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Neglected and then persecuted The modern history of gender studies in Russia

Source: Meduza

In late September, the Russian authorities designated the Ivanovo Center for Gender Studies as a “foreign agent.” The labeling wasn’t random but part of a coordinated state policy to undermine this relatively new research field. At Meduza’s request, University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies doctoral student and feminist activist Ella Rossman explains how gender studies emerged in the USSR and how scholars have fought for its survival in contemporary Russia.

Gender studies materialized during the Soviet era as a response to unresolved questions about women’s rights

In many countries, gender studies began developing in the 1970s, but the Iron Curtain and the censorship of scholarly work delayed its emergence inside the Soviet Union until the latter half of the 1980s when Glasnost was in full swing.

In 1989, economists Anastasia Posadskaya, Natalia Rimashevskaya, and Natalia Zakharova published a paper in the journal Kommunist, titled “How We Decide the Women’s Question,” that helped launch the USSR’s nascent gender studies. The authors did not use the concept of “gender” and “gender studies,” instead suggesting the term “feminology,” but the essence of their work was largely the same: They emphasized that interdisciplinary research could truly solve the “women’s question,” meaning that this approach would enable the development of effective family policies and solutions to the problems affecting women. Citing various data, the authors showed that Soviet society in fact lagged far behind the gender equality proclaimed by the authorities.

The following year, the Soviet Union got its first research lab with the word “gender” in its name. Originally founded inside the USSR Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Social and Economic Problems of Population, the Gender Problems Lab still operates to this day. Posadskaya, Rimashevskaya, and Zakharova all worked here.

Also in 1990, the first independent center for gender studies opened in the Soviet Union: the Moscow Center for Gender Studies (MTsGI, which has since closed down). 

Women pushing strollers in the city of Naberezhnye Chelny in 1972
Velikzhanin Viktor / TASS

What in tarnation is a “gender study”?

It’s a multidisciplinary research group devoted to studying gender, specifically how rights are distributed among men, women, and anyone not included in these categories. This includes where people are allowed to work, go to school, how they spend their free time, what is said and written about them, and so on. Gender researchers are interested in how power in a society is distributed among different genders and why the distribution turned out the way it did.

The field combines work from sociology, history, philosophy, economics, law, linguistics, and more. 

From a practical point of view, this work allows researchers to theorize social programs that could support people who face gender discrimination or simply anyone vulnerable to discrimination on the basis of gender.

French writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist, and social theorist Simone de Beauvoir, known for her 1949 treatise “The Second Sex,” a detailed analysis of women's oppression and a foundational tract of contemporary feminism. Photographed in Paris in 1952.
Gisele Freund / Photo Researchers History / Getty Images

Throughout the 1990s, gender studies developed rapidly in the former Soviet Union. New centers and programs popped up across the region, and local research schools formed around them — not just in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Minsk but also in smaller cities like Ivanovo, Kharkiv, and Barnaul.

In the early 1990s, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization organized the first international conference on gender research in Moscow. Around the same time, translated literature on gender studies started appearing in Russian. The first books and academic journals showcasing original Russian gender research were also first published. This included the journals “Woman and Russian Society” (published by Ivanovo State University since 1996), “Gender Studies” (published by the Kharkiv Center for Gender Studies since 1998), and the almanac “Adam and Eve” (published by the Russian Intellectual History Society since 2001 and still the country’s only scientific compendium devoted to gender history). 

Back then, the Russian authorities paid little attention to women’s issues or gender issues at all, despite the fact that the very first group of federal lawmakers included the “Women of Russia” — an entire faction in the State Duma devoted specifically to this agenda (though it addressed other social issues, as well). Many in the government and in society generally associated talk of gender issues with the Soviet state’s official rhetoric, which leaned heavily on the concept of equality between men and women. Millions of Russians wanted to forget this chapter in their history as quickly as possible, but the state did not openly oppose gender research in the 1990s, either.

