The Soviet Union claimed to leave behind the bourgeois notions of patriarchy and the subjugation of women, declaring the genders equal in all endeavors. My interview with Olga Lipovskaya challenges these assertions and portrays her as a symbol for a more radical form of feminism that never came to fruition in contemporary Russia. Here was a woman, well versed in Western feminist theory, fluent in English, entirely unable to find funding in her own country and finding it harder and harder to get foreigners to help out her small outfit. The interview underscores just how marginalized women’s issues are in contemporary Russia to the point of their absence in the public forum. It appears that this topic has been entirely passed over and the only ones interested in it are a small number of activists and Westerners interested in gender issues and women’s movement in Russia.
The setting for the interview itself provides an excellent example of just how little the Russian people and government seem to care about women’s issues. I conducted this interview not in the office of an NGO dealing with women’s issues, not at an educational institution, not even at her home, but in the run down playground in between some Soviet era apartment buildings. We sat on some tree stumps in one corner of the courtyard, amongst the beer bottles and food wrappers strewn about. Two older men slept in another corner, while some teenagers ate and drank in a third. Here was one of the few places in this vast country where anyone cared to discuss women’s issues. Any foundation or NGO that still does operate exists on such a small scale that it is nearly impossible for it to have a true impact on Russian society.
The Soviet propaganda machine made a great deal of showing women in traditionally male roles of factory work and tractor driving, in order to underscore the depth of gender equality. However, in speaking with Olga Lipovskaya I found that by the late Soviet era this was mostly an illusion, especially in the more educated professions. While Lipovskaya does not deny that there were more women than men pursuing higher education, this did not translate into women’s representation in professional careers.
She mentions that as one looked to the higher rungs of the career ladder, especially in academia, women were more and more seldom seen to the point of hyper-marginalization. In the interview, Lipovskaya speaks to how only about 1% of those with the highest academic degree in Russia were women. The very patriarchy that Soviet Union claimed to defeat was alive and well in late Soviet culture. Lipovskaya, in the interview, mentions many times the concept of “limitations” for women, many of which were implicit. People seemed to know just how far women could go, from the collective farm to the high reaches of the Politburo, the presence of influential female leaders was rare and in many cases only a result of tokenism. Even by the end of the Soviet Union, during the apex of glasnost’ and perestroika, only one woman, Alexandra Biriukova, was on the Politburo in a nonvoting capacity (Engel 252). The first female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, admonished the state for not addressing the health risks of certain occupations on women (Engel 251). Here was one of the most famous and successful Soviet women, acknowledging that the system from which she supposedly benefited was in fact detrimental to women. Lipovskaya, with her own firsthand knowledge speaks about the former regime’s empty talk about the rights and equality of women. All of this evidence makes clear the lack of true equality for women in the Soviet Union, any pretense of this notion was entirely false.
The official state apparatus for addressing the concerns and rights of women, in Lipovskaya’s opinion, was a shell that did nothing to improve the condition of women. Her own reaction to the existing outlets for women’s expressions mirrors that of the American feminists. They formed their own organizations and published their own journals in order to tell the world how they felt about things. Of course in the Soviet Union forming organizations outside the state was expressly prohibited. However, the tradition of samizdat (self-publishing) provided at least some form of expression for these women. Lipovskaya established the samizdat journal Zhenskoe chtenie (Women’s Reading) and later was one of the organizers of independent Women’s Forum in Dubna, Russia. These initiatives became the viable alternatives to the work of the official Soviet Women’s Committee. Lipovskaya speaks a great deal about the lack of substance in any Soviet organization aimed at helping women. These organizations were in place merely to quiet those, especially in the West, who demanded the state to do something for women.
Lipovskaya notes that feminists achieved a modest progress in at least one sphere–that of academic research. Since the opening of Russian society after the fall of the Soviet Union Women’s and Gender Studies programs have emerged in Russian universities. While these programs are usually not involved in social activism, they at least ensure that young people discuss gender and women’s issues in academic context. One of the most active of these is the Center for Gender Studies at the European University at St. Petersburg, but of course this is a private university, receiving a lot of its funding from the West, again illustrating the lack of interest by the state in women’s issues. It is one thing for Western scholars and academics to posit about Women’s rights and problems in Russia, but it is quite different when Russians do this for themselves. This provides those in Russia with ownership of their own unique challenges and allows them to work on them in their own context and culture.
