By Marjorie Senechal
“March 8 is Women’s Day, a legal holiday,” I wrote to my mother from Moscow. “This is one of the many cute cards that is on sale now, all with flowers somewhere on them. We hope March 8 finds you well and happy, and enjoying an early spring! Alas, here it is -30° C again.”
I spent the 1978-79 academic year working in Moscow in the Soviet Academy of Science’s Institute of Crystallography. I’d been corresponding with a scientist there for several years and when I heard about the exchange program between our nations’ respective Academies, I applied for it. Friends were horrified. The Cold War was raging, and Afghanistan rumbled in the background. But scientists understand each other, just like generals do. I flew to Moscow, family in tow, early in October. The first snow had fallen the night before; women in wool headscarves were sweeping the airport runways with birch brooms.
None of us spoke Russian well when we arrived; this was immersion. We lived on the fourteenth floor of an Academy-owned apartment building with no laundry facilities and an unreliable elevator. It was a cold winter even by Russian standards, plunging to -40° on the C and F scales (they cross there). On weekdays, my daughters and I trudged through the snow to the broad Leninsky Prospect. The five-story brick Institute sat on the near side, and the girls went to Soviet public schools on the far side, behind a large department store. The underpass was a thriving illegal free-market where pensioners sold hard-to-find items like phone books, mushrooms, and used toys. Nearing the schools, we ran the ever-watchful Grandmother Gauntlet. In this country of working mothers, bundled bescarved grandmothers shopped, cooked, herded their charges, and bossed everyone in sight: Put on your hat! Button up your children!
At the Institute, I was supposed to be escorted to my office every day, but after a few months the guards waved me on. I couldn’t stray in any case: the doors along the corridors were always closed. Was I politically untouchable?
But the office was a friendly place. I shared it with three crystallographers: Valentina, Marina, and the professor I’d come to work with. We exchanged language lessons and took tea breaks together. Colleagues stopped by, some to talk shop, some for a haircut (Marina ran a business on the side). Scientists understand each other. My work took new directions.
I also tried to work with a professor from Moscow State University. He was admired in the west and I had listed him as a contact on my application. But this was one scientist I never understood. He arrived late for our appointments at the Institute without excuses or apologies. I was, I soon surmised, to write papers for him, not with him. I held my tongue, as I thought befits a guest, until the February afternoon he showed up two weeks late. Suddenly the spirit of the grandmothers possessed me. “How dare you!” I yelled in Russian. “Get out of here and don’t come back!” “Take some Valium” Valentina whispered; wherever had she found it? But she was as proud as she was worried. The next morning I was untouchable no more: doors opened wide and people greeted me cheerily, “Hi! How’s it going?”
International Women’s Day, with roots in suffrage, labor, and the Russian Revolution, became a national holiday in Russia in 1918, and is still one today. In 1979, the cute postcards and flowers looked more like Mother’s Day cards, but men still gave gifts to the women they worked with. On 7 March I was fêted, along with the Institute’s female scientists, lab technicians, librarians, office staff, and custodians. I still have the large copper medal, unprofessionally engraved in the Institute lab. “8 марта” — 8 March — it says on one side, the lab initials and the year on the other. The once-pink ribbon loops through a hole at the top. Maybe they gave medals to all of us, or maybe I earned it for throwing the professor out of the Institute.
I’ve returned to Russia many times; I’ve witnessed the changes. Science is changing too; my host, the Academy of Sciences founded by Peter the Great in 1724, may not reach its 300th birthday. But my friends are coping somehow, and I still feel at home there. A few years ago I flew to Moscow in the dead of winter for Russia’s gala nanotechnology kickoff. A young woman met me at the now-ultra-modern airport. She wore smart boots, jeans, and a parka to die for. “Put your hat on!” she barked in English as she led me to the van. “Zip up your jacket!”
Marjorie Senechal is the Louise Wolff Kahn Professor Emerita in Mathematics and History of Science and Technology, Smith College, and Co-Editor of The Mathematical Intelligencer. She is author of I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science.