Many scholars themselves still harbored prejudices against gender studies, and the development of discussions about the issue was uneven across different disciplines, depending on the conservativism of a particular field. Possibly because its research into family life, marriage, and even sexual orientation emerged back in the 1970s, Russian sociology was the most open to gender studies. Sociologists had gained space in the USSR’s academic community to study the family because of the Communist Party’s worries about falling birth rates. Sociologists like Sergey Golod analyzed Soviet families and sexual relations, inspired by Alfred Kinsey’s sexology research, while Igor Kon studied Soviet sexual culture and practices in the USSR, including homosexuality and attitudes about men and masculinity. As a result, the Soviet Union generated what would be the prototype for Russia’s own school of gender and sexuality research.

Centers for gender research survived thanks to foreign grants, which is now used to designate these groups as “foreign agents”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, research centers and organizations devoted to gender studies opened in cities outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well. In 2002, Russia got the Samara Center for Gender Studies. A year later, the Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies opened in Saratov. In 2008, Novosibirsk State University founded a Gender Studies Department. 

And then a so-called “conservative turn” swept domestic politics, gaining strength in the early 2010s and becoming especially pronounced after Vladimir Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly in 2012 when the president advocated a revival of Russia’s “spiritual bonds.” In new gender policies that won the support of religious and ultra-conservative organizations, this manifested as the authorities’ active promotion of “traditional values.” At the center of this new vision was the ideal of a heterosexual nuclear family with rigidly delineated roles for the husband and wife (as well as a hierarchy between the two) and children (preferably three or more). Curiously, the authorities added to this idea the notion that a “traditional family” should be multigenerational, with grandparents, their children, and their grandchildren all living together. Historically, this type of family was widespread even before the industrial revolution.

Vladimir Putin delivers his annual address to Russia’s Federal Assembly on December 12, 2012
Dmitry Azarov / Kommersant

The state endorsed “correct” values formed in opposition to “incorrect” values like LGBT rights, abortion, and juvenile rehabilitation in place of strict criminal justice, as well as feminism and everything associated with it, including gender studies. The conversation about traditional values was subsumed by a panicked defense of Russia’s sovereignty from Western interference into its domestic affairs, its laws, and even its families. The “traditional family” became the main symbol of Russia’s “national values,” and it needed as much protection against invasion as the nation’s very borders. By the latter half of the 2010s, concerns about national identity, the family, and demographics finally merged, forming the foundation of a new Russian state ideology that does not accommodate even the word “gender,” let alone gender studies.

In 2011, Russia refused to join the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women precisely because the text contained the word “gender,” which Moscow argued is too vague a term, in addition to being inconsistent with Russian laws. Seven years later, the same diplomats told the UN Human Rights Council that the 2011 convention contradicts Russia’s “principled approaches to protecting and promoting traditional morals and family values,” as well as Russia’s “Concept of State Family Policy.”

The conclusions reached by contemporary gender researchers generally run counter to the fundamental ideas espoused by Russian state officials. For example, studies show that the methods Russia has used for decades to try to stimulate birth rates do not work and will not work. Also, the “traditional family” at the center of state propagandists’ imaginations has never actually existed at any point in history, except perhaps in American advertisements from the 1950s. 

But the most devastating blow to gender studies in Russia was the 2012 law on “foreign agents,” which subjected nonprofit groups to crippling filing requirements and forced these organizations to mark all their content with menacing warnings. Historically, many of Russia’s gender studies centers have relied on financing from foreign foundations to stay afloat. At the turn of the century, just a decade into Russia’s post-Soviet existence, resources for scholarly work in Russia (especially in new fields) were scarce. Unfortunately for the groups that survived this way, reliance on money from abroad ultimately made them vulnerable at home.

Within a year of the law’s adoption, the authorities designated Saratov’s Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies as a “foreign agent” based on state prosecutors’ conclusion that the organization conducted “political activity” in a research project and a related book, titled “Critical Analysis of Social Policy in the Post-Soviet Space,” which suggested potential university course programs in Russian public policy, health and social sciences, and gender studies. Scholars challenged the designation in court but lost. Unable to operate under the new conditions, the center shut down in December 2014.

