Russian and feminist: how a new generation of activists are fighting for their rights

In July 2019, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Russia and in favour of Valeriya Volodina, a woman who was stalked and abused by her former partner. The court found that Volodina’s home country, which partially decriminalised domestic violence back in 2017, deprived her and others like her of equal protection before the law. With no current plans to bring domestic abuse back into Russia’s criminal code, some hope that the landmark ruling will help improve what remains a fraught situation. Meanwhile, some of the country’s most challenging work – fighting against sexism, discrimination, and domestic and sexual violence – is still being done everyday by activists and organisations.

Russia remains a strongly patriarchal society, but the internet and social media help activists find and spread information, organise online communities and offline events, and mobilise the wider public. The case of the Khachaturian sisters — teenagers who killed their father in self-defence after years of abuse, but initially faced being prosecuted as murderers — was just one issue which proved the internet’s galvanising reach. Soon, more than 350,000 people had signed the online petition and many more had joined protests to stop the ongoing prosecution. In January 2019, Russian prosecutors eventually called on investigators to reclassify the girls’ actions as self-defence.

For this project, commissioned especially by The Calvert Journal, photographer and body-positive activist Miliyollie met with feminists from across Russia engaged in all forms of activist work: from vlogging and organising charity parties, to lobbying for legislation in parliament and leading crisis centres. She talked to them about their work, their goals and hopes, and about this particular moment in the history of the Russian feminist movement.

At the end of the article, you’ll also find a list of Russian women’s rights organisations and activists to follow or support.


I am an illustrator and YouTuber. I make comic zines about animals, in which I explore topics like sexism, racism, transphobia, body positivity, etc. My YouTube channel is more like a blog about my life, but the most important part of it are my videos on feminism, menstruation, sex education, and activism in general.

When I first started vlogging, most Russian videos on feminism were hateful trolling. My initial goal was to change that: I wanted people to google feminism and find more informative content on the topic. I wanted online feminism to become less stigmatised and more mainstream. I’m not sure if we’re at a critical turning point now, but maybe I’m too invested to see the bigger picture. It does feel like feminism is becoming more and more popular in Russia, but I think the level of aggression and the backlash against it is also growing — just like in other countries. I’m scared and tired but also excited to see what’s next.


My activism started online. I started a feminist blog along with some other activists. It became very popular — but that brought its own problems, like ongoing conflicts with trans-exclusionary feminists. I felt that taking part in these arguments wasn’t good for my mental health, and now I mostly engage in grassroots or situational activism. I also talk about my experience as an openly non-binary polyamorous person on social media, raising our visibility. Sometimes I go to street protests, but it isn’t always safe: people often get arrested, myself included. Recently, though, we held a really successful rally in support of re-introducing the law against domestic violence.

What worries me most are the contradictions within the feminist community. When it comes to issues such as attitudes towards transgender people, it’s hard to imagine a consensus. As a transgender person, I often feel uncomfortable at protests where I might become the subject of aggression. We have to learn to treat each other with care and kindness, otherwise we just won’t be able to move forward.

I think that the situation has changed a lot recently. Feminism is now a mainstream talking point; I’m still surprised to see glossy women’s magazines writing about discrimination and domestic violence. It’s both a result of activists’ efforts and, probably, a logical step in the evolution of our society. The world is changing.


I’m a DJ, artist, and activist, and I try to showcase my political position in everything I do. I focus on the problem of women’s rights, the LGBTQ community, and other minority groups, as well as animal rights and environmental and sustainability issues. I organise protests, discussions, charity events, and also have an Instagram blog. I organised the #FreeKhachaturianSisters International Solidarity Action and co-organised a charity fest NE VINOVATA (“It’s Not [Her] Fault”) supporting domestic abuse survivors.

There are a lot of problems that need to be solved immediately, such as women’s poverty, domestic and sexual abuse, gender discrimination in the workplace and the gender pay gap, sexism in the media and state institutions, institutionalised homophobia, lesbopohobia, and transphobia. But the most significant of these problems is certainly that of domestic violence. Women are being killed by their partners, and the state doesn’t grant them protection or safety. This problem must be solved by lawmakers; that’s our priority.

