Beauty and militancy: on post-Soviet feminism

Photo: GhenadyPhoto: Ghenady

“Visitors to Russia are always surprised to see that Russian women look like they are going to an Oscar night gala dinner even if they are just going to the grocery store or to throw away garbage,” begins Chapter 7 of Russia Survival Guide, an alternative guidebook, which undertakes to provide foreigners with a privileged understanding of the daily life of Russia’s citizens, their unfaltering but “strange form of patriotism”, and their exceptional so-called ‘Russian soul’.

“Yes,” the passage continues, “Russian women always look great with high heels and full makeup, and they look great everywhere – in the museum during a four-hour walking tour, on the plane during an intercontinental flight, on the beach during vacations, even sweating at the gym.”

The guide attributes these extravagant tendencies to the need of Russian women to stand out amongst their peers in order attract the most superior masculine specimens from a population whose 0.925 to 1 male to female ratio (in the 15-64 age group) makes competition especially fierce.

“[Russian women are] raised with the idea that their main goal is to get married, have children and create a household,” states the guide. But forming a healthy and nourishing partnership before the ripe age of twenty-five (after which one is likely to be dubbed an “older parturient” or starorodyashchaya (Russian: старородящая; literally “oldbirthing”; dated) can prove challenging in a society where domestic violence, largely attributed to alcoholism amongst male partners, claims the lives of 14,000 out of the 600,000 women who fall victim to such abuse annually, as reported by the BBC in 2013.

Though any sanguine reader is likely to insist that the aforementioned trends, gender roles, and social norms have been hyperbolised in the interest of producing a beguiling guidebook, reality and personal experience provide evidence to the contrary. I was very strongly reminded of this one snowy evening in January 2013, when a wandering guest in a Moscow newsroom declared, upon enquiring my age, that I, as a then twenty-three-year-old, was hurtling towards my expiration date and that, unless I acted swiftly to seduce a suitable head of household/life sponsor/impregnator into marriage, all future hopes of union with a quality mate would woefully evaporate. I learnt these grim prospects just moments after an older male colleague had informed me that female thought is “far too nonsensical to produce consequential literature” and just hours after being reprimanded by a male superior for appearing at the agency looking “hideously exhausted with nothing but lipstick and mascara on [my] face” – instead of being impeccably maquillaged as expected of me.

Nevertheless, the status quo is changing as Russia, alongside its post-Soviet neighbours Ukraine and Belarus, dives deeper into the 21st century, as suggested by the ‘Gender, nationalism, and citizenship in anti-authoritarian protests in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine’ workshop that took place at Robinson College, Cambridge in June 2015. This is especially true of cosmopolitan metropolises such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, where feminism has begun to set its roots and gradually shed the stigma of being a volatile and threatening influx from the West. The rate of this progress and its costs, however, remain disputed.

The workshop was organised by Olesya Khromeychuk, the Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of East Anglia, and featured experts in the fields of civil action, humanitarian affairs, women’s rights, and LGBT rights.

Feeble both in trousers and with plaits

“Women seek to present themselves as weak,” said Belarusian political activist and journalist Olga Karatch, who spoke on the role of female politicians in totalitarian societies. “[In Belarus], women in power, such as lawyer Lydia Yermoshina, attribute their success to the tragedy of not having a strong man to take care of them, with the alternative being the chance to lead a comfortable life at home.”

In October 2015, Yermoshina, Head of Belarus’s Central Election Committee, regained her right to travel within the European Union thanks to the four-month suspension of sanctions against the country’s government officials after the fifth presidential victory of authoritarian ruler Alexander Lukashenko. She is generally outspoken in regards to what she perceives as the unsatisfactory nature of female political ambition. Responding to a question on Belarus’s “gender imbalance and serious discrimination against women,” Yermoshina said at a March 2010 press conference: “Is it really possible for the post of minister [in the executive branch of government] to make a woman happy? A woman is made happy by love, beauty, children, a husband – these are the most important things.”

“Women are always second [in Belarus], even when they are first,” added Karatch, giving the example of female presidential candidate and Lukashenko adversary Tatiana Korotkevich. At an April 2015 press conference in the city of Bobryusk, Korotkevich was asked: “Tatiana, you would agree that the decision to run for the presidency of Belarus is a bold one that not even every man would dare to make […] Which of your qualities do you think [may render you] victorious in this election?”

