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International Woman: Yekaterina Furtseva, the Red Evita

On International Women's Day, remember the fate of its inaugural female, the only woman to serve in the highest level of the Politburo.
Soviet Minister of Culture Yekaterina Furtseva and American magnate Armand Hammer in Moscow, 1972

Because International Women’s Day as a national holiday was first adopted by the USSR, it is worth looking at what female leadership looked like in that country. Aside from the very brief tenure of Elena Stasova following the Bolshevik Revolution, only one woman, Yekaterina Furtseva, was ever admitted into the highest level of the government, the Presidium Central Committee, or Politburo. Nicknamed Catherine III, she was the only representative of the fairer sex to ever receive parades on the tribune of Lenin’s mausoleum.

Today, the most powerful woman in the USSR still reigns as the posthumous tabloid queen of Russia and the leading character of several feature length films and a miniseries. The legendary minister of culture is remembered as a middle aged blonde with regular features, dressed like a jet setter, bursting with laughter in some pictures, on the verge of tears in others.

Communists didn’t roll out the red carpet for her on account of her gender identity. There is no indication that she viewed herself as a feminist trailblazer laying the ground for other gals. On the contrary, she arranged the marriage of her daughter Svetlana to the son of another Politburo member when Svetlana was a teenager. She encouraged the younger Furtseva to have a child while she was still in college because she felt that motherhood was important.

Born in 1910 in a small village near Tver, Furtseva joined the Komsomol, or the Young Communist League, at 14. At 21, Yekaterina married for the first time; the marriage lasted three months, and the name of the husband has been scrubbed from the registry. With that episode behind, the young woman embarked on a journey of personal and political ambition.

She met her common law husband, pilot Petr Bitkov, in the 1930s and followed him to Moscow where she worked in Komsomol leadership positions. Taking note of the purges that decimated the capital apparatchiks, Furtseva decided to weather the storm in college. She was accepted to Lomonosov University on a Party recommendation—at the time, she didn’t have as much as a high school diploma. In college, she was more interested in activism than academics, but graduated all the same.

The promising Communist got pregnant around the time her husband left for war in 1941. After that, the marriage crumbled. Some say that Bitkov found another girlfriend on the frontline, others speculate that the child wasn’t his. Either way, while Yekaterina was busy climbing the Party ladder, Svetlana was raised by her illiterate grandmother Matryona. Grandmother Furtseva was the engine of the family, constantly pushing her daughter to new heights.

Peter Boguslavsky, Yekaterina’s lover and the head of Frunze District Communist Party Committee of Moscow where she worked after the war, taught her to hang with the boys, drink, and swear—essential skills for breaking the Communist glass ceiling. She did fine with the vernacular, but couldn’t hold her alcohol, and developed dependency. She learned her boss’s lessons, adding a touch of flirty feminine charm to her executive style.

Boguslavsky broke up with his protégé when he was dismissed from his position during the post-war purges for being a Jewish cosmopolitan. Perhaps he didn’t want to negatively impact her career or maybe he couldn’t fathom leaving his own family. A shrewd apparatchik, Yekaterina took his place leading the District’s Party, then quickly advanced to head the City of Moscow. Some call Furtseva the Soviet Iron Lady, after Margaret Thatcher whom she preceded, but the Red Evita is more like it.

Unlike Stalin, who believed that only sturdy men were capable of Communist leadership, Khrushchev promoted women and brought Furtseva, his ally, into the Central Committee. Judging by letters sent to newspaper editors at the time, the move was not received well. Furtseva’s biographer Leonid Melchin argues that there was a lot of pent-up anger at the Party, and that anger was directed against the sole woman on the mausoleum.

Having achieved the status of Communist royalty, Furtseva intimidated men. She had a tumultuous love affair with the diplomat Nikolai Firyubin, who was initially attracted to her power but grew to resent it. She had run off to see him in Belgrade and Prague, and the two later married. Firyubin, a ladies’ man and a wife beater, didn’t marry out of love. Furtseva embarked on a diet and exercise regimen and flew abroad for the first ever plastic surgery on a Soviet face. Firyubin, however, preferred younger women, and kept mistresses. Once, when Furtseva was bragging about her granddaughter, her husband, who had grandkids of his own, remarked “Being a grandfather is difficult, but being a husband of a grandmother is more difficult still.”