It feels [as if the feminist movement has hit] a critical point thanks to the internet. Half the world’s population has internet access and an opportunity to mobilise and talk collectively about social problems. Thanks to that, the movement against gender violence is growing stronger.


I am a singer in a band called LONO. We’re trying to promote our views through music: not all of our songs have an explicit ideological agenda, but feminist ideas can be found throughout our work. Even if we weren’t singing about sexism explicitly, it’s still an act of activism to just exist as a woman within the punk scene. I also co-organise the NE VINOVATA festival against domestic abuse. Last year, we went to 22 cities, two countries, and raised about 500,000 rubles (approx. £6,250) for crisis centres that help survivors.

I would like more women to know that they are not alone; I want them to have access to information on where and how they can get help in critical situations. But ideally, I’d also like to live in a world where we don’t need this kind of information at all.

The situation is getting better, and change is probably happening quicker than 10 years ago, but it’s a difficult, ongoing fight.


Eve’s Ribs started as an educational and artistic initiative for collectives that support the feminist agenda and work in theatre, film, and performance art. Later on, we decided to create our own festival. In the past three years, we’ve had more than 70 groups from Russia and abroad work with us as participants. We also host about 400 events a year and organise an off-site summer school.

Our goal is to draw attention to the issues of gender discrimination by all means possible: using art, education, communication. We want to raise public awareness. We want the feminist movement to grow into a large-scale, effective civil rights group, so that women in Russia will have a loud voice to represent them.

Undoubtedly, a lot has changed and is still changing, as the work of the feminist community goes on. Last year, a rally in support of the Khachaturian sisters was attended by about 1,500 people, which really shows that more and more people are thinking about women’s rights. There are many cyberfeminists, bloggers, and YouTubers who are telling people about feminism everyday. We hope that the new generation will start believing in different values, and that the previous one will follow suit.


I started by integrating feminist optics into my journalistic texts and talking about everyday sexism on social media. I took part in feminist protests and rallies and acted in the first charity run of The Vagina Monologues play in St Petersburg. Soon, national media outlets started asking me to write just about gender issues. My articles got more than 300,000 views and provoked a huge debate, which contributed to a dramatic change in the media landscape. I had a lot of negative feedback that sometimes turned into real harassment, so now I’m trying to transform my activist work into academic material: I research lesbian couples and, among other things, the specifics of domestic abuse in same-sex relationships.

As an openly gay person, my biggest dream is to see a Pride march in Russia, with music and rainbow flags hanging from the balconies. I want to know to know that the state protects me. I also would like the Russian society to rethink the concepts of femininity and masculinity; I want to see a less toxic culture; I want the laws against domestic violence to be passed and to actually work; I want to not be afraid of the police.

Now we have much more information about everything to do with women’s, LGBTQ, and other minorities’ rights, and that can’t help but influence the general sentiment. I think that we still have a giant gap between the views of the general population and that of the authorities, and while the authorities keep stopping us from solving our problems, I think it will be very difficult to change anything on the systemic level.


Last spring, Daria Akhmedova and I published a zine called No One at the Gates of a Female Colony, where we talked about the conditions in Russian female penitentiaries. We talked about practical things, such as children’s centres in penal colonies or the quality of female hygiene products, as well as larger problems, like the brutal psychological and social challenges which incarcerated women experience. The publication was incredibly successful; it turned out that women felt a connection with inmates and wanted to learn more about their life.

I know that I won’t see the fundamental criminal justice reform that needs to happen in Russia within my lifetime. I would like to see the penitentiary system abolished, but right now, our emerging civil society is only just starting to move towards this goal. We also have to completely rethink the criminal justice system’s attitude towards women. The case of the Khachaturian sisters has exposed issues that no one used to talk about. Thousands of women currently incarcerated in Russia found themselves in a “kill or be killed” situation; many get a sentence even if the assailant survives. We mustn’t put women in prison for self-defence. What they need is not a prison sentence but professional help — so does anyone who commits a crime.

