Categories
#19: Experience of Perestroika

Elena Zdravomyslova // Perestroika and Feminism

“I learned to say no early in life. And calling oneself a feminist is equivalent to saying no to this society.”

Most people believe that feminism came to Russia from the west, that there is no native political and cultural ground for it. But this is not the case. Rather, Russian feminism is simply an unpopular intellectual and cultural movement, which nevertheless has its own agenda and, moreover, its own discontinuous native traditions. Contemporary Russian feminism began to take shape, both intellectually and politically, during perestroika. Although before this time there were also specialists in feminist theory in the Soviet academic community. Sociologists studied the problems of gender inequality and sexual emancipation, and the stories and essays of Russian feminists collected in the anthology Women and Russia (1979) were published in samizdat.

I learned to say no early in life. And calling oneself a feminist is equivalent to saying no to this society.

 

Most people believe that feminism came to Russia from the west, that there is no native political and cultural ground for it. But this is not the case. Rather, Russian feminism is simply an unpopular intellectual and cultural movement, which nevertheless has its own agenda and, moreover, its own discontinuous native traditions. Contemporary Russian feminism began to take shape, both intellectually and politically, during perestroika. Although before this time there were also specialists in feminist theory in the Soviet academic community. Sociologists studied the problems of gender inequality and sexual emancipation, and the stories and essays of Russian feminists collected in the anthology Women and Russia (1979) were published in samizdat.

But it was perestroika that enabled the crystallization of feminist consciousness in Russia.Perestroika was a short, eventful, emotionally intense period in the life of society. A mere six years, or even less: this was a happy time for the Russian intelligentsia, a time of hope and direct participation, and also a time of survival—of food stamps and vouchers, bootleg liquor and elections. Dynamism, sincere involvement, and a rich public life—this is the principal challenge and the principle message of that time to our own. It was a lively time, when the hope of democratic reform forced us to give up fear for our own existence. It was clearly “historical.” And clearly romantic! It was one of those rare periods in Russian political history when it wasn’t shameful to live in this country.By making sense of the perestroika experience, we construct a tradition, connect the present with the past, indicate the continuity of ideas, feelings, and actions, and attempt to foresee the future. My task in this article is to detect in perestroika something that many people didn’t even notice—the emergence of Russian feminist criticism, whose critical fervor was aimed not only at the Russian political system, but also at Russian gender culture as a whole.

Experts single out the years 1989–1991 as the preparatory, latent period in the emergence of Russian feminist activism. As mass mobilization was on the decline, women’s organizations, modest-sized feminist groups, and gender centers appeared. The initiative came from the academic upper crust, which wanted to be in step with western standards of progressive scholarship. The initial crystallization of feminist consciousness occurred precisely in the period between 1988 and 1990. As a result, in 1991 the newly organized Moscow Center for Gender Studies summoned the First Independent Women’s Forum, which was organized in part by feminists from SAFO (Free Association of Feminist Organizations) and the Women’s Council of the Dubna United Institute of Nuclear Research. At that time, the forum’s charged slogan—“Democracy minus women isn’t democracy”—had a far-fetched ring for the Russian public. However, approximately two hundred delegates from forty-eight organizations representing different regions of the country participated in the forum, as well as twenty-six foreign guests. The forum’s concluding communiqué recognized the existence of gender discrimination in Russia. One of the most important practical results of the forum was the creation of the Women’s Information Network (ZhISET), which helped connect women from the most distant corners of the country.

