In this book’s discussion of intervention into gender violence politics in Russia, I do not mean to discount the enormous efforts made by local activists. On the contrary, considering Russian resistance to feminism and its underdeveloped economic and democratic infrastructures, their accomplishments are astounding, even if not the broad-based, “sisterly” movements that Western feminist observers had hoped to see. Building upon the Soviet legacy of “social responsibility” (obshchestvennaia otvetstvennost’), Russian activists seized the new opportunities afforded by liberalization to organize, study, and serve. They have drawn upon local traditions and contemporary experiences to legitimate their work.
Instead, my goal is to approach empirically the many questions raised by Third (and Second) World women about the impact of Western attention to nonWestern contexts. Western feminism can make universal claims of women’s oppression based on the experiences of some middle-class white women living in the West, erasing the huge global inequalities fostered by the West’s foreign and trade policies and stinking of missionary zeal (e. g. Mohanty 1991; Drakulic 1993). Supporting universal human rights carries the weight of an imperialist legacy, as the strongest proponents are the former colonial powers of Europe and North America and their targets are former colonies (Merry 2006a, 226). Advancing the idea that gender violence should be seen as a violation of human rights also brings with it certain modernist assumptions about individualism, autonomy, choice, secularism, bodily integrity, and equality (220—21). I place these questions of power—not just between the West and the target countries, but between states and domestic women’s organizations and women and men—as central. Like other recent and important studies that examine women’s crisis centers in Russia (Henderson 2003; Sundstrom 2006; Hemment 2007), this book is not a “cautionary claim,” but a pragmatic assessment of the complex results of interventions when transnational and local activists take advantage of internationally available financial and normative resources (Funk 2006). Whereas those studies probe the impact of foreign assistance in promoting civil society and democracy (Henderson and Sundstrom), reflecting on questions of cultural imperialism and local agency (Hemment), here the focus is explicitly feminist, specifically concerned with the impact of intervention on women’s lives and on the problem of gender violence.
My U. S. standpoint is different than one might expect. I came to Russia undoubtedly as a beneficiary of the U. S. violence-against-women movement and a feminist theorist, but not as a feminist activist. It was my fieldwork in Russia and among Russian feminists, viewed through my own experiences, that brought me to studying such violence. My belief about women’s rights to bodily integrity as a basic right in the social contract between the state and its citizens might sound American, but these ideas are now entrenched in international law and repeated by Russian and transnational feminists. Although there is much focus on the United States and the rest of the West in this study, this was driven by their impact as I observed it in Russia. Instead of the assessment being from the vantage point of the West, my analysis reflects calls from Third World feminists to study the global in their local (Naples 2002, 7)—in other words, the view of the West from Russia as seen by a Westerner. Russian activists helped me see both how powerful the U. S. movement and how stingy the U. S. government response have been. For example, with their commitments to what they call “economic violence”—such as a man’s preventing an intimate partner from finding a job, depriving her of economic resources, forcing her to turn over her salary, and so on—these Russian activists heightened my awareness of the limitations of criminalizing domestic violence in truly reforming the social order.
My straddling of U. S. and Russian feminism creates terminological difficulties. While many U. S. feminists are committed to the term “violence against women” to refer to a variety of forms of violence, this book more often uses “gender violence” as an ethnographic nod to the terminology used among global women’s activists. Similarly, I, like most activists from Europe and Eurasia, use the term “domestic violence” rather than woman battery or torture. In both cases, choosing to use a term that makes sense contextually leaves me with terminology that may domesticate the violence and minimize the male power, a sacrifice made in hopes of fostering communication and terminological consistency with Russian/ transnational activists. Finally, because some of the Russian activists I study engage the question of whether prostitution should be treated as “sex work” in their thinking about trafficking in women, I wade uncomfortably into the tumultuous waters of a transnational feminist debate over prostitution. Despite this book’s claim of pragmatism in judging empirically which interventions are most successful, discussing trafficking in women, not unlike the abortion debate in the United States, requires language that seems to reveal a person’s perspective. For many antiprostitution feminists, any discussion of sex as work is incriminating. But for most Russian activists, even those allied with Western antiprostitution feminists, this debate is not applicable, but instead a Western imposition.