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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How Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership election

The revolt against the leader transformed him from an incumbent back into an insurgent. 

On the evening of 12 July, after six hours of talks, Jeremy Corbyn emerged triumphantly from Labour’s headquarters. “I’m on the ballot paper!” he told supporters gathered outside. “We will be campaigning on all the things that matter.”

The contest that Corbyn’s opponents had sought desperately to avoid had begun. Neither a vote of no confidence by 81 per cent of Labour MPs, nor 65 frontbench resignations had persuaded him to stand down. Days of negotiations led by Tom Watson had failed (“For years I’ve been told that I’m a fixer. Well, I tried to fix this and I couldn’t,” Labour’s deputy leader sorrowfully told the parliamentary party). The rebels’ last hope was that the National Executive Committee would force Corbyn to reseek nominations. After being backed by just 40 colleagues in the confidence vote, both sides knew that the leader would struggle to achieve 51 signatures.

But by 18-14, the NEC ruled that Corbyn would be automatically on the ballot (“Watson, Watson, what’s the score?” chanted jubilant aides in the leader’s office). After withstanding a 16-day revolt, Corbyn appeared liberated by the prospect of a summer of campaigning. His confidence prefigured the outcome two months later.

Corbyn did not merely retain the leadership - he won by a greater margin than last time (with 61.8 per cent of the vote to last year's 59.5 per cent) and triumphed among all three sections: party members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters. The rebels had hoped to narrow his mandate and win among at least one group: they did neither. Far from being a curse for Corbyn, the contest proved to be a blessing. 

***

The day before the pivotal NEC meeting, Angela Eagle, who had been preparing to stand for months, launched her leadership bid. The former shadow business secretary was admired by MPs for her experience, tenacity, and economic acumen. Her trade union links and soft left background were further cited in favour of her candidacy.

But after an underwhelming launch, which clashed with Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the Conservative contest (leaving Eagle calling questions from absent journalists), MPs gravitated towards Owen Smith.

Like Eagle, Smith hailed from the party’s soft left and had initially served under Corbyn (two prerequisites in the rebels’ eyes). But unlike her, the former shadow and work pensions secretary did not vote for the Iraq war (having entered parliament in 2010) or the 2015 Syria intervention. “It looks like the war party,” a senior Corbynite said of Eagle’s campaign launch with Hilary Benn. Many Labour MPs feared the same. With the left-leaning Lisa Nandy having ruled herself out, only the ambitious Smith met the criteria.

“I’d been in hospital for two days with my brother, who was unwell, in south Wales,” he recalled when I interviewed him.  “I came out having literally been in A&E at Cardiff Heath hospital for 29 hours, looking after him, to have my phone light up with 30, 40, 50 colleagues, MPs and members, ringing up saying ‘there’s going to be a contest, Angela Eagle has thrown her hat into the ring, you should do likewise.’ And at that point, on the Wednesday night, I started ringing people to test opinion and found that there was a huge amount of support for me.”

On 19 July, after Smith won 90 MP/MEP nominations to Eagle’s 72, the latter withdrew in favour of the Welshman. A week after the Conservatives achieved their second female prime minister, Labour’s 116-year record of all-male leaders endured. Though Smith vowed that Eagle would be “at my right hand throughout this contest”, she went on to appear at just one campaign event.

Corbyn’s challenger was embraced by MPs as a “clean skin”, untainted by service during the New Labour years. But Smith’s non-parliamentary past was swiftly - and ruthlessly - exploited by his opponents. His time at the US drugs firm Pfizer was cited as evidence of his closeness to big business. Corbyn’s supporters also seized on interviews given by Smith as a by-election candidate in 2006.

The man pitching to the left was found to have defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq war), supported private sector involvement in the NHS and praised city academies. “I'm not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online. Such lines were rapidly disseminated by Corbyn supporters through social media.

“Getting out early and framing Owen was crucial,” a Corbyn source told me. A Smith aide echoed this assessment: “It helped secure their base, it took a load of people out of contention.”

Throughout the campaign, Smith would struggle to reconcile his past stances with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent. “It was easy for us to go for the jugular over his background when he portrayed himself as a left candidate,” a Corbyn source said.

Smith insisted that the charge of opportunism was unmerited. “To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing,’” he told me in August. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be.” He added: “I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

But a former shadow cabinet colleague said that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings. “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

As well as Smith’s ambiguous past, Corbyn’s allies believe the breadth of his political coalition hindered him from the start. “He was trying to bring together Blairites, Brownites and every other -ite in between,” a campaign source said. “That was never going to hold, we knew that and from the moment there were splits it was easy to point out.”

