot be overestimated. Women met one another, creating joint projects and programs, some of which are still active today. The affirmation of the value of peace and arms control were central to the women’s dialogue and a major aspect in citizen diplomacy, overcoming the consequences of the Cold War and offering a new perspective to citizens and politicians.
The new summit of the presidents of America and Russia comes at a time of increased tensions and ideological and informational confrontation. Schoolchildren in Russia are once again told about the American threat. The specter of the enemy has reappeared in both countries. Military budgets are growing. Yet, for many people, especially the young, nuclear war seems like a computer game, not a real danger.
It is crucial to remind people that there is an alternative to a new arms race. The two countries that hold almost the entire nuclear potential of the world and could destroy every living thing have a common goal—the preservation of life on earth, our environment, and human beings. We already have experience in turning to this alternative and cooperating in arms reduction. This is the paramount task—to do away with the most horrible threat together. This will inevitably lead to a new phase of cooperation in other areas.
It is fitting that women are reminding the leaders of our countries about this. An appeal is a sign of hope. American and Russian women who remember the priceless experience of overcoming the heavy legacy of the Cold War have carried their idealism to the present. They remind us of the possibility of an alternative to the arms race. I am proud to be one of them. Proud that the work for peace and dialogue continues. This work cannot be undone.
Text: The Nation