Introduction to the Russia Site
of the Global Feminisms Project
Christopher Fort and Natal’ia Pushkareva
The interviews conducted by the Global Feminisms Project in Russia include many of the women who pioneered gender and women’s studies in the Russian academy. According to Natal’ia Pushkareva, who coordinated the Russian project and conducted the interviews, the team sought to find interviewees who would talk openly about their experiences in women and gender studies and how they have connected their research to activism. The team looked for respondents across generations, disciplines, and professions, but its endeavor to create a representative cross section was at times limited by some potential interviewees’ refusal to speak on camera.
This timeline has been prepared by Emily Zhu and Sydney Smith for the Global Feminisms Project during the 2019-2020 academic year.
Overview of the Russia Site
Russia’s history of women’s and feminist activism begins in the late 19th century. The turn of the century, of course, saw an increase in women’s activism across Europe, but nowhere in Europe did women gain as much social, economic, and political power in the early 20th century as in Russia. In the decades leading up to the 1917 February and October Revolutions, Russian women established new philanthropic organizations that specifically catered to and publicized the needs of women. They entered professions, such as the clergy, journalism, the arts and sciences, in greater numbers than ever. And, importantly, a layer of women activists, liberals and socialists, began to pursue women’s interests in the political arena. Thanks to this political activism, women played a major role in the strikes that led to the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. With the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks gave socialist women the chance to pursue an agenda of radical emancipation. Among other things, the new Soviet government, with intellectual women such as Inessa Armand (1874-1920) and Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952) in positions of power, legalized divorce, declared men and women equal under the law, abolished gender discrimination in the workplace, mandated paid maternity leave, and gave men and women equal rights to own land.
Stalin rolled back several of those gains in the next decade, though not all of them. As Stalin took power in the late 1920s, the women’s division of the party (Zhenotdel), which Armandand Kollontai had earlier led, was shut down and its functions and leadership distributed to other bodies. In the mid-1930s, the state made divorce more difficult to obtain and banned abortions. Concomitantly, the Stalinist state reverted to an image of womanhood similar to that cultivated by the tsarist state before it. Under Stalin, women remained workers and professionals, but ideally they would also be supportive wives and mothers.Read More…
The tension between these identities led to a double burden for Soviet women similar to that in the West. Beginning with Stalin and continuing throughout the life of the Soviet Union, women were expected both to look after the needs of their households and maintain a professional life. Many casual observers of the late Soviet Union have heard how women in the 1970s would use their lunch breaks at the factory or office to stand in line for groceries. As an ideologically socialist state committed to women’s liberation, the Soviet Union consistently supported an intellectual class of women that critiqued women’s issues, but those women were not permitted to touch issues of Soviet ideology and political leadership.
Gorbachev’s glasnost in the mid-1980s changed that situation. Many of the above intellectual women, who had earlier served the state and critiqued it in private, began to voice their criticisms publicly. With the new freedoms allowed by glasnost and later the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, these women began to organize, establish political parties and social movements, engage with feminist thought (both Western and forgotten Russian),and create new disciplines within the Russian academy.
The interviews conducted by the Global Feminisms Project in Russia include many of the women who pioneered gender and women’s studies in the Russian academy. Natal’ia Rimashevskaia is the figurative grandmother of gender studies in Russia. She founded the Laboratory of Gender Research (now called the Laboratory of Gender Problems) at the Institute of Social Economic Studies of the Population in 1988. In her interview, Rimashevskaia speaks of the impetus behind the founding of the laboratory: in the late 1980s, gender and the theory behind it were new concepts, and few of the academics reared in Marxism, for whom gender theory was a bourgeois phenomenon, wanted to engage with it. The laboratory created a space for researchers interested in questions of gender to pursue their research.
