A A A

Gender, nationalism and citizenship in anti-authoritarian protests in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

By Blog Admin, on 13 July 2015

Darya Malyutina, a recent UCL PhD, reports on a workshop that was held at the University of Cambridge, which was funded by CEELBAS and Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, and which involved the participation of several representatives of UCL SSEES. The event was organized by Olesya Khromeychuk, until recently a teaching fellow at SSEES and lector in Ukrainian at Cambridge, and soon to take up a position as Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of East Anglia.

Participants in the workshop: (L-R) Richard Mole, Anna Shadrina, Nadzeya Husakouskaya, Tamara Martseniuk.

On 20 June 2015, a workshop that brought together scholars, human rights and gender equality activists, artists and journalists working on Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, took place at Robinson College at the University of Cambridge. The participants discussed the implications and intersections of gender, nationalism and citizenship in the recent and ongoing protest movements in the three countries. The interdisciplinary discussions also addressed a number of related issues, from body politics and corporeality to migration and diaspora, from media and propaganda to art and literature, from war to ethical and methodological quandaries of research and activism.

The workshop was introduced by Rory Finnin (Director of Cambridge Ukrainian Studies programme, Head of Department of Slavonic Studies) as a timely initiative to investigate questions of agency and authority in contemporary social movements and upheavals. The workshop organizer Olesya Khromeychuk (Cambridge, SSEES UCL, and UEA) outlined the rationale behind the event: some social groups, such as women or LGBT, seemed to be invisible during the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, while more mainstream and heteronormative groups were in the limelight. This idea prompted broader concerns about the necessity of embarking on a comparative discussion about the meaning of such protests for more peripheral groups.

LGBT Activism

Nadzeya Husakouskaya (University of Bergen) discussed the construction of the transgender subject in contemporary Ukraine as framed through the concepts of citizenship and protest. She stressed the complexity of the sex reassignment procedures in a country where obtaining the proper documents is as important for transgender people as physical body modification. While the ‘normal’ citizen is constructed as mentally and physically healthy, heteronormative and obedient, the transgender subject is produced as a sterile citizen in all means: with no children, no mental health issues or suspicious diseases, no violations of social adaptation, no psychological characteristics that might complicate the adaptation process. Husakovskaya outlined two groups of ‘resistance practices’ of transgender citizens: these include, among others, some discursive practices during interviews, and strategies implemented in medical and bureaucratic settings in order to navigate the system and subvert the heteronormative matrix.

Tamara Martsenyuk (National University of ‘Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’) spoke about the LGBT community and the Euromaidan with a focus on human rights issues. She stressed that although homosexuality was decriminalised in Ukraine in 1991, homophobia still remains a challenge. Hate speech, homophobic politicians, and the aggressive attitudes of far right groups are significant issues. The weaknesses of the LGBT community include its internal stratification, ghettoization, limited street activism and lack of willingness to stand up for the group’s human and civil rights. Martsenyuk described the participation of the LGBT in Euromaidan as a ‘strategy of invisibility’, which implies a certain compromise: their participation was underscored by the priority of the struggle for the nation over the concerns about the rights of a marginal minority. The ideology of homonationalism was suggested as another important dimension of LGBT activism, which implies construction of a ‘true’ gay identity as belonging to the Ukrainian nation. Such ‘veiled’ participation was also connected with instances of homophobia during the Maidan. The speaker stressed: while LGBT issues have become more mainstream after the revolution, the situation is still difficult, since war and the economic crisis are currently seen as more problematic than the issues of LGBT rights.

Anna Shadrina (Centre for Gender Studies, European Humanities University, Vilnius, Lithuania) questioned the role of gender as a potentially useful category for understanding the political landscape in Belarus. She concentrated on an empirical example of the recent (failed) Victory Day road trip of the Moscow nationalist motorcycle club Night Wolves who were stopped at the Belarusian-Polish border and infamously mocked as one of the bikers had a slip of the tongue about border guards searching through their make-up bags. Jokes at the expense of the traditionally masculine, sexist and homophobic bikers ensued. The bikers were portrayed as ridiculous as the cultural codes associated with femininity and/or LGBT were imposed on them. Shadrina’s analysis of the Belarusian opposition’s mockery suggested that this was a case demonstrating the subordination of gender interests to national interests, where the heteronormative masculine images and patriarchal ideologies are privileged both by the authoritarian regime and liberal or nationalist opposition.

