Women without Men by Jennifer Utrata by Jennifer Utrata - Read Online

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Women without Men - Jennifer Utrata

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Ithaca and London

For my family



Note on Transliteration and Subjects


1. From State Protections to Post-Socialist Freedoms

2. Diminishing Material Difficulties

3. Where the Women Are Strong

4. It Takes a Babushka

5. Blurred Boundaries

6. Marginalized Men






The long journey toward a book is oftentimes circuitous; I am very grateful for several sources of encouragement and support at critical junctures along the way. This book would not be possible without the generosity of so many Russians who took the time to share their lives and even their homes with me, including mothers, fathers, and grandmothers from all walks of life. More than anything else, it is the moving stories of ordinary Russians that captivated me and compelled me to write this book. The friendship and kindness shown to me by Russian women, especially Aleftina, Tatyana, Nina, Vika, Yuliya, Svetlana, and Inessa, kept me grounded while dealing with the serendipity of fieldwork, and they offered a wonderful sense of perspective. The warmth, persistence, and stubborn optimism of the Russians I met remain with me as a source of inspiration.

I have also benefited from many sources of institutional and scholarly support. Special thanks are owed to the faculty and graduate students in the sociology department at UC Berkeley, for this project began in conversation with others. Although several faculty members provided excellent feedback and advice, I am especially grateful for my mentors—Victoria Bonnell, Arlie Russell Hochschild, and Claude Fischer—who believed in this project from the beginning and shaped my thinking at key moments along my intellectual trajectory. Each of them has continued to provide support when needed in spite of their multiple commitments. At Berkeley, my passion for sociology was nurtured in myriad ways. Self-doubt seems endemic to the graduate school experience, but I was nevertheless encouraged to be as ambitious as possible in framing Russia as a case study important not only for area studies but for sociology as a whole. The insights of graduate school colleagues and friends such as Jane Zavisca, Tamara Kay, Amy Hanser, Michele Rossi, Allison Pugh, Cinzia Solari, Sarah Gilman, Jennifer Sherman, Jeremy Schulz, Suzanne Wertheim, and many, many more also contributed toward improving the ideas in this book. The supportive friendship of Jill, Jenya, and Becca also made the last years of graduate study more enjoyable.

Several other institutions made this research possible. I was honored to be able to work with Cornell University Press, where John Ackerman, my editor and the former director of the press, provided critical support that spurred me onward. Special thanks are due to two anonymous reviewers whose insightful suggestions helped to improve the manuscript. My research was also assisted by awards from the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad program and the Eurasia Program of the Social Sciences Research Council, with funds provided by the State Department under the Program for Research and Training on Eastern Europe and the Independent States of the Former Soviet Union (Title VIII). Funding from UC Berkeley’s sociology department and the graduate division was also critical in the earlier stages of research and writing. Finally, a junior sabbatical semester provided by the University of Puget Sound afforded the time necessary for writing and thorough revision, and a research grant paid for the book’s index. Several colleagues at the University of Puget Sound have been supportive of my forging ahead with this book project, and special thanks go to Leon Grunberg.

Ideas in this book were sharpened further in conversation with many other colleagues over the years. I am thankful to Sarah Ashwin, Mie Nakachi, Cynthia Buckley, Theodore Gerber, Olga Shevchenko, Jeff Sahadeo, Margaret Nelson, Shannon Davis, and many more scholars who provided wonderful feedback on early portions of the manuscript. Michele Rivkin-Fish offered generous support during the policy symposium Gender in the 21st Century in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, sponsored by IREX and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and she later read the entire manuscript, providing very valuable feedback. The enthusiastic responses I received after presentations given at the American Sociological Association, Pacific Sociological Association, Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and Sociologists for Women in Society conferences, as well as at an invited lecture at the University of Wisconsin—Madison’s Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia, also helped immensely in making this a better book.

