Oh this will be fun. What demon of masochism has sent me running into this busy highway? I suppose I sense some explanation is required. Some frustration is pent up. Some wiggle room is in short supply. Since I began writing about my interest in Russia, I have repeatedly been confronted with the popularly accepted notion that Russia is generally unenlightened, backwards, conservative or otherwise markedly hostile to feminist ideals. While I’ve no intention of arguing that the opposite is true, these assertions send me climbing up the walls, despite the fact that I consider myself a staunch feminist. Even as I write this, I suspect that the “well, it’s actually a bit more nuanced than that” line of reasoning is next up after “whataboutism” for entry into the trash bin marked “Russophile Apologia.” Good thing I am a feminist and don’t allow the opinions of others to shut me up.
Before I explain why I’m climbing up walls, some clarification:
~ I don’t expect everyone to conform to my ideas about things. I’m not the purveyor of feminist credentials and have no say in who is a feminist and who is not, and of those who are, which ones are bad and which ones are good. Just not interested.
~ I personally believe it is up to the individual woman -not the state, not the church, not men, not other women- to decide for herself what her ideal of womanhood is, and if she wants to pursue it. And that she has the right to change her mind about it. Or to not care about it at all.
~ When I say I am a feminist, I mean I expect women to have the same rights, opportunities, recognition, pay, respect, recourse, protection, etc. as men, and in a way that takes into account the fact that women’s anatomy brings with it added responsibilities and vulnerabilities, and that we live in a world where we have not yet achieved the aforementioned equality and are therefore forced to put up with an incredible amount of unnecessary shit.
~ The following is simply attempt to shed light on my thought process. Nothing more, nothing less.
Now, how is it that I can admire Russia, call myself a feminist and not fall into a self-loathing pit of despair?
1. The Fetishization of Russian women’s beauty, femininity, blah blah blah. When Americans do it.
International Women’s Day Special: Girls Of The Siloviki, by Team eXiled.
Yes, it’s the eXiled. But this is not a condemnation of their treatment of women. This is an illustration of the power of myth and those who propagate it.
“But then there was the other side of Women’s Day that makes us a bit nostalgic: Russia’s devushki. An abundance of devushki. So many devushki it gave you a headache. As this recent Komsomolskaya Pravda story on the “Girls of the Siloviki” shows, even the scariest devushki had a certain tantalizing “Amateur Hardcore MILF” quality about them that made it hard to think responsibly. (If you want to know more about the siloviki, click here. Would you like to know more?)
So here then is a March 8 photo essay showing off Kremlin Femdom at its best: The Girls of the Silovki:”
What follows is a number of photos of women in various professional and casual outfits. Far be it for me to start judging who is beautiful and who is not. But please look at these women and ask yourself, were they in American uniforms, had the article introduced them as the beautiful women of Omaha, would we still be gushing over them? For a country that churns out supermodels and ballerinas, I’m incredulous. Natalia Vodianova is out of my league. These women are not. I think I’m in a pretty nice league so that’s no insult. My point is that American men are just as swift to project stereotypes and see that world through a prism of ideals that don’t nec. reflect reality as anyone else. Another example:
What a Woman!!!, by American Russia Observations.
This post admittedly recognizes a lot of the hard work and achievements of Russian women, but I was struck by this:
“Personal appearance is a top consideration for most Russians, and especially for women. They do not throw something on to go to the store, but rather, like my mother in the 1950’s, get dressed carefully in a feminine way. Russian men are used to being around carefully dressed women and usually do not like the casual American look.
No matter how busy or how tight the budget, the women dress well. Russian women tend to be high achievers but don’t feel this in any way precludes their interest in appearing traditionally beautiful.
No woman will race out of the apartment without first checking the mirror for last minute touches on makeup and hair style.[…]
Russian women accept a feminine role as normal and desirable. What makes the difference between her and a woman in France or the United States is the order of her priorities. Nurturing and comforting are high on her list.”
It may well be the case that the Russian wife who inspired this post by her American spouse meets these criteria. It may be the case that many people have wives who meet these criteria. But can I just say … get out more? Please. I have several female Russian acquaintances who will probably make your brain explode. Why the sweeping generalizations? You do realize that those same Puritan ideals of submissive women also dictate that they don’t go out looking like sluts. Oh wait, Russian women go out looking like sluts all the time. Everyone knows that Russian women are either prostitutes or open to that. They love to slave in front of the stove for their man, too. All American women, in contrast, are frigid and eat microwave dinners. Russian women are just perfect! Perfect for men, anyway!
… Kill me now please.
Russian women do tend to put more emphasis on their looks than American women, because America sets that bar astonishingly low. I won’t leave the apartment without first checking the mirror for last minute touches on makeup and hair style, but I get shit about it. People think I am vain and shallow. The difference is not our natural tendencies as women, but the effect of being judged by others. Every minutiae of women’s lives is subject to social scrutiny, and depending on where you live, you choose your battles accordingly. Compare the women in Manhattan to those in Peoria. I know many American women who’d love to dote more on their appearance but can’t find the time, or if they can, sense no one would care anyway, so why bother?
In the two previous examples, those espousing “objectifying” or “outdated” attitudes about Russian women are … American men. These are relatively harmless examples. But let’s take another: sex work and trafficking. Home-grown economic conditions, organized crime, etc. are certainly directly responsible for the enslavement of women, but without the ostensibly enlightened modern foreigners to buy them, the market would be far less profitable, no? What about the less literal commodification and objectification of women, the promotion of unattainable perfection as a marketing tool? The culprit there is Capitalism. Anyone wanna argue that there is anything uniquely Russian about that?
I’ve no intention of denying the social, legal, economic, cultural Zeitgeist in Russia of responsibility for what has become a sometimes cartoonish ideal of Russian womanhood. But the idea that these potentially limiting ideas about women is a purely Russian phenomenon, borne of and propagated by their own innate backwardness and conservatism, appears to be bullshit.
2. International Women’s Day, or, “Waiter! There’s political correctness in my soup! And where’s the salad? I ordered salad! With no onions and extra olives.”
Domesticating March 8th, by Sean Guillory.
I have to say, this is an otherwise spot on post. But these two paragraphs bring back traumatic memories of of the burqa ban debate:
“Roses, tulips, and other colorful flowers extend from the hands of Russian women like prostheses. One day a year they replace the broom, the pot, and the child. The flowers, like the wedding bands on women’s fingers, are a symbol of property. Almost every woman strolling through the metro or down Moscow’s avenues has one hand around a man’s arm while the other clutches a bouquet. Thus, the object on their left hand says, ‘I’m taken’ while the man on their right says, ‘by him.’
What an ironic scene International Women’s Day has become in Russia. What was once a day calling for a ‘struggle against patriarchy,’ has in many ways become patriarchy’s reinforcement. Nothing says this more than the popular gifts bestowed on this day of ‘struggle.’ According to the Russian polling service VTsIOM, flowers are the most popular gift for March 8. Forty-four percent of women want them, and 54% of men are willing to give them. Candy comes in second with 19 and 39% respectively. This is followed by make-up and perfume. Gender equality has been substituted with gendered commodities.”
Well meaning men (and women) all over the world want to fight the good fight against patriarchal oppression by … uhm, telling women how to present themselves in public. It’s unavoidable. Because they have balls they should not get an opinion? Well… it’s just that… Look, if your female companion finds holding hands and getting flowers or wearing a wedding ring a symbol of oppression, respect it, or get a new companion. If you sire children, you probably have the right to impose your values on them. But why do leftist men have any more right to police the behavior of women than, say, the Church? Do you think the Church doesn’t believe it is well-intentioned? In the end, isn’t it an “enlightened” “feminist” position to allow women to decide for themselves what their attire or relationships “symbolize?”
And come on, Simone de Beauvoir would be the first to remind you that Marxism did a pretty lame ass job of acknowledging the value of women beyond their economic situation.
Ok I’ve done enough finger pointing. I hope no one takes it personally, they’re simply examples. Here’s a perspective that actually seems to avoid offending me, as a feminist:
Happy March 8th! Now smile and put on some make-up!, by Natalia Antonova.
A woman. Shocking.
“International Women’s Day has its roots in socialism, but where I come from – it has degenerated mostly into Valentine’s Day, minus fat-bottomed cupids. I appreciate indulgences as much as the next person, and (sincere) male courtesy besides, but it grates on even my flower-loving, frivolous soul that a day that originally centered female workers and female solidarity has degenerated into a ceremonial throwing-of-a-bone.
“It’s alright, ladies, if your salaries are crap, domestic violence rates remain high, and some of you aren’t even viewed as proper football fans anymore – here’s something pink to make up for it!”
One of my Russian friends – a largely conservative, Christian stay-at-home mom – recently ranted about the present futility of International Women’s Day:
“At least my husband realizes that I don’t WANT flowers and candy on one stupid day of the year. I just want a little respect on all days of the year. Anything else is tokenism. It means nothing.”
When I told her about how Engels viewed the traditional marriage as exploitation of women, she didn’t even bother to respond with a clever retort, as she normally does:
“What do I care about Engels? He’s just some guy who was supposed to help us all usher in a ‘bright future.’ A lot of good it did. Hah.”
Post-Soviet disillusionment is probably one of the main reasons why International Women’s Day is in such shambles across much of the former USSR. The earnestness of this day is a reminder of the crises and failures of the last twenty years – so it must be smothered in roses and champagne. Marx and Engels had us all bamboozled, as it turned out. Might as well pop a chocolate and forget the bastards ever existed.
March 8th-fatigue has been settling over many people I encounter nowadays as well. Last year, the popular Russian site APN.ru published a misogynistic yet oddly hilarious screed by a Russian Orthodox extremist who asked, among other things, that “Does the very sight of champagne bubbles not make one think of the sin of adultery?” [translation mine] as a way of discouraging the faithful from celebrating March 8th.
One can only hope that the vacuum of romance on this day is not going to be filled with foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalism. If there’s one thing more annoying than advertisements for cheaply made knickers as awesome March 8th gifts, it’s some bearded guy excitedly comparing fizz to ejaculation and how it will bring on the tortures of hell (as opposed to the tortures of a really bad hangover).
I sense more hope in the manner in which women congratulate each other on this day. My inbox has overflowed with e-cards – pink, flowery, but honest and true wishes for a great spring, great sex, tons of love and money, and any success I can ever dream of besides – from my fellow ladies. This makes me happy. A great spring, great sex, tons of love and money, and any success you can ever dream of to you too, ladies.
May you be celebrated for your amazing personhood – on any day of the year. And may somebody *cough* finally bring me some chocolates, dammit.”
Personally, I don’t see revolutionary female solidarity and gifts of chocolate and flowers … and knickers as mutually exclusive. If I am honest with myself, I want them all. If I can’t have one, I still want the other. I dated a boy who refused to celebrate Valentine’s Day for feminist reasons. In a misguided attempt to protect my dignity, he was humiliating me. Here I was in love with someone who was telling me romance was a myth dreamed up by the capitalist patriarchy. Fuck him. If I have to live in a capitalist patriarchy, and I do, can’t I at least be allowed to reap the few benefits it offers? In what universe is having to work a crap 9 to 5 job to line some powerful man’s pockets and getting no flowers, chocolates or knickers progress over having to be a housewife and getting the flowers, chocolates and knickers? [More about the flowers and the women doing it for themselves later.]
The other thing that strikes me about this article is “Marx and Engels had us all bamboozled, as it turned out. Might as well pop a chocolate and forget the bastards ever existed.” How is a country that actually attempted to institute women’s equality less evolved than those of us slowly climbing that hill? I mean hell, the way Russia celebrates International Women’s Day might be as cheap and depressing as all get out, thanks largely to Western influence, but America doesn’t even celebrate it at all. No one has ever asked me how I can reconcile being a feminist with being American. In fact as a feminist in America, I’m mostly just asked for money.
Anyway, let’s look at an “official” interpretation of the holiday:
Congratulation to Russian women on March 8. by Prime Minister of Russia Vladimir Putin.
“March 8 is today – an easy, joyful, spring holiday. But it started quite in earnest – in the fight for the interests of women for equality with men. In this regard, and in this sense, our country, we in Russia have very, very much still to do – and for the protection of motherhood and childhood, and women’s access to various activities, to equal pay to equal working conditions. Let us face it – we still have some to work to do. And of course we will strive to ensure that all these problems are solved. And yet – in pursuit of equality with men – we will always appreciate in a woman that belongs only to women – tenderness, grace, charm.
His actions speak louder than his words. He claims women have a monopoly on charm while putting on his most obnoxiously charmy smile possible. (It’s kind of creepy, so he may actually be right about the charm thing.) This is also the man who teaches little girls how to kick ass in Judo. Weirdly, I’m less offended by this proclamation than Mark’s, Robert’s or Sean’s. I personally find the tenderness, grace and charm shtick a bit rich and it makes me want to scratch his little eyes out. Gracefully, for effect. But at least Vova’s not asking women to choose between righteous prole and delicate flower. He’s clearly capable of holding these two seemingly conflicting ideas in his head. How hard is that? Pretty hard actually. But it’s something we’re asked to do each day. [More on this later.]
