“Not all women share the same concerns”: A brief history of regional women’s activism in Russia12 min read

 In Analysis, Civil Society, Russia
In 2018, the “Khachaturian sisters’ case” made headlines across Russia. Three girls – at the time of their arrest 17, 18 and 19 years old – killed their father in their apartment in Moscow. Maria, Angelina, and Krestina did so because their father, Mikhail Khachaturian, had been abusing them for years, including forcing them to engage in sexual acts. In 2019, a number of rallies in support of the Khachaturian sisters took place in Moscow and St. Petersburg – one of the main topics was a discussion of the domestic violence problem in Russia. The reaction of feminist activists had a significant impact on the Khachaturian case, and in August 2021, the sisters were recognised as victims in the case against their father.

Despite proposed domestic violence bills in 2019-2020, the advancement of the law in the country has stalled while the issue of women’s rights in general has become more critical, due to increasing reports of gender-based violence amid the war in Ukraine and systemic discrimination against women. Women’s activism is now under pressure too. For example, in July 2023, when activists from the Ural Feminist Initiative protested in favour of a law against domestic violence in Chelyabinsk, a group of men tried to obstruct them by covering the activists with posters and Russian flags. In addition, there are country-wide problems with discrimination against women in the labour market and with reproductive rights, as well as more localised problems with forced marriage, access to education, and female genital mutilation.

In Russia, it is still not clear where the line between protecting women’s rights in a state-condemned ‘feminist way’ and state-approved social work with women is drawn. These boundaries are shaped not only by the history of women’s rights protection within the country, but also by the evolution of women’s rights advocacy within specific regions of Russia.

How women’s movements were structured in post-Soviet Russia 

The emerging debate on human rights in the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union provided a strong impetus for many regional activists to realise their own activist identity. “In the 1990s, there was a general informational upsurge,” Evgeniya, a Buryat journalist, said in an interview with Lossi 36. “We talked about everything. That’s what influenced me, and why I became a journalist myself, why I passionately support the rights of LGBTQ+, women, disabled people, and other marginalised groups. And then abruptly everything stopped because we suddenly became a supposedly very stable country.”

During the first post-Soviet decade, women were primarily involved in three areas of activism: interregional feminist movements, concentrated in Central Russia; regional women’s initiatives addressing specific social issues; and mothers’ movements, particularly evident during the two Russian-Chechen wars, leading to the creation of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers.

Feminist organisations established links with each other, participated in conferences and forums of non-profit organisations, and many of them received grants from Western institutions. In the very early 1990s, the first and second independent women’s forums were held in the Moscow region, where representatives of various associations discussed strategies for women’s development in the new conditions. In another example, when the newly established party ‘Women of Russia’ participated in the 1993 elections, it received around 8% of the popular vote in the elections. At the same time, as researcher Julie Hemment emphasises, the influx of grants and funding led to the formation of a new hierarchy among women’s groups. As a result, in the 1990s, ‘gender’ and ‘feminism’ became bureaucratic categories, forms of expert knowledge that not everyone was able or willing to operate with.

Other scholars note that in Russia, women’s organisations are often broadly understood as organisations composed of female members, while Western civil society sees them as feminist bodies. “Speaking about feminism in Russia is rather problematic in light of its negative Western and Soviet connotations,” claims Meri Kulmala in her work on Karelian female movements. However, if approached theoretically, the work of many women’s organisations is indeed based on feminist principles but often articulated without feminist concepts.

Amy Caiazza, a researcher of gender and civil society in early post-Soviet Russia, found that campaigns framed in terms of traditional gender ideologies, such as those of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, were more effective in influencing policies than interventions framed in terms of liberal feminist demands for equality. For Caiazza, the crucial determinant of the different lobby group’s effectiveness was “the ability to develop and exploit a sense of female consciousness, or sense of shared political identity among women that stemmed from their traditional roles as mothers and wives.”

The first post-Soviet decades showed that uniting regional feminist initiatives is possible and even effective, but it requires not only horizontal links between organisations, but also some kind of support from ‘above’ – i.e., the government or foreign donors. Nevertheless, established and decentralised networks of initiatives have endured in Russia. The widespread recognition and support for the motherhood role, originating in the culturally strong position of the mother in Russian society, proved to be strong and long-lasting, especially considering the increased militarisation in contemporary Russia.