Many future feminists actively participated in the democratic movement of the perestroika period. For young women, the opportunities introduced by perestroika created the attractive environment that decisively influenced the development of their feminist views. This was a time when the semi-underground and semi-dissident counterculture and intellectual communities came out from their back rooms and salons onto the city streets and into the media landscape, and achieved recognition. Suddenly, there was an opportunity to be heard, and there was a lot to say.For some women, this change afforded them a new and clear perception of discrimination and sexism in general. For many, perestroika was the psychological context that caused them to become conscious of gender inequality, both in society as a whole and in relation to themselves in particular. Many of our informants had long subscribed to stereotypes regarding male and female predestination, and a priori male intellectual superiority. The self-evaluations they presented ranged from sacrificial self-abasement in service to “real men,” to the frustration of unrecognized geniuses. However, during perestroika, with the emergence of new opportunities for self-realization in both the political and professional arenas, energetic people became more sensitive about individual rights and their own self-worth. Discriminatory practices began to provoke a sense of personal protest among future feminists. If, during the “stagnation” of the Brezhnev period, they had been prepared to make peace with everyday sexism, ignoring it or making condescending jokes about it within their own circles, under the new conditions they found this position completely unsupportable. Double standards and hypocrisy in personal relationships became acutely painful (excuse my pathos!) in the fight for the common cause.The feminists manifested their sensitivity to gender issues not only in relation to themselves, but also in relation to other social groups who experienced humiliation and exclusion. From the very beginning, they called attention to the constructedness of the category of woman in general—and to the variety of problems facing women of different cultures, different social and economic classes, different age groups and sexual orientations.

“This double standard in the public sphere, this hypocrisy and boorishness, that is what is hateful, honestly speaking. They say they’re democrats, but they themselves are cultivating subservience and patriarchy in the home,” said L. about certain new political leaders.Feminists were the first to call attention to the nature of male discrimination in Russia, which was connected, first and foremost, with the gender polarization of citizenship, with the fact that men were obliged to serve in the military. The second component in male discrimination was the exclusion of men from the family, the fact that they didn’t have to balance careers and domestic work. To this day, this problem exists only for women in Russia.

It was not only the clash with everyday sexism in new environments that stimulated the growth of a feminist consciousness, but also the political context. It was during perestroika that General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev proposed a program to ease women’s double burden by returning them to their natural calling, to the bosom of the family. (This is also a form of emancipation!) A few years later, the minister of labor, Gennady Melikyan, voiced his misgivings about the necessity of women’s employment at a time when not all men were guaranteed a job.Feminist criticism emerged in academia and within the new civic initiatives. Its subjects introduced into Russian discourse new categories (gender, gender expertise, sexism, sexual harassment) and called into question the Soviet versions of well-established notions about masculinity and femininity. They helped us understand the essence of gender performativity and hidden cultural pressures. The natural allies of feminist criticism are all socially excluded groups, all silenced interests, all those people whose voices are drowned out by the drums of aggressive Russian great-power nationalism.

The methodology of feminist criticism represents a “subversive reading of texts that lays bare the constructedness and ideological agenda of those gender hierarchies and differentiations, which, from the customary (patriarchal) point of view, are seen as natural and immutable” (Savkina). During perestroika, feminist criticism focused on two basic themes: the deconstruction of Soviet gender structure and the analysis of the gender consequences of glasnost-era reforms and democratization.

