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Russia Lifts Soviet-Era Rules On What Jobs Women Can Do

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Change is in the air in Russia, at least if you're an aspiring truck driver or a boat captain and female. Starting this year, Russia's government lifted restrictions on hundreds of jobs for women. The move is being celebrated as a step forward for gender equality there. Charles Maynes has the story from Moscow.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Evgeniia Markova used to be a computer programmer until the day she decided that instead of staring at the screen, she wanted to stare out the windshield.

EVGENIIA MARKOVA: Towns, cities, roads, lakes, rivers, sky - I like watching.

MAYNES: And plenty of it she does. Now a long-haul trucker, Markova drives routes across Russia's vast highways, accompanied always, she says, by her favorite tunes.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAZHDANSKAYA OBORONA SONG)

MARKOVA: I like punk rock (laughter). Yeah, I like punk rock.

MAYNES: And as of this year, she can finally hit the road legally. Truck driving is one of more than 350 jobs now open to Russian women after the government rescinded a late Soviet-era rule barring them from professions officials deemed dangerous to reproductive health. The change marks a victory for women's rights advocates who spent years fighting the restrictions at home and abroad. After Russian courts rejected lawsuits alleging workplace discrimination, a U.N. rights commission called on Russia to end the work bans. Last summer, Russia's Ministry of Labor finally agreed to amend the rules starting in 2021. Markova says the change ends restrictions that were not only discriminatory but just plain dumb.

MARKOVA: I was really very angry because I found out that I still can't work when I already had a license - ridiculous.

MAYNES: More ridiculous still, to avoid the hiring ban, Markova worked for a time under a man's name, Evgeny Markov, which she and her husband found entertaining until they tried to take out a loan.

MARKOVA: Just try to take credit for a house when not your name is written on your card. It was really a problem. It wasn't funny at all.

MAYNES: And it wasn't always this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VLADIMIR LENIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Following the Russian Revolution of 1979, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, heard here, placed the new Soviet Union at the vanguard of women's rights, offering the other half of the proletariat access to education and the growing Soviet industrial workforce.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: In Russia, too, everything that can be done by women is being done to release their menfolk for the fighting forces.

MAYNES: The policy arguably saved the USSR when Soviet women kept factories running at breakneck pace during World War II and the conflict's devastating aftermath.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Remember, in the Soviet Union, there can hardly be a woman who hasn't lost husband, brother or lover killed in the terrible battles on the eastern front.

MAYNES: Fast-forward to 1963, and there was also this iconic moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, nicknamed Chaika, or the seagull, blasted into orbit as the first woman in space.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VALENTINA TERESHKOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

(APPLAUSE)

MAYNES: The moment handed the Soviets a propaganda coup in the Cold War's emerging gender battles, even if women's real lives behind the Iron Curtain were far more complicated.

ALENA POPOVA: The main slogan of the USSR was that men and women are equal in terms of workforce, but it's not true.

MAYNES: Alena Popova is a leading women's rights advocate. She says women then and now faced expectations to shoulder careers as well as the demands of family life at home.

POPOVA: It was our reality in USSR and in Russia. Females always have double duties.

MAYNES: And faced double standards.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAKE CARE OF THE WOMEN!")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: By the early 1980s, Soviet films like "Take Care Of The Women!", a comedy about an all-female tugboat crew with dreams of joining the Soviet civilian fleet, continued to promote the idea of women's equality, sort of. The movie was by then exactly that - more fiction than reality.

SVETLANA MEDEVEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Svetlana Medeveva, a real-life boat captain on the Volga River who initiated the discrimination lawsuit, says she was shocked to realize that Soviet work barriers had been put in place since the early 1970s. Worse still, Vladimir Putin's government renewed them at the turn of this century in an effort to boost Russia's declining birthrate. For Medeveva, that meant working in the shadows.

MEDEVEVA: (Through interpreter) My grandmother and my mom and dad all worked in the factories, and there was never a sense of something off-limits to anyone. No one would have guessed that there was a list banning you from some professions.

MAYNES: In fact, there are still some 100 jobs, including those in mining and construction, that remain off the books. Meanwhile, women earn 30% less on average than men in Russia, among the highest wage differentials in industrialized nations. And while Medeveva says she's happy most restrictions are now gone, she admits there is no making up for lost time, money or dreams

MEDEVEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Medeveva had always hoped to captain a ship on the open sea, a job that takes years of certification and remains out of reach while she raises her young children.

MEDEVEVA: (Through interpreter) This is only good for the next generation of women. It'll be easier for them to go study and find the jobs they want.

MAYNES: Besides, changing attitudes is sometimes harder than changing laws, says the trucker Evgeniia Markova. It's something she was reminded of once again when she and her female co-driver were gassing up their truck on a recent run.

MARKOVA: One man, just about 50 or 60 years old, came up to us with huge eyes and asked, and how are you going without a driver?

MAYNES: In the end, he was left guessing, for Markova was already on her way - another highway, another view. For NPR News, I'm Charles Maynes in Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAZHDANSKAYA OBORONA SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.