In 2016, officials added the Samara Center for Gender Studies to Russia’s “foreign agents” registry. Five years later, that organization dissolved, as well. St. Petersburg’s Center for Independent Sociological Research, where scholars also study gender, has been designated, too. 

Russia’s Justice Ministry has also targeted several women’s organizations and nonprofits established to counter violence and gender discrimination. For example, officials have slapped “foreign agent” labels on the Nasiliyu.net center in Moscow, the Woman’s World support community in Kaliningrad, and the Novgorod Women's Parliament regional movement, among others. 

On September 29, 2021, Russia’s “foreign agent” registry welcomed the Ivanovo Center for Gender Studies, which Olga Shnyrova (a historian who specializes in Britain’s suffragette movement) has helmed since 1996.

For the first decade of its existence, the Ivanovo Center for Gender Studies peacefully coexisted with the authorities, collaborating with organizations like Ivanovo State University and even winning some state grants (including money from the Russian Foundation for the Humanities to host a conference). The center held events on Ivanovo State University’s campus until 2015 when it was suddenly evicted. The school simultaneously fired Olga Shnyrova, supposedly for “disciplinary violations” (administrators accused her of “arbitrarily occupying the university’s premises”). 

Shnyrova later managed (twice) to regain her job at the school. She attributes her dismissal not just to misgivings about the Ivanovo Center for Gender Studies but also to her union work: She’s belonged to the “University Solidarity” labor collective since its inception at Ivanovo State University. Before she was fired, Shnyrova and her colleagues tried to challenge unfavorable terms in a new labor contract imposed on faculty by the school’s administration.

In recent years, the Ivanovo Center for Gender Studies has organized educational projects and public awareness campaigns and conducted expert surveys. For example, researchers at the center have polled experts about changes to women’s position in labor markets during the pandemic, and examined perceptions of masculinity among young people in different regions across Russia. 

For the past 25 years, the Ivanovo Center has been one of Russia’s leading research organizations in the field of gender studies, representing the country at the International Research Association of Institutions of Advanced Gender Studies (RINGS) and collaborating with the Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID).

Olga Shnyrova told Meduza that state prosecutors warned the Ivanovo Center as soon as the ink dried on Russia’s “foreign agent” legislation that the organization could be designated as a “foreign agent” because of its grant money from abroad, but researchers continued to draw on this funding and to work alongside scholars in other countries. 

The Ivanovo Center’s problems grew more serious this spring when the regional Justice Ministry received an anonymous complaint accusing the group’s researchers of using foreign money to conduct “political activity.” Ministry officials subsequently carried out an unscheduled inspection of the Ivanovo Center, finding that Olga Shnyrova’s unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the Ivanovo city council qualified her group for designation as a “foreign agent.” (The Justice Ministry also flagged the fact that Shnyrova urged her Facebook followers to sign a petition in support of Liana Sosurkaeva, a Chechen widow whose late husband’s relatives seized her children in 2019, provoking a national scandal.)

Like others before it, the Ivanovo Center plans to challenge its “foreign agent” designation in court. Olga Shnyrova says the group intends to continue its work despite possible fines imposed by the government.

* * *

Gender studies finds itself in a precarious position today in Russia. The field is caught between insufficient funding, neglect, scholars’ own prejudices, and fears of increased censorship by the state authorities and frightened university administrators. At the same time, however, interest in gender studies is higher than ever among students and young researchers. For the past decade, Russia has witnessed a new wave of feminist thought, an explosion of gender-focused content from journalists and bloggers, and the subject is at the center of conversations in galleries, libraries, cultural centers, and even bars.

But opportunities in Russia for a serious education and scholarly career in gender studies are disappearing. Because Russian universities employ few specialists in the field, students often resort to extracurricular self-study, organizing seminars and discussions, attending courses hosted on independent educational platforms, and conducting research projects — all in their free time. Many of these people quickly encounter the career ceiling and leave the country altogether to continue their education abroad (where they also eventually find jobs). 

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Text by Ella Rossman, translation by Kevin Rothrock

Cover photo: Meduza

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