Is feminism in Russia a mortal sin?

The trial of Pussy Riot is encouraging Russians to talk openly about corruption. But how is their message being received in a country where feminism is still a dirty word?

“They’re just stupid girls who wanted to gain popularity. Young punk bands can’t be that political, they can’t be that patriotic. If they had had a certain degree of intelligence, they would never have done that in a church. One should be respectful of any religion.” That’s how Anya Belozerova, the 47 year old woman who was renting me a room in her Moscow apartment for a few days in August, dismissed the three Pussy Riot members who lip-synced to a song on 21 February in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral. “Mother of God drive Putin away/ Mother of God become a feminist,” they sang, in a video that can be seen on Youtube. Shortly aferwards, they were arrested, charged with ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’, facing up to seven years in jail. Six months later, they are waiting for the verdict, which is expected on 17 August. The prosecution has asked for a sentence of 3 years.

Yet contrary to what my host thought of these young women - and her opinion is common among many Russians I have met - the Pussy Riot members happen to be very well read, especially in feminist theory. Having never released a song nor played live, they are not a band in the conventional sense.  One of them was a member of the Saint Petersburg-based art collective Voina, which has been staging politically-charged public performances for several years; the two others have academic backgrounds. When it was suggested to the women that they ask prominent international figures to sign a petition in support of their cause, one of their first choices was the US gender theorist Judith Butler. What’s more, all three took part in last December’s massive protests against Vladimir Putin’s attempt to be re-elected president after serving one term as prime minister. The placard they brandished read “Free the women” - a slogan that has now taken on a different resonance. They have stressed that their action was not anti-religious but a protest against the collusion of Church and State in Russia.

“It’s as if the girls had taken this big bag full of shit and pulled the plug out”, explains Valeria Ovechenko, a 30 year-old who moved to Moscow from her home by the Black Sea a decade ago. Pussy Riot, she says, have forced Russians to start talking openly about politics in a way they never had before. The corruption of the Church, its vast wealth, its close ties to the State - Kirill, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch, is a former KGB officer just like Putin - all of this is well known, but had never been a subject of public debate. "There is a reason why the Pussy Riot members chose Christ the Saviour Cathedral,” says Ovechenko. Moscow’s largest church, demolished by Stalin but rebuilt in the post-Soviet era, is viewed almost like a government ministry building by the public. “I’m religious, the Orthodox religion is part of my culture, but this protest was not an attack on my faith,” says Ovechenko. Like many of her friends, she says, she sees the protest as a criticism of church leaders, who are seen as being avaricious and a part of the country's political corruption.

Pussy Riot’s action, which came only weeks before Putin’s re-election (despite, or perhaps because of, the government’s own moves to stifle dissent, he retains wide popular support) can not be separated from the wider background of political disenchantment. Ovechenko, who works as a publicist for one of Moscow’s thriving clusters of art galleries, boutiques and restaurants, sees the girls’ stunt as expressing her generation’s frustration. “I was born in 1981,” she says, “I remember Soviet times, when it was too hard to live, the 90’s, when the mafia destroyed everything. We are tired. My generation wants to live now.”

Yet I was surprised at what Ovechenko had to say about their feminist sloganeering. “That’s just a myth for little girls watching American films. We have no time for feminism in Russia.”

Ovechenko may not share the view of the prosecutors, who described feminism as a “mortal sin” and brought forth a pious old lady to testify that the very word was an obscenity when uttered in a church. But the term is treated with suspicion or outright hostility, even among political progressives. According to Svetlana Kolchik, editor of Marie Claire’s Russian edition, “many Russian women are more feminist and stronger than women in Western countries.” They have, she says, always been working aside the men and actually work more than them. “Sometimes, they play weak, play soft, just to support the men. But they’re incredibly strong. They would not call themselves feminist, but they are feminist, by necessity, if not by choice.” It’s for this reason, perhaps, that young women like Ovechenko see “feminism” as a Western indulgence, even irrelevant to their lives.

