The beginning of a journey: Russia’s women bite back. By Anna Schmitt
Two years in prison it is then for the members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot, who staged an anti-Putin song in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
The group’s feminist artistic backlash against Vladimir Putin, and the way they endured the subsequent chicanery by the authorities, hopefully marks a new era of political protest in Russia. Equally important however; their protest also signals a new critique of the still overly archaic, and patriarchal structures within Russian society.
In an interview with Vice magazine, members of the group stated that among their motivations to start the project of Pussy Riot was the domination of men in Russian public discourse. They believe in challenging the widespread perceptions held by the Russian public about gender order and roles. Indeed, it is surprising how little the view of gender roles has progressed in today’s Russian society, and in many other post-communist countries in Easter Europe.
There was little public outcry about Putin’s super-masculine cult of personality during his presidential years. Let us not forget his topless riding in the Siberian tundra or pictures of him carrying around a hunting rifle. Equally distasteful for feminists was the sexual objectification of women in many of his and United Russia’s election campaigns, despite which he still secured early overwhelming victories. In fact, these pictures helped him to underline and strengthen the perception of him as a strong and capable leader amongst the Russian public.
Additionally, this male chauvinism is extended to the Russian media and commercial advertising. In many adverts the image and role of women is depicted as one deprived of all individuality, reduced to either a sexual object or the role of a caring and compassionate housewife. Indeed it can be argued that an anti-feminist movement has emerged in modern Russia. This negative portrayal has been nurtured by the Russian media, who paint feminists as low in self-esteem and man hating.
These developments are surprising considering the country’s socialist legacy. Soviet Russia was the first country in the world to officially proclaim the full liberation of women, legally protecting their equal political and civil rights. An example of this progressiveness was that soviet ideology offered a strong social support for working mothers, which reinforced the position of women in society. Here, following the 1917 Russian Revolution, women were viewed as ‘workers’ rather than as mothers and wives.
However, the fundamental reason for this negative view of the feminist movement in modern Russia, and the persistence of traditional gender roles, is rooted precisely within Soviet history. At the heart of the Soviet gender stereotype lies an essentialist understanding of identity. This essentialism entails the belief that women and men were born with different personality traits, which predestined them for the roles of chief parents and breadwinner respectively. Despite the liberation of women being high on the official soviet agenda, a real transformation of the essentialist view of gender has never taken place.
This lack of transformation was firstly due to men never being encouraged by the state to take up more responsibilities amongst their families. This led to a double burden for the women, who were encouraged to work, but who were also were left with the upbringing of the children and the maintenance of the household. Therefore it’s more understandable that many Russian women see the supposed emancipation of womankind in a harsher light.
Furthermore the Soviet state was plagued by famine, purges and a shortage of men following the World Wars, which made them face a continuous demographic crisis with low birth rates. As a result Soviet Russia became an example of a nation where ideology was adapted to cope with the more pressing social and economic needs. Consequently women were reminded of their supposed intrinsic nurturing attributes, whilst state propaganda steered their aspirations towards fulfillment within the family. Hence the image of the compliant woman was successfully inculcated into the mass consciousness.
Whether Pussy Riot has enough impact to herald a new era of gender discourse remains to be seen. They are surely not the only political group urging for a transformation of the overly patriarchal Russian society. Moscow has always been a very cosmopolitan city and breeding place for progressive ideas. But what makes Pussy Riot so unique and crucial is that they are a generation of young, intelligent women who briskly and without financial resources stirred up the male dominated political discourse and therefore garnered wide public solidarity.
They certainly have opened the door for many other young Russian women to get involved and to speak up against increasingly conservative social policies, such as the abortion law. It seems that the group’s harsh two year sentence has only furthered the rumblings. Russia has just started its journey towards building a stronger civil society; perhaps in a few years the country will be facing such female outrage that Pussy Riot will seem more like a school choir. The quest for Russia’s gender equality remains.