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Feminism in Russia: From Soviet Samizdat to Online Activism

Date & Time

Nov. 2, 2020
11:00am – 12:30pm ET


This event was co-sponsored by the Sakharov Center.

In July 1980, a group of female dissidents were expelled from the Soviet Union for publishing a samizdat journal, where they contemplated social issues such as the double burden, family pressures, and unequal treatment toward women in a supposedly egalitarian society. In post-Soviet Russia, new groups have emerged in support of women’s rights, and today a new generation of activists is promoting the values of feminism and equality in a civil society that is increasingly under pressure. In this panel marking the forty year anniversary of the expulsion, Dmitry Kozlov, Ella Rossman, and Valerie Sperling considered the past and present of the Russian feminist agenda and discussed the relationship between feminists and other human rights activists in Russia.

This conversation took place in Russian and English with interpretation. To watch the Russian version, please click here.

Selected Quotes

Dmitry Kozlov
"In July 1973, the three main editor-and-chiefs, Tatiana Mamonova, Tatiana Goricheva, Natalia Malakhovskaya, published their own text and they found other authors like Julia Voznesenskaya, who had just come back from prison, so she took part in actions by Leningrad artists and there were other wonderful women, like Yelena Schwartz, a co-editor from Leningrad. It's sort of a spy story. What happened next was tiny, 120-page, handwritten, but it was a collection of texts covering topics that were not discussed in Soviet editions. There were magazines like Krestyanka or Rabotnitsa, magazines for women, but this almanac covered things like the shortage of consumer goods or food products. It also spoke about how women were carrying the burden of raising children and caring for sick relatives. It spoke about the horrible conditions in some maternity clinics and abortion centers, about the vsituation of women in prison, what happens to women and young girls who find themselves behind bars after some minor crimes, unlike official magazines for women."

"Samizdat happened to be the site where women found freedom, but there were some problems which were ignored. However, by 1979, samizdat was not a toy for small groups of dissidents or underground poets, but rather, a wide network igniting a series of editorials which could ignore Soviet censorship. It's important to understand that our protagonists could only publish their texts in samizdat." 

Valerie Sperling
“Feminism is still somehow regarded as dangerous. In my view, it is dangerous at least in part because feminism undermines the legitimation of strategy of the regime; Putin’s political legitimacy [...] rests on a socially constructed distinction between male and female, between masculinity and femininity [...]. Without that framework of understanding, you can’t use the kind of political legitimation strategy that the Russian regime has been using under Putin. And feminism is dangerous precisely because it explicitly reveals and questions that patriarchal hierarchy where masculinity is valued over femininity.”

“The women’s rights network and the human rights network in Russia are pretty separated and I think that’s kind of characteristic of human rights networks around the world until fairly recently. [Human rights organizations in Russia focus on fundamental rights]: freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, physical integrity rights, right not to be tortured, ethnic minorities, and interestingly, LGBT rights. But they tended to see women’s rights being more social rights, sort of outside of the sphere of human rights.”

“The concept of gender, the idea of the social construction of sex, the idea that our biology doesn’t determine who we are or what we are skilled at or what we can do, I think that in some ways it caught on pretty well in the 1990s. What we are seeing now is more of a reaction against it, not what we are seeing among feminists but the regime or the Orthodox Church - activation against the idea of social construction.”

Ella Rossman
"The feminist context in Russia is, you can be focused on feminism for many, many years but you may have no idea that there are other feminists groups in your city. We have some major groups; everyone knows Pussy Riot, but it's a little bit difficult to know about smaller groups from small cities and towns and at a certain point, I realized that I don't know what's going on outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, what's going on in Khabarovsk and other cities, if there are any feminist groups."

"Today's feminists are trying to rethink the message of Women's Day and the role of local feminists groups is key. They're trying to hold public events, some groups which were not very active or were silent become visible in March, so I believe that March is a really fruitful time when you can advertise the activities of those groups."

"When I published my first digest, I was really shocked by the scale of feminist events in Russia. I thought I would find maybe 30 or 40 events total throughout Russia but that wasn't the case in Moscow alone. There were a lot of events focused on therapy, workshops, the growth of self-actualization, artistic workshops dedicated to female topics... And we have some feminist networks that unite feminist organizations and I counted over 300 events in 2019 and there were some local groups behind them. I contacted them and they work in at least 34 cities. There are many different communities which frequently do not know about each other and so I discovered that there are many more movements and activists than are visible from Moscow."

Hosted By

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

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