In Rimashevskaia’s interview we can observe a discursive conflict that takes place throughout our interviews. While all of the interviewees study women and gender, they disagree on the meaning of the term “feminism” and where it belongs in contemporary scholarship. Rimashevskaia is doubtless the strongest in her refusal to call herself a feminist. She believes that feminism implies a radical political stance from which a scholar, in her attempt to remain unbiased, must distance herself. While other interviewees did not take this stance, many likewise refused to label themselves as “feminists” for similar reasons.
Rimashevskaia and others’ view of the term feminism is influenced by both Russia’s history and its present. In the early 20th century, liberal and socialist (Marxist) women activists united on some fronts in the battle for women’s rights, but often found themselves at odds, particularly in their understanding of the origins of patriarchy and the consequent strategies to fight it. Liberal activists, self-designated as feminists, believed patriarchy was inherent in human society and that women therefore needed to lead a campaign to gain legal and political equality. Marxist activists vehemently rejected the label feminism as bourgeois. They argued that patriarchy emerged from the structures of capitalism and the only way to fight it was to organize a broad working-class movement that would achieve economic and political equality for all. Throughout the life of the Soviet Union, feminism continued to be identified as a political movement which misunderstood the origins of women’s inequality.
Rimashevskaia is additionally troubled by the term “feminism” because of the contemporary political context in Russia. The first decade of post-Soviet Russia under Boris Yeltsin saw the Russian academy increasingly engage with Western feminist thought, but the Putin years since have ushered in a traditionalization of society and a political emphasis on Russia as an alternative to a spiritually deficient West. In common discourse in Putin’s Russia, feminism is a product of Western decadence. This rhetoric has only increased since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Moreover, in the past decade, the Russian state has targeted researchers and institutions seen as promoting Western political ideas such as feminism. Because of the stigma around the term in Russia, many find it better to conduct their research and advocate for women’s equality without the term.
Elena Kochkina worked at the Institute of Social Economic Studies of the Population and in the laboratory alongside Rimashevskaia. In her interview, she details how the 1990s saw not only an engagement with Western scholarship and the idea of gender, but a large upturn in the activity of women’s organizations independent of the state. Kochkinaas well as another interviewee, Ol’ga Voronina, were two of the organizers of the First Independent Women’s Forum in March of 1991. Other interviewees attended that forum, including Natal’ia Pushkareva, and Mariia Kotovskaia. The forum brought together academics, politicians, and activists interested in women’s issues. The Soviet Union had, of course, hosted similar forums under the auspices of the state-run Soviet Women’s Committee, but this was the first gathering of women independent of the state in almost a century.
The networking between academics and activists in these initial years after the Soviet Union’s collapse precipitated the increased activity of women in politics, both as politicians and as expert advisors to politicians. In the 1993 elections to the Duma, Russia’s parliament, a women’s bloc, Women of Russia, achieved moderate success, winning 23 seats of the 450-seat body. The bloc ran on a platform criticizing other parties for the lack of attention to women’s issues and the lack of female legislators as well as advocating for increased spending on social services that effected women. One of the leaders of the party was an attendee of that 1991 Women’s Forum, Ekaterina Lakhova.
The bloc did not achieve the same electoral success in the next election in 1995, winning only three seats, but its leadership and constituents continued to affect the political process in the country in other ways. Despite her original party’s lack of continued success, Lakhova remains an important figure in the Duma today, though many of our interviewees express disappointment in her turn toward traditionalist positions. In earlier days, however, Kochkina and Kotovskaia, as they discuss in their interviews, helped Lakhova draft policy proposals to advance women’s interests by providing expert advice.
As Natal’ia Pushkareva notes in her analysis of the interviews (found here), many of the women were fairly distant from grass-roots organizing and activism in philanthropic organizations. Scholars like Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova, Ol’ga Voronina, Marina Malysheva, and Mariia Mikhailova believed that scholarship and educational outreach were their form of activism. In the relative freedom of the Yeltsin years, these women set up research centers and laboratories with the help of Western and local grants. Iarskaia-Smirnova founded the Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies in the southern Russian city of Saratov at this time, while Voronina and Malysheva together established the Moscow Center for Gender Studies. Natal’ia Kamenetskaia, the artist among our interviewees, in 1989 created IdiomA, Russia’s first feminist cultural laboratory of arts research.
Liubov’ Shtyleva, however, had a different relationship to activism. Shtyleva came to women’s studies as an activist, trained in the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League. In the 1990s, she founded a women’s club and later she brought together a regional collaboration of women’s organizations, the Women’s Congress of Kola Peninsula. While there were many disagreements among members over what positions the congress should take and how to pursue them, her organization was successful in opening a crisis center in Murmansk, a city in northern Russia. Only after her experience as an organizer did she turn to scholarship and pedagogy.
Regardless of the extent to which they participated in local philanthropic organizations and politics, interviewees agreed that over the past decade, women’s activism, in whatever form, had lost its momentum. This is in large part due to the changing political context. Russia under Putin, who has led the country as president and prime minister at various times since 2000, has increasingly turned to the right, adopting a nationalist and traditionalist ideology. Like other nationalists around the world, the Russian nationalists who now hold power believe that women best serve the nation as supportive wives and loving mothers. The state therefore does not support women’s organizations that pursue other visions of femininity.
But more insidiously, the state has now cut off support for women’s organizations from Western sources via various means. The “Foreign Agents Law” of 2012 and its amendments in 2014 allowed the government to register groups as foreign agents without their consent and prosecute them for pursuing “political activity,” which the state often defines arbitrarily. Ol’ga Voronina’s research center was investigated as a foreign agent in 2010, before this law had passed, and she recalls in her interview how she barely managed to save the center at that time. Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova recounts in an emotional story how the local prosecutor used this law in 2014 to force the closure of her research center while her husband was on his deathbed. But the Russian state has used other means to foreclose upon alternative visions of Russian society and femininity. For example, although it managed to register successfully as a foreign agent, George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, for which Elena Kochkina worked for a time, was banned from Russia in 2015, its activity deemed “undesirable” for Russia.
The result of these political changes has been fewer independent women’s organizations and organizations with smaller goals. In her interview, Mariia Mikhailova expresses disillusionment with these new organizations. She dismisses them as pursuing the “theory of small deeds,” i.e., that local philanthropic work among women—holding fairs to benefit the poor, for example—will best advance the cause of equality.
Our interviewees are uniformly unhappy with the turn against women’s studies in the present, but they agree that not all the gains of the 1990s have been lost. Multiple interviewees, such as Malysheva and Shtyleva, looked at the continued existence of women’s crisis centers that their organizations helped found as one positive note. Their research centers and grass-roots organizations no longer exercise control over these crisis centers—the centers now operate with state funding—but their establishment of the centers made combatting domestic violence a priority that the state might not otherwise have had.
Elena Kochkina celebrates that the feminists have at least won battles on the cultural front. Women in ordinary life, she suggests, are now using the vocabulary and theory of gender to think about their lives, their rights, and their goals.
Kochkina and others hope that these small victories portend a future larger triumph. Almost all of our interviewees agreed that history bends towards progress and that the current setbacks will be overcome in the future by a new generation. Shtyleva may have the most uplifting conclusion of the interviewees. She is still an optimist because “I believe in what I have always believed and again, there is the truth: do what you have to and what will happen, will happen. I believe in this idea –not blindly, not because someone says so, but because I embraced it.” With a history of powerful feminist voices, Russia has a bountiful past that future generations of women activists may yet draw on. They may yet achieve the goals that their mothers and grandmothers set for them.
Procedures for Producing Final Interview Videos and Transcripts
The team that assembled the final versions of the transcripts and videos in the US made minimal edits to the final interviews that were sent from the Russian site, in line with interviewee requests. We deleted fewer than ten segments—none of them were longer than 20 seconds—in which an interviewee noted that she did not want particular names, dates, places, or events she had recently mentioned to be recorded. In an effort to respect their wishes, we deleted these portions of the videos and transcripts in the interviews with Kamenetskaia, Kochkina, Voronina, and Iarskaia-Smirnova.