Some portions of two book chapters have been published previously in the form of journal articles, and I am thankful to the publishers for permission to include these materials. Portions of chapter 4 appeared in Youth Privilege: Doing Age and Gender in Russia’s Single-Mother Families, Gender & Society 25, no. 5 (2011): 616–641, published by Sage, and portions of chapter 6 appeared in Keeping the Bar Low: Why Russia’s Nonresident Fathers Accept Narrow Fatherhood Ideals, Journal of Marriage and Family 70 (December 2008): 1297–1310, reproduced with permission from Wiley-Blackwell. Although integral to the outcome, some sources of support run deep and wide, spilling beyond the scope of any single project. Mary and Thomas, my parents, nurtured my development in countless ways over the years. The friendship of my sister, Laura, buoys my spirit. From our early days together in the former Soviet Union and Washington, DC, to more recent adventures in Berkeley and Tacoma, my husband, Robert, has long provided steadfast support, encouraging me in my endeavors, both big and small. Finally, I cannot imagine sons more loving than Isaac, Oliver, and most recently, Gabriel, each of whom offers a heady mix of challenge and joy that brightens my days. This book is dedicated to my family, both near and far.


I follow the U.S. Library of Congress system of transliteration, with the exception of spelling some proper names and other words in ways that are more familiar to English-speaking readers, such as Katya instead of Katia. In addition, all names are pseudonyms. I occasionally omit or change a few identifying details to protect subjects’ anonymity, but my descriptions of people and places are factually accurate and based on field notes and interview transcripts. Finally, all translations from Russian are my own, unless otherwise noted.


A Quiet Revolution

But does anyone really care about single mothers?

Despite having heard this question repeatedly from Russians during my research, I found it unsettling. After all, the growth of single-parent families is one of the most profound transformations of family life in our time. Because I was immersed in the vast sociological literature on what is typically framed as the problem of growing single motherhood around the world, I also knew that many people are concerned about single mothers and their children, at least in terms of their increased poverty risk. Finally, whether people think much about single motherhood or not, perhaps more people should care. Although nonresident fathers inspire little public discourse, single mothers juggle solo breadwinning and caretaking and frequently do so with minimal supports while facing considerable stigma.

When I began studying Russian single mothers, I assumed these mothers would struggle to an even greater extent than other Russians with the burdens of the transition from state socialism to market capitalism. What I learned, however, was more complicated and surprising. Single mothers do not necessarily differ much from other mothers. Furthermore, many single mothers find their lives simpler in comparison with what they endured before a divorce or breakup. I discovered that in Russia single motherhood is normalized rather than problematized as it typically is in other countries, especially the United States. For most Russians, the preoccupation with navigating multiple crises in their daily lives leaves little room to worry about the idea of mothers raising children on their own.

In spite of this apparent lack of curiosity about the lives of single mothers, I chose the normalization of single motherhood in everyday life as the primary puzzle I seek to explain. Most Russians see the prevalence of single motherhood as unremarkable or as a symptom of other more entrenched social problems, such as the lack of reliable men or the weak, unsupportive state. What does it mean to be a single mother when two-parent families remain the cultural ideal even as fewer people are able to attain this ideal? Furthermore, in a society still transitioning from state socialism to market capitalism, what are the implications of the normalization of single motherhood for family life and gender relations?

The Russian case challenges many Western assumptions about single mothers, pushing our collective thinking forward. This is a significant contribution given that, notwithstanding an extensive empirical literature, there is still no scholarly consensus on the meaning of single motherhood or why it has spread so rapidly around the world. Many puzzles remain.¹ Yet the growth of single motherhood certainly shows few signs of abating, and experts anticipate continued growth in most countries.² Given this seismic shift shaping the global social, economic, and cultural landscape, the issue of increasing numbers of single parents—the vast majority of whom, in every industrialized country, are single mothers—has attracted the attention of scholars, the media, and the general public, especially in the United States.³ Most single mothers work for pay, but because of inadequate supports for the dual burdens of breadwinning and caretaking, their families face an increased risk of poverty. Even though the United States trails far behind other countries in supporting parents who are balancing paid work with unpaid caregiving, rates of single parenthood have tripled since 1960 as a share of American households, and at least half of all U.S. children will spend part of their childhood in a single-parent family.⁴ Most single mothers are divorced, separated, or widowed, but more than half of first births to women under the age of thirty now occur outside of marriage.⁵ Nonmarital birth rates are higher for some racial-ethnic groups than others (68 percent among African Americans, 43 percent among Hispanics, and 29 percent among whites) and are more common among Americans without a college degree, but the trend is toward increasing single motherhood.⁶ Overall, even as patterns of single motherhood and family instability steadily increase over time, and even as patterns come to characterize not only the lives of the working class and racial-ethnic minorities but also the lives of middle-class people, many important questions remain.

