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Ferocious females rule Russia 's streets

Many people know the Russian word babushka. Exactly why that is, I am not sure, although the Kate Bush song of that name comes to mind. Babushka means both "grandmother" and "an old woman". In Russia babushkas fulfill a self-appointed role of keeping order on the streets, and are more feared (and fierce) than men in uniform. Traditionally, the woman plays an important role in ruling the roost, working, doing all the household chores, shopping, bringing up children and then grandchildren.
Oh, and spending six months a year bent over the vegetable patch from dawn to dusk, and from dusk to dawn making preserves and pickles to see the whole family through the winter.

It is difficult to say at what stage a Russian woman becomes a babushka - this seems to bear no connection with when she physically becomes a grandmother - but once she "retires" (although a Russian babushka never really retires), her children have started their own families and her husband has died, she no longer has anybody to rule over at home. This is when the babushka's sphere of influence spills out on to the streets and she imposes her rules, regulations, opinions and standards on people innocently going about their daily business. In winter babushkas will tell you off for not wearing a hat or a warm enough coat; in summer they will worry your child might catch a chill in temperatures of more than 35C if any part of the child's body is not covered; and in spring and autumn they worry about the rest. The rest can be anything you are doing which they do not approve of, regardless of whether it has anything to do with them.

My friend, who carries her six-month-old baby in a baby-carrier, gets anything from a tut-tut to a full-blown tirade about how uncomfortable it must be for the child to be all squashed up in it, and how selfish mothers have become, only thinking of their own comfort.

These babushkas' favourite hunting ground is on benches outside their block of flats or house. Here they gang up with like-minded babushkas and keep a running commentary on people going in and out: "She's not a local lass, that one"; "And do you know how much rent she's paying for her flat? A fortune"; "I think it's a woman, though you can never really tell these days with those short haircuts".

The comments that come your way are so unexpected and uncalled for that you are unable to react; more often then not, they leave you dumbfounded. It is particularly difficult to come up with a quick reply when, as a foreigner, you have to grapple with the complexities of the Russian language. One of the first expressions I added to my lexicon when I moved to Russia was "mind your own business" - but I have not had the courage to use it.

I only once experienced a young lady standing up to a babushka, which led to an impressive slanging match. I am not sure I am up to that.

I did, however, once gain what I feel is a victory over a babushka. I had just visited an exhibition at a large gallery in the centre of Moscow . I decided to go to the toilet before leaving. The toilet paper was awkwardly situated on a roll where people wash their hands. I took a generous amount of toilet paper - you can never be too prepared.

As I was taking the paper, I heard a babushka in the queue behind me shout out: "And where do you think you're going with all that toilet paper?" To which I replied calmly: "To the toilet; where else does one go with toilet paper?" Fortunately, I did not get the same reaction as the aforementioned young lady. In my case, I like to think the old lady realised quite how ridiculous her comment was. This will no doubt be one of the rare occasions when I see a dumbfounded babushka.

(written by Sophie Ganevitc, Guardian Weekly)

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