Lipovskaya’s work as a poet and writer got her involved in the movement in the way that many other Russians got their own start in political activism during the Soviet period. Lipovskaya’s participation in a samizdat journal, presents an example of one of the small niches that people in the Soviet Union were able to carve out to publicize their own views counter to the official ideology of the state. While these were banned and participation in them was strictly prohibited they were for many the only means to make their ideas known. The late Soviet feminist movement started as a dissident group, expressing their ideas in samizdat journals such as Women and Russia and Maria, which were released in Leningrad in 1979. They wrote about discrimination against women, reproductive rights and domestic violence. The KGB confiscated their journals and forced the publishers of these journals, Tat’iana Mamonova and Iuliia Voznesenskaia, to emigrate in 1980. The state did this as a way of cleansing the country of any dissident elements that might disturb the largest international showcase in the country’s history, the Moscow Olympics. There could be no agitation against the official Marxist doctrine when the whole world was watching. While the state succeeded in suppressing activists, their example inspired others. Olga Lipovskaya was one of those women and in the late 1980s she published her own samizdat journal.
Another interesting aspect of Lipovskaya’s own personal convictions and philosophy comes in her refusal to use her patronymic. This second name created from one’s father’s name is used as a sign of respect in Russia, much like the use of mister or miss with someone’s last name in the United States. She chooses not to use her patronymic for, what she called feminist reasons, acts as a wholesale rejection of what she sees as patriarchal. This is not unlike many young women during the height of the third wave feminist movement refusing to take their husbands’ last name. However, this kind of act is unheard of in Russian culture and is far more radical than what most even in the Western women’s movement would do.
Lipovskaya’s personal brand of feminism seems even more extreme when looking at one of the most open moments in Russian society. During the height of glasnost’, when Gorbachev pledged that the Soviet state would be honest with the people and allow for debate, a backlash against feminism emerged. People felt insecure and vulnerable during this period, fearful that there entire way of life could come crashing down. Many thought that the best way to combat this was with a reassertion of traditional values in order to once again gain stability (Engel 253-4). People felt this most acutely in relation to Gorbachev’s wife Raisa. She was a strong, vocal female political figure, who many Russians viewed as too prominent in official discourse. Lipovskaya’s call for a true, Western-style women’s liberation scared many Russians who feared a breakdown of their society. Even when Lipovskaya and other women activists should have been at there most influential, economic hardships and the Russian cultural conventions relegated their message to outsider status, never allowing them to enter the political discussion as equals.
When further commenting the existing women’s organizations she seems to express some resentment in their scope and goals. She disparages the organizations founded by mothers of soldiers and disabled children to improve the lot of their children. She refers to them as mamochki, a diminutive term that does not give much credit to their organizations or work (Engel 267). But, these organizations have made great strides. The soldiers’ mothers have been able to reduce the extent and the severity of the hazing that exists in the military. Their ability to bring to light some of the worst practices of the military and actually make a difference is commendable. On their website they mention that they have worked for nearly 18 years and have helped about one million people (Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia). Similarly, the mothers of the disabled have been able to get some concessions, such as ramps into buildings and more accessible forms of transport for their children, in a country which has been almost wholly inaccessible to the disabled until recently.
One understands that Lipovskaya does not think that this is the best use of the soldiers’ and disabled children’s mothers’ time and energies. Rather than working towards specific practical goals, she wants a more system wide approach, something to overthrow the patriarchy that surrounds women and holds them back in all arenas. However, her views once again appear too radical and abstract for most Russian women, who would rather spend the time to achieve goals that can alleviate the burdens on their children. Again, one sees Lipovskaya as advocating for a more radical form of feminism, which is not very palatable to activism minded citizens in Putin-era Russia.
Engel, Barbara Alpern. Women in Russia, 1700-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Lipovskaya, Olga. Personal Interview. 11 July 2010.
Gender Studies, European University at St. Petersburg. www.eu.spb.ru. Accessed 14 October 2010.
Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia. www.ucsmr.ru. Accessed 6 October 2010.