A hundred years ago thousands of women demonstrated on city streets in Russia demanding political and economic rights. Today, glamorous “actionistas” call on people to turn away from problems of rape and inequality. Organizations pretending to be feminists groups have become part of the political discourse.
The conceptual action Fem Fest in Moscow this March, which the organizers inaccurately called “the first feminist festival in the country” and which was written about in The Guardian and several other European media outlets, went practically unnoticed in Russia. But perhaps rallying women throughout the nation was not in the organizers’ plan—the main point was to demonstrate, primarily to the West, that the country has its own feminism, which, unlike the recent mass demonstrations by women in the USA and other countries, disregards the contemporary political situation and crucial problems.
Fem Fest’s goal—“to create an atmosphere of peace and unity on the basis of recognizing everyone’s value”—was proclaimed by its organizers in social networks and media, eliciting harsh criticism from most radical feminist groups in Russia, some of which tried to participate in the events but were rejected and some of which boycotted the idea from the start.
The editor-in-chief of the For Feminism portal, Natalya Bitten, wrote that the previously unknown organizers of the action had a different goal: to discredit real feminism and create yet another GONGO (government–organized nongovernmental organization). Galina Mikhaleva, head of the gender-equality section of the socially liberal Yabloko Party, and leaders of women’s crisis centers were outraged that authorities in Moscow permitted this festival to occur but would not let them have a rally in support of the victims of violence or disparity of wages. However, these heated debates remained confined to a rather narrow segment of the Internet.
The mass audience was busy with another news story that was covered in all of the Russian media—some feminists had given members of the press a photograph of a banner hanging from a Kremlin tower proclaiming that “The national idea is feminism,” and the photograph turned out to be a fake—no such banner hung from the Kremlin. The stunt backfired, casting a shadow of suspicion over everything else the feminists said and did.
The fact that on March 8, International Women’s Day, several activists with posters (including Elena Kostuchenko, a journalist at Novaya Gazeta) did come out on Red Square was mentioned in passing and did not interest anyone—especially since the participants of this unsanctioned action were arrested but quickly released. The main message the public absorbed was that feminists created a fake. That meant that everything else they say is also fake. There is no discrimination, nor thousands of victims of domestic violence, or forced marriage and honor killings in the North Caucasus, nor misogyny, aggression, and sexism in the society. All these things were imaginary issues of a nongovernmental organization, and even worse one that works with foreign partners. Many commentators wrote about this issue.
In this highly charged atmosphere, the information that the Russian government had passed a National Strategy on the Interests of Women—which was intended to elaborate a mechanism for overcoming pay inequality, increase the political participation of women, improve health care, and overcome gender stereotypes—was completely lost. The document, the product of several years of work by experts and activists to persuade bureaucrats, could become the basis for the needed improvement of women’s status in the country. If it is given real support, it could result in the restoration of the national mechanism for improving the condition of women started in the 1990s—with the active participation of thousands of new women’s organizations that appeared in every megalopolis, small town, and village in Russia on the crest of democratization.
The independent women’s movement was born in Russia together with perestroika and the thirst for renewal. Back in 1990, the First Independent Women’s Forum was held in Dubna near Moscow, with its slogan “Democracy Without Women Is Not A Democracy!” Russian women met for the first time with American and European feminists and collaborative work began: the publication in Russian of books by Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir and of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Katrina vanden Heuvel and Colette Shulman began the magazine Vy i My (You & We), which soon became the main outlet for women’s organizations throughout the former USSR. This was a time of joyous meetings with one another, joyous discoveries, new human ties, and friendship, which changed the fate of hundreds of women and gave new prospects and hopes. During the harsh economic crisis, “unemployment with a woman’s face,” women mastered new professions and skills, learning business and management, organizing mutual-aid groups. It is no exaggeration to say that the women’s organizations and their selfless work helped alleviate the consequences of the “wild market” on tens of thousands of families, saving them from despair, supporting and teaching.
By 2000, there were several thousand such groups. According to research by the First Civil Forum (opened by the new president Vladimir Putin and Ludmila Alexeyeva, the icon of the Soviet dissident movement), Russian nongovernmental organizations (of which women’s groups were a huge part, and most of the directors of these organizations were women) gave work to 2 million people and various types of aid from them went to 30 million annually—that is, one Russian out of five.
