Since the beginning of the full-scale war in Ukraine and the following establishment of de facto martial law in Russia, Russians have been protesting against the war. Though this protest is weak and fragmented and exposed to government repression, it is ongoing in many cities and towns of Russia. It includes not only street demonstrations and pickets but also invisible forms of resistance, like sabotage at work or different ways of distribution of information about the war, fighting the strict censorship.
After more than a month of this protest, it is already evident that women are very active in the protest movement. One of the first Russian anti-war groups, which appeared on the second day of the war, was organised by feminists — it’s Feminist Anti-War Resistance, which I am happy to be a part of. Currently, the FAR coordinating telegram channel unites more than 29 000 activists all over Russia and from abroad. The FAR action on International Women’s Day, organised in remembrance of the Ukrainians killed in the war, united 112 cities, towns and villages in Russia and other countries.
It’s not only feminist activists who are protesting. Women of all political views take part in demonstrations and pickets. The women representatives in local authorities became notable opponents of the war. On March 16, Helga Pirogova, the liberal oppositional politician and the Deputy of the City Assembly in Novosibirsk, came to work in the wreath and vyshyvanka shirt in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. This small gesture caused a big scandal in the Assembly – other deputies started verbally assaulting Pirogova and proposed to withdraw her mandate. Nina Belyaeva, the Deputy of the Semiluksky District Council of the Voronezh Region, condemned the war at a district council meeting on March 22. She publicly called the actions of the Russian authorities a ‘war crime’. Belyaeva was immediately expelled from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and now the local prosecutor’s office is considering a complaint against her. There are many other examples like these, and they appear every day.
Why does the anti-war movement in Russia have a female face? To answer this question, I’ll need to turn to the development of Russian feminism over the past ten years. In these years, feminism in Russia has gone through a rebirth. From a local and relatively marginal movement concentratedin narrow circles, feminism has turned into a widely discussed subject or even into some kind of fashion. It has led to the extensive growth of the number of feminist groups and created a new type of female political agency in Russia.
Russian feminism in the post-Soviet era
Russian feminism and feminist thought have a long history with their ups and downs. It started in the middle of the 19th century in the context of the liberal reforms of the Russian emperor Alexander II. The crucial point that predetermined all its further development was the year 1930 when Josef Stalin himself proclaimed that ‘women’s question’ was ‘solved’ by the Soviet authorities, and there was no need for independent women’s organisations any longer. All the grassroots feminist groups in USSR were demolished. Only at the end of the 1970s and in the 1980s did they start to pop up again — in the dissident and intellectual circles. These were small groups with very limited influence, but even so, they faced massive persecution from the state authorities and special services. For example, almost all the leading creators of the feminist samizdat almanac ‘Woman and Russia’ (1979) had to leave the USSR under pressure from the KGB.
After 1991, a new chapter of the history of the Russian women’s movement started. It began with two significant events — Independent Women’s Forums of 1991 and 1992, held in Dubna city. Russia was undergoing large-scale transformations, both economic and political. ‘Democracy without women is not democracy’ was the slogan of the Forums. Its participants hoped that women would become essential agents of democratisation in post-Soviet Russia.
Unfortunately, this happened only partially. Transitioning to a market economy created new gendered problems in post-communist societies. It reinforced work inequality, justified the commercialisation of women’s bodies, and caused the decline in social services, which primarily affected women and vulnerable groups. Despite all these problems, the feminist agenda remained relatively marginal, wrote Anastasia Posadskaya, one of the first gender scholars in post-Soviet Russia. According to Posadskaya, in the 1990s, the elites and the general public identified women’s emancipation with Soviet ideology, which had exploited this topic on both internal and international levels. They were oriented toward new nationalistic political values with quite a traditionalist view of gender roles. That’s why feminism did not become widespread; only the small circles considered the gender agenda seriously. New feminists and gender studies gained a limited influence.
The situation changed drastically in the 2010s, and there might be many reasons for that shift. One of them lies in the specifics of the conservative turn in internal and external Russian policy. In the early 2010s, the authorities and the governmental media started actively promoting the idea of ‘traditional values’. They praised the ideal of a ‘traditional Russian family’ — heterosexual, multigenerational, with three and more kids. ‘Traditional family’ became the reflection of the idea of a sovereign Russian state – in propaganda, they both were depicted in opposition to all ‘West’. State speakers and media placed NATO and UN politics in one line with the LGBTQ+ movements, gay marriages and human rights. Any external influence started to be described as a danger to Russian independence and way of life, including its families.
Russia stopped collaborating with international organisations on gender issues. For example, the Russian side refused to ratify the 2011 Istanbul Convention (Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence). In 2013 Russian authorities adopted a law prohibiting the ‘promotion of non-traditional family relationships’ among minors. The ‘non-traditional family relationships’ mostly mean LGBTQ+ families, but the term is vague and open for further interpretation.
