Aleksandra Pavlovna Biryukova (born 1929) was the highest ranking woman politician in the U.S.S.R. from 1986 to 1990, serving as a secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and as a deputy prime minister for two years.
In the summer of 1989, Aleksandra Biryukova, a deputy premier of the Soviet Council of Ministers, traveled to Western Europe where in one week she bought $165 million worth of consumer goods. Some might say it was everyone's dream come true—a chance to go abroad and buy everything you want. But Biryukova had an important governmental assignment—to buy much needed consumer goods for the former U.S.S.R., items such as pantyhose, toothpaste, and other simple necessities taken for granted in Western society. Her buying trip was symptomatic of the grave problems of the Soviet economy. In traditional Soviet style, the minister herself was sent on the buying trip. This assignment was too important to delegate to lower-echelon civil servants.
A party activist and trade union official, Biryukova was appointed a secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1986 by Mikhail Gorbachev and a candidate member of the Politburo in 1988. As a result of a governmental reorganization in 1988, she became a deputy prime minister with responsibility for social and consumer services. She thus became the highest ranking female politician in the U.S.S.R. In July 1990, after the stormy 28th Party Congress, Biryukova was retired from both the Central Committee and the Politburo. Except for Gorbachev and the new deputy general secretary of the CPSU, there was a complete turnover in the Politburo, whose representation and function were somewhat modified.
Biryukova was born in the Moscow region on February 25, 1929. Her family was of peasant origin, and she was Russian by nationality. In 1952 she graduated as an engineer from the Moscow Textile Institute and subsequently worked as a foreman and shop supervisor at the First Printed Fabric Cotton Works in Moscow. In 1956, at the age of 29, she joined the CPSU. In 1959 she began work for the Textile and Knitwear Industry Administration of the Moscow Sovnarkhoz (the Economic Council of Moscow). In 1963 she became the chief engineer of a Moscow cotton combine (Trekhgornaia manufaktura), a position she held for five years. It was her last position directly involved with production. In 1968 she was elected a member of the Central Council of Trade Unions and of its presidium (1968-1986). In 1985-1986 she served briefly as deputy chairman of the Central Trade Union Council.
With her position in the trade unions, her political involvement mushroomed. She was elected to the Russian Republic (RSFSR) Supreme Soviet in 1971, where she served on the Commission on Industry until 1975, before becoming chairperson of the Commission on Working and Living Conditions of Women, Mothers, and Childcare. In 1979 she received a certificate of honor for her work with the RSFSR SS. She was elected a deputy to the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet in 1986, but not to the re-vamped Supreme Soviet in 1989. In 1971 she was also elected a candidate member of the Central Committee of the CPSU, becoming a full member in from 1976 till 1990. In 1988 she was appointed a deputy prime minister and reappointed by the new Supreme Soviet in June 1989.
During her years in trade union administration, Biryukova traveled to the United States and to several West and East European countries, including Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Portugal. Her movements and activities began to be noticed abroad after her appointment in 1986 as a secretary of the Central Committee with responsibilities for light industry. As the first woman in the Secretariat since the early 1960s, she quite naturally received more attention. When she was appointed a candidate member of the Politburo in 1988, and shortly thereafter a deputy prime minister, her visibility further increased. In the period after 1986 she traveled extensively to countries such as Japan, Vietnam, Bulgaria, and India—receiving considerably more coverage for her activities in the Soviet and Western press.
The U.S.S.R. did not seem to capitalize on the fact that there was a woman on the Politburo after a hiatus of 27 years. Perhaps it was indicative of Gorbachev's general intention to promote and recognize women that he did not wish to make Biryukova a token showcase. Biryukova enjoyed a remarkable career for a Soviet woman. Although almost all Soviet women work, few rise to the highest levels of the party and government or even of the trade unions. Her appointment as a secretary of the Trade Union Council at the age of 39 was remarkable even though the trade union council was not a center of great political power.
Prior to perestroika, the role of trade unions in the U.S.S.R. was relatively innocuous. Everyone who worked belonged to a trade union. Trade unions primarily existed to administer worker benefits such as maternity leave, sick leave, health benefits, vacations, and so on. Expulsion from a trade union meant exclusion from the normal benefits workers receive and also, in most instances, denial of the right to practice one's trade or profession. Unions were not a workers' movement in the U.S.S.R. Biryukova, although an advocate on behalf of workers, adhered to the traditional Soviet view of the role of unions and is believed to have opposed the rise of such trade union movements as Solidarity in Poland in the early 1980s. In the late 1980s, in the era of perestroika, Soviet unions became more militant and powerful as workers demanded the right to strike, improved wages, and a guarantee of the basic necessities of life. The miners, for example, became a strident, powerful political force in the U.S.S.R. Strikes became commonplace, as did spontaneous worker demonstrations.
To move her from the trade unions in the age of perestroika and glasnost was probably a symbolic gesture as well as a promotion. She was a union official of the Brezhnev era. Could Biryukova have coped with the new trade union movements? It is hard to say, but she appears to have been a traditionalist in orientation. Her assignment as a member of the Secretariat after 1986 concerned light industry, the area of her early training as an engineer. In 1988 she was appointed a deputy prime minister of the Council of Ministers and chairperson of the Bureau of Social Development. She apparently had responsibility in the area of consumer goods and social services. As a deputy prime minister and the only woman on the Council of Ministers, she also spoke out on behalf of women.
Given the drastic state of the Soviet economy in 1989 and 1990, in which there were shortages of everything, it is not surprising that some officials resigned or were removed. Biryukova was released from the Politburo and Central Committee at the 28th Party Congress in July 1990, at the relatively young age of 61. It was presented as her retirement, although the true cause was due more to political changes than to age or illness. At the 28th Party Congress, candidate membership in the Politburo was abolished, which released Biryukova and several others from their duties. Biryukova also resigned from her post in the Council of Ministers. Biryukova faced a frustrating situation in the rapidly disintegrating Soviet economy. Since she was the only woman on the Politburo, Gorbachev sought a replacement—in itself a significant change from past practice. Galina Semenova, the editor of Krestyanka (Peasant Woman), was appointed secretary of the Central Committee for Women's Affairs and elected a full member of the Politburo by the congress.
Her passing from the Soviet political scene was not as significant as, for example, the resignation of Yegor Ligachev at the same party congress. However, there had been so few women at the highest echelons of Soviet power that the retirement of even one official created a significant vacuum.
There have not been any book-length biographies of Biryukova. It is unusual for a Soviet political figure to receive personal attention in the Soviet press. Biryukova, unlike Raisa Gorbachev, did not awaken public interest in the West, where she was known only to specialists. Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who captured the public imagination outside the U.S.S.R., were among the few Soviet politicians who received publicity in the international media. Several articles chronicled her activities and speeches, most notably her buying trip to the West, which was widely reported in the American press (July 1989). Christian Science Monitor reviewed her work (March 13, 1986), as did New York Times (January 24, 1989) and the Washington Post (January 24, 1989). Biryukova's retirement is briefly chronicled in Dawn Mann's "Leading Bodies of the CPSU Transformed," in Report on the USSR (Radio Liberty, July 20, 1990). See also Atlanta Constitution (January 24, 1989), Boston Globe (January 24, 1989), Time (October 10, 1988), Who's Who in Russia and the New States (1993), and Who Was Who in the Soviet Union (1992). She is also listed in the New York Times Biographical Service (October 1988) and Who's Who in the World (1991). □