What does it mean to be a woman in Russia today? In the wake of International Women’s Day, The Calvert Journal put this question to prominent creative women across the country. From everyday sexism to the persistent power of patriarchy, our contributors responses reflect the challenges and opportunities for Russian women today.
  • Text: Nadia Beard, Jamie Rann, Anastasiia Fedorova and Anton Sazonov

Anna Balagurova, editor of The Village, St Petersburg

When I studied at university, I saw sexism everywhere — on the streets and on public transport, in magazines and ads, in my relatives' expectations about my future and in government policy. I got really pissed off when someone asked me when I was planning on getting married or giving birth to nice children. I grew up in a country with dominating traditionalist views on male and female roles that often didn’t have anything to do with reality.

Women were rational, motivated and resolute while men seemed to be losers or alcoholics with exaggerated egos and psychological problems. It happens here because sexism and gender stereotypes sometimes affect men even more then women. While women are expected to be “good housewives and mothers”, men are expected to raise them up in society even if they don’t have the capacity to do so.

I will never fight the cliches of my compatriots. My personal feminism comes out in not making myself shave my legs, brush my hair, clean my clothes or wash the dishes if I don't want to. I’ve never based my self-identification on being a woman. One can’t talk me into buying mascara, a frying pan or super-sexy underwear. And if a “successful” jerk tries to pick me by cat-calling from his car-window, I won't stand with my eyes bent on the ground. I will tell him to “Go and fuck himself”. Having said that, I’ll also feel sorry for him because the truth is, he’s more of a victim of stereotypes than all the women of this country.

Maria Godovannaya, assistant professor at St Petersburg University

Women are always plural, diverse in their bodies, minds, actions, and living. They gain different experiences, choose their own paths and crisscross the many borders of sexuality and gender. But what does the state and its administrators want to make out of this diversity? They want to unify it, bring down to one singular category that fits their own dominant heterosexual “vision of femininity” — “a woman”, “a wife” (always in a legitimate marriage), “a mother” (preferably with multiple children).

Along with other men who don’t fit the state’s singular category of “masculinity” it’s trying to bring us back to the old-fashioned patriarchal discourse, to mitigate and dominate our identities, to negate our diversity, to control our experiences and to frame us. But we should say: “Beat this system! Sabotage its process! Play with identities and multiply the discourses!” We can’t escape the state’s power but we can trick it and ensure it has a hard time catching us.

Natalia Meshchaninova, film director

If I lived in the country and was growing radishes there or something, or worked in a school, perhaps, I’d have something to say about this. But as it is I’m a tumbleweed without any set place of work or residence, I drink too much alcohol and my dreams are about the sea, and when it comes to women the only thing that happened to me is that I gave birth and immediately regretted the fact that I did this in Russia.

Olesya Turkina, curator and critic

I was born in the USSR, graduated from university and entered the Russian Museum in St Petersburg. Apparently, the fact that I was able to choose a profession that I desired and get a job was one of the benefits of declared equality in the USSR. But my development happened at the time of perestroika. That’s when everything changed including gender politics.

In front of our eyes, the patriarchal order crumbled. In one of the first video conferences between the USSR and the US in 1986, one particular phrase really resounded: “There is no sex in the USSR”. In the USSR, sex wasn't part of the discursive field. The Soviet Union was a country of academic discourse. The woman-scientist, the woman-doctor, the woman-astronaut — these embodied equality between men and women.

In 2013, Marina Loshak, Natalia Kamenetska and I opened the exhibition International Women's Day. Feminism: from avant-garde to contemporary art in Moscow. This exhibition was accompanied by media scandals. Feminism wasn't in the USSR. It failed to secure the gains of the last 25 years. Society is becoming more patriarchal than before. To be a woman now means not obeying the status quo, imposed on us by a media and advertising packaging traditional values.

Dina Biygishieva, TV presenter

It certainly feels like a challenge. Being a woman in Dagestan is much more than just being of the opposite sex. For centuries women in the highlands used to play the role of the exemplary wife, housekeep and mother, which was a huge responsibility.

Even today society always expects a girl to do right and to never fail. In predominantly male-dominated Dagestan men are much more easily pardoned for certain acts. Of course life goes on and time changes society significantly. The so-called “weaker sex” today walks confidently on high heels ensuring that men hear their voices, enforce equal opportunities and fulfil their demands.

However, at all times, a woman’s reputation is more fragile than china, a proverb often cited in the Caucasus. And all women learn this basic rule when they are girls, sitting at their mothers’ knees.

Uliana Kim, style blogger

Actually it seems to me that the image of contemporary women in Russia has changed drastically. It's not the housewife always cooking dinner and sitting at home with the children anymore. For me, a modern woman in Russia is the kind of person who struggles to be on time everyday, to succeed in work, to be a thoughtful girlfriend or wife and to look perfect. For me, that’s the image of a progressive woman in Russia and I'm happy to notice more and more of such women around.

Maria Kachalova, architect

I have to be honest, I’ve never thought properly about what it means to be a woman in Russia. I respect all of the achievements of the feminist movement but I also say, why not enjoy being the “weak gender”? I’m an architect, and despite the fact that 99% of well-known architects in history are men, there was the same number of male architects throughout my education. In fact, you can count the number of women who succeeded in this profession on one hand.

This has taught me to value men’s company a lot and realise that if you’re a smart woman, you can gain a lot of respect. As an architect, I have to deal with some tough people and in difficult circumstances. Sometimes it really helps when you’re a woman if you’re able to find a solution in a very delicate, feminine way. And sometimes (especially on the construction site) you have to show you have balls.

I have also lived in both Germany and the Netherlands and didn’t feel any different being a woman in those two countries. Having said that, being a woman in Russia is different. It seems to be that the concept of “Russian beauty” exists only in fashion. Reality is very different. I hope it’s just a result of our previous cultural isolation and that in the future, women will learn to be in harmony with themselves and others.