So far the most “enlightened” posts -IMO- we have are by a pretty Ukrainian woman and Russian macho man. Damn. It’s the backward brigade! And mysteriously, they’re the ones acknowledging that women are these multifaceted creatures, with both practical and impractical attributes, each of which have value don’t need to be apologized for. To this I can only say, bring on the backwards. It’s better than being valued ONLY for my contribution to the international communist struggle or ONLY for my skills as a housewife/mother/lover. You know what? Both of those perspectives only recognize women for what they’re doing for you. Building your airplanes, fighting your class struggle, making your dinner, sucking your dick. Giving a woman flowers is a way to say, “Today it’s not about me. Me and my airplanes and my politics and my dick. Its about you.” Why is this lamentable, precisely?
No, I can’t get riled up by the sight of a wedding band or bouquet of flowers.
3. Real Fucking Problems.
I bet you are expecting me to pull out some facts about how many American women ever actually win sexual harassment suits, let alone how many even get to court. Nope. Sexual harassment is ubiquitous in even the most “enlightened” countries, but there’s no excuse for not having a law against it. Shame on you, Russian government. And shame on the men who do it. Seriously, I was once pinned in the back of a bus by a couple of frisky young militsia guys who seemed to think I was on the evening’s menu. Who, please tell me, do you run to when the police are threatening to rape you? And you know what, shame on every single person on that bus who saw it and did nothing to help. Shame on your whole damn culture! Shame on your whole horrible country! Am I right? I don’t know. That’s not rhetorical. I don’t know.
~ Do you know who was the first person whom I ever felt maybe had an inkling of what it was like to be a woman mistreated by men? It’s perverse, really. Dostoevsky. Seriously. And you just don’t know how many times in my life when, thinking I must be going mad, alone, feeling that no one could possible ever understand what this is like, there is a shelf of Dostoevsky. How can I explain this? It’s one of the things I don’t force myself to explain, but just accept. He’s there, and has saved my life on more than one occasion.
~ In college I became enamoured with the Russian Symbolists and “Sophiology.” Sophia. Eternal Femininity. Goddess of Wisdom. There was a whole philosophical movement based on women being symbols of this unattainable plane of mystery and wisdom and strength and grace and all of these beautiful, transcendent things. I found myself in the lead role in a theatrical adaptation of Aleskandr Blok’s Neznakomka. I was surprised by how much power I had in that character. It was sublime.
~ You can imagine my shock after growing up hearing my mother talk about the struggle for equal rights, she and her girlfriends in the 1960’s, ahead of the curve, on the front lines, marching for economic parity and political representation, to find that this was accepted thinking among many 19th century Russian revolutionaries…
~ I was floored by women in Russia. Just floored. They ran everything. At the time, it appeared there were neither men for jobs nor jobs for men. Women were doing just about everything. Running the households, the schools, the shops, the trains. Anything you needed permission for you needed to go through a tough ass bitch to get. Old ladies weren’t sitting at home mewing about aches and pains, they were sweeping the street and policing society while raising grandchildren and perhaps engaging in some entrepreneurial work. Young women held several jobs while attending school, and sometimes returned home in the evenings to cook meals and do laundry for the family because mom had gotten fed up with that shit and left. I knew a single woman who was a doctor and raising two boys, doing everything herself – no babyshka, no nanny, no nothing. What was exceptional about this was that she was not at all exceptional. I met a lot of women with similar stories. I thought this must be what the U.S. homefront was like during WWII. And there was something to some of the stereotypes. Dr. Mom also always looked fabulous and didn’t do a heck of a lot of complaining. I think I would have been less intimidated had they all complained more. There was a just a practical resignation: if we don’t do this who will? Not in a defeated tone, but in a, “Well, if we have to save civilization by kicking the Martians’ asses, we’ll just have to do that,” tone. They weren’t doing all this because they were women, and it was in their nature, it was their place or they were submissive. They did it because they were the adults in the room. All of these women deserve a hell of a lot more than flowers and chocolates. Sexual harassment laws would be a nice start. Then, more of those massive monuments recognizing their contributions.
~ You could travel from one coast to another in the U.S. and not see a massive granite monuments recognizing the contributions of women. In Russia, you have be blind to avoid seeing one.
