... issues and strategies. Activist Vera Akulova is part of the Moscow Feminist Group and currently writing her dissertation on the transformation of the women`s movement in Russia, from the 1990s until today at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. During her visit to Berlin in July 2013 AVIVA met with Akulova to talk with her about the topic of her PhD-project but also about her activist experiences, the articulation of LGBTI-rights, the role of online communities, as well as the recent judicial and political developments in Russia and their effects on social movements and activism in general.
AVIVA-Berlin: The last years have shown two tendencies concerning human rights in Russia. Laws are becoming more restrictive â€“ for example the Foreign Agent Law (2012) and the Gay Propaganda Law (2013) â€“, but yet there are more people involved in political activism than ever before. How can that be explained?
Vera Akulova: The protest cycle is on the rise in Russia as well as in many other places in the world. The restrictive laws are the governmentÂ´s reaction to the growing social mobilisation, but eventually these repressions might just help the movement to consolidate even more. In the course of the last years organisations have been growing and becoming more diverse. People have learned more about activism and discontent was clearly growing before and during the last parliamentary elections in 2012. The anti-election fraud protests were a point when this tendency finally became obvious. Regular people who hadn`t been involved in politics before came out into the streets, but also all kinds of political and social activists, including feminist groups. Many people hoped that the movement would be successful right away, that was impossible. But I think the protest cycle is on the rise and â€“ what is really important â€“ protests as well political beliefs are becoming legitimate again.
AVIVA-Berlin: Looking back in Russian history, protest and political activism never seemed as a very legitimate way of expression.
Vera Akulova: There was a short period directly after the collapse of the Soviet Union when social movements could actually form again. But in 1993 Boris Yeltsin shelled the parliament and took over power. There were demonstrations but Russia doesnÂ´t have a tradition of protest so when the people got shot at, they gave up. And these memories still shape discussions today. When you get involved in activism, people usually say two things â€“ "You`ll get noticed and that`s very dangerous" and "It`s pointless because you can`t change anything". The first argument goes back to the Soviet era and the second to YeltsinÂ´s time. This is also true for the womenÂ´s movement that formed in the 1990s. With the economic collapse and unemployment, women started to organise mainly in order to survive. They built up different kinds of training for women who lost their jobs. It was often handicrafts, sewing or embroidery, but also accounting or business trainings, even leadership programmes. But it seems like the historical moment was not favourable for the women`s movement. In addition to the suppression of protest, another problem was that new hierarchies were establishing at that time with regard to class and gender so it was difficult to unite.
AVIVA-Berlin: Russia had quite a diverse pre-revolutionary womenÂ´s movement that only few know about. Women started to organise in the second half of the 19th century and fought for suffrage. What happened to this movement after the October Revolution in 1917?
Vera Akulova: The Communist Party granted women pretty much everything they had battled for during the Russian Empire. Divorce procedures were simplified for instance and abortions legalised. Soviet Russia was the first country in Europe to legalise abortion in 1920. Furthermore, the so-called zhenotdely were established, women`s departments within the party that did things like research on the work conditions of women. This was a very good institution. But when Stalin came to power all the grassroots-activity was repressed and the zhenotdely became merely decorative institutions. The gender policy became very conservative and repressive. Abortions were banned in 1936 and divorce became quite difficult once again. There was a whole complex of measures designed to promote the image of the working mother as an ideal. And after Stalin`s death the situation changed anew. Abortions for example were legalised again. When you read gender history of the Soviet Union abortions always seem like milestones for marking eras.
AVIVA-Berlin: What do people associate with the concept or the term "feminism" nowadays?
Vera Akulova: I suppose when you say feminism now, most people think of Pussy Riot and Femen. But they also say that feminists are angry and unhappy women, who never found herself a good husband. Or that they are ugly lesbians.
AVIVA-Berlin: Outside Russia, Pussy Riot is probably the most known feminist group. How is their activism debated within feminist groups?
Vera Akulova: Personally I wouldn`t call it activism but political art. When they made their first "illegal gig" â€“ how they call it â€“ many people within the feminist movement were very enthusiastic but many also objected to the sexual objectification they worked with. Pussy Riot were also using stereotypes, for example saying that Russia needed a feminist whip and a female president. That suggested that feminism was simply about turning the hierarchy upside down. They stated in interviews that there was no feminist movement whatsoever in Russia and that the recent abortion law had been adopted without any public debate about it. Even though there had been a huge campaign and Pussy Riot knew about that because they once came up to me â€“ I was also involved in the organisation â€“ and congratulated me, saying that we were doing a great job. But it`s their artistic method to mystify, to hyperbolise. That`s what distinguishes their work from activism because as an activist, you cannot play that much with the message, you have to make yourself clear. And I think the point of their exaggeration was to provoke a debate about these issues. This would be my optimistic hypothesis.
AVIVA-Berlin: What were the impacts of their illegal gigs, like the one in the Church of the Redeemer in Moscow? Did the perception of feminism and protest change?
Vera Akulova: During the trial and right afterwards, many journalists got interested in feminism and made interviews with some activists, also with me and my friends. The interest died down after a few weeks but I think there still was some impact, at least at the symbolical level â€“ the balaclava is now a universally recognisable symbol. Despite my criticism, I believe that Pussy Riot will inspire a lot women to be bold, courageous and just to express themselves and thatÂ´s really important.
AVIVA-Berlin: The Internet was a crucial medium for Pussy Riot to stage their protest. In general, social movements profit a lot from online channels and networks.
Vera Akulova: Online-activism has become a preferred form of activism in the Russian feminist community because there are few other options. Women who live in the provinces, have full-time jobs and children don`t have the resources to organise otherwise. And since the idea of protest is still not legitimate people tend to discuss political issues for a long time in private spaces, forums and live-journals before they are actually ready to do something offline.
AVIVA-Berlin: In 2005 the first and up to now biggest online platform for Russian-speaking feminists was founded. What role does "feministki" play for the women`s movement?
Vera Akulova: When the collective blog was founded there seemed to be a great demand for such an online forum. People wanted to learn and talk about feminism, but were still not willing to associate themselves with feminism. The climate has changed in the last few years but in that time it was not common to call yourself a feminist. Now there are several thousands of people in this community. They discuss all kinds of things, books, movies, news, politics, theoretical texts. A lot of knowledge is presented in an accessible way. You can also share experiences and ask for advice or support from other participants. The community really functions as a large support group. Many women say that this gave them strength. I also experienced it as really empowering.
AVIVA-Berlin: You are part of the Moscow Feminist Group. What is the group`s agenda, what issues do you take up in your work?
Vera Akulova: The group was founded in 2008 by radical intersectional feminists. Initially it was a consciousness-raising group. The strategy from the Second Wave was adopted to discuss patriarchy and how it impacts our everyday lives. Now the Moscow Feminist Group functions more as a circle of friends and as a platform for other projects, like organising public talks with activists and researchers. We also have a website where we publish texts on feminist issues, including the intersections of gender and disability, race, class, sexuality. The site is one of the central information resources about feminism in the Russian-speaking Internet.
AVIVA-Berlin: You mentioned the campaign targeting a law restricting abortion rights in 2011. It was one of the biggest womenÂ´s campaigns ever. How did this come about?
Vera Akulova: I think that the campaign was a success in two aspects. We collected several thousand signatures and we sent them to all the parliamentary members in the committees in charge of the law. So in the end the law turned out less restrictive than the drafts. And the other aspect was that a lot of "regular" women came to the protests. Usually it was just professional activists, you came to a protest and you only saw familiar faces. The problem with the topic of abortion is that people don`t quite understand that abortion is a political question. But we did a good job spreading information on the Internet, explaining to women that it actually concerns all of us because itÂ´s about the freedom to make decisions about your own body.
AVIVA-Berlin: When did LGBTI-rights become an issue in Russia? How is the relationship between feminists and LGBTI-groups?
Vera Akulova: Speaking from my personal experience I can say that the collaboration goes back to 2011. At first it was just feminists and radical leftist activists coming to show solidarity on the unofficial gay pride and then LGBT-issues became more prominent and more accepted during the anti-Putin protests. Activists came to the protests and had wonderful slogans, connecting the demands of the anti-Putin protests with LGBT-rights demands. During the first big anti-Putin rally, nationalists tried to attack LGBT-activists and it was amazing that people who were just standing next to the demonstration stepped in and defended the rainbow flag. And things have also changed since the introduction of the Gay Propaganda Law. Upscale liberal media began writing about it and presenting it as an important political and social issue. It seems like now many people are becoming more gay-friendly. I think that this shows that at the present moment, social movements cannot be silenced and that repression will just provoke more protest. IÂ´m rather optimistic about the future.
AVIVA-Berlin: Thank you, Vera Akulova, for sharing your insights and experiences. We are also optimistic that womenÂ´s and LGBTI-movements will grow and contribute to a democratisation of the country!
More information at:
Website der Moscow Feminist Group (russian)
Feministische Online-Plattform "Feministki" (russian)
Read more at AVIVA-Berlin:
Alle AVIVA-Updates zu den Pussy Riots
Anti-Homosexuellen Gesetz in Russland - CSD am 22. Juni 2013 fordert ein Ende der Diskriminierung
Copyright photo of Vera Akulova: Veronika Siegl