Further complicating these unanswered questions are the many problematic assumptions surrounding single motherhood in the United States. Scholars and journalists alike have described the rise of single parenthood as mysterious, as alarming, or as a huge problem without an easy explanation.⁷ We hear, too, about a sad state of affairs whereby morals have allegedly been abandoned and single parents lack time or energy to devote to their progeny, while liberals are said to fail at being morally tough in championing marriage before childbearing.⁸ Despite the obvious instability of contemporary marriage, these stories somehow manage to transform marriage into a primary solution to the problem of single motherhood. Whereas some stories sympathize with the silent crisis of single motherhood,⁹ others smuggle in considerable moral judgment and condescension. Even as single motherhood has lost some of its novelty, single-mother families continue to serve as convenient scapegoats for problems ranging from family breakdown to high prison rates, gun violence, and the even the alleged decline of men. The high-profile attention of pundits and politicians reinforces the stigma single mothers navigate.¹⁰ Perhaps the very ambiguity and diversity of the category allows single mothers to serve as a kind of Rorschach test, eliciting a range of reactions, from sympathy to scorn. Like the famous inkblot test, people project their own ideas about single mothers (and about families, gender, race, class, and the state) onto the many women who find themselves combining solo breadwinning with solo caregiving on behalf of their children.

Despite the problematic assumptions surrounding single motherhood, it is clear that the facts of family life differ from our fantasies of what families should be. In Russia as in the West, single motherhood is no longer an anomaly: it is part of a broader and ongoing revolution in family life and gender relations. Indeed, it is rapidly becoming a norm. Social institutions are generally lagging behind and failing to support new kinds of families in meaningful ways. The ideological divide surrounding single motherhood prevents us from developing a deeper understanding of the phenomenon. In many societies, single mothers are viewed by both the left and right as a subset of mothers and often as a problem to be fixed.¹¹ Yet single motherhood, after all, must have some appeal for women in spite of the challenges, even if it is oftentimes an appeal of last resort.

Some readers may think that single motherhood is a narrow analytical lens. In Russia, however, single mothers are the most ordinary of women. Grappling with the meaning of motherhood, especially its shadow side of single motherhood, provides important insights into how much families and gender relations are changing during Russia’s transition to capitalism. The Russian case also presents an intellectually important problem for the sociology of family and its assumptions about marriage and two-parent households. These assumptions about single mothers’ hardships and miseries, the superiority of two-parent families, the primacy of the nuclear family over extended kin, marriage as a panacea for troubled families, and the purported differences dividing the lives of married and single moms are fairly entrenched in scholarship. An in-depth exploration of the normalization of single motherhood in Russia allows us to see single motherhood with fresh eyes.

Russia’s Quiet Revolution

When I began fieldwork in Russia, I kept hearing that single mothers were everywhere. Russians initially reacted to my research like Pavel, a cab driver in Moscow who exclaimed: You’re here in Russia to study single mothers?! Well . . . looks like you came to the right country! Others offered advice on finding mothers to interview. Memorably, one cashier gestured across a busy street and said: Just walk into any courtyard, sit down on a bench, and look around. Half of the women there will be single mothers! Russians speak matter-of-factly about single mothers, as if their ubiquity simply goes without saying.