In criticizing Soviet gender structure, feminists partly closed the ranks with late-Soviet liberal critical discourse, which also raised doubts about the “success” of the modernist Soviet gender project. Liberals had been discussing the crisis in masculinity, the masculinization of women, and the double burden of women since the late sixties. The first feminists argued forcefully against the hypocrisy of the Soviet declaration that the woman question had been resolved, and showed how these public statements were not supported either by the facts of politics or by the facts of everyday life. They showed how the Soviet state had created two, gender-differentiated categories of citizens (Soviet men and Soviet women.) Feminists argue that the state’s construction of gender-based citizenship created the framework for differentiating between male and female life strategies. Soviet gender structure was overdetermined as a state (i.e., public) patriarchy, as a dual mobilization of women (productive and reproductive) into service to the state, combined with a role-mobilization of men. Researchers came to the conclusion that, despite the declaration of sexual equality, Soviet society had formed a gender-polarized citizenship that was reinforced, for women, by the compulsory “socialist contract of the working mother” and, for men, by their status as “defenders of the fatherland.” Gender polarization and political mobilization were ideologically naturalized in the concepts of patriotic duty and the natural callings of men and women. Many people interpreted the liberal reforms as an emancipation (liberation) that presumed the abolition of the Soviet gender contract.Feminist deconstruction showed that the resistance to Soviet gender politics had been liberal-patriarchal in character—hence the pronounced nostalgia for “authentic manliness” and “true femininity” among first-wave Russian democratic politicians. The entire democratic discourse was united in its negative attitude towards the Soviet gender project. The ideologies of gender transformation were, however, varied. In a 1989 article published in the journal Kommunist, “How We Will Solve the Woman Question,” Posadskaya, Rymashevskaya and Zakharova write: “Both in theory and in practice, one important aspect remains untouched: it is not only women that we must emancipate. Emancipation is, at minimum, a two-way process. For both men and women, the spheres from which they have been excluded must be opened: for women, the sphere of production; for men, the home and the family.”

Feminist criticism was from the very start sensitive to such “normal” phenomena (from the point of view of our society) as the removal of women from the new political institutions; appeals to ease women’s burden by returning them to their natural duties as mothers and wives; the aggressive sexualization of the female image; pornography and sex trafficking; and discrimination in the workplace.

Analyzing the cultural tendencies exposed by perestroika, Tatyana Klemenkova writes, “It’s funny, but even today it goes unnoticed that in the manifestoes of the numerous newly formed political parties, alongside the claim that the individual has a right to freely pursue his own interests, it is often stated on the very next page: ‘Women should at last be returned to the family.’ It’s incredible but true: our ‘cultural public’ isn’t aware that such formulas obviously and naively contradict the beautiful words about freedom and personal development.”

Russian feminist criticism had already, during perestroika, revealed the gender aspect in the conflict between the principles of liberty and equality. It showed how, in their Russian incarnation, the rhetoric and politics of freedom justified aggression and violent conflict resolution, and affirmed a brutal masculinity and a sexualized and similarly aggressive femininity. In everyday life, freedom was figured as a condition in which everything was permitted and the weak were oppressed. Freedom was imagined as a demonstration of power (rudeness and boorishness) and a return to origins (which had never been associated with the principles of liberty and equality.)During perestroika, the voice of feminist criticism was a voice of hope and apprehension. It warned of a cultural crisis and of the replacement of democracy and liberty by gender stereotypes. It anticipated the rehabilitation of masculine and feminine as natural categories, and the return to the traditions of role-polarization and a priori male dominance.But, thank you, feminism! Thank you, perestroika! Thank you for the fact that we can now be conscious of this and speak out.

 

Elena Zdravomyslova is a professor in the gender studies program at the European University (Saint Petersburg), and project coordinator at the Center for Independent Sociological Research.

This article is based on an analysis of interviews conducted by the author in 1995–96, and on material gathered during joint research (with Anna Temkina) for the project “The Institutionalization of Gender Research in Russia.”

 

Bibliography
T.A. Klimenkov, “Perestroika as Gender Issue,” Woman as a Cultural Phenomenon: The View from Russia (Moscow, 1996), pp. 117–138 (in Russian).

Julia Brygalina and Anna Temkina, “The Development of Feminist Organisations in St. Petersburg 1985–2003,” Between Sociology and History: Essays on Microhistory, Collective Action and Nation-Building, ed. Anna-Maija Castrén, Markku Lonkila, and Matti Peltonen (Helsinki, 2004), pp. 207–226.

A.I. Posadskaya, N.M. Rymashevskaya, and N.K. Zakharova, “How We Will Solve the Woman Question,” Kommunist 4 (1989): 56–65 (in Russian).

Irina Savkina, “Factors of Irritation: On the Perception and Discussion of Feminist Criticism and Gender Studies in the Russian Context,” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie 86 (2007) (in Russian).

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *