Babushka. It’s probably one of the better known Russian words outside Russia. And let’s set this straight first: it’s NOT the wooden doll that fitst three smaller versions of itself inside. That’s a matryoshka, a babushka is a grandmother.
Grandmothers have a prominent role in Russian (and generally Slavic) culture and society. In eastern Europe it’s a lot less common for older people to move to retirement homes or receive professional home care. Elderly are more likely to move back in with their kids and help out in the household. Additionally, since there’s less medical aid available the older generation are more self-reliant and make due with limited resources. This gives grandmothers often a reputation of hardened, resilient women taking care of themselves and others.
The Russian language doesn’t have articles. So you don’t say ‘a book’ or ‘the car’ or ‘the grandma’ but just book, car and grandma. Inadvertently this gives the term babushka an extra sense of cultural generality. It’s not so much this grandma, or that grandma or your grandma, but just “grandma” – it’s a notion, a term that everyone from Russia or many other eastern European countries is familiair with. It’s also a normal practise to call any old lady a babushka, she doesn’t have to be yours. If you help an older woman cross the street or say hello to her in passing, it’s common to address her as babushka. In other countries that could be considered condescending or childish. But in Russia, a grandma is just something you become when you reach a certain age.
I once stood in a bank in Riga and in front of us an older woman wanted to transfer money to her kids. She handed the clerk some paperwork to show where the money was supposed to be sent to. The clerk, in a way to ask for her ID I suppose, said: “And who are you?” to which the woman replied, slightly confused: “Me? I am grandma.”
The Russian Soul
Through friends and family I came to know Russians and people from former Yugoslavia as warmhearted and extremely hospitable. Often scarred by struggle and hardship they have a reputation of being pessimistic and surly, but the ‘mysterious Russian soul’, which is so often cited in literature is exactly what describes that complex relationship. Russian grandmothers are a perfect personification of that idea. A resourceful, dutiful woman with a certain authority when it comes to taking care of others. In a country with a relatively high mortality rate among men (war, poor health) older women are often alone or with their (grand)children, and not uncommonly in situations of infidelity, domestic abuse and poverty. Russian women are strong and resilient and older age can often assert a certain patronage over others.
No matter how much of tough guy you are, visiting a Russian grandmother often means you have to surrender to her care. Sit down, have something to eat, have tea. “You look hungry, eat some more. Did you just cough? I will make warm tea with strawberry jam. No, don’t protest. Sit down and have your tea. I have ham from the market, do you want to try some ham? I know you are vegetarian, but have some ham, it’s delicious.”
Although they wouldn’t qualify themselves as such, eastern European grandmothers are part of the feminist movement. Although their traditional role comes from a capitalist and chauvinist construct of family life, their adaptation and consolidation as that construct crumbles, is exactly what shows their strength and self-reliance. Through popular media we are usually given an image of post-apocalyptic survivors as brave, violent men and ruthless warriors. But let’s be honest: if society falls apart, you want to find shelter where a person knows how grow and preserve food, can patch you up when you are wounded, has blankets against the cold and has dealt with enough rude and boorish men to not be scared of anything. You wouldn’t survive without babushka.