Living Married in the U.S.S.R.

Foreign Notes

Young Soviet marriages have a rather poor survival rate. Marriage at 19, divorce at 23--often with a young child left in the breach--is the all-too-common scenario.

In recent years the divorce rate has risen so sharply that it is now comparable with U.S. figures--2.6 per thousand in the Soviet Union, 2.9 per thousand in the U.S. According to the July 11 issue of Boston After Dark, the Soviet rate is now seven times that of Romania and four times that of Great Britain.

A few students might be lucky enough to find space in an old-style Russian communal apartment, where tenants have their own tiny bedrooms but share bathroom and kitchen facilities. But apartment-mates usually balk at the introduction of an additional, unofficial resident.

Carrying on a viable relationship under such circumstances involves shifting from one friend's place to another's, in the constant search for a spot to spend the night together in peace and semi-privacy.

The reasons for early marriages and consequent domestic troubles vary, but a few generalizations hold true. Often the unaccomodating logistics of Soviet society are most at fault.

For example, it is practically impossible for young Soviet students to live together with any privacy, unless they are married. If a student attends a university in his home town, he is required to live at home: if the student comes from another part of the Soviet Union, he will be placed in a dormitory room with as many as 4 roommates (in one large room--suites are a non-existent luxury).

Another incentive to hastily-considered marriage is the almost total unattainability of safe, effective contraceptive devices. The Soviet Union has long been notorious for shortages in consumer goods but the paucity of such devices is inexcusable.

A small quantity of condoms are produced by Soviet factories, but their unpleasant character and doubtful reliability make them little more than a popular topic for off-color jokes. Some Russians claim that birth-control pills can be obtained through the black market, but at outrageous prices and--of course--without a doctor's supervision.

Low-price abortions are available, but the concomitant red-tape and the reputedly shoddy manner with which the operations are performed lend yet another topic for the well-developed sense of Soviet chorny (black) humor.

Parental pressure is another factor. Soviet males, in particular, claim that after having "walked" (khodili) with their girl friends for a year or so, they are pushed into marriage by the combined forces of the girls and their over-anxious parents.

The Soviet government itself also has a hand in the pro-marriage propaganda campaign. It has replaced the religious service of pre-revolutionary days with an equally elaborate state ceremony which takes place in a "palace of marital union" (dvorets brakosochetanija), complete with flowers, music, speeches by Soviet officials, etc.

Unlike most countries in the world, the Soviet Union would like to increase its birth rate. The official pro-marriage stance and the scarcity of birth control devices clearly reflect this desire. Last week's B.A.D. notes that authorities are alarmed about the rising divorce rate "not so much out of moral indignation as from concern about the declining birth rate."

With such a prelude to marriage, the honeymoon is soon over. Cultural mores are such that despite the almost total economic equality of women in the Soviet Union, a strong double standard is still very much in evidence in domestic life.

Soviet women work hard at their jobs all day, but even those who spend their work-day resurfacing Nevsky Prospect are expected to cook, clean and play the little wife when they come home. If they are unable to maintain a sweet temperament, and if marital joys have otherwise lost their attraction, the husband will begin to spend more and more evenings out with the "boys," drinking vodka and exchanging anti-wife anecdotes.

The alarming number of such unsatisfactory marriages is not fully reflected by the divorce rate. Many unhappy couples retain legal bonds to avoid jeopardizing career possibilities--especially if they hold good positions in the local communist party branch--or to avoid losing their room in a communal apartment.

During my 4-month stay in the U.S.S.R., I encountered a startling number of divorced 25-year-olds, mis-matched couples, nagging young wives and cynical, irresponsible young husbands. The Soviet government, many Russians feel, should recognize the problem and modify its uniformly pro-marriage stance. It should not continue to jeopardize the domestic happiness of its young people in the hope of bolstering a declining birth rate.

(The author is a 1972 Radcliffe graduate who has traveled and studied in the Soviet Union and will file her observations regularly with the Crimson this summer).