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.