~ One evening, going down Varshavskoe Shosse, the hot summer sun was setting and the hugeness of Russia hit me. A vastness I could not even comprehend. It was a vastness with a heartbeat. I thought maybe this is was it feels like to be in the womb, if we could remember that. The whole “Mother Russia” thing clicked. It was visceral, not intellectual. I dare say spiritual.
~ One of the many many things I like about being a girl in Moscow was the female camaraderie. My girlfriends and I would go around town holding hands, buying each other gifts, having all night commiseration sessions in the kitchen, with loads of blini and Nutella on hand. Maybe it was just that I was a foreigner, but there was always some sisterly or motherly figure looking out for me. A posse. Oh, I wanted to say something about flowers. In Russia everyone was always buying flowers. You didn’t show up on doorsteps without flowers. And chocolate too. People regularly bought boxes of chocolates just because. This in an economic crisis. I really liked these small gestures. Guests expected to make an effort. No one being made to feel guilty for buying a box of chocolates just because. I really liked being able to revel in platonic female friendships without it being taken as a rejection of men. On the other hand, I can see how, being so commonplace, such favors inspire little gratitude on March 8.
~ I also really enjoyed not having to limit myself to one “role” or risk suspicion of having a mental defect if I strayed outside it. I like to dress up. Make-up, skirts, cute shoes, product in my hair. I also expect to be taken seriously. For me, Russia was a magical place where this seemingly perverse combination of attention to beauty (and even, gasp, sexuality) and being well read, intelligent, competent, willing to debate the merits of various theories of film, etc. was not only not considered “weird” but was even kind of expected of me. Which blew my mind. It was a bit heavenly. It made me aware of how strictly compartmentalized we are in America. If you are a mom, you are expected to look, act, be a mom. Anything else is irreverent or sign of an identity crisis. If you are an academic, ditto. Of course, reality forces us into different roles throughout our lives, days even. So the standard procedure is to choose the least conspicuous qualities, preferably ones that can go from day to night with minimal tweaks. Strip ourselves of all individuality or emotion or peculiarity. All the fun things about being alive, cover it up in a shapeless neutral tone sack, learn to deny ourselves things and hate ourselves for wanting those things, don’t be too feminine, don’t be too masculine, choose androgyny-it’s most comfortable. Don’t worry, if you are a mom, you’re not expected to know anything about dialectics. If you are a philosopher, you’re not expected to be familiar with anatomy. Gah!! I hate this!! And don’t even get me started about the horrorshow that is America’s approach toward sexuality.
So this is what I think about when I think about being a feminist and Russia. Most of my love of Russia is feminine (as I define it) in nature. It doesn’t fit nicely into our enlightened but restrictive compartments we are obsessed with over here. Just being a woman alive in the world requires feats of cognitive dissonance. So does giving two seconds of thought to Russia. So if being a feminist who adores Russia creates it’s own cognitive dissonance – it’s not exactly throwing a wrench in anything. Besides, life is more fun when you stop stressing out about consistency. What’s the point of being a good feminist if it means you have to be stressed out all the time? Isn’t the goal less stress, more freedom to be ourselves? And isn’t being a feminist choosing to believe that whatever nightmare situation faces us, women have the intelligence, strength, determination, etc. to confront and improve it? Domestic violence, for example, is routine and sadly accepted by many in Russia, but there’s no reason it must remain so. There are enough Catherine the Greats, Alexandra Kollontais, Anna Akhmatovas in Russia’s history to convince me there is nothing in the gene pool that predestines them to lives of submission. And while Ukraine is not Russia, Yulia Tymoshenko, Russian speaking, born in the USSR, just came incredibly close to being president (and held significant political power before that.)
Perhaps some will accuse me of downplaying the plight of women in Russia. Perhaps some will say I’m only a feminist when it is convenient. Perhaps some will accuse me of imposing my Western values onto a culture that already has its own values thank you very much. Perhaps they are correct. I just wanted to illustrate that actually 1) us modern, enlightened types are complicit in much of Russia’s ill treatment of women, 2) us modern, enlightened types have our own ways of policing women and providing pre-approved options for them and 3) Russia speaks to the part of me that America does not. And that part of me is a woman. An irrational, poetic, emotional, beautiful, fierce, intelligent woman… For all our Cold War rhetoric about Communism, it seems that now it is America who sucks out our souls and everything that makes us messy complicated humans, who values us only for our labor, who demands conformity. Irony of ironies, Russia provides the antidote. My inner feminist rejoices!