We just got back from St Petersburg, Russia where we met with gay activists and feminists of all sorts and ages. My spouse Richard Stumbar was one of the lead attorneys in the attempt to legalise gay marriage in New York State in 2008. I have a long history with Russian feminisms that date back to the early 1990’s in the East/West initiative to have women dialog across these borders.
The day we left for Russia, right wing Republicans held the US hostage to their punishing agenda against “Obamacare”. And we were traveling to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which had recently halted adoptions by gay and lesbian couples, and enacted new laws supposedly “protecting” children from gay indoctrination, and had, in early 2012, imprisoned two of the women of the rock band Pussy Riot for “hooliganism”.
Complex political streams
Meanwhile, the Winter Olympics are to be held soon in Russia; poverty continues to escalate in the countryside while a massive commercial extravaganza in and around Sochi, the site of the games, is underway; and gay activists from outside Russia discuss whether they should boycott the games.
And for further context let us not forget the whistle blower Edward Snowden who sought asylum and won it in this land of draconian sex laws. Whistle-blower Chelsea Manning, now a trans-woman, would probably have little chance of gaining similar asylum status, if she were able to ask for it.
To top off this messy political mix of all things we have Putin’s justifiable criticism of the US and President Barack Obama for an arrogant sense of “exceptionalism”, especially in terms of US threats to bomb Syria for their use of chemical weapons. The world is looking complexly differently-similar everywhere.
Important histories, especially women revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, and Alexandra Kollantai seem to have been forgotten, if they have ever been acknowledged in post-perestroika Russia. We looked for some simple signs of Luxemburg, famous for her 1917 statement: “Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters”, and found none.
We trudged across town to the Finland Railway Station to find a forgotten and lonely statue of Lenin. Even the tourist-consumer culture in the flea markets seemed to have no historical memory. No t-shirts for Pussy Riot were to be found.
Some gay activists also believe that if they had been more at the ready to stand up against Putin and help women’s rights - especially as it pertains to their bodies and abortion - that they would not have been so unprepared to defend their own rights.
Before arriving, we were curious about what St Petersburg would feel like. The blustery winter reminded Richard of the millions of Russians lost in Leningrad. He feels sure that it was the Russian winter, and the Russians, who were primarily responsible for the defeat of the Nazis. As for socialism, there is little evidence that this is even a thought. The entire period between the 1917 revolution and the revolutions of 1989 is referred to as the Soviet period. As for feminism, I feel heartened by the people we met.
Feminism and Russia
In the early 1990’s I attended meetings of the Network of East-West Women. This group of women was made up of people from all over the former Soviet Union in their newly configured countries and parts of Eastern Europe along with women from throughout the United States. Our purpose was to dialog and to find commonalities and differences in our understanding of feminism and women’s needs and rights.
Many Russian women thought that US feminists suffered from a naiveté about the equality doctrine. Many of the Eastern European (EE) feminists were highly critical of how the so-called socialist states had appropriated the language of women’s equality/sexual equality for the purposes of the state, not women. Most Eastern European Women felt they had simply been triply oppressed in the name of equality. Women worked in the labour force, worked in the home as domestics and mothers, and were the mainstay of consumer labours as well - shopping to maintain the household, which always required long bread lines and too much time.
Day-care was provided by the state but many EE women were not pleased with the care. And the overseeing of the care and the pick-ups and drop-offs was still the woman’s responsibility. Women were tired of equality, if this is what it means, and did not want more of it. They saw mainstream feminists in the US, like Betty Friedan, as naïve and wrong-headed.
Russian women were also critical of the notion that abortion rights were coequal with women’s rights. For most of them, abortion had been forced on them as a mode of contraception. Many of them had had more than 10 abortions. They wanted access to contraceptives, first; abortions, second. They wanted reproductive rights to their bodies and this was not equivalent to abortion rights. There was a fabulously rich East-West exchange and dialog to show how much cultural and political context matters. Russia had the most open abortion policy of any country in the world but today, Putin and the Russian right wing speak against all abortions along with women’s sexual rights.
Rioting for justice
Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk rock protest group based in Moscow, said it would not be cowered by the misogynist religious fanaticism of the Russian Orthodox Church. They would perform their music freely wherever they chose, even in the revered Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Three of them were arrested the moment they began to perform. Two remain in jail.
Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova wrote an open letter from Penal Colony No 14 in the Mordovian camp last month declaring a hunger strike, given the inhumane conditions she and everyone in the prison live under. She has been there for more than a year - and had become almost despondent given what she terms the cruel and demeaning conditions. Worse than the spotty hot water, inedible food, unbearable cold, mind-numbing lack of sleep, endless 16-hour workdays of gruelling sewing work, is the punishing and isolating treatment of anyone who chooses to speak up.
She writes of her incarceration in the gulag-style prison, that fear and intimidation are continually used to regulate, discipline and shame. Fellow prisoners become the enforcers of the inhumanity. Anyone showing a bit of determination and self-respect is beaten down - both physically and mentally. Worst of all is the punishment of those who have shown Nadezhda any sign of kindness or friendship, “It hurt me that people I cared about were forced to suffer,” she writes.
Unable to stand her torturous treatment any longer, and with little left to lose, Tolokonnikova said enough and declared a hunger strike. After days of the hunger strike, too ill to cope further, she called off her strike and at this writing is being transferred to another location.
Progressives across this globe need to keep looking for the Rosa Luxemburgs and feminist and gay revolutionaries who seek justice for people regardless of their gender, sexual preference, race, or class.
Maria Alyokhina, the other imprisoned member of Pussy Riot, has suspended her request for early release, in support of Tolokonnikova. Both are scheduled for release in February after serving their two-year jail term.
The feminists we spoke with in St Petersburg said that Pussy Riot was never given its due by the Russian mainstream media. They were treated like flighty girls who needed to be reprimanded, and as Putin says, got what they deserved. Feminists and activists committed to democracy in Russia demonstrated on their behalf, both inside and outside of Russia. In some international feminist circles Pussy Riot has become a keen cause and maybe more visible outside, than inside parts of Russia.
Putin’s homophobic nationalism
Keep Pussy Riot in mind as I try to negotiate the political streams of thought that surround them and activists inside Russia. Putin’s newest form of nationalism appears to negate and silence socialism, communism and Western democracy. He uses anti-feminist and homophobic discourses to express his newest form of traditional patriarchal nationalism. The Holy Father of the Russian Orthodox Church covers for the state-corporate cronyism of Putin.
The Sochi Olympic Games bespeak Putin’s lawlessness, corruption, and incompetence. Originally the Games were estimated to cost $12bn and are estimated to rise to $50bn. Much of the problem is the location itself. Sochi is one of the warmest places in Russia at almost 13C when the Games are to begin. Anywhere else would have made more sense for the winter Olympics. But Putin’s friends, especially the Rotenberg Brothers - an Energy and Construction Company - have made out like bandits. New roads and gas lines have been the greatest expense.
This economic “stimulus” by Putin may jumpstart his flagging economy that was robust at the height of his popularity in 2000. He enjoyed a popularity built on oil and gas profits that have since dried up. No longer a media star, he has lost support and now tries to find it in his right wing flank with an official homophobic nationalism. This positions him against the West with its so-called excessive rights for gays and abortion. A new anti-Americanism thrives cloaked in a mix of homophobic nationalism and asylum for Edward Snowden.
Amidst all these contestations and half-truths, gay activists in Russia ask that people do not boycott the Sochi Olympics, but instead boycott homophobia while attending the Sochi Games. Some gay activists also believe that if they had been more at the ready to stand up against Putin and help women’s rights - especially as it pertains to their bodies and abortion - that they would not have been so unprepared to defend their own rights.
Progressives across this globe need to keep looking for the Rosa Luxemburgs and feminist and gay revolutionaries who seek justice for people regardless of their gender, sexual preference, race, or class. Together we stand. United we win. So we must look across our borders and find each other as One Billion Rising for Justice will do on V-Day, February 14, 2014, in over 200 countries.
We are so glad to have travelled to St. Petersburg - to be reminded of lost histories and also new possibilities, even in Putin’s Russia.
Zillah Eisenstein has written feminist theory in North America for the past thirty years. She is an internationally renowned writer and activist and Distinguished Scholar of Anti-Racist Feminist Political Theory at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.