When in 1957 several Committee members talked of a coup in Khrushchev’s absence, Furtseva quietly sent the future Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev to telephone the head of armed forces Marshal Zhukov. He excused himself to go to the bathroom, explaining when he returned that his long absence was caused by indigestion.

Kremlin intrigue being what it is, the four of them didn’t stay friends for too long. Furtseva accused Zhukov of fostering his own cult of personality in the army and ordered he be cut out of documentaries. In 1960, Khrushchev demoted Furtseva to minister of culture. Learning of his betrayal, she attempted suicide.

Furtseva’s tenure as a minister of culture fell on the tail end of Khrushchev’s Thaw and the beginning of Brezhnev’s period. The time was full of artistic innovation, and she deserves credit for allowing it to flourish. In the Soviet Union, cultural decisions were made by Politburo and the KGB, leaving Furtseva to execute their wishes. Like other Soviet ministers of culture she was unsophisticated, but she was smart, intuitive and willing to learn. The minister was relieved that the Soviet “creative intelligentsia” didn’t find her demotion shameful. Perhaps she sensed that they had the kind of power over human souls that completely eluded the Party hacks. Plus, she liked drinking with her new subordinates.

Though madame culture minister never abandoned her doctrinal Stalinist schooling, she began to argue for granting more creative autonomy, and usually defended artists to the Central Committee even if each intervention was potentially career-ending. She helped many cultural figures of the day, including the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and the Sovremennik Theater (she had a crush on its artistic director), to name a few.

Occasionally, she was more censorious than her superiors. She considered the singer songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky anti-Soviet (point granted), so when the state media released a record of his more proper songs, she called a Central Committee member responsible for the print to bawl him out. It is not that she had a blacklist and ruined some artists, but that Furtseva’s role was that of a censor. There was no white list. For instance, in her memoir, the Bolshoi prima Maya Plisetskaya recalled how under the threat of cancellation, Furtseva ordered that the erotic parts be cut from the one-act ballet Carmen Suite.

In the end, the “creative intelligentsia” never accepted Yekaterina as one of their own. People in middle management positions are generally disliked. As any boorish apparatchik, she’d fly into fury at perceived ideological impurities, screaming at artists as if they were schoolchildren. Plus, she collected bribes like a proper bureaucrat.

Furtseva had a passion for designer clothes, and held her own at the top level receptions in foreign capitals. Perhaps because she was a proud, patriotic sort, the minister wanted her compatriots to look elegant, so after coming home from international functions she’d call up Moscow tailors, who themselves weren’t allowed to travel abroad, to talk of the newest styles for Soviet women. Once at a Central Committee discussion of consumer products she declared that every Soviet woman has the right to a nice bra, prompting production of improved styles and three additional sizes, giving some relief to the eternal longing of long-suffering Russian women to feel like women. If some gentle souls find New York’s Mad Men undesirable, try fashion by Politburo.

Part of the minister of culture’s job was curating exchanges with foreign countries, and here, too, the outgoing, personable Furtseva distinguished herself. She brought in exhibits like French Impressionism and Marc Chagall, and musical acts like Duke Ellington. Those were life-altering events for many behind the Iron Curtain. Not all exchanges were official. Work as a minister landed Furtseva in the arms of La Scala opera house director Antonio Ghiringhelli, who, according to Svetlana, was the love of her mother’s life.

Nearing the end, the most powerful female Communist in history confided to a friend that she felt lonely and unneeded, and that work is all that was left for her. Firyubin had left, Matryona passed away, and Svetlana was busy with her own family. Furtseva said that she would die a minister. Her lifelong quest to balance power and femininity ended in 1974, on the day she learned that Brezhnev, the snake, would be dismissing her from the ministry of culture, perhaps for the lavish lifestyle and for shady dealings or perhaps because she had become inconvenient.

The official cause of death was heart failure, though it’s widely believed to be a suicide. At the funeral, the Bolshoi’s Plisetskaya said, “We had many culture ministers, but we will never have another one like that again.” The Brezhnev era was in full swing, and everybody knew she was right.

Katya Sedgwick is a writer in the San Francisco Bay area. You can follow her on Twitter @KatyaSedgwick.

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