Many people qualify their remarks by noting that single motherhood may not be ideal but is nonetheless part of the way things are in the topsy-turvy world that is the New Russia. Seldom is there much moralizing about it. Russians argue that a weak state no longer supports families as it once did and that weak men all too frequently fear responsibility and seek solace in the bottle. Considering these circumstances, Russians ask, who can really blame normal women for going it alone as mothers? Few consider single motherhood any great tragedy. Instead, and in vivid contrast to the United States, ordinary Russians generally see single motherhood as a nearly inevitable by-product of two intractable problems—a critical mass of weak men and a weak state. Men, Russians of all kinds argue, are too often irresponsible and weak-willed in the face of difficulties, tempted by both the traditional vodka bottle and several newer, capitalist temptations. The state, in turn, makes glowing promises of a brighter day to come but has cut back its supports for families in general and for women and children in particular.¹²

When reflecting on single motherhood, many Russians hark back to the Second World War, another period when men were scarce and single mothers supported their children with the help of their own mothers. Both women and men note that difficult economic circumstances and political instability are hard on families during the transition to capitalism. Stefan, a married father, observed: So many families have fallen apart, just like after the Great War. He earns little, she wants him to earn more because Misha needs new shoes, so he drinks more to escape the nagging and the stress. Then she realizes she’s better off without him. It all starts there. While observing May Day celebrations in Moscow, I chatted with Sasha, a retired military man who mused: Russia has long been a country of single mothers. It’s nothing new.

Western researchers and journalists also describe Russia as a country of single mothers. At a conference, an American scholar remarked dryly: Single mothers. In Russia. Aren’t they all?! Other conversations provoked similar responses. In reference to the iconic image of the sorrowing mother and child sacralized in Russian Orthodoxy, Barbara Heldt has argued that single motherhood is almost an inevitability in Russia.¹³ In the mid-1990s, the New York Times portrayed Russia as matriarchal, teeming with single mothers:

The collapse of the Soviet state has changed everything in Russia—except the relationship between the sexes. Expectations are low, but divorce rates remain high and the numbers of single mothers, either divorced or never married, keep growing. . . . In a trend that is as unmistakable to sociologists and social workers as it is distressing, millions of maids, factory workers and university professors alike have grown inured to raising their families without men. Instead they have come to rely on mothers, sisters and aunts in the kind of matriarchal society—and downward spiral of poverty and limited horizons—that in the United States has become a hallmark of the poorest urban areas.¹⁴

These views of Russia as a land of single mothers and a matriarchy are oversimplifications that obscure the complexity and fluidity of family life. Although the view of Russia as a country of single mothers may capture some aspects of its reality, one should not take this view too literally. Some observers quickly invoke matriarchy when confronted with the strength and endurance of Russia’s women in the face of adversity, but Russian society remains firmly, objectively, patriarchal.¹⁵ In spite of the significant challenges they face, many single mothers are doing remarkably well, at least relative to other women. They are willing to accept some hardship in pursuit of increased personal independence and a sense of control over their own lives and those of their children. Russia is a country where matrifocal families predominate in daily life, even though the two-parent, nuclear-family cultural ideal remains stronger than ever. In matrifocal families, the mother–child unit is more central culturally than the father–child unit or the mother–father conjugal relationship. Matrifocality does not imply domestic maternal dominance but rather suggests a more elaborated role of the mother in family life as well as the weakness of the conjugal relationship.¹⁶

Ultimately, the question of whether Russia should be understood as a country of single mothers depends on what it means to be single for the growing number of mothers who experience this scenario. The narratives that follow tell the surprising story of what the transition to market capitalism looks like from the perspective of Russia’s many single mothers, women of all kinds keeping their families afloat in spite of feeling disappointed in¸ and indeed abandoned by, both men and the state.