Before the candidate could respond, her campaign manager Andrei Dmitriev interrupted and stated: “Though it is Tatiana who was asked this question, it is I who will answer it. It is difficult for Tatiana to speak about herself. [After all], the onlooker sees most of the game.”

Finally, said Karatch, Belarusian female politicians, like Korotkevich, who cuts her hair short and wears trousers, are encouraged to look male in order to be taken seriously – a contrast with Ukraine, where women rely on traditional images of femininity to make their voices heard, said Tamara Martsenyuk, gender sociologist at Ukraine’s National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Ukrainian politician and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is known for her folk-inspired plaited crown and modest feminine garments, offers a prime example of this tendency.

In Ukraine, however, traditional femininity is not necessarily a progressive, post-feminist display of personal sovereignty or a mechanism by which to regain a sense of agency, for, just like in Belarus, being a “true woman” continues to carry a connotation of frailty, helplessness, and even inherent victimisation.

“There are two options for [Ukrainian] women,” said the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Foundation’s Anna Dovgopol, “to be either Berehynia or Barbie.” Berehynia (Ukrainian: Берегиня) is a goddess-like figure in Slavic mythology representing the protectress of the hearth and home. As suggested by her function, she embodies characteristics that are traditionally seen as feminine and maternal and is considered the personification of the ideal Ukrainian woman. Alternatively, the option of being Barbie corresponds to a reliance on sensuality and physical attractiveness to satisfy the expectations of and even navigate the patriarchal structure.

The EuroMaidan, a wave of civil unrest in Ukraine that started in late 2013 and continued through Spring 2014, saw the involvement of both incarnations, as beautiful women often appeared to boost morale and to create an aesthetic contrast with the masculine, grey protest environment.

Regarding revolutionary discourse, “the image of the beautiful women was used [as part of Maidan demonstrations] to represent Ukraine herself, bruised and crying tears of blood, the oppressed wife hoping to leave her husband who took the form of Vladimir Putin,” said Martsenyuk.

One of the most famous and controversial examples of Ukrainian women acting against societal expectations and seeking to regain a sense of autonomy and reclaim control over their bodies can be seen in the work of self-proclaimed “sextremist” activist group FEMEN (Ukrainian: Фемен), which organises topless protests to fight patriarchy, promote women’s rights, and endorse sex-positive feminism. Founded in Ukraine in 2008, the group has been based in Paris since 2012.

The women and the barricades

In its coverage of the EuroMaidan, the media emphasised the barricades and the Molotov cocktails, the experts agreed. “But these [military] initiatives made up only 5-10% of all of the activities taking place there,” said Martsenyuk. “The ‘backstage’ activities provided the resources necessary to maintain the military activities [on the forefront].” Women would make up around 44% of the Maidan’s participants on calm days, said the sociologist, and around 12% on days of intensified civil unrest.

Whilst men immediately understood what was expected of them in the fight for Ukraine’s future, women had little guidance in the early days of the revolution. Social networking sites like Facebook, therefore, became important bases for the recruitment and mobilisation of female participants, explained Dovgopol.

“There was a perception that women could not be revolutionaries, so men and women played antithetical roles in the Maidan,” said Martsenyuk. “Women fell victim to sexism and discrimination.”

“Women were marginalised almost immediately,” said activist and founder of the Ukrainian Centre for Drone Intelligence Maria Berlinska. They were expected to cook, serve, and clean up after the male participants. Some were allowed to nurse the wounded, whilst others were tasked with transporting the injured to underground hospitals set up by churches or other institutions. There was a special category of women who took on the role of “mothers”, i.e. they acted as nurturing caretakers, offering emotional support to the young men involved in the crisis and communicating messages of peace, hope, and life. This was the extent to which women were expected to participate in the Maidan; nevertheless, a lack of resources and human capital opened up many other, unexpected opportunities.

“As a participant of the Maidan, I can assure you that women were involved in every sphere of movement, even in the production of Molotov cocktails. [Some] women even threw cocktails and enjoyed it,” said Berlinska. “The participation of women was not officially structured, so, when push came to shove, they were not restricted and could even partake in the violence.”

