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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The hidden joy of charity shops

Mary saw her colleagues at the charity shop every day, but she didn't tell them she was sleeping on the 31 bus.

Camden is a bric-a-brac kind of place – market stalls, blaring music, occasional offers of weed. But the back room of the Sue Ryder charity shop on Parkway is immaculate, with hooped petticoats waiting to be steamed and crockery stacked neatly on the shelves. I’ve come to talk to the shop’s manager, Oya, and one of her volunteers, Mary*, and they are waiting for me with milky tea and chocolate-chip cookies.

Mary is nervous. She is afraid of having her real name printed. “It’s shaming to tell you my story but I believe if I tell people at the right time, good things will happen,” she says. Now in her fifties, she arrived in Britain four years ago from Italy, without friends or savings, having left her husband. The jobcentre gave her an Oyster card and told her to volunteer at a charity shop to improve her English. “So we put her on the tills,” says Oya. “That’s what we do with anyone who gets sent to us to learn English.”

But Mary had a secret. She couldn’t find anywhere to live, so every afternoon, when she finished her shift at the shop, she would go to the jobcentre and laugh and joke with the staff there to cover up the reality that she didn’t have anywhere else to go. When the jobcentre closed, she would ride the 31 bus through the night, from White City to Camden and back again. It was the best way to stay warm. Then, every morning, she would arrive at the shop early, brush her teeth in the staff bathroom and change into fresh clothes – washed in a friend’s hostel room. No one else knew.

The charity Crisis calls people such as Mary “the hidden homeless” and says that it is almost impossible to estimate how many of them there are in Britain today. Most homeless people don’t qualify for accommodation in shelters but eke out their time shuttling between friends’ sofas, insecure rented accommodation, bed and breakfasts or sleeping rough on the streets.

Eventually, the shop manager – Oya’s predecessor – asked Mary what was wrong and her story tumbled out. Between them, with help from the jobcentre staff, Mary found a studio flat and moved from volunteering on the tills to working at a nearby convenience store, where she is now a supervisor. Both she and Oya have to stop to reach for tissues while telling me this story. “Sue Ryder is my family,” says Mary. “Sometimes I want to cry but there are no tears left. And Allah would be angry if I dared to cry now, with all that I have.”

Despite having a paid job, Mary still volunteers at the charity shop on Friday mornings. She leaves at 3pm to work the evening shift at the convenience store. She and Oya are firm friends outside work. Mary brings in home-cooked lasagne for Oya and her daughter – “She says, ‘Eat some tonight, freeze the rest for Ella’” – and Oya invites her round and cooks her Turkish food on Friday nights. “She’ll say working here saved her life,” says Oya. “I’ll say I made a friend for life.”

The reason I’m here is a selfish one. Volunteering for a charity is the perfect antidote to a culture that can often feel mercenary, cynical and ruthlessly individualistic. I wish more people did it. I’m also here because in December, I wrote a piece defending charities from accusations that many do not turn every penny of donations into outlay on their projects. But running charity shops requires upfront investment – on electricity, rent and wages – so it’s too simplistic to demand that all the money they receive should go straight back out of the door.

That article prompted the management of Sue Ryder, which operates 457 shops with 12,000 volunteers, to get in touch and invite me in. Some of their volunteers, like Mary, need to learn English and other skills before they can get a paying job; some are serving prison sentences; others are youngsters sent unwillingly by their schools for work experience. (Jackie, who now manages one of the charity’s shops in Aberdeen, had previously been imprisoned three times.)

Not that everything is rosy in the charity shop back room. Oya says that some people use them as a “dumping ground”. I tell her that I once read a story about a donation of tights that had a used sanitary towel still stuck to the crotch and they nod: “We had that.” Oya is very proud, however, that the store “doesn’t smell like a charity shop”.

As well as providing jobs and raising money, stores such as this one provide a useful social barometer. There are around 9,000 charity shops in the UK and their number rose 30 per cent in the five years following the financial crash of 2007. Since then, the economic downturn has increased trade significantly. Last year at the shop in Camden, the number of donation bags increased by 52 per cent and takings went up by 8 per cent, yielding a net profit of £65,000.

In Camden, close to chichi Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill, the donations can be eyewateringly expensive (recent finds include a £1,200 clarinet and a £980 Prada handbag), while the cheapest brands stocked are Marks & Spencer and Next. “More people are charity shopping,” says Oya. “And not the people you’d expect. They’re suited and booted. Sometimes they’re famous.” Mention is made of an EastEnders actress spotted in the store.

Because of her work, Oya has been invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace on 12 June and naturally she is taking Mary. A trip to buy hats is coming up and their enthusiasm is infectious. Here in the back room of a north London charity shop, as the three of us – a Turkish-British Muslim, an Eritrean-Italian Muslim and plain old white agnostic me – drink milky tea, I feel the most British I have all year. These guys really love the Queen. And they love being friends. Stepping out into the sunshine, my overwhelming feeling is: maybe we’re all going to be OK.

*Her name has been changed

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster