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Gender and Post-Soviet Russia. International Perspectives on Gender Lecture 7. Structure of Lecture. Introduction and Context Glasnost, Perestroika & Birth of Russian Federation Poverty and Income Inequalities A Gendered Labour Market Redefining Femininity, ‘Crisis’ in Masculinity

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Gender and post soviet russia

Gender and Post-Soviet Russia

International Perspectives on Gender

Lecture 7

Structure of lecture
Structure of Lecture

  • Introduction and Context

  • Glasnost, Perestroika & Birth of Russian Federation

  • Poverty and Income Inequalities

  • A Gendered Labour Market

  • Redefining Femininity, ‘Crisis’ in Masculinity

  • Gendered Migration

  • Declining Fertility Rates

  • Rediscovering Sexuality?

  • Russian Feminisms

  • Conclusions


  • Engels’ prescription for women’s emancipation:

    abolition of private property

    women’s full incorporation into the labour force socialization of domestic work and childcare women’s full participation in public life

  • ‘Gap’ between theory and practice, and failure to analyse gendered power relations, limited women’s emancipation in the Soviet Union

  • If entry to paid work did bring women emancipation under state socialism it was of a type that might be described as patriarchal

  • What has happened since the fall of Communism in Russia?

Political timeline
Political Timeline

  • Michael Gorbachev (1931- )

    • ‘Career’ in Agricultural organisation, CPSU

    • Head of USSR 1988-1991

    • Initiated dialogue with west and economic reforms

    • Lost power in coup

  • Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007)

    • ‘Career’ in Construction Industry, CPSU member 1961-1990

    • Ally then opponent of Gorbachev, came to fore in 1991 coup

    • Elected 1st President of Russia in 1991

    • Re-elected 1996

    • Handed power to Putin suddenly in late 1999

  • Vladimir Putin (1952- )

    • KGB 1971-1991

    • Acting PM 1999 then Acting President 1999-2000

    • Elected 2ndPresident of Russia in 2000, re-elected 2004

    • In 2008 became Prime Minister, Medvedev was President

    • In 2012 Putin ran again for Presidency and elected

      (highly contested)

Perestroika and reform
Perestroika and Reform

  • 1980s – Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness: allowing limited criticism of the communist regime) then perestroika (restructuring of the economy allowing limited private enterprise and private property)

  • 1989 - fall of Berlin wall

  • 1990 – Communist Party hardliners failed to recapture power in coup

  • Capitalism replaces socialist ideology, the free market the central command economy


1992 - the USSR =

Commonwealth of

Independent States


Decolonization leaving

Russian Federation

From the state to the market
From the State to the Market

  • How was daily life organised by the Communist state?

  • state allocation of individuals to employment

  • state allocation of housing

  • state-run education and free health-care

  • state provided pensions for retired

  • organised holidays for workers

  • Capitalism brought markets and choice: of jobs; housing; consumer goods

  • Also high inflation, unemployment following privatization, unpaid wages, inadequate pensions

  • Many were excluded from the new choices

Capitalism wins market decides
Capitalism ‘Wins’: Market Decides

Samsung sign from the Kremlin

The Capitalist defeats the ‘red’

Poverty and income inequalities
Poverty and Income Inequalities

  • 1999: 40% of Russian population in poverty

  • Rural areas initially cushioned to an extent because food could be grown

  • Some urban families were living on porridge, potatoes, cabbage and tea

  • Under Yeltsin Russia had to borrow money from IMF and devalue rouble

  • Elite groups prospered

  • Inequalities increased: poorest Russian earned less than £9 per month in 2003

  • Mikhail Khodorkovsky was worth £6.5 billion

  • Roman Abramovich paid £140 million for Chelsea and £100 million for new players

A tale of two russias
A Tale of Two Russias

Woman begging by Red Square

Wealthy Russians shopping in London

Abramovich’s Eclipse: World’s

largest ‘super-yacht’

Russian Soup Kitchen

Absolute relative poverty
Absolute / Relative Poverty

  • Under Putin Russia’s wealth increased, from petro-roubles

  • Absolute poverty declined 2000-2008

  • 2009: 30% increase in number of people living in poverty, defined as an income of less than £110 equivalent per month, to 24.5 million

  • July 2011 Russian Federal Statistics Agency: 16% of population impoverished

  • Top 20% have doubled income in real terms since 1991

  • Bottom 40% earn less in real terms than in 1991

  • Taxation is 13% for all (highly regressive)

  • Vodka is 5 times cheaper than in 1991

  • Video Clip:

Rural decline
Rural Decline

‘Fifty people live in the village now and, at two o'clock in the afternoon, most of them were drunk. The fields lay uncultivated. Many of the wooden houses were falling down. The tragedy of Budushchee is that it is not special - it is typical. Since the collapse of communism, the Russian countryside has fallen apart. Those who have not fled are slowly drinking themselves to death. It is one reason why the average life expectancy for Russian men is just 60 years’.