Ironically, said the activist, it was largely in times of peace at the Maidan that women were actively prevented from going out to the barricades and beyond them. “This was justified as being a means by which to ‘protect women’. Of course, it is logical not to let children pass through the barricades, but women? Those men who forbade women from participating differed little from the very Berkut [they fought against], [the police] who dictated how people should live and what they should do,” she said. The Berkut (Ukrainian: Беркут; English: Golden eagle) was a special police force within Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs tasked with taking measures during riots and hostage situations. Disbanded in February 2014, the Berkut was held responsible for violent civilian/protestor deaths that occurred during the Maidan. The deceased are now collectively referred to as the “Heavenly Hundred” (Ukrainian: Небесна Сотня).

The Maidan was a time of great flux and the idea of Ukraine was romanticised. “The country was in search of its identity and the atmosphere was a rather conservative one. Traditional gender roles were emphasised and patriotic and patriarchal discourse was strongly felt,” said Dovgopol.

It was a fight to reform the civil reality at its core and questions of LGBT rights and gender equality seemed largely irrelevant for those at the forefront. Voices endorsing nationalism, traditional masculinity, and militancy were able to “privatise” the discussion almost immediately.

On one occasion, recalled Berlinska, two journalists, one male and one female, were trying to cross a checkpoint at the barricades. The male was given access and the female was not. “She was thereby prevented from performing her professional duties,” said Berlinska. “That is when I decided to address the issue of gender equality from the stage of the Maidan. It took convincing for me to be allowed [to voice my thoughts on this subject] and mine was the only speech of its kind.”

However, experts agree that the overall picture has improved, as the Maidan allowed women to oppose existing stereotypes and prove that they can be revolutionaries alongside men. “At the Maidan, you could see women of all backgrounds,” said Berlinska. “There were managers, PhD students, artists, lawyers. These are not the type of people who would normally make Molotov cocktails.”

All military units participating in the Maidan were called sotnyas (plural of Ukrainian and Russian: сотня; equivalent to the English company). There were also all-female military units, each called a zhinocha sotnya (Ukrainian: жиночя сотня), with the most visible being that named after Ukrainian writer and feminist Olha Kobylianska, in which both Berlinska and Dovgopol participated. The unit presented itself as being composed of “women who could change the world” (Ukrainian: « жінки, що можуть змінити світ »).

One of its most consequential campaigns took place on 8 March 2014 (International Women’s Day) in anticipation of the Crimean referendum, which was held on 16 March of the same year. The “Women of Maidan to the Women of Crimea” (Ukrainian: « Жінки Майдану – Жінкам Криму ») campaign involved the writing of over 200 cards by female Maidan participants over the course of just two hours. The cards were shortly thereafter sent to a Simferopol-based group called “Crimean Women for Peace” (Ukrainian: « Кримські жінки за мир ») as a sign of solidarity in a time of political change. “This was an example of women not just helping to make the revolution, but making it alongside men,” said Dovgopol.

“It was customary to chant the motto ‘Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!’ (Ukrainian: « Слава Україні! Героям слава! ») at the Maidan demonstrations,” said Berlinska. “We encouraged, people to also recognise the plight of women by chanting ‘Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroines!’ (Ukrainian: « Слава Україні! героїням слава! »).”

The war that followed the Maidan also offered women the opportunity to renegotiate gender roles and explore traditionally male positions, including military posts. Not all of these masculinised structures, however, proved able to adapt to accommodate women or to protect women’s rights.

“Women in Ukraine have no rights in the army, are poorly paid and often work without having signed a contract,” said Berlinksa. “Many are registered as working in bathhouses or in the kitchens, but are actually given much more dangerous responsibilities.” The activist referred to her friend who, though registered as the head of a banya, is tasked with calling the parents of soldiers with news that their children have died. Finally, said Berlinska, basic necessities such as feminine hygiene products are entirely neglected. 

