By the book: education versus intolerance at Moscow’s new gender school

By the book: education versus intolerance at Moscow's new gender school

This summer free university the Moscow Experimental School of Gender Studies took the battle against intolerance to the classroom. Two of its founders, Maria Dudko and Elijah Yakovenko, discuss their mission

14 October 2013
Text Maria Dudko
Text Elijah Yakovenko

There’s an old Russian proverb which states: “If he beats you, then he loves you.” At a recent Moscow screening of The Police Officer’s Wife, Philip Gröning’s cinematic exploration of domestic abuse in provincial Germany, the educated, middle-class audience heartily laughed during the film’s penultimate chapter, a brutal episode of violent rage against the female protagonist. This is a good illustration of the everyday sexism that is at the core of Russian society, almost in every area of public and public life. This laughter — directed at a victim of domestic violence begging her husband not to leave — did not provoke rebukes, even from the women in the audience. Russia’s rampant sexist culture can be boiled down to two things: a history of patriarchal values (the Orthodox Church has always been at the centre of Russian identity, even during Soviet rule, when many of its religious paradigms were utilized by party leaders) and a bid by the ruling “power vertical” to use conservatism to secure public support.

“If you type the word feminism into Google in Russian, you’ll find images of gangs of women raping men”

How, then, to fight against this? One possible nursery for resistance movements and critical reflection has always been education. Feminist and gender study programs, which are offered by numerous universities around the world, play a big part in the fight against retrograde views on sexuality and the role of women in society. Russia has very few programmes like this, with the European University at St Petersburg offering the country’s only Masters in Gender Studies. Therefore, this summer, inspired by self-organised education initiatives such as the Melbourne Free University and the lectures at various Occupy camps around the world, we decided to set up the Moscow Experimental School of Gender Studies. Essentially, we wanted to break the silence around “taboo” problems such as the way in which the sexualised body becomes a source of political and social control.

From the Moscow Experimental School of Gender Studies blog

There is no explicit gender discrimination in the Russian constitution. But there is also no explicit prohibition of gender-based discrimination. The current abortion laws force women to be counseled by Christian Orthodox psychologists before getting a termination, and politicians such as Yelena Mizulina are revving up propaganda around traditional family values and morals, advocating for women to remain housewives. A steady stream of homophobic laws have been introduced, allegedly to protect children from “gay propaganda” by prohibiting LGBT education, gay pride events, speaking in defense of gay rights, or equating gay and heterosexual relationships. Essentially, attempts have been made to criminalise a large section of the population. If George Bush had the war in Iraq to frighten the American people with, Putin has gay people. They’re a convenient scapegoat, part of the “western plague” sent to destroy Russia’s morality. This means that Putin’s dwindling electorate has the chance to re-align themselves with their patriarchal and saintly saviour. The main problem is that most Russians, even those with a dislike for the Kremlin, have a hard time finding any sort of arguments against such thinking in the public domain.

Mikaela, While He is at Work (2013) — a performance at Moscow Experimental School of Gender Studies

The anti-Putin protests of 2012-13 failed to consolidate a critical mass of public discussion around topics that did not concern the white middle-class target group. The opposition toyed with the concept of liberty, but ultimately couldn’t disentangle themselves from a right-wing political program centered around neoliberal notions of freedom, democracy and free market rights. Even Pussy Riot failed to get the progressive part of society talking about the actual leftist ideas the group was trying to convey: anti-authoritarianism, radical feminism, LGBT-rights. If you type the word feminism into Google in Russian, you’ll find a myriad of memes illustrating popular views of the subject. Which is to say: images of gangs of women raping men, transgenders forcing themselves on hapless cisgender victims, and a patriotic resistance illustrated by slogans such as “kill the feminists” above photos of abused women. The lack of acceptance for gender equality mirrors the reasons why the opposition movement gradually fizzled out into the same political apathy that prevailed before 2012.

“We wanted to start a discussion”

Russia’s newborn capitalism came without a foundation in civil liberties. Systematic oppression of any social group, be it women or the LGBT community, is perceived either as something that “happens to someone else” or as a tool in the hands of various right-wing groups (who want to save Russia from the west’s evil grip). The Moscow Experimental School of Gender Studies was set up with the goal of introducing feminist and gender theory into the public domain, with an emphasis on the fact that it is a legitimate way of analyzing society. We wanted to start a discussion.

Initially conceived as an activist initiative, we were lucky to get support from the Muzeon Park of Arts, which provided funding and their “School” pavilion for the two-month program. More than 40 events took place, with free entry. Apart from lectures on feminist philosophy, men’s studies, gender in mass culture, pornography, sex work and queer theory, we also invited local and international artists such as Mikaela, Chto delat, Yakov Kazhdan and Chiara Fumai to show and discuss their gender-related work, held a workshop in feminist zine-making with feminist activist Tanja Egorova and screened queer cinema under the guidance of movie critic Dinara Garifullina. The school had a separate blog, where author Katya Kazbek wrote about topics related to gender issues.

Students show their work after a feminist zine-making workshop

We encouraged participants to suggest their own seminar topics, as it was very important for us to try and tap into the tactics of the Occupy movement, in which we had all taken part. This meant that, as well as creating a space in which the most marginalized of voices could be heard, we also tried to engage specialists from a wide range of fields, including academic theorists, philosophers, sociologists, artists and activists. Some of our lecturers like Olga Burmakova, Alexander Kondakov and Asya Sheveleva are part of a young generation of academics tackling gender-related issues. Other lecturers included journalist Masha Gessen, Irina Maslova of the Silver Rose Association (a pioneering sex worker rights organisation) and philosophers Oleg Aronson and Igor Chubarov. The whole program finished with a screening of James Franco and Travis Mathew’s one-hour documentary Interior. Leather Bar, which a friend helped organise after it was taken out of a Russian festival program last year on account of its explicit nature.

“The revolution isn’t going to happen overnight”

Our participants came from all sort of different backgrounds: economists, lawyers, office workers, journalists, artists. Although the dominant age group was predominantly the under-30s, it was rewarding to see both teenagers and people in their 40s and 50s take part in some of the discussions. Around 400 people visited the school over the span of the whole program. One man who hardly missed a lecture in the two-month program confessed at the end that he initially came out of curiosity. He wanted to see what real lesbians looked like.

It may still be a while before Russia develops a fully-fledged active feminist community. All of our lectures are gradually going up on our Facebook page and will eventually be on the website. This means that people who couldn’t make it to the school and who are not yet ready to be confronted with the idea of radical equality will be able to view them in their own time. The revolution isn’t going to happen overnight, but more and more people are starting to find their own ways into socially orientated practices. The school was an attempt to understand how gender theory can be analyzed in the post-Soviet context, what the professional community is like and what limits can be pushed in a rapidly worsening political climate. The next step is to analyze the information we have gathered and plan new tactics of resistance. The road to tolerance and equality is going to be a long one.

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