Of course, not all organizations were feminist. Feminism as a whole had trouble making its way in post-Soviet Russia, in part because feminism became part of Bolshevik ideology, which was later rejected by the official Soviet ideology as bourgeois. While the official propaganda spoke of the solution of the “women’s problem,” Soviet practice of formal equality did not overcome discrimination. It was the hypocrisy of “Soviet-style equality” that elicited the allergy to feminism in critics of the regime. A good example of this is the attitude toward the Leningrad group Maria, which had published the samizdat almanacs Maria and Woman and Russia in 1979 and 1980. When the activists were expelled from the USSR, émigré dissidents did not accept them because they did not consider the topic part of the human rights agenda.
The “architects of perestroika” in the USSR did not understand the importance of feminism, either. The liberal politicians of the 1990s did not wish to recall the powerful tradition of Russian liberal feminism in the early 1900s and did not include feminist ideas in their agenda. Feminism did not become an important part of the political discourse, and instead, showed up in the academic world and in creative projects. Incidentally, in was in the mid-1990s that the first feminist festival were held—in Naberezhnye Chelny, St. Petersburg, Tver, Moscow and other cities, with the participation of filmmakers and artists, writers and philosophers, activist and schoolgirls, opening new horizons in art, education, and social practice, formulating new approaches and overcoming stereotypes.
Dialogue with American and European (and subsequently Asian) feminists became an important part of the discourse. In any case, the feminist discourse began to influence public awareness and behavior, forming a clear perception of the problems of domestic and gender violence as crimes and an affliction of the society and of discrimination as an evil and a detriment to democracy.
Unfortunately, women’s and feminist groups did not have time to realize their potential in full. The universal fight against terrorism, which became the priority in Russia, pushing aside all other topics; changes in the political climate and the creation of strict vertical of power in Russia; the tougher laws on NGOs and the subsequent reduction in international cooperation in the humanities—all this put many organizations in an extremely difficult position. Many ceased to exist, their leaders going into business, academia, and other spheres. National movements fractured into many components parts. Patriarchal tendencies sounded in public discussions, in the media, along with the idea of a unique Russian path based on traditional values.
The idea of the right of the individual was declared alien to Russian culture and the Russian mentality. The first GONGOs, fake human rights and women’s groups created with the support of the governmental and influential officials, appeared toward the end of the first decade of the 2000s. Among them was the Council of the All-Russian Women’s Forum, created in 2008, the centenary year of the First All-Russian Women’s Forum of 1908. Its organizers promoted the ideas of Russian Orthodoxy, family values, and friendship with the authorities. Despite its funding, the group did not attract the serious attention of Russian women, failing as had many other GONGOs.
Apparently, the practice of creating faux feminist groups is back in action. At least, this is what young feminists say in criticizing Fem Fest and its former activists in pro-Kremlin youth movements. They point out that quite recently shameful amendments were made to the Criminal Code, decriminalizing family violence. The long-awaited law on overcoming violence and cruelty in the family has not been able to move in Parliament. Anna, the association of crisis centers, which helps the desperate every day, saving not only their souls but often their lives, performing for more than ten years what the state should be doing, was recently discredited by the Russian government as a “foreign agent.” Women who speak of discrimination are subject to threats and harassment, and the perpetrators go unpunished. Discrimination in the workplace remains unchanged, albeit latent, and hatred is growing in our society, particularly for independent voices.
A new generation of feminists makes itself known primarily in civil society and web media and they collect material for their unique anti-prize, Sexist of the Year, mocking and exposing misogyny and discrimination, which was awarded recently in Moscow. The biggest winner of 2016 was the leader of the Muslim center in the Northern Caucasus who called for female circumcision “so there will be less debauchery.” This prize was not mentioned at Fem Fest. As were many other things. Apparently, Fem Fest is a new decorative detail of a layer cake of propaganda, offered to an audience completely confused by the waves of contradictory information.
This is a hybrid falsehood, the fruit of a clever image-maker’s mind. A fake that amazingly corresponds to the fake poster on the Kremlin wall. Neither represents danger to anyone. Both suggest that feminism is not serious, something like entertainment and popular reading with elements of light erotica (Fem Fest promoted erotic readings and invited authors in that field).
All in all, it’s good that it happened. It allowed us to see the new features of the familiar manipulation and promoted us to consider what the organizers wanted the audience not to see. In other words, they did not manage to co-opt the idea of feminism, despite all the hoopla and funding.
As a participant in the first steps of the independent women’s movements in post-Soviet Russia, as a journalist who wrote about that movement, I can’t help feeling bitterness over the fact that the beautiful dreams of the feminists of the 1990s did not come to pass. That the new young activists know almost nothing about what happened in the 1990s, that there is no succession of generations. The vivid history of Russian feminism in the pre-Soviet era is also unknown to them. On the other hand, I am optimistic seeing their use of new technology, their energy, and faith in their own power. They will learn to organize and demand respect.