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Being a women in Ukraine
A poll conducted by the Ukrainian Institute of Social Studies last year, showed that most of the Ukrainians polled — 61 percent of women and 51 percent of men — were of the opinion that the social status of men was higher than that of women. At the same time, 81 percent of women were determined to champion more actively the cause of women in their struggle against social injustice and traditions favouring male dominance.
A cursory look
A cursory look at the women’s position in the Ukrainian society of today and in the past may give one a wrong impression that a women’s liberation movement of the kind that has been so aggressive in the past several decades, is hardly needed in Ukraine. Or so the male chauvinists will claim. They will provide a plethora of examples from the Ukrainian history and folklore, substantiating their point of view. Take, for example, they will say, such Ukrainian women as Princess Olga, the wise, tenth-century ruler of Kyiv and the first Christian in the land of Kyiv, whom even the Byzantine emperor treated with respect and even offered his hand in marriage (she sagaciously turned down the emperor’s proposal); or Nastya Lisovska, a girl from Polissya, who in the sixteenth century became a beloved wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Sultan of Turkey (1520–1566) under whose governance the Ottoman Empire reached the height of its power, not without advisory help from Roxolana (Nastya’s Turkish name); or Lesya Ukrayinka, the prominent Ukrainian author of the late 19th-early 20th century, who was called “the only true man in Ukrainian literature” by a leading literary critic and poet. And of course some of the Ukrainian rural traditions will be mentioned which seem to point out to a relative independence of Ukrainian women even in the times of old — a girl, for instance, who despite the insistence of her parents, did not want to marry someone who had proposed to her, would send the suitor a pumpkin, a sign of rejection, without succumbing to the parental pressure.
The Ukrainian women are described as being beautiful, excellent housewives, clever with her hands, doing marvellous embroideries, needlework, weaving — you name it. The Ukrainian women seem to be held in high respect by politicians of varying rank, from top to bottom, who, in their speeches call them “keepers of the hearth,” “hope and saviours of the state.” Women are called upon “to be guarantors of peace and goodwill in the family,” to devote themselves “to raising the new generations of Ukrainians, the future of the nation,” “to be active participants of the social life,” “to…” The list is too long. Incidentally, who are the women called upon by?
A closer look
A closer look at the social and family position of Ukrainian women will reveal quite a different picture. In their absolute majority, Ukrainian women are run-down, worn-out, with very little time left after work and house chores to take care of herself. Ukrainian women are accustomed to suffer and being resigned to their fate for the sake of their children, they have a heightened sense of duty and responsibility, they take on so much on themselves, they do so much for the family and for society, but they find that the proverbial “man’s shoulder” on which they supposedly can lean for support in most cases turns out to be either not strong enough or absent altogether.
The many issues connected with the position of women in Ukrainian society began to be raised and looked into much more vigorously than ever before after Ukraine’s independence. In the context of “the national revival,” such roles, “most natural for women” and “sanctified by God and history,” as “mother,” “wife,” “guardian of traditions and spirituality” were proclaimed as “inviolable” and “eternal.” And the newest feminist theories which come to Ukraine from the west are mostly dismissed as “not applicable to the conditions that exist in Ukraine.”
Literary critics — female critics, of course, rather than male — were the first to begin to advocate the applicability — and necessity — of feminist theories in Ukraine. In 1990, Solomiya Pavlychko, a remarkable person, literary critic and translator, initiated a feminist seminar, the first of its kind, to be held in Ukraine. The venue, ironically, was the arch-conservative Institute of Literature. The Osnovy Publishing House that Pavlychko had founded, published translations of such important feminist works as The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986; French writer, existentialist, and feminist) and The Sexual Politics by Kate Milet. International grants began to be awarded for conducting gender research; seminars, social surveys and polls, dealing with the role and position of women in Ukrainian society began to be held; feminist centres began to be set — characteristically, most of these things with the help of western money.
“By God, I’ll divorce you!”
Odarka, the main protagonist of Hulak-Artemovsky’s famous opera, Zaporozhets za Dunayem (A Zaporizhian Cossack beyond the Danube), written in the nineteenth century and based on the events of the previous century, sings, in a heated argument with her Cossack husband Karas, “By God, I’ll divorce you!” Obviously, very few of her contemporaries in other countries could get rid of their husbands in such a legal way — the right to initiate divorce and break the marriage bonds at that time was still denied to women in practically all European countries. A scrutiny of the Ukrainian history does reveal that the legal status of women, at least at the level of the upper and middle classes, provided them with rights not available to women in other countries.