Even though the spread of market capitalism has irrevocably changed what it means to be a mother on her own, Sasha is right that single mothers are not new to Russia. Most of the roughly twenty-seven million Russians who died in the Second World War were men, leaving many mothers single. Russia has long had a very high divorce rate. It had the highest divorce rate in the world after the United States in the 1970s and continues to have one of the highest rates of divorce today, by some measures the world’s highest or second highest.¹⁷ Marriage is less common nowadays, and it is even less stable than before.¹⁸ More recently, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, nonmarital births have risen steadily to account for nearly one in three births. Some of these births may occur within cohabiting unions, but the increase in cohabitation is also relatively new, its meaning uncertain.¹⁹ Finally, since 1992, working-age men have been dying earlier than ever before, on average at age fifty-nine. Russia has the world’s largest gender gap in life expectancy, leaving many mothers on their own. Most Russians still live in two-parent families, but the overall trend is towards the declining prevalence of dual-parent households and increasing numbers of single-parent households.²⁰

Everywhere . . . and Nowhere

Although I kept hearing that single mothers are everywhere in Russia, I discovered, paradoxically, that single mothers are simultaneously nowhere in particular. Russians agree on the statistical normalcy of single motherhood—everyone knows that single motherhood is all too common to be surprising—but single mothers are nevertheless semantically invisible.²¹ The category of single motherhood is ambiguous, fluid, and almost up for grabs, with little agreement on who single mothers are. Single mothers do not constitute an underclass but are spread throughout Russian society. As gender and family relations are shifting, what it means to be a mother raising children on her own is fluid and heavily contested.

FIGURE 1. A single mother and her daughter wait for a bus in Kaluga’s city center. They were expecting a special delivery of produce from their grandmother’s garden plot about an hour outside of the city center by way of the bus driver. Photograph by the author.

One rainy spring morning early in my fieldwork, I witnessed these contested meanings surrounding single motherhood rather vividly. I slipped into a coffee shop for a few moments before continuing on to an interview nearby. Hoping for a few leads, I struck up a conversation with the women working the counter. Unwittingly, my queries provoked a heated discussion.

The shop manager turned toward one of her sales clerks, asking a woman in her late thirties whether she wasn’t a single mother since her husband had passed away a few years earlier. She replied: Tatyana Mikhailovna, but how am I really single? My mother helps me with everything! We’re a team. Probably single mothers are those who are really on their own. A second sales clerk interrupted to ask me: Are divorced mothers also in your study? The state used to dock men’s pay, but now men get away with avoiding child support if they so choose! Of course, their kids do at least have fathers out there, unlike some other mothers. Before I had a chance to respond, the widowed sales clerk interjected: As a foreigner you should know that we also have some mothers who are officially single, collecting state support, but they are not really single mothers. Many are living with a guy, and he is helping her out. I don’t have any guy helping me out, so I am on my own. Luckily I have my mom around.

As I pondered which of these leads to pursue, Tanya, the shop manager, cautioned me: Here in Russia you cannot assume that just because a woman is living with a guy that he is necessarily supporting her and her kids. Maybe that’s true in America, but not here. Nowadays lots of men simply don’t want to get married or be responsible for families. I mean, some may help out occasionally, but there’s no guarantee.

All three women began talking at the same time, debating what it was that made mothers qualify as single. There was little agreement, and versions of this conversation recurred during the ensuing months. Of course, single motherhood is an ambiguous category by definition. But in Russia this ambiguity surrounding single motherhood is further amplified. A widowed mother is not exactly single if her mother is helping her out . . . or is she? Given how little most men contribute toward housework and child rearing in Russia’s two-parent families, a widowed mother with her own mother’s household, child care, and pension support might even be better supported overall than many married or divorced mothers. While it is possible that a divorced mother has a former husband supporting the children financially, this cannot be assumed since most women receive little or no child support and Russian fathers typically become estranged from children after divorce.²² An unmarried mother might be living with a man, but how much support she receives in these cases is unclear. Even if a single mother remarries (and fewer Russian women than men remarry after divorce), women argue that she is still practically single because most men don’t help much, especially if it’s not their own kid.

I could not be late for my appointment, so during a lull in the conversation I made my way toward the door, promising to return soon. As I hurried down the shop steps, Tanya stepped outside and called me back: "Wait a minute! I think I have just the woman for you. Olga Petrovna is a real single mother—she has no husband, mother, relatives, or anyone else supporting her!"

