Babushka is one of the few Russian words that everyone knows. It means grandmother, or old lady, as opposed to 'dyevushka', meaning 'young lady'. Somewhere around the age of about 50, you jump from being a dyevushka to being a babushka, which entails a number of steps:
- stop wearing heels.
- buy a headscarf or hat.
- buy a shapeless coat
- carry a lot of bags, preferably the mesh plastic ones that my family call refugee bags.
- spend your days working at a market stall or selling things outside the metro.
- bring huge amounts of food on train journeys to feed people with.
- get a job as a museum attendant and get angry with people when you think they haven't seen everything in the museum or when they talk or laugh in the museum.
It can't be easy being a babushka. Many are widows, due to high male mortality, and Moscow is an expensive city, and pensions are low, so pensions don't go a long way. Which is why so many of them have to spend their old age selling boxes of apples outside the metro.
But at the same time, babushki are awesome. The food is obviously useful, but they're also indomitable and indestructable. They aren't in an easy position, but they manage. They command respect - the way I crossed the road when I was first here was to hide behind a babushka. And they're amazing at scaring off unwanted male attention on behalf of younger women. A friend who has taken the Trans-Siberian recalls the time a drunk man tried to attack one of the girls on the train - only for a horde of babushki to come to her rescue. I actually really like this - it's very empowering, especially given our English stereotype of little old lady victim of drunken youths.