In the early periods of Ukrainian mediaeval history, marriages were agreed upon by the parents or close relatives of the future husband and wife, with the bride excluded from the final decision, but there is enough historical evidence that suggests that the bride’s interests were taken into account. During the reign of the Kyiv Prince Yaroslav the Wise, the Civil Code was drawn and the articles dealing with the position of women in the then society, marriage and dissolution of marriage show that women were given a certain degree of freedom in marital matters. A monetary fine was imposed on a woman’s parents not only in case of her committing suicide to avoid being forced into marriage, but also in cases when the parents refused to allow a daughter to marry someone of her own choice.
In contrast to Western Europe, in the Ukraine of the 16th–17th centuries, it was the material status of women themselves that determined her social position rather than the social position of their husbands. Women-landowners paid taxes and this fact indicated that they enjoyed the full rights of membership of the then society. Women were entitled to filling official posts, such as starosta (local administrator or governor), they even could inherit the office of starosta. Women took an active part in local self-government and were influential in the social and political life of Ukrainian cities.
When Ukraine was incorporated into the Russian and Austrian Empires with the last vestiges of independence completely gone in the eighteenth century, the legal status of women in the Ukrainian lands went through a drastic change. In the lands dominated by the Russian Empire, the Russian laws were in force, and some of the articles of the Criminal and Civil Codes were openly discriminatory towards women. The system of serfdom robbed the women serfs of any rights whatsoever.
In the Soviet times, a sort a feminist movement did exist in Ukraine but it was very much different from what it was in the west. Soviet society, in which everybody was obliged to work (“those who don’t work, do not eat”) viewed women mostly as “mothers” and “workers,” combining these two functions. The Soviet Constitutions of 1936 and of 1977 declared equal rights for men and women but any unbiased and even perfunctory study immediately reveals that these Constitutions are based, as far as women are concerned, on the deeply ingrained patriarchal stereotypes — the men were treated as the driving force and model for society, whereas women were relegated to being solely the homemakers and caretakers of the family.
The “Constitution of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic” of 1978 did contain articles dealing with “full equiality of all the citizens,” but even the official propaganda could not completely hide the outrageous facts of discrimination against women in all the spheres of life. The ruling stereotypes remained traditionally patriarchal — women should concern themselves with their families, and the official ratification in 1980 of the UN Convention “On Doing Away with All the Forms of Discrimination against Women” did not change anything.
Woman-Protectress and Ukraine Viewed as Woman
For the Ukrainians, “the family” and “the idea of national sovereignty” have always been among the top values. In this context, Ukrainian Berehynya (Protecting goddess) carries the features of Ukraine-Woman, the mythical notion that views Ukraine as a woman-figure. This view was actively promoted by certain circles of the Ukrainian men from the upper classes in the period from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century.
By the end of the seventeenth century, the myth of Ukraine-Woman had come to supplement the myth of the Cossack Republic, viewed as an Orthodox brotherhood of free men, the brotherhood built the principles of honesty, comradeship, undaunted courage and chivalrous valour, and love of nenka-Ukraine (nenka — term of endearment for mother-tr). At the time when Ukraine lived through a period of political strife and loss of independence, the myth of Ukraine-Woman acquired negative features; a woman — mother, sister or sweetheart — raped, mistreated or even killed. The themes of the destruction of the Cossack Brotherhood and the ruin of Ukraine that had lost her sons — her defenders and support, entered the Ukrainian folklore. The plight of Ukraine is compared, for example, with the fate of a seagull whose nestlings are trampled underfoot, and who, abused and helpless, is left, all alone, to suffer on the windswept beach — or on the crossroads of history.
The image of the abused woman is recurrent in the works of Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861), the charismatic figure of Ukrainian culture. It was he who introduced into the public consciousness the image of Ukraine-Kateryna as a symbol of love that has been denied and of death that results from love violated.
