I think of my mother, sweeping up deadly toxins; the way they used to use up old women, in Russia, sweeping dirt. Only this dirt will kill her.

What does this mean?

  • In the last few years I've seen old women in former Soviet republics, at least, sweeping the streets. At the time I thought of it as a nice way to provide jobs and keep the city clean, but the book seems to take a different view.
    – adam.baker
    Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 11:45
  • In addition to the purely historical reference, one also has to consider that Handmaid's Tale is set after pollution has made most of the women in the world sterile - and sterile woman who are not the high class wives of government functionaries are used and disposed of by the government. Also, the book is a reflection on how women are valued only for their sexuality / reproduction value - of what use in such a society is an old woman? They are to be 'used up' cleaning, and nothing more. The literal meaning of these Russian women is interacting with the fictional world of the novel.
    – Kirt
    Commented Nov 25, 2023 at 10:52

3 Answers 3


I think there is a stereotype or literary trope (perhaps based in reality) of a Russian woman in a babushka sweeping up dust and dirt. Perhaps she is a widow from one of Russia's many wars, needing to support herself with only limited skills. There might be an implication, especially under the Soviet system, that they need to use the productivity of every worker, even those whom a more generous system might have as resting in retirement.

  • 3
    What do you mean by "woman in a babushka"? "babushka" = "granny" Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 16:05
  • 6
    @HolyBlackCat in English it's sometimes used to mean a headscarf like the ones worn by Russian grannies. Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 16:44
  • 1
    @Alexander You should accept the other answer, it is far better sourced than mine.
    – Mike
    Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 19:00

There was a perception in the West that elderly Russian women were frequently put to work sweeping the streets, presumably to supplement their meagre state pension. This view in encapsulated in a letter to Time magazine from March 1970:

The claim may be inaccurate, but no Soviet reader would impute any negative intent to it. To the Western visitor, the majority of Moscow street sweepers appear to be women — and the older the better. Babushka [Russian grandmothers] seems to have only two choices: baby-sit with the grandchildren or help sweep the streets.

The letter goes on to detail a joke made during Krushchev's premiership:

It was rumored Khrushchev had an argument with a woman member of the party Presidium. "I'll have you sweeping streets!" he threatened her. "You can't," came the cold reply. "I'm not old enough."

A similar observation was made by the actor Yves Montand when he was invited to tour the Soviet Union. Although his party was kept on a tight leash to ensure that they did not see anything which might embarrass the government, Joseph Harriss notes in his biography of Montand that

...the visitors weren't fooled. As they were driven through the streets in the limousine, they saw the long lines at food stores, old women sweeping streets in the bitter cold and stepping aside obediently to let the official car arrogantly sweep by


Is it the use of use up? It means wear down completely here, making them work until their bodies are broken and they cannot work anymore (or "even better": die, so they don't cost anything to maintain). The sentence has literary quality because the they referred to are implied to have had no more regard for an old woman than for an old rag. This way of saying something with razor-sharp precision, without actually saying it, is a (of not the) hallmark of good literature.

  • This is a good answer that deserves more attention. It very insightfully focuses on a small detail of the question to make a broader argument about the novel.
    – verbose
    Commented Nov 26, 2023 at 20:55

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