Women's Political Activism and Post-Soviet Gender Culture in Russia
Popkova opened her presentation by examining political participation and representation among Russian women. In discussions with female political leaders in Samara, Popkova found that today's gender identities continue to be influenced by Soviet-established values. Popkova stated that under Soviet rule, gender order was institutionalized, impacting the perception that women were secondary to men. The Soviet image of working mothers reinforced the established gender order and furthered the needs of the state. Popkova noted that this perception continues among the younger generation, and that recent studies show that Russian women are less sensitive than western women to male domination in the workplace or in their personal relationships.
According to Popkova's research, women's political activism in Russia has separated into two approaches. The first perspective is based primarily on a gender neutral or professional position. Similar to western women's movements, activist leaders do not use gender or gender-related issues to establish women's rights in the political process. The second and more popular approach among Russian women is more gender sensitive. Activists use biological and gender related differences to prove that women belong in the political process. Popkova noted that the popularity of this view is evidenced by the fact that nearly all female candidates in the latest election used this approach in their political campaigns.
Nechemias began her discussion by noting that there has been a decline in the proportion of women in the State Duma during Russia's democratic transition and that women hold less than 4 percent of high-level government positions. Nechemias stated that this discrepancy illustrates how communism discredited the idea of women in Russian politics. Under communist rule, women (especially working mothers) were used as symbolic figures in communist propaganda, but were absent from key decision-making bodies like the Politburo and Central Committee of the Communist Party. Russians remain skeptical about women as serious political figures, viewing them instead as decorative elements of Russian political society.
According to Nechemias, women political leaders have not had much success in Russian politics. Nechemias noted that women's political influence has suffered since the defeat of the Women of Russia movement in 1995, its split in 1996, and the failure to develop a unified, effective strategy for contesting the 1999 election. Nechemias also stated that although many Russians believe in equality, many feel that no "real" woman would pursue a high powered political career. Nechemias contended that members of the Russian political elite do not fear a distinct women's vote, and therefore do not address women's issues or promote women's candidacies.
Both speakers concluded by saying that in contemporary Russia, the identity or categorization of women's rights is currently failing. According to Popkova, women must establish their rights as individuals first, and then work collectively to achieve women's rights as a whole. Nechemias finished by saying that activist leaders must work from the grassroots level up to establish political viability with Russian politicians.