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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?

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

“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.