GENDER. VIOLENCE. IN RUSSIA
In 2006, at the height of President Putin’s campaign to dominate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the European Union sponsored a conference on Russian civil society. On the surface, the event seemed woman-friendly, perhaps even feminist. Held in Finland—celebrating its first century of women suffrage and having a critical mass of women parliamentarians—the conference began with greetings from Finland’s female president. On that first day, there were several high-profile speeches by women about women. On the second day, there were workshops on women’s organizations, women’s political participation, and the question of whether intervention can help women live free from gender violence. It was at this latter workshop that I had been invited to present the findings in this book. Overall, women speakers constituted half the total speakers and half the attendees.
This EU conference illustrates just how much women’s organizing and gender violence had become important issues for international organizations by the middle of the first decade of the new millennium. While violence against women had been first highlighted in Russia by North American feminist activists, it was now an official European focus and was articulated in a transnational language of women’s human rights. A transnational consensus that gender violence is a problem worth substantial attention—what I shorthand in this book as a global feminist consensus—had emerged by the mid 1990s. The conference also suggests why the issue of gender violence in Russia requires the lens of foreign intervention. Although there was interest among late Soviet feminists in these issues and many Russian activists have now made the issue their own, international donors, transnational feminists, human rights activists, and even the George W. Bush administration had concentrated attention on gender violence in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The EU conference’s focus on women’s organizing and gender violence also offers a window into the promise of foreign intervention for Russian women. Transnational activism and funding for women’s organizations generated a women’s crisis center movement. Funding for awareness raising, for training of law enforcement, and for legislative reform—often with the support of local activists—helped
to raise the issues of domestic violence and trafficking in women to the Russian policy agenda. By the first few years of the new millennium, new laws had been passed, and the Russian government appeared poised to take more responsibility to address violence against women. Considering the weakness of Russia’s civil society and the history of mostly ignoring the problem, this moment was remarkable, suggesting the potential for the gradual and deep changes required for meaningful reform of the Russian response to gender violence.
Peering deeper into this EU conference, however, uncovers a more insidious reality. The most prominent participants, such as Marc Franco, the head of the European Commission’s delegation to Russia, and Sergei Markov, an official from Putin’s appointed Public Chamber, were men. In this period of EU expansion into the former Soviet bloc, the high-stakes political game surrounding EU – Russian relations remains male. Moreover, their language revealed how superficial women’s inclusion really was. For example, the male director of the European Union—Russia Center in Belgium explained the new reluctance of Europeans to send funds to Russian NGOs by suggesting that one “can’t just give money to a beautiful blonde Tanya on a train.” Like other metaphors deployed at the conference that were gendered but portrayed as universally applicable, this one depicted the donors as heterosexual men interested in exoticized Russian women, leaving no role for the dedicated women activists I examine here.
Explicit sexism was also present in the more casual social gatherings surrounding the conference. Later the first evening, at an unofficial gathering of mostly Russian women activists, one of Putin’s siloviki—a special forces veteran—came up behind me, put his arm around my shoulders, and asked if this was “sexual harassment.” As is common in the Russian press, this was a joke made about American women and their sexual unavailability. Following an animated conversation about the ultranationalist and openly misogynist Russian parliamentarian Vladimir Zhirinovsky by the women in the gathering, this silovik proposed a toast for us to find a “man who takes a long time to climax, that brings such relief to a woman, that it will take your minds off this Zhirinovsky.” I had heard similarly sexist comments at a 2002 conference on women’s organizing in St. Petersburg. It seems that the more that women’s personhood was asserted, the more that women’s bodies and sexuality were invoked and their voice and rights marginalized.
The implicit marginalization of women from the higher-level political dealings and the explicit sexism expressed through these comments about Tanyas and orgasms at this transnational conference illustrates the obstacles that have always faced activists combating gender violence. Even ostensibly woman-friendly Nordic governments have remained resistant to the more radical claims of women’s rights to bodily integrity and sexual autonomy. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, many states have paradoxically been even more reluctant to circumscribe masculinity and violence even as they assert more concern about gender violence. In the United States, the Bush administration abused the rhetoric of women’s rights in the service of increasing male power, for example, by justifying the war in Afghanistan as protecting women. In Russia, activism against gender violence had met a nationalist and sexist brick wall. At the end of Putin’s two terms in office, as an underexamined impact of his preference for siloviki loyalists, there was a renewed sense of male dominance and new acceptance of locker room talk in public places. By the end of the first decade of the new millennium, the opportunity for real reform of gender violence policy seems to have vanished.