Babushki (Russia)

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Babushki 🇷🇺
Russia map.png
Location: Russia
Definition: Lit. grandmothers, a family-based support system associated with childcare and household help by those excluded from formal labour markets
Keywords: Russia FSU Family Grandparents Kinship Gender Age Care Household
Clusters: Informal welfare
Author: Anna Shadrina
Affiliation: Birkbeck College, University of London

By Anna Shadrina, Birkbeck College, University of London

In Russia and many other former Soviet republics, the term babushki denotes a family support-system that relies on the intense involvement of grandparents (mostly grandmothers) in childcare and housework. Babushki is the plural form of babushka (Russian for grandmother, with emphasis on the first syllable). Scholars of the post-Soviet family such as Tiaynen (2013), Utrata (2015), Solari (2018) and Shadrina (2018) do not translate babushki into English in order to emphasise that, in the Russian-speaking world, the concept transcends the literal family definition of grandmother. In Russian-speaking countries, all middle-aged and older women are, regardless their family situation, commonly called babushki. Unlike in many other cultures, in Russian-speaking countries this is not seen as a derogative term. Rather, the concept reflects a distinct mode of the social reproduction of motherhood. Until the end of the twentieth century, the expectation that women would have children earlier in life and be able to become young babushki energetic enough to assist their daughters with childcare was widely accepted (Perelli-Harris and Isupova 2013: 143-6).

On an individual level, the word babushka signifies a socially approved identity for women of pensionable age based on practices related to family care. This reflects the expectation that, once they have passed their reproductive period, women will end their professional careers and individual activity. Despite the cultural predominance of the ideal of the nuclear family, child-rearing in Russia often involves two parenting adults: a mother and a grandmother, with men on the margins of family life (Utrata 2015: 123-50, 185). Although fathers and grandfathers are important in Russian society (Ashwin and Lytkina 2004), the family remains women-centred (Rotkirch 2000: 111, 120; Utrata 2015: 58, 215, 221). Even with co-residential fathers, everyday life for many families is supported by ‘extended mothering’ (Rotkirch 2000: 121). Apart from their monetary contribution to families, most men face minimal expectations at home (Utrata 2015: 179-213). While involved fatherhood has just started to make its way among educated men, women still tend to spend two or three times more of their time on children’s upbringing than do men (Rimashevskaya et al. 2016: 28).

Families with breadwinning mothers and grandmothers engaged in housework and childcare are also found among African-American communities in the US (Utrata 2015: 126) and Southern Europe (Herlofson and Hagestad 2012: 26).

It is traditionally assumed in many post-Soviet countries that babushki make a conscious and willing choice to disengage from active social life in order to take on unpaid childcare simply because they love their children and grandchildren (Utrata 2015: 124). At the same time, it should be acknowledged that this building block of informal welfare emerged as an outcome of ideological pressure on young families to have children sooner rather than later, of women’s early pensionable age, and of the lack of fathers’ involvement in childcare. The contribution made by babushki in terms of love and individual choice is not however recognised as an investment deserving formal compensation (Utrata 2015: 127).

Multigenerational households with women’s hierarchical networks typified pre-revolutionary Russian families (Olson and Adonyeva 2013: 44-91). Russia’s rapid industrialisation at the beginning of the twentieth century and the reconstruction of the Soviet economy after the Second World War required the widespread mobilisation of human resources, including women (Teplova 2007: 287). The importance of the role of women was further increased as a result of the reduction of the male population caused by the First World War, the Civil War that followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin’s purges and, last but not least, the Second World War. As a result, members of several generations of Soviet citizens were raised without fathers (Utrata 2015: 6).

The deficit of men amplified women’s familial ties and the dominant ideology of the division of gender roles in the family. Babushki served as a vital substitute for the lack of paternal involvement, insufficient state support, and the high male mortality rate (Federal State Statistics Service 2015: 46). The fact that women could retire from work and receive a pension at the age of 55 enabled many women to care for their children and grandchildren. While Soviet women were expected to implement the ideal of ‘mother-worker,’ men were seen as the main component of the labour force (Ashwin 2000: 1). Women, by contrast, were seen as dependent on the state, which provided maternal benefits and services.

Because of the shortage of single-family housing in the USSR in 1950s and 1960s, extended-family living arrangements remained the norm (Semenova and Thompson 2004). By the end of the Soviet era, moreover, the number of families cared for by single mothers was rising in Russia: the number of marriages declined, divorce rates rose, and the number of births to unmarried mothers increased. With no guarantee of employment after the collapse of the USSR, no state-funded accommodation, and significant cutbacks of state subsidies for childcare and after-school activities, the contribution of babushki to the family’s wellbeing became even more important than before (Utrata 2015: 6, 128).

At the end of the twentieth century, the leading socially-approved model of childcare in Western countries was the expert-guided ideology of ‘intensive mothering’ (Hays 1996). This denotes a child-centred approach that requires an unprecedented amount of emotional involvement, financial resources and various professional competences to ensure the best social start for children. This trend became noticeable in Russia at the beginning of the twenty first century. As a result, middle class Russian mothers aspiring to live up to the standards of ‘intensive mothering’ started to limit grandmothers’ involvement and instead to rely more on commercial childcare (Sivak 2018). At the same time, many women of pensionable age were forced to stay in employment in order to supplement their meagre pensions (Utrata 2015: 125); as a result, the retirement threshold began to rise. In 2018, the Russian government announced that, over a 15-year period, it would increase the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women (State Duma 2018).

Since the opportunities for post-pension employment are extremely limited in Russia, the role of an involved babushka is motivation for many women of pensionable age to leave an unsatisfactory job. And, because of the lack of institutional elderly care in Russia, playing the role of babushki in their daughters’ families represents an investment for old age for members of poorer social groups, as grandmothers expect their work and care to be reciprocated later in life. According to empirical studies (Grundy 2005), parents are more likely to provide support to children from whom they expect to receive help later in life.

Following a Western trend, too, Russian fathers may have to increase the amount of childcare and housework that they undertake. Weakening kin networks, minimal state support for families, and the fact that babushki will have to stay in work longer may force fathers and grandfathers to step in to compensate (Utrata 2015: 148).


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