Miriam Elder, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondant, not only knows the country well, but shares a love of the US-based punk rock Riot Grrrl movement that inspired Pussy Riot. As she explained to me, “Russia has a very specific feminist history that traces back to Soviet times, when a new ideal of female equality saw women going en masse into the workforce. Men and women were to share the workload and the responsibilities at home.” However, the reality did not match up to expectations: “Russian women ended up with a double burden. They worked as long as their husbands, then came home, did all the cleaning, all the cooking and took care of the children.” This Soviet past is the reason why the Western definition of feminism – one that starts with the fight for equality in the workplace – doesn’t seem to apply so well to Russia. But beneath the self-reliant exterior lie problems familiar to women in the West. Women earn lower wages than men and, says Miriam “when you look at how well spread domestic abuse is here, at the lack of shelters, you realise there’s a lot of work of be done.” In Russia, feminism is still underground. As with politics and religion, Pussy Riot are trying to start a conversation about it.

Whithin the opposition movement, the first reactions to the group’s protest in Christ the Saviour were mixed. Alexei Navalny, a lawyer and blogger who has become the movement’s de facto leader, didn’t hide his distaste, although he called for the three women to be released as soon as possible. Yet as the case dragged on and it became clear that Russian state prosecutors were pushing for a draconian punishment, Navalny, along with others began to offer more vocal support.

Michael Idov, a Russian-American journalist who now edits GQ in Moscow, says that the trial - which he described in an op-ed for the New York Times as “Russia’s Hustler v. Falwell”, referring to a landmark US Supreme Court decision in favour of the pornographer Larry Flynt’s in 1988 - is a cultural watershed. “I was very pleased to see Alexei Navalny speaking in their support, as he has done on Twitter,” says Idov, “because he is a very astute politician who is building political capital and has a very wide range support. If you’re a populist, Pussy Riot are not a good cause to pick up. Beyond Moscow’s garden ring [ie, in Russia at large], a lot of people actually want to see them in jail.” Now, as the case has received unexpected international attention and support from pop musicians abroad – culminating during Madonna’s Pussy Riot themed strip tease at her concert in Moscow on 7 August, the balance may have tipped in their favour. The fact that the judge at Moscow’s Khamovnichesky Court has called for a 10-day recess before delivering the verdict makes observers such as Idov hopeful. It may mean that officials, shocked by how big a news story the case has become, are trying to find a way out of it without damaging Russia’s international reputation, or losing face among their compatriots.

But the consensus that unites a great part of Moscow youth seems to fade outside of the capital. A few days later, I was on a train bound for Siberia - a four-day journey across vast stretches of Russian territory. Sitting in front of me, reading a tabloid account of the Pussy Riot case, was Tatiana, a 15-year-old girl from Irkutsk, a city near Lake Baikal. While Western pop stars have expressed their support for the trio, many popular Russian singers have done the opposite. “It’s better to sing than to speak,” was the verdict of one quoted in the article. All Tatiana knew about the case was that Pussy Riot “said God was bad” and “painted over all the icons in the church.” Her mother was even more blunt. “Russia is a big country, it has many hooligans.” Pussy Riot may have caused a scandal but what would it take for women like these to engage with their ideas?

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French journalist based in London. This post first appeared on openDemocracy 50.50 here.


Members of the all-girl punk band 'Pussy Riot' in court. Photograph: Getty Images

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French freelance journalist. She reports on social issues and contributes to the LRB, the Guardian, Index on Censorship and French Slate, with a particular interest in France and Russia. She is on Twitter as @valeria_wants.


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Let's seize our chance of a progressive alliance in Richmond - or we'll all be losers

Labour MPs have been brave to talk about standing aside. 