To be honest, feminism in Russia is still a marginal movement. We live in an authoritarian state that is ready to justify any kind of violence — that is, unless it’s directed at the authorities. People still believe in old stereotypes that might have worked before, but not anymore. Women get married only to realise that it’s not what they’d dreamt about. Russia’s divorce rate is very high, and it’s mostly women who file for divorce. We need to educate people to help them.


I co-organise the NE VINOVATA festival. It’s important that these kinds of charity events in Russia are able to raise significant sums and draw the attention of a wider audience. My personal, everyday work is not as extensive: my dream is to create a full-scale female punk scene in Russia. I help girls venture into this world just by being there and mentoring them a little. That’s what our punk band Pozory is about: “Look at us, we exist!” Apart from our performances, we don’t really have any activist agenda.

I want to let girls know that they can speak out: not just to talk about themselves, but about anything at all. Right now, female voices aren’t really heard, especially in the music industry.

I think it doesn’t matter if you’re looking at the inspiring side of the feminist movement and how much things have changed, or whether you’re looking at the repressive, stifling side of society: there’s pressure from both sides there, in different ways. But, maybe that’s how diamonds are made, with pressure on all sides.


I was a journalist, but decided to go into law after my friend was beaten by her partner. She survived, but was 8 months pregnant and lost the child. He is not in prison. Now I’m fighting for a bill to prevent domestic abuse, as well as being the co-author of a bill package that includes a law against harassment and a law to provide paternity leave. I lobby for this legislation, and, together with my colleagues, hold public campaigns supporting our initiatives. I’m also the founder of a number of public projects for women needing mutual help. Together with Russian blogger Sasha Mitroshina, I co-organised the support organisation Ti Ne Odna (You Are Not Alone) for women who have experienced sexual assault.

I want very specific things, such as the legislation I’ve already mentioned. I want gender pay equity and equal gender representation in government agencies (now, despite being the demographic majority, only 17 per cent of representatives in the Russian parliament, the State Duma, are women) and on companies’ directors’ boards. I want economic safety for women and equality of all people before the law and court. We also need to change gender stereotypes and promote cooperation: men and women aren’t enemies, just as women shouldn’t be forced into competing with each other. We need to respect the right for self-identification of all people, irrespective of their gender, age, sexuality, religion, etc.

There are many reasons why the situation is changing now. First and foremost, the whole economy has changed: old social models don’t work anymore. Secondly, there have been many new cases that have caused a stir among the Russian public and drawn more attention to wome’s’ problems: the Khachaturian sisters’ case, and Valeria Volodina’s case against Russia in the European Court are both examples. Lastly, more young people see themselves as part of the world as a whole, rather than citizens of an isolated country that has “its own way”. They are no longer embarrassed to call themselves feminists.


Elena Bolyubach & Anastasia Chuvaeva

Women’s Crisis Centre

The Women’s Crisis Centre has been helping women who’ve experienced different kinds of abuse and giving them psychological support and legal advice since 1992. We also have a wider educational program: from organising training sessions and internships for experts, to big public events. For us, this is all about unity and the strength of the women’s movement, so we always try to collaborate with the activists in any way we can.

Our main goal is the prevention of and reaction against violence as a systemic phenomenon. We always want to improve the quality of help that we offer survivors of violence and to keep it affordable. But people don’t recognise that a culture of violence threads through all spheres of public life, so we’re using education and information on the kinds of violence, ways to identify it and react against it, as our main strategy to reach our goal.

Thanks to social media and trendsetters, girls from all over the country can now read about things like intersectional feminism or queer identity. Online flash mobs such as #MeToo, or its Russian-language equivalent, #янебоюсьсказать (#iamnotafraidtotell), have proven that you can share your personal story and be supported. Talking about these experiences is even helping to change the direction in which society is moving, from individual mindsets, all the way to legislation. That is so very important, especially when friends and family can encourage women not to talk about abuse, so as not to “wash your dirty linen in public.” Rethinking the idea of openness as a personal opportunity to become visible and make your problems visible is increasingly relevant in Russia as well.


