They’ve studied to be a tractor driver-mechanic, a sailor, and a rescue diver. But despite the celebrations of women’s accomplishments on March 8 for International Women’s Day, females in Russia still do not have the legal right to work in these professions.
A 2000 government order, signed by then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, excluded women from 456 jobs considered too dangerous, harmful, or difficult for them. Amidst growing criticism of the restrictions, Russia’s Ministry of Labor in 2019 reduced that number to 98 jobs, but effective only as of January 1, 2021.
The original order does not elaborate about the motivation for the restrictions, but women’s rights activists charge it stems from age-old stereotypes about the role of women. Many Russians still see that primary role as bearing children and tending to hearth and home – a perspective some fear could be reinforced by President Putin’s recent efforts to increase the national birth rate.
Yet the official ban on women working in professions perceived as unsuitable for their sex is not the only obstacle that female Russians face. Proving to colleagues that they are as capable as any man in these fields is a constant challenge.
Current Time spoke with three women, who, despite bans and stereotypes, managed to find work in their chosen, “unfeminine” professions.
Elena Gudz, 24
Cargo Ship Third Mate
She can safely navigate ships to Egypt without an automatic steering system; clamber up 40 meters (131 feet) on a swaying mast; and supervise ship apprentices, who include her husband. But, most of all, Elena Gudz can prosper in a male-dominated profession where not everyone believes that a woman can handle a ship at sea.
For the past four years, Gudz has worked as a third mate responsible for navigation on a small Russian cargo ship that operates in the Sea of Azov, a Black Sea feeder shared by Russia and Ukraine. Under the Labor Ministry’s regulations, however, she cannot work as a sailor until 2021.
Her father, who had served in the navy, initially encouraged her to train to become a ship radio operator. But a friend with experience in shipping convinced him that skippers were more in demand.
As a teenage student at the Aisky Maritime Fish Processing Technical Institute in Siberia’s Krasnodar Krai, she developed a passion for marine navigation and aimed to become a captain’s assistant. One male instructor, however, told her point-blank that, rather than helping to manage a ship, “I need to go into the kitchen and cook borscht.”
“it’s tricky for such people to imagine that there are women who go to sea because they like it, because they’re not automatically homemakers, not keepers of the hearth, and have the right to work where they want,” Gudz said. “These women are very responsible because they understand that they won’t just work, but will prove that they’re worthy of this work.”
Since she started studying seafaring, Gudz, the only woman in her graduating class, has never stopped proving herself.
Getting practical training in how to take a ship to sea was her first test.
Her school, a three-year filial institution of the Astrakhan State Technical University, arranged apprenticeships, but not always with gender-blind ships.
Gudz missed out on an apprenticeship on the Kruzenshtern, a nearly 94-year-old windjammer that sailed to the Black Sea port of Sochi for the 2014 Olympics. “They told me that this voyage was too critically important for a girl,“ she claimed.
An earlier application was denied because the ship could not provide co-ed living quarters, she added.
Instead, she became an apprentice on an icebreaker “because it was spring and there was no need for it.”
Her next apprenticeship was on a seagoing vessel, the Sedov, a 1921 German-built sailing ship, but as a “sailor-cleaner” – in apparent deference to the ban on women working as sailors.
“I didn’t attend the specialty trainings. I just scrubbed toilets and showers,” she said.
A roughly week-long trip from St. Petersburg to Germany, her first trip abroad, however, inspired her.
“Of course, since it’s a sailing ship, everything seemed very romantic: a big canvas (sail) flying on a gigantic mast, the wind in your face. This made an impression on me.”
Yet when Gudz applied for apprenticeships on her own during her third and final year of school, she only got rejections.
“I sent applications to various companies, but they responded, ‘We don’t work with girls.’’
Eventually, she found an apprenticeship at the Rostov-on-Don shipping company in southern Russia where she now works.
Usually, her ship stays in Russian waters, transferring freight to larger ocean-going ships off the Kerch Peninsula between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea.
But Gutz has also manually navigated the ship to Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Israel, and Georgia. Her favorite port of call is Iskenderun, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, not far from the Syrian border.
Navigating the Black Sea and Aegean Sea, where “everyone moves as they like and you have to maneuver” constantly to avoid crashes, offered “colossal” experience, compared with the comparatively unvaried waters of the Sea of Azov, she said.
At 25,000 rubles (about $365) per month, her pay for this contract work is better than what she could earn onshore, she estimates. The schedule, though, is grueling: 8am to noon and 8 p.m. to midnight daily, without weekends.
