Furtseva, Ekaterina (1910–1974)

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Furtseva, Ekaterina (1910–1974)

Soviet government and party official who served as minister of culture for 14 years and was the only woman ever to sit on the Communist Party's ruling Presidium. Name variations: Catherine. Pronunciation: FURTS-ev-a. Born Ekaterina (or Catherine) Alekseevna Furtseva on November 24, 1910 (o.s.) in Vyshnii Volochek, Russia; died presumably of a heart attack on October 25, 1974, in Moscow; daughter of Aleksei Furtsev (a textile worker); attended elementary and trade schools in Vyshnii Volochek, Higher Academy of Civil Aviation, 1933–35, Lomonosov Institute of Chemical Technology, 1937–42, Higher Party School (by correspondence), 1948; married Nikolai Pavlovich Firiubin, mid-1930s; children: Svetlana and Margarita.

Worked as textile weaver (1925–30); joined Communist Party (1930); served as party organizer and instructor in Komsomol organization (1930–37); served as party official at Lomonosov Institute (1937–42); appointed secretary, Frunze District Party Committee in Moscow (1942–50); became second secretary (1950–54) and then first secretary (1954–57) of Moscow City Committee; served as deputy to the USSR Supreme Soviet (1950–62, 1966–74); was a candidate (1952–56) and then full member (1956–74) of the Central Committee of the Communist Party; was a candidate (1956–57) and then full member (1957–61) of the Central Committee's Presidium; served as a member of the Party Secretariat (1956–60); served as minister of culture (1960–74).

There were two defining moments in the political career of Ekaterina Furtseva. The first occurred on May 1, 1955, when she, like many Communist Party functionaries, was standing at the base of the Lenin-Stalin mausoleum waiting for the annual May Day parade to pass through Moscow's Red Square. Much to her surprise and that of correspondents covering the occasion, Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, summoned her to join him and the other male dignitaries on the official reviewing stand atop the marble mausoleum. His very public introduction of her to the other leaders of the Soviet state and the Communist Party was seen by some as evidence of his desire to bring women into the ranks of the ruling elite. It also was an indication that Furtseva, who at the time was a candidate or non-voting member of the Party's Central Committee and first secretary of the powerful Moscow Committee, was a rising political star.

The second event took place two years later when Furtseva returned Khrushchev's favor. On the evening of June 18, 1957, she stood up before an extraordinary meeting of the Central Committee and began to talk. And she talked and she talked some more. For six hours, she filibustered so as to provide time for other committee members to filter into Moscow from across the Soviet Union for one of the most important meetings in party history. Her tactic, while common in the U.S. Congress, had no precedent in Soviet politics, and it saved the political career of Khrushchev. By the time she finally finished speaking, a sufficient number of Khrushchev's supporters had arrived to overturn an earlier decision of the party's Presidium to remove him from office. This defeat of what has come to be known as the "Anti-Party Plot" also allowed gradual political reform to continue in post-Stalinist Russia. Furtseva was rewarded for her services. Shortly after this meeting, she was made a full or voting member of the Presidium—the first and only woman ever to sit on this, the most powerful body in the Soviet Union. For the next three years, she was part of the small inner ruling circle. In 1960, she gave up some of her political responsibilities when she became minister of culture. She was to remain the only woman on the Council of Ministers until her death in 1974.

Ekaterina Furtseva's origins, like those of most Soviet leaders, were humble, and they have remained obscure. She was born in the small town of Vyshnii Volochek, 175 miles northwest of Moscow, on November 24, 1910—seven years before the October Revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power. Her parents were both textile workers. In part because of her father Aleksei's death in the First World War, Ekaterina had to leave the local trade school at the age of 14 to help support her mother and family. From 1925 to 1930, she worked as a weaver at the Bolshevichka Factory in Vyshnii Volochek. She joined the Young Communist League or Komsomol at the relatively early age of 13 and, in 1930, became a member of the Communist Party.

For the next seven years, she held various party positions inside the Komsomol organization:

first as secretary of the Korenevo district committee, then of the larger Feodosia city committee, and finally as department head in the Crimean regional committee. While in the Crimea, she developed an interest in gliding, which in turn led her to enter the Higher Academy of Civil Aviation in Leningrad in 1933. Following graduation two years later, she was assigned by the Komsomol leadership to serve as deputy head of the political department of the Aeroflot Aviation High School in Saratov and then as instructor in the organization's Department of Student Youth in Moscow. In both positions, her "domineering disposition" was noted approvingly by her superiors. Sometime during these years, she met and married Nikolai Firiubin, an aviation official whose subsequent rise to political prominence paralleled her own.