Jon Trickett, the shadow business secretary and one of Corbyn’s early supporters, told me: “They tried to pretend that there was no distinction between them and Jeremy on policy grounds, they tried to narrow down the areas of difference to electability. But, frankly, it didn’t seem credible since some of the people behind it were absolutely ideologically opposed to Jeremy. Peter Mandelson and people like that.”

A frequently expressed charge was that Smith’s left-wing pledges would be overturned by Blairite figures if he won. John McGeechan, a 22-year-old postgraduate student who joined Labour after “self-indulgent, self-serving MPs initiated their corridor coup”, told me of Smith: “He’s just another mealy-mouthed careerist who says whatever he thinks is going to get him elected. I don’t believe at all that he means what he says about creating a radical socialist government given that he’s got the backing of Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, people who’ve disagreed with Corbyn on pretty much all his socialist policies. I don’t believe that he’s going to stand up to these people.”

Whether believable or not, Smith’s programme showed how Corbyn had shifted Labour’s centre of gravity radically leftwards - his original aim in June 2015.

***

On the night Corbyn made the leadership ballot, the rebels still found cause for hope. Unlike in 2015, the NEC imposed a freeze date of six months on voting (excluding 130,000 new members) and increased the registered supporter fee from £3 to £25 (while reducing the sign-up period to two days). “It’s game on!” a senior figure told me. By narrowing the selectorate, Corbyn’s opponents hoped to achieve a path to victory. With fewer registered supporters (84 per cent of whom voted for Corbyn last year), they believed full party members and affiliated trade unionists could carry Smith over the line.

But when 183,000 paid £25 to vote, their expectations were confounded. Far from being “game on”, it looked to many rebels like game over. Once again, Corbyn’s opponents had underestimated the left’s recruiting capacity. Smith’s lack of name recognition and undistinctive pitch meant he could not compete.

Alongside the main contest were increasingly fractious legal battles over voting rights. On 28 July, the high court rejected Labour donor Michael Foster’s challenge to Corbyn’s automatic inclusion on the ballot. Then on 8 August, a judge ruled that the party had wrongly excluded new members from voting, only for the decision to be overturned on appeal.

In the view of Corbyn’s allies, such legal manevoures unwittingly aided him. “They turned Jeremy, who was an incumbent, back into an insurgent,” Trickett told me. “The proponents of the challenge made it seem like he was the underdog being attacked by the establishment.”

Smith, who repeatedly framed himself as the “unity candidate”, struggled to escape the shadow of the “corridor coup”. That many of his supporters had never accepted Corbyn’s leadership rendered him guilty by association.

“The coup had an enormous galvanising effect and an enormous politicising effect,” a Corbyn source told me. “For a great number of people who supported Jeremy last year, there was a feeling, ‘well, we’ve done the work, that’s happened, now over to him.’ What the coup meant for a lot of people was that this isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn, this is a people’s movement, which we all need to lead.” The Corbyn campaign signed up 40,000 volunteers and raised £300,000 in small donations from 19,000 people (with an average donation of £16). Against this activist army, their rivals’ fledgling effort stood no chance.

“At the launch rally, we had 12 simultaneous events going on round the country, livestreamed to each other,” a Corbyn source said. “We had a lot of communication with people who were big in the Sanders campaign. In the UK context, it’s trailblazing.”

On 12 August, after previously equivocating, Smith ruled out returning to the shadow cabinet under Corbyn. “I've lost confidence in you. I will serve Labour on the backbenches,” he declared at a hustings in Gateshead. In the view of Corbyn’s team, it was a fatal error. “He shot apart his whole unity message,” a source said.

Smith, who initially offered Corbyn the post of party president, was rarely booed more than when he lamented Labour’s divisions. As one of the 172 MPs who voted against the leader, he was regarded as part of the problem, rather than the solution. By the end, Smith was reduced to insisting “I wasn’t in favour of there being a challenge” - a statement that appeared absurd to most.

As well as his leftist credentials and unifying abilities, Smith’s other main boast was his competence and articulacy. “HIs USP was that he was this media-savvy guy,” a Corbyn source said. “As a result, he threw himself up for any and every media opportunity and made tons of gaffes. We just made sure people were aware of them.”

The most enduring gaffe came early in the campaign, on 27 July, when he spoke of wanting mto “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”. Though Smith initially defended his “robust rhetoric” (“you’ll be getting that from me”), by the afternoon his campaign had apologised. What was explained as a “rugby reference” dogged them for weeks. “It played into the hands of how Corbyn wanted to depict us,” a Smith source told me. “It was really hard to shake off.”

More unforced errors followed. Smith suggested getting Isis “round the table”, in anticipation, many believed, of Corbyn agreeing. But the Labour leader baulked at the proposal: “No, they are not going to be round the table”. Corbyn’s communications team, more organised and agile than in 2015, denounced Smith’s remarks as “hasty and ill-considered”. As with “smashed”, the Labour challenger had achieved rare cut-through - but for the wrong reasons.

Smith’s rhetorical looseness became a recurring problem. At a rally on 23 August, he appeared to refer to Corbyn as a “lunatic”. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, he said of meeting his wife: “1,200 boys, three girls and I pulled Liz. So I must have something going on. That must be leadership.”

Earlier in the campaign, Smith’s team denied that the candidate referred to the size of his penis when he quipped of his height: "5ft 6. 29 inches - inside leg!” The guffaws from his supporters suggested otherwise.

We used to have a gaffe counter,” a Corbyn source told me. “I think it got up to 30 by the end.”

Smith’s team, meanwhile, despaired at how the Labour leader’s own missteps failed to dent him. The discovery that Corbyn had in fact secured a seat on a Virgin train, contrary to initial impressions, did little lasting damage. “It’s priced in, the bar is much lower for him,” a Smith source complained.

Incorrect claims, such as Labour being level in the polls before the coup attempt and Corbyn giving 122 speeches during the EU referendum campaign, were believed by many of his supporters. “How do you rebut bullshit?” a Smith aide asked. “If you respond, it becomes a story.”

So frequently had Labour MPs condemned their leader that extraordinary charges were soon forgotten. On 22 August, shadow business minister Chi Onwurah wrote in the New Statesman that Corbyn’s treatment of her and Thangam Debbonaire could constitute “racial discrimination”.

If this had been any of my previous employers in the public and private sectors Jeremy might well have found himself before an industrial tribunal for constructive dismissal, probably with racial discrimination thrown in,” she argued. But within a day, the story had moved on.  

For Smith, fleeting momentum was achieved through significant endorsements. On 10 August, the GMB backed his campaign after becoming the only trade union to ballot its members. The following week, Labour’s most senior elected politician, Sadiq Khan, endorsed Smith. Unlike Andy Burnham, the London mayor believed he could not remain neutral during this profound schism. Smith was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband trumpeted his cause. Yet such declarations counted for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one Smith ally told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

But in the view of Corbyn’s team, the rebels profoundly “underestimated” their opponent. “He’s a nice guy but he also has an inner steel and won't flinch from a challenge. The Obi-Wan Kenobi comparison is very accurate when you work up close with him. He’s also extremely intelligent and has a great grasp and retention of detail. It showed in the debates.”

“I have to say, I felt pretty sorry for Owen at several points,” another Corbyn source reflected. “Whatever it was, his ambition or being pushed into it, it didn’t seem like it was the right time for him. He hadn’t worked out what he was about and why that fitted with the times.”

***

Those Labour MPs who long warned that an early challenge to Corbyn would prove futile have been vindicated. “Party members are always loyal to the incumbent,” a senior source astutely noted. In the case of Corbyn, a lifelong campaigner, who many contended was “never given a chance”, this traditional fealty was intensified.

“Most of the people backing and funding him didn’t think Owen was going to win,” a Corbyn source said. “Their aim was, one, to reduce Jeremy’s mandate and, secondly, to map the selectorate.”

Having won a second leadership contest - an unprecedented achievement for the Labour left - the leader’s supporters insist their ambitions do not end here. “We’ve got to think incredibly seriously about how we win a general election in a totally changed landscape,” a Corbyn source told me. “This campaign has been showing how to do it.” But a Smith aide warned that it was a “massive strategic error” to make electability, rather than principle, the defining test of Corbyn. The leader, he suggested, could withstand a general election defeat provided he simply affirmed his values.

Beyond regarding a split as worthless, Labour MPs are divided on how to proceed. Some want another leadership challenge as early as next year. Rather than seeking to narrow the selectorate, they speak of recruiting hundreds of thousands of new members to overpower the left. “There are lots of people out there who want a credible, electable, centre-left proposition and we have not given them enough of a reason to sign up,” a former shadow cabinet minister told me. “Who has an offer and the charisma to be able to bring in new people? That has to be the question the next time round.”

Others believe that backbenchers should follow Thumper’s law: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  A senior MP argued that MPs should “just shut up” and “let Jeremy crack on with it.” The imperative, he said, was to avoid MPs “taking the blame for us getting thumped in a snap election”. Some are prepared to move beyond neutrality to outright support by serving under Corbyn.

The Labour left and their most recalcitrant opponents both confront challenges of electability. The former must demonstrate a path to victory despite Corbyn’s subterranean poll ratings. The latter, who boast so often of their superior appeal, must face a remorseless truth. Until they are electable in the party, they will never be electable in the country.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.