In Russian culture, the grandmother is the nucleus of every family. When our family immigrated to Vancouver from Moscow in 1995, we took that tradition with us; as a kid, I spent most evenings hanging out with grandma. Even when I was that young, I remember thinking she was a walking catastrophe of contradictions, as if somebody had haphazardly glued together opposite personalities, squeezing them into a soft and round, four foot nine body.
Whenever she'd sit down to teach me to write in Russian, she'd be unbelievably patient and kind. However, in regular conversation, she was sharp-tongued, dismissive, and brutally venomous. Our relationship was rocky, to say the least—and the older I grew, the less I understood how a woman with a chemistry degree, a passion for film, and love for her family could be so corrosive to the very people she loved most.
One day, my mother tried to give me an answer. "You know that your grandmother hasn't had an easy life," she said. "For example, she had twelve abortions."
I was shocked. Growing up, my family described Soviet women as fearless matriarchs—endlessly cooking massive vats of borscht for their families with meat it took them three hours to find. I had always assumed that Soviet women were near solely focused on providing for their large families, so it had never even occurred to me to consider that abortions could have been prominent in the Soviet Union.
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Curious about what seemed to me a perplexing contradiction, I Googled the USSR's abortion rates and realized my assumptions about Soviet women and their families were far from true. In the late 20th century, the Soviet Union had one of the highest abortion rates in the world—according to the New York Times, many women in the USSR "relied on state-financed abortions as their main form of birth control." But even after learning this, I remained dumbfounded by my grandmother's situation: Twelve seemed far from your average number of abortions, especially for an educated woman.
I decided to find out more by asking her directly about her experiences. As I waited for the Skype call to go through, I felt nervous. This woman had never even so much as used the word "sex" around me. Why, all of a sudden, would she be candid about this particular kind of personal history? Yet as soon as she picked up, my grandma was calm, matter-of-fact, and minimally emotional, as if she were recalling the plot of the last film she had watched. Although she kept her composure, I felt there was something stirring beneath her placid exterior; my grandma simply couldn't stop talking.
"I've never told anybody about all this," she said. "Nobody ever asked."
From the moment a woman stepped into the hospital seeking an abortion until the moment she left, she was treated like a criminal.
My grandma was born in 1939 in Kiev, Ukraine. As a toddler, she had tuberculosis; when that was cured, she developed diabetes and heart problems. Raised by a hard-lipped, single father in a tiny apartment, she overcame her poor health, getting top grades in school and eventually moving to Moscow, where she earned a chemistry degree at university. Shortly after, she met my grandfather—a kind-hearted film nerd who ran the Moscow Film Festival—and gave birth to my mother at age 24. My grandmother had her second child at 35; in the span of the 11 years in between, she had the majority of her abortions.
At the time, Soviet citizens were all too familiar with a particular catchphrase: "There is no sex in the Soviet Union". According to my grandma, sex was seen as taboo and positioned as a distraction for citizens who were supposed to be spending their time fulfilling their duties as good, hardworking Communists.
Because of this attitude, information about modern contraception was hard to come by— even though options like the pill, condoms and IUDs were available at the time, albeit in short supply. "Sex education was very, very rare in the Soviet system," Anna Temkina, a professor of the sociology co-coordinator of the gender studies program at St. Petersburg University, told Broadly. "Perhaps some schools covered basic things about the female reproductive system, but nothing about contraception or sexual pleasure."
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Temkina also noted that the only people who had contemporary knowledge of contraception were those lucky enough to get their hands on foreign publications, which were stashed away in libraries only accessible to students at top universities. "That's why many women preferred 'traditional' methods of birth control, like counting their monthly cycles or the pull-out method," she said. "They didn't have the habit or the perspective to use new forms of contraception."
Although formal sex education was lacking in the USSR, abortions were subsidized by the state. But, according to Temkina, there was a great amount of stigma associated with terminating one's pregnancy in a public hospital. "From the moment a woman stepped into the hospital seeking an abortion until the moment she left, she was treated like a criminal and a disgrace of a woman," she said. "She was shamed for two things, primarily: for indulging in sexual pleasure and for not wanting to do her female duty and become a mother."