Сontrary to expectations of the authorities, the obsessive propaganda of ‘traditional values’ did not evoke that much sympathy – many people recognised it as a desire to interfere in their personal affairs like it was in the Soviet times. Other factors also stimulated interest in the feminist agenda, for example, the Pussy Riot’s well-known performance inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012 or the rise of social media and the spread of feminist online campaigns like #metoo. The beginning of the 2010s also was the time of massive oppositional protests and political mobilisation across Russia. The opposition groups of the time were often as sexist and hierarchical as the pro-state ones. However, the rise of public interest in politics affected women. Many of them got involved in politics and, at the same time, started reflecting on the hierarchies in political circles.
As a result, in the last decade Russian feminist movement has been growing — despite the repressions that followed the 2011-2013 protests and all the attendant factors. The feminist agenda has spread beyond local groups and hit the media, including lifestyle and political outlets that have never written about these topics before. Events on feminism and gender studies became an inescapable part of the cultural and intellectual life in many cities and towns.
Interestingly, the authorities for some time did not see women’s rights as dangerous as other political topics. Moreover, feminist politics remained invisible, as the state and the secret services were more interested in the activities of prominent male politicians like Alexey Navalny. In contrast to other oppositional groups in Russia, feminism developed as a horizontal movement without strict hierarchies and individual leaders. It seems like the authorities for some time did not consider it revolutionary enough. It also was not seen as dangerous for the ‘traditional values’ as, for example, gay rights. Therefore, feminist events could take part even in state institutions such as libraries, museums and art galleries. I personally was one of the organisers of a feminist festival in one of the biggest Moscow state libraries in 2017. Feminist activists, gender scholars and sex bloggers took part in this event, and we faced no pressure from the library administration or city authorities.
Two effects of the spread of feminism in the 2010s
The spread of the feminist agenda in Russia had two main effects. First is the growth of the number of grass-root feminist organisations. According to my own monitoring, I am doing since 2019, the number of grass-roots feminist groups in the last years was growing. By the beginning of the war, more than 45 these groups functioned across the country. I say ‘more than 45 groups’, as I know that there are several such groups in the North Caucasus. They work secretly as it’s life-threatening for their members to reveal their identities, and I don’t have safety protocols to try to reach them for details. Many feminist groups are based in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but they are not concentrating only in these cities. Active feminist groups also work in Novosibirsk and Kaliningrad, Krasnodar and Khabarovsk, Murmansk and Ulan-Ude — and many other places.
The second effect is more complex and needs more comprehensive research. I suppose that the spread of the feminist agenda created a new understanding of women’s political agency in modern Russia. Although Russia has a substantial history of women’s participation in social and political life, both in Soviet and post-Soviet times, women did not obtain adequate representation at the highest levels of state administration. We know only isolated cases of women who became ministers or occupied other high decision-making positions. For a long time, politics and especially military affairs were a ‘nonwomen’s business’ (‘неженское дело’) for many Russians and women themselves.
The feminist agenda turned out a powerful tool for the politicisation of women and reached out even those who initially had little interest in politics. In general, Russians have a negative attitude towards any collectivity, associating it with the violent politicisation of the Soviet times. The Russian authorities successfully used this individualism for years, demonstrating again and again that the ‘average person’ can change nothing and should stay away from the ‘dirty business’ of politics. The regime has been on the apathy and indifference of the population. Therefore, it is not surprising that in Russia, the opinion that it’s impossible to influence the state is quite common – people believe that the circle of family members and closest friends is the most one can affect. Feminism, with its ‘personal is political’ formula, became a game-changer in these circumstances. Many feminist activists I know came to feminism to find answers to questions about their bodies or domestic issues, and later on, these questions led them to discussions about representative democracy and dictatorship and reconsideration of politics and protest, and their place in it. As a result, today we see women on the streets and women organising resistance, and these women show absolute confidence that their voice is important and must be considered seriously. They do not hesitate to come together, stand their ground, and criticise other political activists and journalists if they ignore or underestimate them. Unfortunately, many of these women are in great danger. The threat comes not only from the Russian state, which represses citizens protesting against the war or revealing the truth about it. Even before the war Russian feminists and politically active women were getting hundreds of death threats from ordinary Russians, angry that even just saying out loud about gender stereotypes or gendered violence or participating in politics, these women violated the tacit patriarchal order. Public speakers were dehumanising feminists, calling them ‘demons’ and ‘animals’ or comparing them with Nazis. I am afraid that Russian soldiers who sooner or later return from Ukraine will share this attitude when they find out that many Russian women do not see them as heroes and saviours but curse and call them war criminals. These men, who perpetrated real atrocities in the Kyiv Oblast, will not tolerate these voices, – they might revenge on those who revealed the truth, and I am not sure if the Russian general public, accustomed to violence and mostly still hostile to feminists, will confront them.
Ella Rossman is a PhD-student at UCL SSEES, specializing in the gender history of the late USSR, and a feminist activist.