By the end of the 1990s, people began to view women’s rights as closely connected to the rights of marginalised groups and recognised them as an integral part of human rights, perhaps the most important outcome. In a conversation with Lossi 36, one activist shared “I think women’s rights are inseparable from human rights, in general. If a country is not doing well on human rights, then women’s rights are the first to be affected because they are the largest vulnerable group.”

The young generation of feminists in the national republics

In the decade prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, feminism held dual status in official state rhetoric. Some researchers and activists observed how the promotion of traditional family values and roles was juxtaposed with the organisation of women’s forums, with ideas about creating a common women’s movement, and the authorities’ ambivalent stance on the limits of permissible feminism.

Traditional values were declared all-Russian and blindly supported at the level of regional politics, when in fact the residents of some republics were already actively promoting their national traditional values. As one activist interpreted it in our interview: “National consciousness is rising […] this is also because of the economic situation, because every year it is getting tougher and tougher, and against this background, of course, they are trying to achieve some rights through such national histories.” 

Overlaying the Kremlin’s legitimate discourse of traditionality with national characteristics resulted in a situation in which ‘national revival’ was not only interpreted, but also created by men. “When the government began to ‘tighten the screws’ on women, the society simultaneously began to reclaim some sort of traditions,” says Evgeniya. “Buryatia is considered a traditional region, but I don’t understand why. Because first, not all Buryats are Buddhists, and Buddhism as a religion – how can it be tied to traditionality at all? Someone decided that we are suddenly supposed to be such a traditional region and started to revive traditions. At the same time, I began to understand that tradition in this case is equal to the defeat of women’s rights, that women should stay at home and give birth to many children.”

Of course, not all regions and cultures associate tradition with the defeat of women’s rights. A female activist from Adygea, a republic in the North Caucasus formerly a part of Circassia, says that recently there has been a wave of new Islamisation in the region, which strongly affects the position and self-identification of young women, although, according to her, women in Adyghe (Circassian) society have always exercised numerous rights. The activist connects this with the fact that Adyghe women and the Adyghe people in general lack self-identification:  “We don’t know our roots, we don’t know who our ancestors were, how they lived, what they did, there is what Soviet scholars wrote, but there is no modern reading of it all.”

Responses to the revival or even reinvention of traditions are taking place in practically every region of Russia, with different intensity, in different time periods, and not only from the standpoint of feminism. For instance, the Ya-SVOBODA movement in Buryatia operates with a distinct feminist stance. It was founded in 2016 as a counterbalance to the Moscow and St. Petersburg feminist movements, with the aim of starting a conversation about Buryat feminism, which has ‘its own face’. In an interview with ONA, the creators of the movement explained that in 2022 alone they managed to popularise feminisms in the National Library of Buryatia and organised a feminist shelf in the free library Exlibris. 

Adyghe activists decided to produce a season of their podcast Shible dedicated to the status of women in Adyghe (Circassian) society in different historical periods. According to its co-creator: “We decided that it was necessary to share that we historically had a matriarchy, and to talk about the female figure and image in the history of Adyghe society.”

The few women involved in politics in the national republics of Russia are also very visible. Typically, these are women who held influential positions in the late- and post-Soviet period, and in those regions where there is a tradition of women taking up leadership functions. For example, Sardana Avksentyeva, the first female mayor of Yakutia from 2018 to 2021, who emphasised Yakut traditions in her campaign materials and was known for her anti-corruption activities, raised a conversation about the role of women in governance, and promoted gender equality in the labour market.

In 2019, Yevgenia Baltatarova, an opposition activist and journalist, ran for mayor of Ulan-Ude. Given that the pro-government candidates were of Russian ethnicity, Baltatarova attributes the modest success of her campaign to her Buryat heritage, which fostered heightened ethnic solidarity, despite falling short of the required signature count. Delving into these dimensions of solidarity, alongside women’s political and social activism, has the potential to facilitate more substantial conversations concerning regional traditions.