In 1937, Furtseva (who kept her maiden name) enrolled in the Lomonosov Institute of Chemical Technology in Moscow ostensibly to be trained as a chemical engineer. She spent much of the next five years, however, working in the Institute's Party Bureau and then serving as secretary or head of its party organization. While she graduated from the Institute in 1942, she never pursued a career as an engineer any more than she did one in aviation. This lends credence to the assumption that her attendance at both institutions was dictated by the party and designed more to contribute to her political résumé than to further her vocational training.

From 1942 to 1957, Furtseva rose steadily in the apparatus of the Moscow party organization as a result of what The New York Times subsequently called her "willingness to tackle any job with zeal and an ability to get things done." An initial assignment to the secretariat of Moscow's Frunze District Committee led to promotions to second secretary and then first secretary of the district. She rapidly gained a reputation of being a no-nonsense administrator who was able to produce results, particularly in the economic construction of the Frunze District, by bullying subordinates and bureaucrats into complying with the party's wishes. To improve her political credentials, she concurrently enrolled in the Higher Party School and completed its requirements by correspondence in 1948. Like other ambitious and opportunistic politicians during the murderous last years of Stalin's reign, she on occasion proved her own political vigilance by denouncing and dismissing academics and medical personnel in her district who might have been too honest in their research.

Her role in the highest echelons of the Party [was] more than that of a mere figurehead representing Soviet womanhood.

—The Times [London], October 26, 1974

In 1949, Nikita Khrushchev became head of the Moscow party organization and promptly took the energetic and capable Furtseva under his wing. In 1950, he was instrumental in having her named second secretary of the Moscow City Committee, and in that same year she was elected as a deputy to the Supreme Soviet—an honorific position in the rather meaningless Soviet Parliament which she was to hold for 20 of the next 24 years. Two years later, she and several other of Khrushchev's protégés were chosen to be candidate members of the Central Committee. When Khrushchev began to consolidate his position after Stalin's death in 1953, Furtseva rose with him. In 1954, she took over his old job as first secretary of the Moscow Committee, and she joined him as a member of a high-level Soviet delegation to Communist China. After Khrushchev denounced Stalin in his famous "secret speech" at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, Furtseva became a full member of the Central Committee and a candidate member of the party's Presidium as well as one of eight secretaries on the influential Secretariat. She repaid Khrushchev's patronage by actively supporting his de-Stalinization campaign and his attempts to reorganize the inefficient Soviet industrial bureaucracy. When these reforms caused the majority of the Presidium to seek Khrushchev's ouster in June 1957, Furtseva filibustered long enough for the Central Committee to come to his rescue.

Inevitably, when women rise to political prominence, there are some who wish to credit their success to special personal relationships. Furtseva was no exception. Western correspondents, noting her presence at state functions and on foreign tours with Khrushchev, dubbed her the "unofficial first lady" of the Soviet Union. The Canadian ambassador reported rumors he had heard that she was Khrushchev's mistress, a fact that was "a secret only for deaf Muscovites" according to one Russian émigré. Some referred to her as "Catherine III"—an invidious comparison to Catherine II the Great , the 18th-century Russian empress who also wielded immense political power in a man's world and was criticized for her many amours. Rumors and gossip may be unavoidable in cases such as this. Readers, however, should not necessarily accept them as the truth.

Madame Furtseva, as she was invariably called by the Western press, like Khrushchev himself, was a refreshing presence in an otherwise staid and conservative Moscow. She drove around the Russian capital in a sports car rather than a government limousine; she was an "expert and inexhaustible dancer" at balls held in the Kremlin; she had a Russian love of vodka and preferred tennis to dieting as a means of controlling her "robust Slavic figure." Western visitors described her as a "lively personality with a pleasant smile, blonde hair and blue eyes" who always "radiated euphoria and energy." In time, her conservative black business suits and twisted-bun hairstyle gave way to more stylish and attractive attire, especially when she was on one of her frequent trips abroad.

After her dramatic role in the defeat of the "Anti-Party Plot" in 1957, Furtseva was at the pinnacle of political power for a period of three years. At 46, she was the second youngest member of the party's Presidium and the only woman on either it or the Secretariat. It is unlikely that her youthful and effervescent qualities noted by Western observers appealed to all of her old-fashioned male colleagues. Her new positions meant that she had to give up her secretaryship of the Moscow organization, and thus she lost her personal powerbase. Moreover, her special responsibility inside the Secretariat for cultural affairs did not bring with it the appointment powers enjoyed by some of the other secretaries, but it did force her to deal with embarrassing issues such as the publication abroad of Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago. Her removal from the Secretariat in 1960 may have been a result of these factors, or Khrushchev's colleagues may simply have sought to weaken his political grip by demoting one of his more vulnerable protégés. Her subsequent ouster from the Presidium in November 1961 was ironically justified by one of Khrushchev's own reforms that required the periodic replacement of one-quarter of the membership of all higher party bodies.

Under these circumstances, few would have predicted that Madame Furtseva would have lasted 14 years in her new position as minister of culture, especially after Khrushchev himself was removed from office in 1964. It was a difficult and sensitive portfolio. As minister of culture, she had immediate responsibility for a wide and diverse empire, encompassing book publishing, libraries, film production, ballet, music, folk dancing, television, and even the famed Moscow circus. She herself had neither formal training in the arts nor a real appreciation for Russian culture. Musicians shook their heads when she referred to one of Modest Musorgsky's famous symphonic works as an opera. Victor Sparre, a Norwegian critic, may have been partially correct when he claimed that "Furtseva had hardly opened a literary work until the day she was given absolute power over Russia's cultural life. She had little in common with the artistic leaders of her country except a liking for vodka." She did not in fact have "absolute power over Russia's cultural life." Overall cultural policy continued to be set by equally uncultured but even more conservative men in the Presidium and the Secretariat, bodies in which she was no longer represented. It was her job to execute these policies.

This was a difficult task; the 1960s were years of intellectual ferment in the Soviet Union. Khrushchev's earlier attacks on Stalinism, his relaxation of some of the state's authoritarian controls, and his expanding contacts with the West caused many intellectuals to question the need for any restraints on artistic creativity. These expressions of dissent were not appreciated by the party's increasingly reactionary leadership. Furtseva was caught in the middle. She tried to be flexible in meeting some of the demands of the artistic community by giving commissions to avant-garde sculptors, allowing musicians critical of the regime occasionally to perform abroad, and sanctioning exhibits of abstract art. She also did the bidding of her political masters by vehemently attacking the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, condemning sexual overtones in new Soviet ballet productions, and closing down one modern-art exhibit when it offended the old-fashioned tastes of her former colleagues in the Presidium. Perhaps her most important contribution as minister of culture was dramatically expanding Soviet cultural exchanges with other countries. Not only did Russians get a chance to see Hollywood movies and hear Western jazz, but Western audiences were given an opportunity to see classical Russian ballet and hear superb Soviet musicians. The end of Stalin's self-imposed cultural isolation was itself a breath of fresh air for the Soviet artistic community, and indirectly it contributed to the pressures for further liberalizations.

Furtseva took advantage of her office to travel widely outside of the Soviet Union. Often accompanied by one of her daughters, she visited Queen Elizabeth I in Buckingham Palace, had tea with Pat Nixon in the White House, and revelled in "photo opportunities" with Western movie stars. Foreign travel was just one of the perquisites enjoyed by the "new class" of the Communist elite to which Furtseva and her family belonged. Her husband, who had held ambassadorial appointments to Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia under Khrushchev, was deputy minister of Foreign Affairs throughout most of the Brezhnev period. Her daughter, Svetlana Kozlov , was married to the son of Frol Kozlov, one of the most powerful political figures in the early 1960s, and her granddaughter had one of the coveted places in the Bolshoi ballet school. Her salary, Furtseva once admitted, was more than 20 times that earned by a factory worker, and she had "other emoluments" worth thousands of rubles annually. She, like other members of the privileged elite, did her shopping in special stores stocked with otherwise unobtainable Western luxury goods. She had become a dachnik of the type she herself had once publicly criticized. Her family had one dacha or vacation home on the temperate shores of the Black Sea and another outside of Moscow. In 1974, she decided to pass on some of her new-found wealth by building a third dacha for her daughter Svetlana. Expense was not a concern, since the materials were purchased at government wholesale prices and the labor was provided by ministry workers. The finished "cottage," which included a marble-paved swimming pool, was worth $170,000.

Furtseva's privileged existence and questionable practices were hardly unique among the ruling class of the Brezhnev era. What was unusual is that she was caught and held accountable. Apparently, one of the builders of the dacha complained about its opulence and his own low pay. The ensuing publicity forced the government to investigate. Furtseva was reprimanded by the Party Control Commission, dropped from the list of delegates to be elected to the next session of the Supreme Soviet, and ordered to repay the state $80,000. Even Brezhnev's substantial eyebrows must have gone up when this relatively large sum was produced almost immediately. The rumored appointment of her husband to head the Soviet delegation at the United Nations did not materialize, and Furtseva's own job as minister of culture was said to have been in jeopardy. She saved it, at least temporarily, by twice personally pleading her case with Brezhnev himself. On October 25, 1974, shortly after attending a concert and just before a planned trip to Mexico for a film festival, Ekaterina Furtseva died at the age of 63. The announced cause of death was a heart attack. According to the Canadian ambassador, however, the aftereffects of the scandal of the previous spring had caused her to commit suicide. She was given a state funeral on the 29th and buried in the Novodevichi Cemetery alongside scores of writers and composers she never appreciated.

Furtseva was neither a feminist nor a figure-head. She showed no interest in women's causes, in protesting against the male domination of her party and state, or in serving as a spokesperson for her gender. She rose to power not because she was a woman but because she was a hard-nosed, devious, and opportunistic apparatchik or party functionary who produced results. Being a good politician, however, she recognized that her propaganda value to the state of what women could achieve in the Soviet Union was also a protection for her in changing political times. Unlike the few other women who rose to prominence under Khrushchev, Furtseva proved to have political longevity. She was a member or candidate of the Central Committee for 22 years, of its ruling Presidium for six years, and of its Secretariat for four. Her tenure of 14 years as minister of culture was longer than that of almost all of her male ministerial colleagues. This longevity is also explained by more than just her gender. Both as party secretary and as government minister she had shown herself to be a competent, hard-working and firm-spoken administrator who was politically reliable and ideologically flexible.

In 1974, The New York Times noted in its obituary that Furtseva was "the only woman in Soviet history to become a member of the inner ruling circle." Fifty-two years earlier, Alexandra Kollontai , who had sought but did not achieve this status in the 1920s, stressed that while women enjoyed broad civil rights in the Soviet Union, "the Soviet state is run by men." The long career of Ekaterina Furtseva is the exception that proves this rule.


Ford, R.A.D. Our Man in Moscow: A Diplomat's Reflections on the Soviet Union from Stalin to Brezhnev. Toronto, 1989.

Glazov, Yuri. The Russian Mind since Stalin's Death. Dordrecht, 1985.

Hangen, Wells. "Closeup of the 'Soviet Woman'," in The New York Times Magazine. March 11, 1956, pp. 26+.

Sparre, Victor. The Flame in the Darkness: The Russian Human Rights Movement as I Have Seen It. London: Grosvenor Books, 1979.

suggested reading:

Ciboski, Kenneth N. "A Woman in Soviet Leadership: The Political Career of Madame Furtseva," in Canadian Slavonic Papers. Vol. XIV, no. 1. Spring 1972, pp. 1–14.

Hull, Henry Lane. "Furtseva, Ekaterina Alekseevna," in Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History. Vol. 12, 1979, pp. 47–49.

Mandel, William M. Soviet Women. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1975.

Skorodumov, V. "Furtseva, Yekaterina Alekseevna," in Portraits of Prominent USSR Personalities. No. 105, Munich, 1967.

Taranov, E.V. "Pervaia dama Moskvy (Shtrikhi k politich-eskomu portretu, E.A. Furtsevoi)" (Moscow's First Lady: Sketches for a Political Portrait of E.A. Furtseva), in Kentavr (Moscow). November–December 1992, pp. 59–75; no. 1, 1993, pp. 100–109.

R. C. Elwood , Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, and author of Inessa Armand (Cambridge University Press, 1993)