This coffee shop conversation was one of many incidents demonstrating the lack of cultural consensus as to who counts as a single mother in today’s Russia. Following other internationally comparative studies, I define the category of single motherhood as any mother raising at least one child under eighteen without the child’s father or another male partner, whether unmarried, divorced, separated, widowed, or married but effectively abandoned. Yet although I delimit the boundaries of single motherhood in this way, rather than ignoring the slipperiness of the category, I follow Russians’ lead in taking the ambiguity and fluidity of single motherhood as a useful and theoretically productive starting point.

Analyzing single motherhood from below forces us to grapple with contradictory, even messy, aspects of the experience we might otherwise miss. More and more women around the world are becoming single mothers, even if this is not what they had hoped for and even if they express strong support for two-parent families and marriage.²³ The reasons why women are doing so are complex, but it hardly makes much sense from a narrow economic perspective for women to go it alone as mothers, especially in countries with minimal supports for families raising children. Rates of single motherhood have gone up even as state support for families has declined over time, both in Russia and in many other Western countries. The idea of single motherhood may often be slippery, given how culturally variable the experience of single motherhood is, but this slipperiness is exacerbated in today’s Russia, which manifests a growing fluidity in family life that many people remain reluctant to accept. Mothers and their children are often the bedrock in this story, with men often a more intermittent presence.

The issue of family change in Russia is further complicated by the fact that so many Russians have lacked adequate support during the transition to capitalism. How, in this situation, can one determine whether single mothers have faced greater challenges than so many others? Some still assume that single mothers have it harder than others, yet single mothers themselves question this assumption, arguing that married women bear heavier burdens. The case of Russian single motherhood pushes us to rethink the notion that single mothers necessarily differ all that much from other mothers, depending on the specific context and level of social support in their lives.²⁴

Tanya’s comments in the coffee shop suggest that it is a lack of support that truly makes a mother single in Russia, regardless of official partnership status. Most Russians define single motherhood, or real single motherhood, in terms of this lack of support, whether the lack is due to a missing husband, boyfriend, or—most tragically for Russian women—the absence of one’s own mother. I follow Tanya’s lead in remaining attuned to the significance of social support in the lives of mothers, refraining from making generalizations about support on the basis of women’s official marital status. Single motherhood may seem self-evident; in practice it is seldom so. Instead, single motherhood is a metaphor for how supported, or unsupported, mothers feel in their everyday lives as they juggle paid work with the unpaid work of the home and children.

Illuminating the key paradox of everywhere and nowhere—between the ubiquity and utter normalcy of Russian single motherhood and the lack of agreement as to who counts as a single mother and what it means to be single in the New Russia—is the main task of this book. Single mothers are visible in that no one is surprised that they are everywhere, yet they are simultaneously invisible in that most Russians do not pay attention to the challenges women face in raising children on their own. Single mothers are not distinguished much from other mothers working and raising their children.

Studying Russian Families

Building trust and developing rapport with a wide spectrum of single mothers in Russia took persistence and patience. I was an outsider, an American woman neither single nor a mother at the time. Furthermore, as eager as many single mothers are to talk, they are also extremely pressed for time. I found myself drawing on prior experiences with Russian families, and ultimately I chose to live with local families while conducting research, thus easing my entry into the field. Years before I began this fieldwork, my experiences in the former Soviet Union had begun to shape how I see women’s work and family life in the region. In the early 1990s, I had worked as an English teacher in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, for the U.S. Peace Corps, living with two different ethnically Russian families near the old city, and visiting St. Petersburg and Moscow for the first time while staying with relatives of these families. Certainly, life in Uzbekistan differs significantly from life in provincial Russia, but in those early years the influence of Russian and Soviet culture was palpable throughout the region. I spent several more months in the former Soviet Union in 1998 while working as an American company’s representative in Tashkent (where my Russian tutor was a single mother), and in the summer of 2000, I studied advanced Russian while living with a divorced mother and her adult daughter in St. Petersburg. Through these varied experiences, I developed a feel for everyday life that served me well during my fieldwork.

When I lived with a Russian widowed mother and her adult daughter in Bukhara, I had been awestruck by all that women managed at work and at home during a period of nearly 300 percent inflation in the early 1990s. Whether women were Tajik, Jewish, Uzbek, or Russian, they bargained for carrots at the local bazaar and made soup from scratch as an easy weeknight meal after a full day of paid work and commuting on crowded public transport, before an evening consumed by shopping, dinner preparations, cleanup, caring for children, hand-washing laundry, lesson planning, and grading. They worried about how to improve the morale of their husbands during uncertain economic times, often feeling as if the survival of their families ultimately depended on them. It often did. These mothers, most of them married but often singularly responsible for family survival nonetheless (depending on the amount of support they received in their marriages), in some ways resembled the Russian women described in these chapters. Such women are the unsung heroines of family life in the transition from state socialism to market capitalism, masters of that critical realm of life that Russians tend to dismiss, if not disparage, as byt (everyday life).²⁵

In Russia, the world of byt is one of soul-killing, quotidian struggle—mostly, though seldom acknowledged as such, women’s struggle (although women deal with much more than byt alone), in stark opposition to the revered spiritual realm of the famous Russian dusha (soul). Pesmen describes byt as a belittling term denoting petty concerns of the material kind or the mundane, soul-killing necessities of the grey-hued ‘this life.’ ²⁶ It was in the early 1990s when I first became intimately familiar with the intensely gendered nature of Russian byt: whether I was proffering my ration card at the state store with fellow teachers, waiting in line for our monthly allocation of sugar or flour as the shopkeeper chatted with friends oblivious to our presence, or watching seventy-year-old babushki (grandmothers) hauling several kilos of potatoes and onions onto crowded trolleybuses, many aspects of women’s daily lives were both time-consuming and utterly routine. Whether as single mothers or as grandmothers, Soviet women and the Russian women who are their successors are experts at managing the mundane work that holds families together, the work that makes those famously heady flights into the realm of dusha possible. My desire to better understand women’s work, particularly among women managing a double transition, to single motherhood and to life under capitalism, eventually led me to provincial Russia.

I conducted most of my twelve months of fieldwork in the midsized provincial city of Kaluga, an oblast´ (roughly equivalent to a state) capital city of 345,000 in northwest Russia, during two separate six-month trips in 2003 and 2004. One of Russia’s oldest cities, Kaluga has a population that is slightly older, more educated, and less ethnically diverse than that of other provincial Russian cities, but it has average demographics and rates of unemployment. Even though Kaluga is only 200 kilometers southwest of Moscow, just a few hours by express train, in terms of labor market opportunities and living standards, it is more typical of where most Russians live than the larger, Western-oriented metropolises of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Over half of Russia’s urban population lives in small and medium-sized cities. Differences between Moscow and St. Petersburg (where most foreigners spend their time) and the rest of Russia are striking. In Kaluga, I never left home without a small flashlight or two, which were indispensable for navigating poorly lit streets and the dark corridors of the apartment buildings where I traveled to meet with mothers, often late into the evening. In Moscow, those same flashlights looked like curious artifacts to me, to be tucked away until I returned to what Russians call the provinces.

I prioritized depth over breadth by making Kaluga my primary site, but during my second six-month fieldwork trip, I conducted some interviews in Moscow (n = 20) as a check on the generalizability of my findings. Altogether during fieldwork, I conducted 151 formal in-depth interviews with ordinary Russians, each averaging three hours in length.²⁷ Ninety of these interviews were with single mothers. Through focusing my efforts in Kaluga, I was better able to immerse myself in families and in social networks to develop a broader portrait of family life beginning with single mothers but not ending with them. Apart from single mothers, I interviewed Soviet-era single mothers and contemporary grandmothers (n = 20) whose myriad forms of support shape the lives of single mothers so fundamentally, but I also conducted in-depth interviews with married mothers (n = 20) and nonresident fathers (n = 21).

Interviews were important for building trust and developing rapport, but I primarily sought to engage in what Mitchell Duneier calls in-depth, context-driven fieldwork;²⁸ that is, I participated in single mothers’ and their family members’ lives as fully as possible and took notes over time, avoiding a strict reliance on formal interviews.