Active in political and eco-activism in the early 2000s, Natalia Tumureyeva, the current Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology of Buryatia, was a well-known Buryat woman who criticised the republic’s government. In 2019, when Tumureyeva was promoted to minister, her oppositional activities ceased. This is, unfortunately, a rather symptomatic case of female activists who, having broken  the glass ceiling, tune down their public criticism to focus on their personal careers. For example, political scientist Janet Elise Johnson has demonstrated how the Putin regime has encouraged women to be ‘backups’ in times of crisis or change, ‘loyalists’ when the regime needs to demonstrate elections and representation, and ‘cleaners’ when the appearance of corruption threatens the regime. This restricts female politicians from effectively representing women’s interests and even encourages them to pursue regressive policies. 

Is there a Russia-wide feminist agenda?

Since 1993, when the Consortium of Women’s Non-Governmental Organisations was founded, domestic violence has been a central issue for many feminist initiatives across all regions of Russia. The Consortium has been fighting domestic violence, providing gender education, and defending women’s rights and interests by uniting 110 regional women’s NGOs. The history of the Consortium is an illustrative example of the changing state agenda regarding the ‘gender issue’. In 2017, the Consortium created the Center for the Protection of Victims of Domestic Violence, and in 2018, received a large presidential grant. However, in 2022, the State Duma requested a review of the Consortium for “spreading gender ideology in a way beneficial to the West.”

In a similar vein to the Consortium, the interregional centre Violence.net works to connect not only centres for domestic violence survivors, but also organisations dedicated to helping LGBTQ+ people, single mothers, and those who have faced harassment.

There are likewise many initiatives, groups, or cells that focus on the specifics of a particular region. For example, the project Caucasus without Mothers researches the practices of illegal removal of children from mothers in the Caucasus. Femkyzlar is engaged in educational initiatives in Kazan and Tatarstan in general and cooperates with crisis centres. Buryat feminist movement Ya-SVOBODA conducts actions, for example, on the topic of street harassment in Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, and organises lectures and discussions on violence and gender equality.

Although these projects often address similar issues, their regional specificities and, of course, the language of activism, clearly point to the heterogeneity of women’s activism in the national republics. For example, when discussing the importance of representing Buryat women and the legacy of Russian colonialism, an artist from Buryatia, in an interview with the Feminisms project, says “I think there are certain problems that, for example, feminism in another place will not be able to talk about” and adds “If there is a position of intersectionality, of course it [colonialism] is worth talking about. Not all women share the same problems.” Another activist from Dagestan asserts along similar lines: “Many problems of Russian and Dagestani feminists are similar. But Russian feminists do not understand what the Caucasus is. We are not representative even in the eyes of our compatriots. They don’t understand our problems.”

Yet a year and a half after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, some regional women’s initiatives found common ground in a ‘decolonial’ lens. Initially more common among transnational feminists from Russia, the language of decolonial and postcolonial critique has been adopted in some, though by no means many, activist circles. Academically-loaded and carrying specific theoretical connotations, the language of de-colonialism faces the same problem as the language of feminism in Russia in the 1990s – scepticism towards it as something alien to Russian contexts, despite its potential resonance with activists from the Russian republics.

This can be seen in the emergence of media such as Fem-activism in the regions of the Russian Federation, which gathers news and information about LGBTQ+ rights, diversity of cultures and identities, issues of violence, and access to medicine, bringing together the stories of women from all regions of Russia. Another example is the project “Govorit Respublika_” (Republic speaking), linking the voices of women and men from Russia’s Asian national republics (Kalmykia, Buryatia, Tyva, Sakha, Altai, and Khakassia) to talk about life and people in these regions in Russian and indigenous languages.

Recently, activist and journalist Lena Klimova wrote about the use of the phrase ‘feminist lens’: “It’s normal to be critical of gender stereotypes. It’s not ‘lens’ – it’s the norm. Trying to get rid of a patriarchal view of the world is not ‘feminine’/’feminist’ – it’s normal behaviour. Lens is what we’re carrying on right now.” Even though the ambivalence towards ‘feminisms’ in society persists, women activists remain united in their common agenda. They strive to address more structural issues even under authoritarianism by advocating for the acceptance of a critical perspective of feminism, despite ethnonational frictions.

Feature Image: Wikimedia Commons / Canva
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