Earlier this week something quite remarkable happened. Three Labour MPs, from across the party’s political spectrum, came together to urge their party to consider not fielding a candidate in the Richmond Park by-election. In the face of a powerful central party machine, it was extremely brave of them to do what was, until very recently, almost unthinkable: suggest that people vote for a party that wasn’t their own.
Just after the piece from Lisa Nandy, Clive Lewis and Jonathan Reynolds was published, I headed down to the Richmond Park constituency to meet local Green members. It felt like a big moment – an opportunity to be part of something truly ground-breaking – and we had a healthy discussion about the options on the table. Rightly, the decision about whether to stand in elections is always down to local parties, and ultimately the sense from the local members present was that it would be difficult  not to field a candidate unless Labour did the same. Sadly, even as we spoke, the Labour party hierarchy was busily pouring cold water on the idea of working together to beat the Conservatives. The old politics dies hard - and it will not die unless and until all parties are prepared to balance local priorities with the bigger picture.
A pact of any kind would not simply be about some parties standing down or aside. It would be about us all, collectively, standing together and stepping forward in a united bid to be better than what is currently on offer. And it would be a chance to show that building trust now, not just banking it for the future, can cement a better deal for local residents. There could be reciprocal commitments for local elections, for example, creating further opportunities for progressive voices to come to the fore.
While we’ve been debating the merits of this progressive pact in public, the Conservatives and Ukip have, quietly, formed an alliance of their own around Zac Goldsmith. In this regressive alliance, the right is rallying around a candidate who voted to pull Britain out of Europe against the wishes of his constituency, a man who shocked many by running a divisive and nasty campaign to be mayor of London. There’s a sad irony in the fact it’s the voices of division that are proving so effective at advancing their shared goals, while proponents of co-operation cannot get off the starting line.
Leadership is as much about listening as anything else. What I heard on Wednesday was a local party that is passionate about talking to people and sharing what the Greens have to offer. They are proud members of our party for a reason – because they know we stand for something unique, and they have high hopes of winning local elections in the area.  No doubt the leaders of the other progressive parties are hearing the same.
Forming a progressive alliance would be the start of something big. At the core of any such agreement must be a commitment to electoral reform - and breaking open politics for good. No longer could parties choose to listen only to a handful of swing voters in key constituencies, to the exclusion of everyone else. Not many people enjoy talking about the voting system – for most, it’s boring – but as people increasingly clamour for more power in their hands, this could really have been a moment to seize.
Time is running out to select a genuine "unity" candidate through an open primary process. I admit that the most likely alternative - uniting behind a Liberal Democrat candidate in Richmond Park - doesn’t sit easily with me, especially after their role in the vindictive Coalition government.  But politics is about making difficult choices at the right moment, and this is one I wanted to actively explore, because the situation we’re in is just so dire. There is a difference between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. Failing to realise that plays into the hands of Theresa May more than anyone else.
And, to be frank, I'm deeply worried. Just look at one very specific, very local issue and you’ll perhaps understand where I'm coming from. It’s the state of the NHS in Brighton and Hove – it’s a system that’s been so cut up by marketisation and so woefully underfunded that it’s at breaking point. Our hospital is in special measures, six GP surgeries have shut down and private firms have been operating ambulances without a license. Just imagine what that health service will look like in ten years, with a Conservative party still in charge after beating a divided left at another general election.
And then there is Brexit. We’re hurtling down a very dangerous road – which could see us out of the EU, with closed borders and an economy in tatters. It’s my belief that a vote for a non-Brexiteer in Richmond Park would be a hammer blow to Conservatives at a time when they’re trying to remould the country in their own image after a narrow win for the Leave side in the referendum.
The Green party will fight a passionate and organised campaign in Richmond Park – I was blown away by the commitment of members, and I know they’ll be hitting the ground running this weekend. On the ballot on 1 December there will only be one party saying no to new runways, rejecting nuclear weapons and nuclear power and proposing a radical overhaul of our politics and democracy. I’ll go to the constituency to campaign because we are a fundamentally unique party – saying things that others refuse to say – but I won’t pretend that I don’t wish we could have done things differently.

I believe that moments like this don’t come along very often – but they require the will of all parties involved to realise their potential. Ultimately, until other leaders of progressive parties face the electoral facts, we are all losers, no matter who wins in Richmond Park.


Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.