Shevchenko’s poem Kateryna soon after its publication acquired a status of a cult work in Ukraine, and women in the countryside often recited it like a prayer (briefly, the plot of the poem: a young Ukrainian girl falls in love with a Russian soldier who soon leaves; Kateryna is pregnant and when she is delivered of a child, her father throws her out of the house, thus punishing her for the shame and dishonour Kateryna has brought on the family; homeless and rejected, Kateryna dies, leaving her son an orphan).
At the end of the 20th century, a new term, mental rape, gained wide currency (it was borrowed from the theory of colonialism). The contemporary Ukrainian author Oksana Zabuzhko writes: “Shevchenko did not talk the language of terms, he talked the language of symbols, the language of archetypes. But the things he describes perfectly fit the category of mental rape. In the second quarter of the 19th century, the number of Ukrainian women who were violated and who gave birth to bastard children, is estimated to have reached 20,000, and Shevchenko, of course, knew of this poignant problem resulting from the social vices of the time and involving thousands upon thousands of women and their fatherless children. Probably he realized that it signalled the beginning of colonization of Ukraine — colonization as opposed to foreign occupation; colonization understood as internal subjugation — social and mental rape through sexual rape.”
Like any myth that possesses the full set of characteristics of a myth, the myth about Ukraine-Woman, is multifaceted. It carries in itself not only the historical codes of the raped, subjugated nationality, but also positive notions of winning eternal love — love of Mother-Protectress. In the hardest times of the Ukrainian history, the Ukrainian women played a very significant social role as a stabilising factor — they were the Protectresses and continuers of the nation threatened with extinction. The persevering tenacity and fertility of the Ukrainian women contributed to the survival of the Ukrainian nation. On the other hand, the Ukrainian complexes of being victimized, of searching for an external enemy responsible for the domestic failures, of servility and of conformity flourish on the fertile soil of such myths.
Gender and politics
Nowadays, the myth of Ukraine-Woman finds its reflection in the unbalancing of the gender harmony in the social and political spheres, with the male principle being self-suppressed and the female principle being pushed toward a domineering position. Today there are few women in Ukrainian politics — in the biological sense, as it were, with most of the politicians being biological males. But these political males behave in a way traditionally associated with a female type of behaviour — these political males are weak-willed, spineless, disoriented, and puerile. If one wants to give examples of the outstanding, colourful figures who — and it is of a particular importance — have been unwaveringly consistent in their stance in the Ukrainian politics of the past few years, women-politicians immediately come to mind — the late Yaroslava Stetsenko, Yuliya Tymoshenko, Natalya Vitrenko and Valentyna Semenyuk, to name a few of them. A similar situation is observed in the Ukrainian political journalism — Yuliya Mostova, Tetyana Korobova, Olena Prytula. These figures are of different political affiliations and their role is not necessarily unequivocal, but they are definitely personalities of a towering stature. It would be difficult to find men of the same stamina and fortitude among Ukrainian politicians, except for a few. The main thing that differs them from male politicians is their staunch adherence to their positions, in having views all their own, even though these views are sometimes expressed in hysterical tones.
Unbalancing of the gender harmony can be observed at the level of ideology as well. For instance, the recently introduced “multivector” strategy in international priorities of Ukraine is based on the purely female principle — it is a search for a better partner: should we be with Europe? Or the USA? Or Russia? Or someone else? The Ukrainian politicians, for some reason, do not seem to find it necessary to rephrase the question and ask: And who wants to be with Ukraine?
Or let’s take the decision to scrap the nuclear weapons. In a symbolical — or even in a strategic-sense it is but self-emasculation, unmanning, a symbolical castration of a nation.
Man and Woman:
Myths and Realities of Today
The present day Ukrainian women have been saddled with “a special mission” in the fate of the Ukrainian state, Ukrainian nation, and Ukrainian culture. And the Ukrainian women continue to bear the main responsibility for the maintenance of the family. This mission entails a duty to make this fate happy. And if it is unhappy — accountability for it. Too much was expected of Ukrainian women, too many fatal failures occurred in the long course of the Ukrainian history — and these much too high expectations and these failures have led to the emergence of “the guilt complex,” and to the “weaker but more beautiful” part of the Ukrainian nation feeling intimidated and frustrated — women feel they have failed to fulfil “the mission to save the nation” imposed upon them. One of the most pernicious and destructive ideas that was being pushed upon the Ukrainian women was the idea of self-sacrifice in the interests of others. Self-sacrifice of this kind is incompatible with the democratic principles in general, and with the feminist principles in particular, because it robs the woman of the free will and reduces her to being a puppet. Another sequence of this ruinous idea, which is not given as much attention as it should be, is violence at home and sexual abuse which so many women in Ukraine suffer from. Characteristically, the Law “On Prevention of Violence in the Family” was passed by parliament only in 2001, that is full ten years after Ukraine had gained independence.