I’m the performance artist behind the Quiet Protest action, a project where I talked to strangers about sexism and discrimination in Russia everyday for 18 months. I also organise poetry evenings for charity, give talks on the culture of violence in places that aren’t typically seen as lecture spaces (like factories or apartment buildings), create public and media campaigns in support of survivors (this summer I organised the picket line in support of Khachaturian sisters), and write articles for Russian media about the experiences of victims of violence.

Apart from solving systemic problems, such as legislation on domestic violence, I want objectification, slut-shaming, and the shaming of women for the violence men inflict on them to stop. I want the church to stop challenging women’s right to control their bodies: the discussion on taking abortions off the list of free healthcare services has been going on for several years. I want sex education to become part of the school curriculum, which could prevent teenage pregnancies.

From within the community, I can say that a lot has changed: the number of feminists in Russia is at its highest in 25 years. It influences the media, culture, discourse — everything, even fashion. I think it has to do with the fact that in the last 10 years we’ve had access to a very diverse world experience, and the market within which we live is also changing. I feel like capitalism is already appropriating feminism — I have no illusions there — but this has an impact on the media space too.


List of Women’s Rights Organisations and Activists:

AnFem

activist and educational group

ANNA

crisis centre with an all-Russian hotline for domestic abuse victims, founded by Marina Pisklakova-Parker

Entrepreneurial Winning Women program

initiative that helps women in business and leadership, founded by Sofia Azizyan

EVA Association

organisation helping HIV-positive women in Saint Petersburg


Femland

a rock music camp for girls


Nasiliu.net

(No to Violence), founded by Anna Rivina and Marie Davtyan


The Open Space

co-working and educational space for civic activists, home of the FemInfoteka library


pretty eerie

blog on feminism and mental health


Sisters

centre for sexual violence survivors, led by Nadia Zamotaeva

Tebe Poveriat (They Will Believe You)

centre for sexual abuse survivors


Quiet Protest

social protest movement


Ti Ne Odna (You Are Not Alone)

women’s mutual aid network

Woman Who Matters

founded by Anna Rudakova


Daria Apakhonchich

artist


Zara Arutyunyan

psychologist and psychotherapist


Nastia Glushkova

activist


Mark Klinkov

photographer, pro-feminist, trans-activist


Olga Lipovskaya

journalist, poet


Alla Mitrofanova

historian, philosopher


Sasha Mitroshina

blogger #янехотелаумирать (#ididnotwanttodie)


Polina Nikitina

artist, designer

Nadia Plungyan

journalist, art critic, curator


Olga Razmakhova

psychologist and psychotherapist


Galina Rymbu

writer, poet


Anya Sakharova

journalist


Polina Titova

blogger


Masha Tunkara

blogger


Oksana Vasyakina

writer, poet

Bok o Bok (Side by Side)

film festival (LGBTQ+)


Rus Sidiashchaya (Imprisoned Russia)

Prisoners’ rights activism

Committee against Torture

Prisoners’ rights activism

Centre for Promotion of the Criminal Justice Reform

led by Natalya Dziadko (Prisoners’ rights activism)

Liudmila Alpern

researcher and writer (Prisoners’ rights activism)

RuGenerations

educational and research centre that specialises in Generations Theory, co-founded by Evgenia Shamis (Sociology)


kimkibabaduk

blog created by Maria Kuvshinova and Tatyana Shorokhova (Film criticism)

Georgina Deiratani

organiser of a food bank for the homeless (Charity)

No Kidding Press

Publishing house, courses for female writers

Image and interview: Miliyollie

Introduction: ​Maria Muzdybaeva
Video: Miliyollie, Pavel Ugamochi, Masha Borodacheva
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