Saturday, May 5, 2012

Economics of Despair: Poverty, Abortion and Hopelessness

Petrushevskaya addresses many important issues in her dark novel. One that strikes me most is the linkage between poverty, disintegration of family as an institution in Soviet/Russian society, and the conflicting emotions of independent but poor women on their most basic natural need to bear and have children. The novel was written/published in 1992, when low birth rates and high abortion rates in the disintegrated USSR were a norm. Russia’s total fertility rate (according to the CIA) in 1990 was estimated to be 2.0 children per Russian woman ( The minimum rate for a population to replace itself is 2.0-2.5 births per woman (according to various estimates). According to in 1990, 1.6 million women in Russia had abortions while 1.5 million gave birth, meaning that the number of abortions exceeded the number of births. The situation became even worse in late 1990s and early 2000s.
Economy in turmoil led many people to become jobless, and many marriages divorced. The new category of single mothers is described by Petrushevskaya. The main character, Anna Andrianova, is jobless and confused mother of two children, Alyona and Andrei, and grandmother of three kids. Alyona has hopelessly poor judgment of men: different men fathered her three kids and walked away. Anna insists on Alyone having abortions instead of having kids she cannot support: ‘Heavens above, girl, everyone has abortions even when they’re far gone…for money,’ I (Anna) tell her. ‘Right up to God knows when. For money!’ ‘What money? Whose money?’ she (Alyona) mutters. (pp. 132-133) Ethical issue presented here is complex and with no simple solution. The absence of emotionally and financially responsible men in lives of these women, given their own dire financial situtation, makes their situation impossible. Motherly experience of Anna provides a voice of rationality, while emotional, motherly instincts of young Alyona (along with the lack of money) lead her to having kids she cannot possibly raise on her own.
The issue of abortion is explosive one in the US. How do you feel about Anna’s and Alyona’s conflicting views on abortion?


  1. I feel that Anna and Alyona's conflicting views are partly due to the difference in life during the Stalinist - mid USSR and during the late USSR. I feel like the older generations had more of a survival>ethics mindset than the younger generations. I don't know though, you bring up a good point.

  2. Thanks for providing the statistics regarding abortions in Russia at the time of this book's publication. I had no idea that they were so widespread that they actually outnumbered live births. That is almost unbelievable. Regardless, these tidbits serve as interesting context for the novel.

  3. Petar, firstly, I really appreciate your post, as Alex mentions, the statistics are very useful.
    I think that Alyona is not as concerned about survival as her mother is. Throughout the entire novel, I got the feeling that one of the reasons Anna is so upset with her daughter is because Alyona is ,to a certain extent, careless and independent, things that Anna cannot understand. When I was reading the discussion between the two that you quoted, it made me think that Alyona didn't care too much about having a baby, and that is why she didn't look into abortion at the right time. Also, it may be that Alyona was feeling lonely and tried to fill the space neither her mum or the men in her life ever managed to fill in.

    1. I agree with all possibilities you mention, Iulia. However, having another baby while she practically gave away Tima (to her mom) for a few years makes me think that loneliness may not have been a reason for having an additional child. I speak from a rationale standpoint, but Alyona is driven by emotions; so, who knows?

  4. Ditto on Alex's comment on the stats. They provide a lot of context, and in essence, show how abortion was less a moral issue and more of a stability issue (familial stability, economic, social, etc.). Alyona just came across to me as emotionally immature on the matter, and on matters of sexuality in general.

  5. Your discussion about the economic despair was really interesting to read. Like other mentioned the statistical evidence showed interesting aspect of women's life during the 20th century Russia.

    Also I agree that Alyona's decision-making in general is usually driven by emotions and material reasons. But also we do not know the entire story, since the novella is narrated by Anna and her interpretation of Alyona's decisions.