The tendency to reduce women to their biological function of motherhood is evident in the traditional Ukrainian culture. It remains a wide-spread attitude today. “Happy motherhood” is no doubt a great and wonderful thing, but in Ukraine there is a crippling addition to the ideal of happy motherhood — ideally, the woman is supposed to be a working mother. It makes women strive to achieve success in two separate and not at all overlapping domains — work and motherhood. There were some feeble attempts in the Soviet times to increase the birth rates and encourage women to have children but they did not amount to much since they were mostly confined to “resolutions” and promises. The independent Ukraine borrowed this approach. Women were given the right to stay at home raising their children until they are six years of age (“looking-after-children leave”) instead of three years as it used to be, but the support money the state pays women is so little that it is absolutely impossible to support a child on it.
Men: Higher Wages, Better Jobs
There are more women graduates from high schools than men (57 percent); there are more female students in colleges than male students (52 percent); only at the level of postgraduate studies there are more men than women (47 percent are female graduate students). But there are more women in Ukraine than men with technical or higher education (43 percent and 34 percent correspondingly).
However, when it comes to employment and wages, it is the same old story again — men, as a rule, get higher wages, better and more prestigious jobs, and women are left with routine, less interesting and less prestigious jobs with lower wages. “The gender imbalance” is particularly evident in the higher echelons of management and political power.
In the late 1990s, 57 percent of able-bodied men were employed (the rest, presumably were self-employed, ran their own businesses or were unemployed); by contrast, only 43 percent of able-bodied women were employed. In the countryside, 70 percent of able-bodied men and 80 percent of able-bodied women were engaged in work at their plots of land; 13 percent of able-bodied men and only 7 percent of able-bodied women had their own businesses.
In other words, the only sphere of work where Ukrainian women predominate is the toiling at the plots of land in the countryside — the work of minimal prestige and maximum labour intensity. And of very little profit. The private business sector is much less accessible to women than to men. There are very few women — if any — among the managers and owners of big enterprises, and even in small — and medium-sized businesses there are many more men than women.
In the past few years, the number of women in jobs requiring high qualifications and skills has been diminishing, and the other way round, their share in jobs requiring little or no qualification has been growing. At the same time, the number of women among managers, heads of departments, etc., has declined. Among the top managers there are only 5.8 percent of women, and among managers of lower levels there are less than 20 percent women.
In the sphere of political life, the same picture is observed — women are prevented from reaching the higher echelons in decision making; there are very few women in the leadership of political parties; the number of male MPs is far greater than the number of female MPs in the Ukrainian parliament — 95 percent of Verkhovna Rada deputies are men (out of 450 deputies, 426 are men, which reduces women MPs’ share to only 5.1 percent).
In the 1970s, Vasyl Stus, the prominent Ukrainian poet (and dissident; for his championing of the Ukrainian national cause and for views incompatible with the Soviet ideology, he was imprisoned and he died in a concentration camp — tr.) called the Ukrainians “a nation of sergeants.” Now, in the independent Ukraine, this definition no longer applies, but it still can be used as reference to the position of the Ukrainian women in society — they are always ready to take on any tasks imposed upon them; they are held accountable for everything and anything; they are always badly needed at work and in the family; however, they must always remember that they are only “sergeants” with men being of higher ranks, they must always remember where they belong, and must never aspire to become generals. They are free though to indulge in daydreaming.