Richard Mole (UCL SSEES) in his presentation focused on the Russian ‘queer diaspora’ in Berlin, discussing the perceived relationship between nationality and sexuality in the Russian context and as reinterpreted by diaspora activism. In Russia, Putin’s anti-gay policies were devised as part of strategy to ensure the survival of the Russian nation, as homosexuality was presented as a threat both to the physical reproduction of the nation and to the ‘Russian identity’. LGBT activism was thus delegitimized, and Russian LGBT migrants faced double marginalisation: as ethnic minorities within the host society, and as sexual minorities within the ethnic community. Mole suggested that migrants eventually appealed to the shared ethnic identity and queer diasporic community rather than purely shared sexual identity in their activism against the suppression of Russia’s LGBT groups.

Gender and Revolution

Ilya Yablokov (University of Leeds) spoke about Russian protest movement and anti-Western conspiracy theories that have flourished since Putin returned to power as president in 2012. Yablokov drew upon an understanding of conspiracy theories as populist theories of power which help to unite the audience as ‘the people’ against the imagined ‘Other’, represented as a secretive ‘power bloc’, and thus contributing to the redistribution of power in the society. In Russia’s case, conspiracy theories were used in order to divide the society into the camps of the pro-Putin majority and the oppositional minority. From NGOs to Pussy Riot, the search for internal enemies and delegitimisation of opponents has been presented as an important interpretive frame for both domestic and foreign policies.

Lena Minchenia (Lund University) addressed the discourses of shame in the accounts of protest activities and state violence in Belarus in 2010. Shame was explored as an emotion prescribed to a citizen of Belarus and connected to the protests. Minchenia analysed shame as a feeling of negation/failure, as a recognition of the ideal and desire of its proximity, and as the power of the normative. She suggested that Belarusian shame discourses are classed and serve to separate the speaking subjects from others. Shame can also be presented in relation to the future of the nation, and contribute to gendered images of the protests. It was thus interpreted as producing divisions and hierarchies as a classed and gendered phenomenon.

The true highlight of the day was the talk by Maria Berlinska, activist and volunteer who founded the Centre for Airborne Drone Intelligence in Kyiv. Berlinska took part in Euromaidan, and has worked with a number of military units during the war. Drawing upon first-hand experience, she discussed the role of women, gender discrimination, and the subversion of patriarchal patterns during the 2013-2014 protests. The questions of gender equality and LGBT issues were not seen as the timeliest ones during the Maidan, and privatisation of the protest rhetoric by nationalist groups has partially contributed to this, according to the activist. Female protesters were marginalised, and often portrayed as ‘helping’ to make the revolution and supporting the men, rather than having active agency. The ‘sandwich ideology’ (‘ідеологія канапок’) that prevailed at the Maidan implied that women’s roles were largely limited to cooking, cleaning up, and taking care of men. The image of a Berehynia (female spirit, protector of the hearth) was commonly attributed to women. The three main roles of women in the Maidan, as observed by Berlinska, were that of a cook/cleaner, a peaceful messenger addressing men, and a motherly role. The role of a medic was much less in the limelight, but was actually very dangerous.

However, the activist stressed that the real situation of women in the Maidan was quite different: women actively participated in all kinds of activities. For example, Berlinska herself organised the process of preparation of Molotov cocktails. She also addressed gender issues from the Maidan stage, and suggested responding to the popular and prominent slogan ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ with ‘Glory to its [female] heroes!’ [Slava heroiniam], in addition to the traditional response ‘Glory to its heroes!’ [Slava heroiam]. Berlinska noted that, in fact, no one really structured, regulated or restricted the participation of women in violent events, while during more peaceful periods there were more restrictions, justified by the presumed ‘need to ensure the safety of our women’. Berlinska said that even despite their active participation, some women did not see their activities as related to general issues of gender equality, but rather as a personal achievement. This lack of a feminist outlook is connected with gender discrimination still being seen as a norm. Taking into account her more recent experience on the frontline, Berlinska concluded with a suggestion that equal rights of women in the army would contribute to an increase in gender equality in Ukraine more generally.

Feminism

Marina Yusupova (University of Manchester) examined the issues of masculinity politics and feminist protest in Russia. She pointed to a surge of interest in gender-related issues in Putin’s Russia in 2014: while previously gender matters received little attention, recently the liberal media announced that feminism was a trend and there was a need to write about it. Yusupova explained the popularity of feminism by its relation to high politics. While the conservative political agenda employs traditional gender roles, and Putin is portrayed as an epitome of masculinity (in particular, by employing particular images of femininity), a perfect opportunity of structures has been created for the disappearance of the illusion of gender neutrality and the rise of feminism, argued the speaker.