My grandma agreed with this characterization. "For most women, waiting for an abortion felt like being on a conveyor belt. On any given morning, there'd be ten women in line at the hospital to get an abortion," she said. "So, whenever I needed one, I made sure to go out of my way to ask around and track down a person within the state-run hospital system whom I could pay extra for better treatment."
According to my grandma, paying extra guaranteed you more humane treatment than you'd get from a typical state-funded abortion. When I asked her what the doctors performing subsidized abortions at state-run hospitals were like, sharp anger entered her voice. "They wouldn't be sympathetic or encouraging," she said. "They'd laugh at you and tell you to shut up and stop crying. These people were heartless and felt nothing for the women getting abortions."
This lack of empathy extended to the actual medical treatment women received. According to both my grandmother and Professor Temkina, the women who got state-subsidized abortions were not provided with anesthetic. "If you got an abortion for free, you'd be wheeled off to a curtained room and the only painkiller you'd get would be ice," my grandma said. "The doctors would wait until everything went numb and then go for it."
"It's appalling to me that they didn't use [anesthetic]," Temkina said, although she admitted that she's not sure why this occurred. "Perhaps it was because there wasn't time or staff available to distribute anesthetics properly. Or perhaps there were some limits to the kinds of anesthetics doctors could get; for example, even dental work was done without anesthetic in the USSR."
You'd think that if so many women were getting abortions and hearing these horror stories, they'd put up some sort of a fight for basic rights, but that just wasn't the mentality at the time. "Since women were shamed so much for their abortions by the medical system, they didn't feel or even think that they could make these issues public," Temkina explained. "Since there was something shameful about abortions, they weren't discussed in the public sphere."
Since there was something shameful about abortions, they weren't discussed in the public sphere.
Faced with such a strong stigma and a lack of quality care, many women in the USSR simply opted to get illegal, back-alley procedures, my grandma said. "A lot of women found people who did it from their homes, and that was terrible," she recalled. "People would pretend they were professionals but really, they were just in it to make money. Some women who worked in hospitals as janitors or whatever would lie and say they were doctors and would fool these pregnant women. Some women died after that. We'd hear these stories often, even in Moscow."
A variety of causes contributed to the astronomical abortion rate in the USSR; according to Professor Temkina, it wasn't just that sex and sexuality weren't discussed publicly—there was also an egregious lack of open discourse in private. "A huge catalyst behind the abortion rate is that there was absolutely no open communication between men and women about sex," she explained. "Discussing it was not part of the culture, even in between husbands and wives. If partners came to some sort of agreement, it would have to have been unsaid. If you were with someone who wasn't a constant partner, even an unsaid agreement was out of the question. So of course, there were consequences."
My grandmother agreed. "It all depended on your partner," she said. "Some men didn't like to use condoms and some didn't care if they ripped or not."
Throughout my life, I think I've only ever seen my grandparents kiss once. Their marriage has always struck me as one of tired camaraderie and habit, so it isn't difficult to believe that their relationship was exemplary of the gender dynamics Professor Temkina described.
"Your grandfather knew about my pregnancies, but he didn't really help," my grandmother said. "He drove me to the abortions one or two times, but never went in with me. Culturally, it wasn't a man's responsibility to be involved with that. If you were actually going to have a kid, that's a different story: then he'd be involved."
As my grandmother and I neared the end of our discussion, I grew angrier and sadder on her behalf. She lived in a country that chose to turn a blind eye to the fact that so many women were choosing to have abortions—a place that refused to admit that its traditional beliefs about sexuality and motherhood were causing demonstrable harm to women.
"Everyone had a very rational, practical attitude towards abortions," my grandmother told me. "You never really found out how they affected women." The Soviet Union put all sexual responsibility on women's shoulders, and women didn't see or think they could have a way out. In my eyes, it definitely changed her as a person—and to this day, I don't think my grandmother or the other women of her generation understand that.