Natalia Chernykh,

52, collects snow

for drinking water

in Zvezdny, Siberia

Rural Russia

A gendered labour market
A Gendered Labour Market

  • Privatization in 1990s pushed women out of labour market disproportionately

  • Bridger and Kay, 1996: Up to 90% of redundancies were of women

  • Women reduced share of jobs in trade, catering, credit, finance and insurance by 15-17%

  • 85% of public sector workers were women and 82% of education workers – wages unpaid or below inflation

  • Laying off women more than men ‘justified’ on several grounds:

    women have another primary role as mother and homemaker

    women cost more as workers because of maternity benefits, child-care etc.

    women lose jobs first because they are ‘secondary’ wage earners

    women don’t have the right attributes in new economy

    it’s a privilege to be able to stay in the domestic sphere

  • Many highly skilled older women were traumatized by redundancy

  • Some women took early retirement – hidden form of unemployment

Redefining femininity
Redefining Femininity

  • Emphasis on women’s roles as mothers and grandmothers

  • 46% of women interviewed in 1999 said women only work for money, less than 3% mentioned a career

  • Potential tension with western feminism

  • Reality is most Russian women have always had to work and face ‘double-burden’

  • Women redefining their femininity, resisting androgynous concept of women’s emancipation in

    state socialism

  • Male and female workers seen as

    interchangeable by Communist Party,

    leaving no room for difference

How is Russian femininity constructed here?

‘Suffering is the time-honoured price of beauty. Russia’s young women get up early to put on heavy make-up, and they can spend an hour arranging their hair, even on working days. When they are ready for the street, they step on to the ice and slush in four-inch heels. The question-and-answer column in September’s Vogue has explained that this is the winter of the micro-mini, and so the fashion-conscious will shiver…’

‘“You women [western women] are always so badly dressed,” a professor of history remarked to me’.

Source: Catherine Merridale (2000) ‘In Russia, make way for the new Italians’, New Statesman, available online:

Hyper femininity

  • Some women emphasise difference

    from men, and seek to attract a good

    male provider, through emphasised

    or hyper femininity

  • ‘The next day in Moscow, I had an even starker reminder of how different Russia still is. In a darkened room, a group of young women in very short skirts were being taught how to pole-dance and improve their sex techniques. This was not a class for aspiring lap-dancers. The young women were learning how to catch a rich husband’.


Masculinity in crisis
Masculinity in ‘Crisis’?

  • Lytkina and Ashwin, 2004: what are the prospects for Russian men experiencing unstable employment or no employment at all?

  • Such men face double marginalization, from (public) labour market and (private) home

  • Most men’s sole contribution to domestic life is as breadwinners, so if lose that role they lose their identity

  • No retreat into housework/childcare for men

  • New outlets not threatening to masculinity may be found – DIY, grandfatherhood

  • Others face crisis – depression; alcohol dependency; broken relationships

  • Unemployment rate almost 15% in 1999, averaged over 8% until 2010, today 5.27% (September 2013)

Gendered migration
Gendered Migration

  • Communism denied travel beyond Soviet borders

  • From 1990s both men and women have migrated

  • ‘Brain-drain’ – emigration of well-educated professionals

  • Less skilled men typically migrated into low-paid agricultural work or construction

    work; women into

    domestic work and

    sex work

  • Immigration of ethnic

    Russians in former

    satellites exceeded


Trafficking in women
Trafficking in Women

  • Trafficking women into forced labour was an early problem

  • According to support groups for sex workers in western European, ‘the former Soviet Union has replaced Asia as the biggest source of foreign sex workers’ (Guardian, Dec 16, 1997).