Nataliya Rudnichenko has used the following sources in compiling this article:
Chy dovho shche kvylyty “chaitsi-nebozi” by Iryna Hrabovska,
Genderni studiyi v Ukrayini: stan, problemy, perspektyvy,
Problemy zhinok v Ukrayini,
Genderny parytet v umovakh rozbudovy suchasnoho ukrayinskoho suspilstva,
Istorychni aspekty gendernoyi polityky v Ukrayini by V. Dyahilyev,
Prof. Vira Aheyeva,
Ph.D., author of Zhinochy prostir (Female Space), published in 2003
The feminist movement has a long and rich history in Ukraine. It was not introduced to this country from the west, as it seems to some of our contemporaries. The feminist movement began to gain momentum at the end of the nineteenth century. It was a mild form of feminism, Ukrainian style. At the early stages of the feminist movement we find such prominent writers as Olha Kobylyanska and Lesya Ukrayinka; a little later, Milena Rudnytska and Natalya Kobrynska founded the feminist Union of Ukrainian Women. The Union was far more than a creation of intellectuals to promote their ideas — it was a force that found a response in popular support. In Western Ukraine, particularly in Halychyna, branches of the Union could be found in many villages. The Union did a lot of work and had a political influence as well.
Unfortunately, much of what was gained has been lost. Let’s have a look at the issue of equality, for example. From the formally legal point of view, the full equality of men and women is proclaimed. But in reality, the situation is quite different. Recently the Ukrainian president had the cheek to openly and blatantly declare in one of his public statements that Yuliya Tymoshenko, one of the opposition leaders in parliament, could never become president of the country simply because the Ukrainian people would never elect a woman for president! It hardly needs any further comment.
Gender studies conducted these days in Ukraine are the most noticeable and remarkable phenomenon in the Ukrainian literary criticism and the reverberations from these studies are felt far beyond the narrow boundaries of literature.
There is a popular opinion that it is women who have failed to find happiness in their personal lives, who become feminists. There is no grain of truth in it. Back in the mid-twentieth century, Simone de Beauvoir noted that when unemployment was on the rise, women were called upon to confine themselves to their traditional roles as wives, mothers and homemakers, allegation being that it was what Nature designed for them. Simone de Beauvoir once brilliantly said that “you are not born a woman, you become a woman.” Similar to other brilliant but ambiguous statements, it can be interpreted in different ways.
Starting from their young days, Ukrainian girls are brought up to be gentle, yielding, non-aggressive and placid. They are prepared for the role of homemakers, to be decorative elements of the interiors. And boys are brought up to function in a wide world. So in this sense, one does not become a woman. Once I showed our Ukrainian ABC books to foreigners and they begged me to give them these books as presents, so much were they impressed with some of the pictures they saw in them — Moms at home cooking and dusting and Dads at work. No one in Ukraine would be surprised — much less get indignant — to see a picture or a sequence in a film of a typical situation: father and son watching TV or building something with a do-it-yourself kit, and mother doing the dishes.
There also exists an opinion that the issues the women’s liberation movement addresses itself to are not urgent or topical for Ukrainian society, the argument being: there are many women who successfully work in all the spheres of social, scientific and political endevour. Some (or very few in certain spheres) would be a correct word. But even for those women who did get through into the once totally male domains, it became possible thanks to a long struggle that had lasted all through the twentieth century. The women of today are different from the women of yesterday; young girls have become cleverer, smarter and more ambitious; they have discarded many stereotypes. Luckily enough, young men had also become different; they have begun to unburden themselves of the traditional principles of what “a true man” should be. The women of today are no longer as placid and complacent as the old principles required them to be. Many of them are achievers on a par with men. Can a woman who is a manager of a big enterprise or chief doctor of a big clinic be gentle and complacent? Hardly. We should not require women to be “gentle and complacent”; neither should we ask provocative questions of the kind “Do women-feminists want to be loved and caressed?” I wonder what a macho man wants, at least once in a while?
a literary critic, author of essays dealing with the gender issues
The issues that the feminist movement deals with are of a great topicality for Ukrainian society. But their topicality is not determined by the social need widely understood and supported by Ukrainian society. This need is formed by the compliance with international documents which Ukraine has accepted and ratified in order to move toward being admitted to the European Union. Besides, the gender issues are popular to be dealing with — you can receive grants and develop interesting projects.
Ukrainian women are sometimes said to have always been rather independent. It is a myth rather than reality. It happened many times in the Ukrainian history that the nation was threatened with destruction, and the men left home to fight the invader. So many of the fighters died in battles and it was the Ukrainian women who were to save the nation from extinction. They were the actual Protectresses of the family and of the people as a whole.