Evgenia Ivanova (University of Oxford) reflected upon paradoxes of the role of political calendars in female political participation, relating these to the idea of somatic citizenship understood as an attempt to talk about citizenship in corporeal terms. Political calendars deliver an explicitly political or socially significant message, and can be employed for both political support and protest. The majority of the calendars recently printed in different countries have been presented as a ’female space’, either being initiated by women, featuring female images, or addressing women’s issues; and relying heavily on the body and nakedness. Ivanova mentioned, among other examples, the pro-Putin calendar produced by Russian students in 2010 and including sexualised images of female students, as well as the alternative version published soon afterwards featuring dressed female students with taped mouths and critical messages related to oppression of the freedom of speech and human rights violations by the regime. Negotiating ‘being witty and being pretty’ in political calendars underscored the paradoxes of women’s political agency, where (de)sexualisation and nakedness played an important role in their visual strategies. Ivanova stated that most of the heavily sexualised calendars in her research were produced by state organisations and pro-state actors, particularly in Russia.

Olga Karatch (International Centre for Civil Initiatives ‘Our House’) described the case of Belarus as a difficult situation of women in politics. The speaker joked: women have been fighting for the right to vote in Belarus, and now they have the right to vote for Lukashenko or the right not to vote against Lukashenko. In a country where the same president has been in power for 21 years, and where there still are 181 occupations from which women are banned, women unsurprisingly find themselves heavily restricted by sexist regulations. Female political leadership, for instance, is perceived as blasphemy by many, and even the opposition, such as the Christian democrats, has quite patriarchal views. Neither the women in state apparatus nor those in the opposition have any real influence on the political agenda.

Nadia Plungian (independent researcher), talking about feminist art in Russia in 2014, suggested that despite feminism having become trendy, sexism and homophobia are still prominent issues. Since the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, many feminist art projects have started in Russia. Plungian pointed to a ‘right-wing turn’ in Russian feminist art, which signified a focus on self-advocacy, single protest, political awareness and immediate response to the political situation. She also underlined that political feminist art is challenged and restricted both by the Russian law and by the art community that adheres to new apolitical feminism.

Researching Protest Movements

Anna Dovgopol (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Kyiv) introduced the idea of the ‘pop-feminism’ movement in Ukraine. She started by outlining the history of feminism in Ukraine. Having mentioned the literary background of the historical women’s movement, the speaker noted that in the late 19th/early 20th century the juxtaposition between women’s issues and national issues was present, just as it is today. While women played an important role in the revolution on 1917, during the Soviet era the ‘women’s question’ was quickly declared as having been solved and feminism as an unnecessary and bourgeois ideology; however, the real situation in terms of gender issues was quite different. Since 1991, there has been an upsurge in feminist movements in the country that involved both activism and academic activities. Currently, Dovgopol admitted, feminism is still often perceived as an ‘F-word’. The decrease of financial support by international organisations, the rise of nationalism and religiosity, the limitations of women’s roles to the already mentioned Berehynia or Barbie, the fear of sexuality within the movements, as well as the two revolutions and the ongoing war have constrained the development of feminism in Ukraine. Dovgopol suggested the idea of ‘pop-feminism’ as a movement that would be able to speak to the groups in question in an understandable language, while not using the term ‘feminism’ as such, could raise topical issues and develop practically applicable solutions, and have a clear feminist agenda behind it.

Alaksandra Dynko (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) continued exploring the theme of Belarus and women in politics in a similar vein to Karatch. She addressed the implications of the fact that no woman has ever been listed as a presidential candidate in the country. Even the female oppositional candidates tend to run with anti-feminist programmes. According to the speaker, female political participation is discredited both among the supporters of the authorities and of the opposition; moreover, it is neither stable nor influential and so far has been unable to produce independent political agency.

Finally, the author of this report gave a talk about ethical challenges of ethnographic research on political activism of the Ukrainian diaspora in London in 2013-2015, attending to the dilemmas of bridging academic and activist positionalities and audiences, and the concerns of gender and nationality in qualitative research.

The workshop proved to be an interdisciplinary and intersectional initiative that facilitated the exploration of questions of the agency of less mainstream groups in patriarchal and authoritarian societies. The discussions after the presentations explored these themes further and tackled issues from the role of gender in conspiracy theories to the future perspectives of feminist movements in democratically restricted environments. Political leanings and the level of inclusiveness of feminism were some of the overarching topics: intersections between feminism and nationalism, and possibilities of right-wing feminism were actively and critically discussed. Overall, the event provided an opportunity for a sensitive, politically and academically informed multi-vocal conversation; a publication is to follow that will hopefully be able to translate the ideas formulated by the speakers to the wider academic and non-expert audience.

Darya Malyutina is a human geographer writing about post-Soviet migrants, social networks and protests. She holds a PhD from UCL.

This post originally appeared on Ukrainian Events in London, and on Darya Malyutina’s blog.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.