  • Some women leave knowing the nature of the work

  • Others answer ads for waitresses, nannies, fruit-pickers, models, dancers, translators, secretaries etc. and are then forced into prostitution

  • Trafficking in women is a major source of profit for Russia’s organised criminal network

  • Whether of not the women enter sex work freely, they typically find that they cannot leave it freely

Mail order brides
‘Mail-Order’ Brides

  • Young Russian women may also move to western Europe or the US as ‘mail-order brides’, ‘in demand as accommodating, non-feminist wives to predominantly ageing, divorced, Western men… ten, twenty, even forty years their junior’ (Bridger and Kay, 1996, p. 34).

Declining fertility rates
Declining Fertility Rates

  • Low birth rates and higher death rates saw natural population falling by up to 1 million per year in 1990s

  • Total population only maintained growth with immigration

  • Fertility rate dropped to low of 1.16 children per woman in 1999

  • 1.54 children per woman in 2009

  • Putin: £32.5 billion pledge to raise birthrate by 30%

  • 1.7 children per woman in 2012

  • Natural population expected to return to very modest growth in 2013

Rediscovering sexuality
Rediscovering Sexuality? 2013

  • Has women’s sexuality been liberated?

  • ‘There is no sex in the Soviet Union’: so said Soviet woman on live TV link to US during 1980s glasnost

  • Pornography and female prostitution celebrated as direct challenges to the state in 1990s

  • Sexualisation of the labour market: women’s physical attributes part of their human capital

  • Not ‘liberation’ – new consumerism has combined with new sexual licence to commodify women’s bodies

  • Segal: ‘Far from liberating women from the old confines of the Soviet state, the sex industry takes onto a new plane the submission and self-sacrifice which Soviet writers have always insisted were essential female traits’.

Young people s take on sexuality
Young People’s Take on Sexuality 2013

  • Elena Omel’chenko’sresearch: ‘private’ heterosexual relations remain bound by gender stereotypes

  • Sexuality seen as something women have, but not independently of men

  • Female sexuality, as validated by men = full breasts, good figure, slim legs etc.

  • Male sexuality, as seen by women = male power

  • Men reluctant to consider their sexuality

  • Sex culture an important part of Russian youth culture

  • Virginity seen as onerous and superflous

  • Sex freely discussed with peers but never parents

  • Western sex culture consumed but suspected

Homophobia 2013

  • Most young people in survey explicitly homophobicbut:

    Men more overtly hostile to homosexuality than women are to lesbianism

    Women tend to pity homosexual men, men to demand their isolation from society

  • Main objection to homosexuality = disrupts gender relations

  • Since 1993 sex not a crime between consenting males

  • Lesbians no longer sectioned, but still likely

    to be seen as mentally ill

  • Labour market discrimination common

  • Gay and lesbian movement developed ,

    centred on Moscow and St Petersburg

  • Homophobic abuse on increase

Women s organisations
Women’s Organisations 2013

  • Under communism only the officially sponsored Committee of Soviet Women was permitted

  • Women’s share of parliamentary representation was 30% at least nominally under Communism, 11.5% in 2011

  • Independent women’s movement in Russia emerged slowly: ‘women were more likely to demand dignified domesticity than independent equality’ and ‘gender as an organizing concept exercised nowhere near the pull of ethnicity’ (Waters, 1993, p. 290)

  •  Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers – conservative re women’s role, confirming the glorified image of the mother

Russian feminisms
Russian Feminisms 2013

  • Waters’ interviews with AnastasyaPosadskaya and ValentinaKonstantinova from Moscow Centre for Gender Studies reveal concerns for Russian feminists:

    economic rights of women

    political representation of women

    challenging negative media stereotypes of women (eg ‘cuckoo mothers’, single women)

    female sex workers (abolition or affording rights?)

    pornography (censorship or not?)

    women’s reproductive rights (contraception still inadequate – more abortions than live births)

    domestic violence

Conclusions 2013

  • Many celebrate market-oriented society: choices, freedom

  • But how much freedom if lack purchasing power, identity?

  • Lost security of state provision, increasing inequalities

  • Under Communism women had duty to work; under Capitalism may be forced out of labour market

  • Some women happy to retreat into domesticity, celebrate hyper-femininity

  • Men face role failure and loss of identity if unemployed

  • Amidst rapid changes in 1990s many Russian emigrated, voluntarily and coerced

  • Fertility rates collapsed and only now recovering

  • Not liberation of sexuality but privileging of male pleasure; homophobia

  • Russian feminisms and gender studies now well developed