On the eve of Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthday this March, Time magazine’s cover featured Anna Rivina, leader of Nasiliu.net, a Russian nonprofit to support victims of domestic violence that had just been branded a “foreign agent” by the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation. A symbolic coincidence. The independent women’s movement in Russia, born in the years of Gorbachev’s perestroika, became a prominent phenomenon outside the country, a part of the international struggle for gender equality. This is yet another obvious result of that unique process of liberation and renewal that began in the mid-1980s in the USSR and became an important factor of subsequent history.
Speaking of Gorbachev’s lessons, during his birthday celebrations prominent Russian and international experts, political figures, and analysts spoke mostly about disarmament and freedom of speech, economic and political reforms, the release of prisoners of conscience, changes in the vector of politics, and recognition of the value of individual rights. These were truly revolutionary changes, many of which are irreversible despite the challenges of the times. Perestroika liberated the minds of millions of people, expanding the borders of their understanding of the world. Including the place of women in society and politics.
It was under Gorbachev that women’s councils were instituted at work enterprises, so that women could have their say about the workplace and societal changes. It was during perestroika that independent women’s groups appeared, along with the slogan “Democracy without women is not democracy,” the banner of a new Russian feminism. The Russian women’s groups began to work with international women’s initiatives. Women on East and West, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, tried to find and hear one another and make the world a better place. The 1990s Wild West market years with their painful social consequences would have been much more tragic if not for the active women’s organizations that tried to organize daily life in hundreds of cities. The women’s groups helped to overcome unemployment and poverty, forming groups of mutual aid, support, and training in new professions, essentially saving themselves and their families.
The independent women’s movement grew in the last years of the USSR on a wave of changes, like many other civil initiatives. It did not always meet with understanding. Many “architects of perestroika” did not think that women had any problems, since Soviet ideology held that men and women were equal and there was a 30 percent quota for women in elected bodies. The majority of members in these bodies had to be from the working class and collective farmers, who, just like women, were often window dressing and voted for decisions made in Party offices. The hypocrisy of the Soviet regime in the Brezhnev stagnation period made people in the intelligentsia reject all Soviet postulates, including gender equality, for many years afterward.
But women wanted to be part of perestroika. Women’s councils were formed in scientific centers and large enterprises throughout the country. There were more women than men with a higher education in the USSR. Yet, top positions in government and industry were held by men.
Gorbachev’s support of women’s councils was attributed to the influence of his wife, Raisa Gorbachev. Far from everyone in the USSR approved of her public activity, her meetings with other first ladies. However, the role of Raisa Gorbachev, the scholar rather than spouse, is hard to overestimate; she dismantled the Soviet tradition of secrecy about the leader and his family and set an example for new forms of international cooperation among women at all levels. Women’s peace initiatives, the Russian-American Alliance for Women in Business, and the dozens of joint organizations and consortiums were the result of the breakthrough made during perestroika.
Perestroika was broader and more powerful than expected, touching on the deepest layers of society. As a result, gender issues have become part of the public discourse, no longer part of research labeled “secret.”
In 1989, Kommunist magazine published “How Do We Solve the Women’s Question?” by Academician Natalya Rimashevskaya and two young sociologists, Natalya Zakharova and Anastasia Posadskaya. It was the first to talk about the gender gap and gender discrimination in the USSR. It caused a great stir in the academic world, and soon under the auspices of the Rimashevskaya’s new Institute of Socioeconomic Problems, the Moscow Center for Gender Research was founded and headed by Posadskaya. The center attracted researchers from many countries and served as a discussion platform and a laboratory for new experiences and the promotion of gender research in academia.
At the same time, women—engineers, designers, analysts—organized discussion groups about the role of women in government. In 1991, not long before the disappearance of the USSR, the First Independent Women’s Forum gathered several hundred women in Dubna, near Moscow. Nothing like that had ever been done in the USSR, and it was a revelation to Russians and Westerners alike. Just before that, Colette Shulman and Katrina vanden Heuvel (The Nation’s editorial director and publisher) began publishing a newsletter in America about the women’s movement in the USSR and the US called Vy i My, You and We. In a few years, You and We evolved into a magazine published in Russia. It’s hard to overestimate the significance of the publication, whose articles were reprinted by national and federal media in Russia and the countries of the former USSR. It was a bridge between cultures and social practices.
The struggle against domestic violence and discrimination played an important part in the magazine from the start, as did the dialogue among women, which supported and expanded the political dialogue and is still a colossal resource for building relations between Russia and the US. This is part of the discussion at the Raisa Gorbachev Club, which continues its work in Moscow after her passing, with international cooperation an important priority.
Another impressive example of Russian-American public diplomacy and cooperation during the Gorbachev era is a dialogue between women writers and scholars that began in spring 1991 at the Conference Glasnost in Two Cultures in New York. Three dozen women, American Slavists, feminists, translators, and Russian women writers, gathered in an extraordinary meeting challenged by some misunderstanding of each other’s cultures. But relationships were born and continue to this day helping to create a stable and vital movement and bearing fruit in, among many ways, translations of women’s short stories collections, occasional conferences, a Russian arm of Women’s World Association, new publications.
Women writers’ conversation about feminism helped turn a new page in gender awareness in the USSR and later in Russia, brought to light new problems and approaches to them, and promoted gender equality in art. It changed popular culture; today young women writers write scripts for TV serials using “gender glasses,” promoting gender equality that challenges neoconservative and nationalistic trends in contemporary Russian public opinion.
“Democracy without women is not democracy” has not lost its importance in Russia. The dozens of new women’s initiatives, the gender section of the social democratic Yabloko Party, the hundreds of pickets and protests against discrimination, harassment, and violence in cities and regions of Russia all speak to that. New generations are continuing the struggle that began during perestroika. This is the clear and inarguable success of Gorbachev’s policies. So is the portrait of a Russian activist on the cover of Time.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis