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 Novgorod-Women's Parliament

The road from St. Petersburg to Moscow.
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We leave this spaceship in the desert behind and head back to Novogord. Only a quarter-mile from the Cadbury facility, we pass one of the ubiquitous wooden houses with carved window frames.

An old woman draws water from a pump. Alexander Radishchev would feel right at home.

Conversations along the way seldom touch on politics. Kremlin intrigues may be the hot topic with the Moscow set, but the provinces Russians are fed up with political antics they consider largely irrelevant. They are much more concerned with their families, their towns, and their ability to make a living.

This hit home at the Women's Parliament in Novgorod. Despite the name, the parliament is really a kind of club where women study psychology, health, law, how to set up a small business, or how to work a computer. The women here hope to improve their job skills, or just learn. Irina Vazhnova, 44, expresses the palpable excitement of those gathered here.

Irina Vrataeva founded the Women's Parliament in Novgorod Click to enlarge

Photo: Rob Rand
"I am changing inside," she says. "That is clear. And I want my children to live a better life in this new Russia. An 'open society' isn't just a word It's the desire of most people, and we will reach it, I think."

Two hundred years ago, Radishchev lamented the role society inflicted on women—whether "the false fashions and coy behavior" of the cities or the brutal servitude of the countryside.

Irina Borisova, a dynamic 57-year-old who founded the Women's Parliament, says Russian women are still victims of sex discrimination and confining tradition. A trip to the United States, where she met with American women's groups, shook her to the core.

"Russian women become pensioners at 55," she tells us. "The very word means 'the end of life.' But when I was in Iowa and saw active, engaged American women—some as old as 75, with their eyes still burning—I was inspired. I went out and got my driver's license. It is important for women to have confidence. For men it's more complicated. Russian men are destroyed by the age of 55; their health is shot from drinking."

Russians are looking for something to believe in beyond politics. Inspiration and consolation come in many forms.

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