Reading Francine du Plessix Gray's Soviet Women is just a little bit like listening to Harry Caray narrate the saga of the Chicago Cubs. Like the broadcaster, Gray comes across as talkative, opinionated, passionately engaged, and alternately prone both to belaboring and ignoring the obvious. Yet she also provides the reader with a wealth of insight and so broad a range of characters, anecdotes, and illuminating vignettes that finally one cannot imagine having half so much fun without her.
Despite its title, Soviet Women reads like anything but homework. It is an intimate and vivid portrait of the Soviet Union, told through interviews with Soviet women. Gray begins with her own story. As a child in Paris, she was raised ''beyond the erratic attentions of a French father'' exclusively by her Russian mother, governess, great-grandmother, and great-aunt. ''They were my first loves and my first tyrants,'' she writes. ''Beneath their veneer of tenderness and Tolstoyan pacifism there was a searing energy, an iron discipline, a formidable will to dominate, and it is in them that I first sensed the mysterious, unique power of Russian women.''
So what have 70-odd years of Bolshevism done to Russian women? Infinitely more, it turns out, than we could have imagined hampered as we are by Soviet secrecy and our own monochromatic and Moscow-centered view of that country. Yet also, in many crucial ways, the century has accomplished a good deal less.As a Russian-speaking American feminist who also is capable of using the word ''henpecked'' without irony, Gray turns out to be the perfect Gulliver to guide readers through a land of almost dizzying paradox.
Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union is a nation in private as well as public turmoil. When it comes to work and money, Gray puts it this way: ''American women are still struggling for the freedom to, whereas Soviet women are now struggling for the freedom from. We have been stuck at home for the past two hundred years, and are still striving for the right to work in coal mines, fire-fighting units, police brigades. Whereas Soviet women are battling to be freed from such labor, and from the far more lethal ones they've been stranded in for seven decades... So we are traveling in precisely opposite directions.''
Instead of organizing to secure publicly sponsored child care, an increasing number of Russian women interviewed by Gray are sacrificing their careers to spare their sons and daughters the wretched food, constant * sickness, spiritual torpor, and deadening propaganda of state-run nurseries.
But Gray's portrait of the nation is not so simple. To begin with, the journey from Leningrad to Tashkent, as she vividly demonstrates, encompasses as much cultural diversity as a trip from Ottawa to Mexico City. Along her route this honest and thorough reporter finds people to divert and bewilder gender-ideologues of all persuasions: the crusading gynecologist who fights for improved birth-control methods, bitterly laments the sexual boorishness of Russian men, yet refuses to employ women physicians because they ought to be home raising babies; the Soviet women's chess champion who says that women will never be competitive with men because they are incapable of sufficient obsessiveness; career-oriented female students who hoot, ''A man! Who needs a second child?''; the doomed marriage of Maya and Yuri, a would-be novelist and her engineer husband whose ego she crushes like an eggshell.
Altogether, Soviet Women provides a vivid, candid, and intimate glimpse at a long-hidden world. B+