In her free time, she catches up on sleep.
For the past three years, her husband, an apprentice sailor, and she have worked on the same ship.
Initially, however, “[e]veryone had the stereotypical idea that he’ll be jealous about me with men, and that I’ll make scenes all the time,” Gudz said.
“But we don’t mix our personal life with work,” she continued. “When I give him a command, he doesn’t take this like a wife commanding a husband.”
“He understands that I’m his boss, and he should do what I say,” she says of the couple’s on-ship relationship.
Such equanimity does not mark all her on-board ties.
When one shipmate brought his wife on board as a guest, he asked Gudz to tell her that Gudz’s husband, rather than she, was a crew member.
The same request was not made of the other woman on board, a cook.
“[O]bviously, they took her being there as normal, but a woman sailor is a very strange woman once she’s working here,” Gudz said of the other couple’s mindset. “You need to be more careful with her.”
She also senses that stricter expectations have been set for her.
“The problem is that when a man screws something up, they tell him that this happens with everyone,” Gudz said. “But if a woman makes a mistake, then everyone has one and the same reaction: ‘Her place is not on a ship.’”
Constant berating from a captain who ascribed to this view prompted her to consider quitting, but, in the end, she decided against it.
“I didn’t know and I don’t know what I would do on shore. On shore, I’m no one; I can do nothing.”
Gudz’s ambition is to become a first mate. Within the next two years, she hopes to receive a degree at a higher educational institution that would enable her to qualify for that rank.
While some of her colleagues may wonder what that will mean for her raising a family, Gudz sees no either-or choice here.
“People often ask me, ‘What will you do when you have children?’ And what will I do? I’ll still work at sea. “
Aleksandra Besparova, 20
At the age of 15, Aleksandra Besparova and her classmates were asked to choose a profession as a teacher, a veterinarian, an accountant, a lawyer, or a mechanic.
Her parents told her to follow her heart.
“And I chose being a mechanic. My classmates laughed.”
They thought that Besparova stood no chance of mastering a highly technical profession and finding a job.
Apparently, Soviet movies that glorified women in technical professions had had no effect.
But little did Besparova’s classmates know that her father, a hospital driver, had already shown her how to change car wheels and disassemble a manual mini-tractor when a part broke.
At 17, she enrolled in an agricultural technical school and studied agricultural mechanization and automation. The only female in her class, she picked up a liking for cutting bolts, nuts, and washers.
Now studying to be an engineer at Siberia’s Novosibirsk State University via a correspondence course, she works as a tractor mechanic and driver.
Technically, women are barred from working full-time as tractor drivers until 2021. But that has not stopped Besparova.
“I know how to repair a tractor if something breaks … I can change a belt or a wheel,” replace a camera-monitoring system, and drive all types of tractors, including a caterpillar-tread tractor, she said.
“A girl mechanic can work on par with a man,” she emphasized.
“The work comes easy. It’s only difficult when you need to carry something – for instance, remove or install a sower or hayfork.”
At her agricultural school, some teachers, like her former classmates, had suggested that she become an accountant, instead.
Her work colleagues -- five young men and around 10 men over 50 – were skeptical at first, too.
They have learned not to underestimate her.
“They said at first that I’m a frail little girl. What tractor could I manage, much less a big one? Our relationship changed when I started to work.”
In summer, the team can work from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. or midnight. In winter, the schedule shortens to eight or nine hours per day. The mechanics work weekends as well.
Besparova, who grew up pumping water from a well, only enjoys the physical labor.
“Now we’re preparing the equipment -- the sowers, the cultivators. We’re repairing the tractors so that the sowing is a success and happens in the right time frame.”
Besparova eagerly awaits warmer weather, when she can return to driving tractors in the fields.
“You go, and there’s such beauty all around you: On one side, a forest, and, on the other, a lake. “
The open space and “nice, fresh” smell of the earth and cut grass appeal to her as well.
“The job of a mechanic doesn’t always mean being up to your elbows in fuel oil,” she underlined.
The only thing she dislikes is hauling cattle since they can kick when frightened.
Nonetheless, she dreams of running her own farm one day. To save money, she would start off with low-cost Belarus-branded tractors.
She cannot identify the motivation for her dream. A farm is simply something close to her heart.
“You know, you go into a store, take some bread, and you understand that they were able to prepare this from the wheat that we gathered,” she said. “And somehow that makes you happy.”