Feminism is the new black

Feminism, experts agreed, has historically been seen as “dirty word” – an aggressive, bourgeois import from the West intended to upset the established patriarchal order. Its representatives were perceived as unreasonable and volatile, prepared even to abandon their families in favour of professional development. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought about great economic and social struggles in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. The socialist structure that had previously enabled women to both work and fulfill household responsibilities was dismantled through privatisation. Preexisting benefits such as maternity leave, childcare grants, or even the possibility of a shorter workday in favour of childcare soon began to be allocated with greater discrimination. Furthermore, “state authorities no longer explicitly encouraged women to participate in the labor force, and some policy-makers began to call for women to return to the home to perform their ‘natural’ duties,” according to a 2009 Max Planck Institute working paper. More and more women found themselves obligated to choose between pursuing their careers and dedicating themselves entirely to their families and, thereby, relying on their husbands’ income.

In the 1980s, 92% of Soviet women were employed at least half time. But by 1995, “women constituted an estimated 70 percent of Russia’s unemployed, and as much as 90 percent in some areas,” according to statistics provided in the Library of Congress’s Russia: A Country Study. Men felt an increasing pressure to provide for their families, which contributed to the formation of a culture of “machoism”. Today, men in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus continue to be reared to embrace their positions as protectors and providers and, despite exposure to Western media, even young men are prone to viewing feminism as suspicious and unnecessary.

However, the situation is gradually changing, as there has been a significant effort to “mainstream” feminism and render it more palatable for a wider range of people. “Feminism is becoming trendy and even men are joining the movements,” said Dovgopol. One of example of such mainstreaming has been the transition from radical to “pop-feminist” strategies in Ukraine, which involves maintaining feminist initiatives on a grassroots level; avoiding use of the term “feminist”, so as to not stigmatise and nip the movement in the bud; and keeping traditional ideas about gender in the background.

Nevertheless, there are also less discrete movements at play, with the evermore frequent appearance of feminist motifs in Russian art and writing. “[Feminism] has even become a trendy topic in Russian media, being covered by magazines such as Snob and Afisha and even the nationalist Sputnik,” said Marina Yusopova, a PhD student in Russian and East European Studies at the University of Manchester.

Furthermore, women are slowly beginning to reclaim the right to use their “prettiness” as they please and take advantage of their physical attributes to bring their voices into the public space. “They are finding a balance between being witty and pretty. This is ironic, considering how long women have fought to disassociate themselves from sexuality,” said Evgenia Ivanova, a doctoral student in Political Theory at the University of Oxford. Ivanova gave the example of a calendar produced in 2010 by female students of journalism at Moscow State University. Titled “Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], we have several questions” (Russian: « Владимир Владимирович, у нас есть несколько вопросов »), the calendar depicted the beautiful students dressed in Western business attire, with their mouths taped shut. Each woman posed a provocative question, examples of which included: “Who killed [journalist] Anne Politkovskaya” and “When will [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky be released [from prison]?”. This political calendar was released in response to an erotic calendar produced earlier in honour of then-Prime Minister Putin’s birthday and featuring other female journalism students from Moscow State University wearing nothing but lingerie.

The Russian government, said Yusupova, relies on eroticised images to reinforce masculinity, with the most evident example of this phenomenon being bare-chested photographs of President Putin that are released to the public every so often. This, said the researcher, offers feminism an excellent opportunity for growth. “When sexism and discrimination happen on the everyday level, they seem invisible. But when masculinity and the oppression of women become part of official rhetoric, this gives feminism a venue to progress, because people speak out and take interest in opposing the movement.”


Not all of the experts invited to speak at the workshop expressed optimism in regards to the immediate prospects for feminism and gender equality in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

One of the most significant reasons why equality has proven so slow in taking root is the fact that a great deal of women are not equipped to recognise that their rights are being compromised. “Women do not even recognise their problems. They do not really understand what discrimination is, because they are always judging everything based on the ‘norms’ that they see on a daily basis,” said Berlinska.

Furthermore, many of those women who have succeeded in breaking stereotypes and gaining greater sovereignty remain passive and silent, which prohibits further progress. “Women who received equality received it on personal terms and do not feel that they have to address the wider issue. Those involved in protest movements see themselves as unique and exceptional and their victories as personal achievements, as opposed as achievements in the overall fight for gender equality,” the activist concluded.