When boxes with the latest Narvskaya Dostava T-shirt release arrived from the printers, the cardboard was mysteriously marked as “M….n”. As it turned out, the staff was too intimidated by the word “menstruation” printed on white cotton in red letters, in the style of the Metallica logo. It was not unlike a scene from Mike Mills's latest feature 20th Century Women, in which a rebellious punk artist played by Greta Gerwig forces everyone around the dinner table to pronounce the word in question. The film takes place in 1979, at the height of the second wave of feminism in the US. Almost 40 years later, it seems that the issues they were fighting against still persist around the world, not to mention in Russia. Hijacking the macho rock aesthetic to dismantle the period stigma, Narvskaya Dostava expose the anxiety, uncertainty and fear surrounding feminism in Russia, where the majority thinks that certain things are best not spoken about.
Narvskaya Dostava is an independent feminist collective set up in St Petersburg by Lolja Nordic and Olga Shapovalova. Old friends, they met while both living in the Narvskaya Zastava area (which later inspired the collective's name) and bonded over their love for punk and rock music, second-hand clothes and the Riot Grrrl movement. Their humble self-funded production started in 2016 with a range of Riot Girl socks, T-shirts inspired by the 1980s Soviet film Courier and comfy body positive panties with “Like a Virgin” embroidered in pink (the range of underwear has since expanded to “Welcome to the jungle” and “Lust for Life”).
In the beginning, it could be seen as merely a fun DIY initiative but at the height of the global political crisis of 2017, it became apparent that there are no aides too small for global feminist resistance. On the day of Donald Trump's inauguration, hundreds of thousands of feminists took the streets worldwide for Women's March. Meanwhile, Russia was facing its own struggle: amidst the general rise of a traditionalist mentality, a law de facto decriminalising domestic violence was passed in February. So what do Riot Girl socks have to do with these major geopolitical issues? In 2017, much more than it seems.
The founders of Narvskaya Dostava became actively involved with feminism from a shared yearning for punk rebellion and their own personal experiences of sexism and dismissal. “We have both loved rock music since childhood. Its protest energy and critical attitude to the status quo helped us to realise that you don't have to be who the surrounding conformist world wants you to be,” says Nordic. “We were really upset to encounter sexism in subcultural circles when we had just started our project. The underground art scene is supposed to be about freedom of expression and mutual support, but in fact you often face a bunch of prejudice and stupid stereotypes just because you're a woman. I think any woman sooner or later starts analysing her position in society, discovers discrimination towards her in one way or another, and then starts looking for reasons. At that point you can either accept it and force yourself to adjust to it, or start resisting and fight for your rights — try to change the world around you.”
They soon realised that the issues of inequality and sexism are rooted very deeply within the structure of Russian society. “I think feminism in Russia is popular only within very confined circles. Most Russian women think that we've achieved everything and have nothing to fight for. There is also a stereotype of feminists being butch lesbians or just women who are ugly and failed to find a dude,” Shapovalova says. “In other ways, Russia has its own latent feminism. Who is the head of the family in Russia? A woman of course. It's the consequence of two wars which led to a huge shortage of men in the USSR. Strong powerful women never teach their sons to contribute to any household work or have the right attitude towards women. Brought up by women but with patriarchal values, most of the men don't participate in raising children, nor helping with household work, and are generally afraid of any responsibility.”
In the meantime, feminism in Russia is still perceived as a dirty word. “I think a lot of women are ready to fight for their rights but they don't consider themselves as being feminist because of the negative stereotypes surrounding the movement in Russian society. Most people don't really understand what feminism is and why it exists,” Nordic adds. “Most women have the burden of a huge responsibility and complete impossibility to lift it at least a bit.”
In the context of these wider pressing issues, it seems that making witty T-shirts and underwear is somewhat futile in fighting the patriarchal windmills. Narvskaya Dostava, however, is part of a larger worldwide trend that sees feminism appropriating the tools and language of pop culture and fashion. In recent years we've seen the rise of new independent feminist publications like Tavi Gevinson's Rookie Mag in the US, or smaller-scale projects like Polyester and Sister zines in the UK, and Wonderzine in Russia actively promoting the idea of a global sisterhood, particularly among teenagers and youth. We're also seeing artists of the 4th wave of feminism such as Petra Collins and Arvida Bystrom employing the candy-coloured aesthetics of teen magazines.
Feminist apparel, however, is a more complicated story. For the younger generation, feminism influences the way they spend time and money, dress and shop. Major fashion brands and clothing corporations have been quick to jump on the bandwagon for potential profits: the “We should all be feminist” T-shirt by Dior retailed for $710, while Topshop’s grey sweatshirt which simply says “Feminist” went for as low as $30. In the midst of this rather cynical capitalist appropriation, independent initiatives like Repeal, fighting for abortion rights in Ireland, managed to prove that the power of statement clothing could be used for good if in the right hands.
“There are people who hate everything connected to feminism so they don't like us or other garments. But there are also feminists who think that we are trying to cash in on the movement as we sell clothes for profit. We are always ready for a dialogue with those who critique us, but at times it becomes absurd when people can't see the difference between an independent female cooperative and a major commercial corporation,” Nordic comments on the controversy.
Apart from raising awareness and challenging the negative stereotypes of feminism, one of Narvskaya Dostava's main preoccupations today is fighting the problem of domestic violence. Proceeds from the sales of their “F for Feminism” tote bag go to a crisis centre in St Petersburg, funding additional working hours of the emergency phone hotline. “In a country where tens of thousands of women die every year from domestic violence and millions suffer from it every day there should be a system for its prevention, and also of rehabilitation and protection for its victims, and state crisis centres. But nowadays we have only small independent initiatives, crisis centres run by charity organisations which are sadly known to a very small number of women [...],” Nordic says.
Despite the fact that the struggle ahead looks tiresome and long, the Narvskaya Dostava founders are hopeful. “There is a new wave of fem-activism rising in Russia right now, and it's composed of very different people and movements,” Nordic says. “Our main goal is to look for compromise, communicate, discuss pressing questions and find a way to unite for the common cause, to start the change on a global scale.”