Maria Tabasova, 42
Volunteer Rescue Diver
Maria Tabasova, a manicurist-pedicurist, got into diving by accident, when her late partner, a diving instructor, bought her diving lessons as a birthday present. It was his drowning death that eventually led to her becoming a volunteer rescue diver.
He drowned “before my eyes,” she recounted. “The rescue services came, but no one could do anything. They totally couldn’t agree what to do. And I set myself the goal then that I would find volunteer services that won’t argue with each other about how ‘This is our region, not your region.’ But just will come and do their job. They’ll find (the body) and deliver it.”
There was just one catch: In Russia, women are banned from working as rescue divers. The government considers the occupation too hazardous for them.
Tabasova struggles to understand that reasoning. But she has found a workaround.
“I have a diving book, a certificate, even a little bit of experience, but I can’t work” as a rescue diver,” she said. “So, my destiny is to volunteer.”
To get started, Tabasova first got in touch with Liza Alert, a Russian non-profit search-and-rescue organization, which, in turn, directed her to the Dobrotvorets (roughly, Do-Gooders) water-rescue group, a Moscow-based volunteer collective of divers, diving instructors, and rescue professionals.
Many of the rescue divers became volunteers after experiencing their own losses, she said. “Those who come for entertainment don’t last long. “
Dobrotvorets started her with a lifeguard course. She learned how to approach a drowning person calmly and pull him or her to shore; pump water out of the lungs, and give the individual first aid.
After her partner’s death, Tabasova had given up diving. Now as a certified lifeguard, she also started getting her diving skills back in shape.
Initially, Dobrotvorets would not let her carry out actual rescue dives because she still lacked the necessary experience.
But a lack of divers for a search mission in Nizhegorod Oblast, about a six hour drive east of Moscow, provided an opportunity.
A girl, Zarina, had disappeared in a forested area with multiple reservoirs. Tabasova was allowed to dive and, with the team, explored them all, including conduits. After four days, Zarina was found alive in the woods.
To learn more, Tabasova began to go constantly on searches.
A month later, she recovered a body herself.
The accident had happened at night, after a group of young people in the town of Tver, located a few hours northwest of Moscow, had been drinking near a quarry. One man, drunk, had gone swimming there and lost his life.
Using an echo sounder and a boat, the recovery team eventually found his body just three meters from the shore.
Tabasova dove with Dobrotvorets founder Karen Agamalyan and another male colleague to recover the corpse.
“We got the job done. After this, I’d say, they started to take me more seriously.”
Tabasova has no fear of searching for a dead body. “I understand the importance of the moment because I myself have been in the place of relatives (of a drowned person),” she said of her late boyfriend’s drowning. “It’s important to any relative that there’s someone to bury. “
Afte summer, she goes on diving searches twice a week.
The divers work in threes. One person goes under the water; a second holds an attached security cord also used for communication, while a third is on standby for assistance in case contact with the underwater diver is lost.
“In Russia, the water is murky almost everywhere,” Tabasova elaborated. “You move in it by touch. “
Though she fears swimming on the surface of large bodies of water, Tabasova feels calm diving and swimming underwater.
“When I’m searching, I say to myself, ‘I’ll find (the person) now, I’ll find (the person) now, I’ll find (the person) now … and I’ll get scared.’ I prepare my morale for this. It’s normal to be scared. The important thing is to get your breath back in time. To stop, calm down, think what to do next, and do it. “
The Dobrotvorets team, she underlines, does not distinguish between its volunteers based on sex. Skill and experience determine who dives.
The group’s rule of thumb is “Everyone carries their own gear” – all 25 to 30 kilograms of it.
Tabasova sometimes jokes with her fellow volunteers that “When it comes to hauling oxygen cylinders, there’s no division (between the sexes), but when it comes to saving the world, then we don’t take girls.”
“Our strength is not, it’s true, the same as a man’s,” she said, “but girls have their own tricks.”
Her model is Oksana Chevalier, a former Ministry of Emergency Situations employee, who, to get around Russia’s ban on women working professionally as rescue divers, left the country to work abroad.
“This woman is a legend,” Tabasova commented.
Tabasova would like to follow Chevalier’s example, but, at 42, she wonders how long she will remain in shape for active diving.
Regardless, as a volunteer rescuer, she believes that she makes a valuable contribution to Russian society.
“We’re not heroes,” she said of her fellow rescue divers. “We won’t have any laurels. We do this only to help. And more often than not, we’ll just remain in the shadows.”