Ukraine was indeed a borderland between the wild steppe in the east, the Tartar south and the civilized Europe in the west. In the absence of men who were either fighting or dead, the women raised children, took care of the households and upheld the traditions. And it led to another problem — the image of the Ukrainian father did not get properly formed. In fact, it is absent both in Ukrainian folklore and Ukrainian literature. We have Ukraine-Mother, Ukrainian Woman-Protectress. Ukrainian women protected their children, they were responsible for them, and they could not help forming their own views on life; they had to make decisions all by themselves and decision making developed their sense of independence. They were forced, as it were, to be independent — it was a matter of survival. On the other hand, Ukrainian women did not have any social options, they did not have a choice of wanting to be independent, or not wanting it. And their independence was limited to a close circle of their families.
I am of the opinion that the problem of Ukrainian women and men is a problem of deeply ingrained servileness of the public mind, of slave psychology — the Ukrainian women seem to be lacking any desire to ponder things, to arrange things in a better, purposeful way (incidentally, the same can be said about the Ukrainian men as well). Ukrainians in Ukraine continue to be, similarly to the way it was in the Soviet times, little cogs in the machine. The machine, the political system that is, has fallen apart and is in a chaotic state, and the woman’s mind is also in a state of chaos. You can hear from one and the same person contradictory opinions expressed within a short time — at a conference, delivering her report, a feminist says that women in Ukraine should struggle for better social and family position for herself, etc., but during the break, in a private conversation, she would say that everything is all right, women are not discriminated against, there are many ways to get their opinions heard, there are grants to be used for conducting research and writing books.
However there are several problems that the women in Ukraine face. The problem number one, as far as I am concerned, is violence, and it is not violence only in the family against women, it is violence perpetrated by society — manipulation of the mind.
Even according to the official statistics, there are over 120,000 children abandoned by their mothers. Mother and child is another problem.
In many spheres, it is much more difficult for a woman than for a man to find a job. Women are forced to go into all kinds of “shady” businesses or into prostitution.
The present-day Ukrainian society does not give women much of an option — 95 percent of average Ukrainian families cannot survive without women contributing to the family budget. Perversely, the mass media propagate the image of a happy housewife in an opulent household, and the official demographers call for women “to produce more children.”
a poetess, literary critic, journalist;
author of Zhinka yak tekst (Woman as a Text, 2002)
and Zhinka and Cholovik (Man and Woman, 2002)
When I am asked, Are you a feminist, I am always at a loss what to say. I ask in return, Which meaning do you put into being a feminist?
So, am I a feminist? I am a person who wants to respect herself. At the age when I became conscious of myself as a person — some time when I was between seven and ten — I began to feel a great desire to control my own destiny. I wanted to solve my own problems all by myself. I wanted to earn money to support myself, I wanted to be as little dependent on anybody as possible. I have always wanted to make my own decisions, to make my own choices — and be responsible for the consequences. This longing for independence is nothing less than a desire to live my own life.
One of the stereotypes about women has it that only women can do monotonous, precise, painstaking work. Maybe there are women who like that kind of work, but I, in spite of being a female, cannot stand any monotonous work, I hate what they call “women’s chores” — tidying, cooking, weaving or needlework. I did do some embroidery in my younger years but did not derive any pleasure out of it — it just annoyed me. I like creative work — anything else for me is just “filling the bottomless hole.”
I was brought up in a family of patriarchal traditions, where women were allotted their traditional roles. My husband comes from a family with similar traditions, and it took me quite some time and a lot of effort to change his opinions — to understand my position and act accordingly. If a woman feels happy cooking, if it gives her satisfaction, if she thinks that’s her calling is to be a housewife, a homemaker, there’s nothing wrong in it either. If such is her free choice, she is absolutely welcome to it.
Are Ukrainian women special or different from women of other nations? I don’t know, but I do think that Ukrainian women have what may be described as “hypertrophied sense of duty” which men use to their advantage. Ukrainian women take too much on themselves, and do too much, and in this way they spoil men. Ukrainian women have adapted to the new economic situation and they have learnt new trades, they earn money doing so many things, and men are just sitting on their hands. Many women think they are so heroic, so powerful, they can do anything — but subconsciously they want their men to try as hard.[Prev][Contents][Next]