Tuesday, July 7, 2009

To Russia With Love And Compost

It seems the Russian office girls, taking a cigarette break, admire Michelle Obama not for her taste in fashion but her interest in gardening. It illustrates the cultural divide between Washington and Paris -- where the media goggles over how well she fits in to her sheik wardrobe -- and Moscow -- where wives don't outshine their husbands.

And, on this trip to Moscow where her husband is trying to mend fences with the Russian president and prime minister, she isn't. On this trip, Michelle with daughters Malia and Sasha in tow, she's a tourist visiting the historic sites in and around the Kremlin. No solo public appearances are planned.

Finally, a country whose cultural is firmly planted on solid ground. This story comes courtesy of the Washington Post and was a delightful change of pace to me because of its stark contrast to the usual grovelling and worshiping we read about President Barack Obama and the First Lady.

It's not as if the Moscow media is snubbing the Obamas. "The welcoming cover stories and street chatter here have focused on her White House kitchen garden rather than her clothes, her Ivy League pedigree or her interest in promoting public service," reports the Post. "The current cover of Ogonyok, for example, a weekly magazine focusing on politics and culture, carries a candid photograph of the first lady dressed in a burgundy windbreaker with her hair pulled back, working in the garden."

The mythology written by the U.S. press is Michelle, a city girl, got her inspiration for planting a vegetable garden on White House grounds from former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Digging into the immaculately groomed lawns, Michelle and daughters invited school children to join in the sod busting, compost-mulching soil to plant the first Victory Garden in five decades. It created a heart-tugging photo op. Although there's no technological way to measure, a national trend for do-it-yourself vegetable growers remains to be seen.

Reporting from Moscow, the Post story continues:

Gardening has special significance here. During the Soviet era, in particular, people were enthusiastic gardeners, raising vegetables for their family for the winter on small patches of land in the country. So many people here still have dachas and spend part of their time at those country homes raising vegetables as well as flowers. But it's not merely that the White House has a garden, it's that the first lady herself tends it -- at least occasionally.

Women here have long stood equal to men on a variety of fronts -- one of the lasting aspects of the Soviet era -- but they are also expected to tend the hearth, raise the children and maintain the family. Obama, a lawyer and former hospital executive, has described her White House role as mom in chief. That title, as well as her very public sowing and planting, speaks volumes in a culture where men and women relate in very traditional ways and women struggle to balance independence with homemaking.

Gardening skills notwithstanding, Obama's early reception here has been tepid when compared with the hoopla she generated in London and France. On that trip, her first time overseas as first lady, she was hailed for her sense of style and her ability to stand designer-clad shoulder to shoulder with France's first lady and former supermodel Carla Bruni Sarkozy... The conversation in Western Europe was all about soft-focus glamour and spunky independence. Here, it is precisely the opposite.

There is little breathless anticipation about (Michelle) Obama's visit. "Is she coming?" asked Elena Ignatieva, a 24-year-old secretary puffing on a cigarette in central Moscow, less than a mile from where presidential motorcade had just caused this city's already snarled traffic to grind to a halt. Where curiosity exists, it's focused on how Obama runs her home. "I'd like to know how she raises her children," said Alyona Memkova, 26, who was belted into a bright green trench coat -- another secretary on a cigarette break.

The shoulder-shrugging reception speaks, in part, to this country's ambivalence about a first lady stepping too far into the spotlight and deflecting it from her husband. There also is little patience here for a first lady as fashion plate. (Raisa Gorbachev did not endear herself to constituents with her designer wardrobe and plentiful furs.) There was virtually no interest here -- in Russian headlines or interviews since the first lady's arrival ... into an unseasonably cold July afternoon ... There were curious onlookers as the family's motorcade snaked through the streets, but no cheering or waving throngs.

Moscow is one tough, no nonsense, audience.

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