By Jillian Smith, “S vas’-MIM MAR-ta!” (Happy March 8th!) will be an oft-repeated phrase in Russia this Sunday as the country – and the rest of the world – celebrates International Women’s Day (IWD). Russian men will treat special ladies in their lives with gifts, flowers, wine, and dinner – a day not unlike Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day here in the West (Insiders Guide, 2015). In fact, Monday will be a public holiday in Russia to observe the day. Certainly, it seems that a country that goes to such lengths to observe IWD (and women in general) must hold the day and its roots in high regard. The reality, however, is much more complex and convoluted.
The first IWD was held in New York in 1909 as a Socialist political event to promote gender rights (UN, 2008). Nevertheless, the most famous IWD was held in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1917 (UN, 2008). As part of the peace movement protesting World War I, the protest merged with riots, eventually leading to the February Revolution and the Czar abdication (UN, 2008). Egalitarianism was fostered as one of the great epitomes of this revolution. Indeed, Russia was one of the first countries in the world to give women the right to vote (UN, 2008).
Long before there were studies proving the marginalization of women in war and the need for female political participation, courageous Russian feminists recognized and asserted these facts. Like these inspirational women, modern-day Russian feminists will again be standing up against the narrative of war and rejecting violence as a means of conflict resolution on March 8, 2015. This time, however, it is unlikely that their country and their government will heed their advice. When these women gathered at IWD 2013 to support Ukrainian women, they were targeted by police and arrested; when they gathered at IWD 2014 to protest war, they were attacked and beaten by onlookers (Rees, 2014). How did Russia stray so far from its feminist roots?
From revolutions and voting rights one hundred years ago, to flowers and feminist arrests today, one can be forgiven for believing that the Russian feminist voice has been muted in the country’s IWD celebrations. It has. Post-Soviet feminism has not seen the linear progression it has enjoyed in the West. Post-Soviet and Russian women have endured a dizzying array of altered statuses and contradictory roles (Ghodsee, 2004). The beauty of feminism, which has always been about choice, was somewhat lost as post-Soviet women took on heavy loads of work, children, and domestic duties, all while the legacy of male machismo simply didn’t allow for unimpeded equality (Ghodsee, 2004). In other words, the patriarchal system was simply subverted instead of replaced. Is it, therefore, any wonder that Putin’s ancient system of patriarchy has enjoyed resurgence?
It seems that Russian conservatism preserving patriarchal advantage and promoting militarism has replaced the egalitarianism Russian feminist pioneers once fought so hard to attain. In fact, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church and close ally of Putin, claims that feminists could destroy Russia. "Man has his gaze turned outward – he must work, make money – and woman must be focused inwards, where her children are, where her home is," Kirill said. "If this incredibly important function of women is destroyed then everything will be destroyed – the family and, if you wish, the motherland"(“Feminism is very dangerous”, 2013).
The theme for IWD 2015 is “Make It Happen” – “it” referring to promoting equality, ending violence, and supporting women’s political and economic participation. While women around the globe will celebrate liberation – American women will be participating in leadership workshops, Iraqi women will be reading inspirational women’s poetry, and Cambodian women will be writing empowering stories (just to name a few) – many Russian women will celebrate with offerings of flowers, gifts, and dinners. Though any true feminist would concede that there is nothing inherently wrong about celebrating the day in any style of one’s choosing, there will undoubtedly be many other Russian women celebrating the day facing arrest and persecution simply for following in their mothers’ and grandmothers’ footsteps and advocating for peace. A patriarchal “wrong” that seems so right.
“Feminism is very dangerous, Patriarch Kerill says.” 2013. Retrieved March 2, 2015 from The Moscow Times: https://themoscowtimes.com/news/article/feminism-is-very-dangerous-patriarch-kirill-says/478433.html
Ghodsee, K. 2004. Feminism-by-Design: Emerging capitalisms, cultural feminism, and women’s nongovernmental organizations in postsocialist Eastern Europe. Retrieved March 2, 2015 from: http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/10.1086/380631
Insiders Guide (Moscow, Russia). 2015. International Women’s Day in Moscow, Russia. Retrieved March 2, 2015 from: https://theairlineadvisor.com/aeroflot-hand-luggage/
Rees, M. 2014. Russian feminists rise up for peace in the Ukraine. Retrieved March 2, 2015 from Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom: http://wilpf.org/russian-feminists-rise-up-for-peace-in-the-ukraine/
United Nations (UN). 2008. International Women’s Day. Retrieved March 2, 2015 from: http://www.un.org/events/women/iwd/2008/history.shtml