Russian Women: Seeking a Place in Russian Society

Carol Nechemias. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb & Marian Lief Palley. Volume 2: Country Profiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

During the past century the Russian/Soviet state has experienced three distinct political regimes—rule by czars, by the Communist Party, and now by a formally democratic but increasingly authoritarian postcommunist government. Each regime change overhauled the political, economic, and social system. These revolutions from above led to major shifts in women’s status. The new Soviet state, for example, was one of the first countries to grant women the right to vote and to stress the goal of emancipating women. In 1946, the Soviet Union ranked first in the world with respect to the proportion of women in the national legislature and reached the 30 percent level in 1967 (Paxton and Hughes 2007, 224). Russia stood on the radical forefront of advancing women’s rights.

Yet the Russian state now appears a laggard regarding the empowerment of women. Although women in most countries posted gains in political representation, women’s share of parliamentary seats declined over the course of three post-Soviet elections held during the 1990s. By 2007, Russia had dropped to a tie for the 99th position among 189 countries with respect to the percentage of women in the lower house of parliament (IPU 2007). Moreover, cross-national research on attitudes toward women in public life and gender equality demonstrated that formerly communist countries like Russia form a distinctive cultural zone, marked by more traditional beliefs and negative stereotypes about women in politics (Paxton and Hughes 2007, 224; Paxton and Hughes 2003; Norris and Inglehart 2001). The “woman question,” as Russians historically have referred to the complex of issues related to women’s equality, has virtually disappeared from the national agenda.

This essay explores this apparent reversal in women’s standing by directing attention to the impact of the communist legacy, which continues to exert a powerful influence, as well as postcommunist developments like the influence of the international women’s movement.

Historical Context

For centuries a debate has raged over whether Russia is part of Western civilization or whether Russia represents a unique Eurasian civilization that will find its own path to modernity. The communist era especially fostered a framework of gender relations distinctive from the predominant Western pattern. The historical context includes three periods: the 19th and early 20th century before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917; the Soviet years, 1917-1991; and the transitional and postcommunist era, 1985 to the present. The overlap between the communist and postcommunist periods suggests that significant reforms occurred before the breakup of the Soviet Union and the official end of communist rule.

The Czarist Era

Starting in the 1860s there was intense political ferment in the Russian Empire, as many reform and revolutionary groups sought to change or overthrow the autocratic, czarist regime. The woman question loomed large, and a rich array of women’s organizations reflecting a wide gamut of ideological commitments, ranging from nihilism to moderate constitutional reform to socialism, pursued such goals as the expansion of educational and career opportunities for women, equal rights in passport, marriage, and inheritance legislation, preschool education, shelters for abandoned and abused women, social work among the poor, suffrage, and measures to combat prostitution (Noonan and Nechemias 2001; Stites 1978). This vital Russian women’s movement exchanged ideas, models, and tactics with women’s movements in the West but worked under conditions where political oppression—censorship and government harassment—accompanied political life (see, for example, Ruthchild 2001).

The Communist Legacy

The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 introduced 70-plus years of communist rule. The bulk of Russia’s citizens grew up under communism, and the communist past heavily shapes current attitudes about gender relations and patterns of gender differentiation. The Bolsheviks argued that women’s liberation would occur as a result of the socialist revolution and that class solidarity formed the fundamental basis for political identity and political action. The key to women’s emancipation involved drawing women out of their households and into the paid labor force; that transformation, in turn, would secure wider patterns of social and cultural change (Lapidus 1978). After 1929, the labor-intensive strategy of Soviet economic development buttressed these ideological commitments with the imperative need for adding—and retaining—women workers in the labor force.

Soviet policies transformed women’s educational and workplace status. The prominent scholar Gail Warshofsky Lapidus (1978, 146) branded the efforts to enhance women’s educational opportunities as unprecedented. Campaigns to close the educational gap between men and women met with considerable success, and by the 1970s, women’s share among higher-education students reached 50 percent, including substantial proportions in industrial and technical fields (Lapidus 1978; Nechemias 2003). Although some occupations, like health, education, retail, and the state bureaucracy, became increasingly feminized, women’s presence in industry, in heavy physical labor, and among engineers, technicians, and scientific workers became commonplace. The most striking result involves high labor force participation rates: by the 1970s women made up more than half of the workforce, and 90 percent of working-age women either worked or studied in an educational program (Nechemias 2003).

Contrary to Marxist-Leninist expectations, however, these achievements did not translate into wider social, economic, and political equality. Women were absent from leading political and economic positions. At the close of the Soviet era, only 6.5 percent of economic managers in Russia were women (Nechemias 2003, 551). Women also fared poorly in the political realm, where they formed about one-third of rank-and-file Communist Party members by the late 1980s but constituted only 3 to 4 percent of the membership of the party’s Central Committee, the key indicator of elite political status in the Soviet Union.

Women did secure significant membership in parliamentary bodies like the Supreme Soviet and lower-level soviets (councils) where the use of quotas ensured substantial representation. Unfortunately, these Soviet-style legislatures were symbolic institutions providing the facade rather than the substance of democracy. The large numbers of women serving in the Supreme Soviet cannot be compared with Western parliamentary bodies, where smaller numbers of women served but with potentially greater influence (Lapidus 1978; Buckley 1989).

Why did Soviet women not achieve more far-reaching equality? Key explanations include a tradition of declaratory rights, state-dominated women’s organizations (or no women’s organizations at all), and a gender ideology that denied societal bias. The Bolsheviks initiated a program of legal engineering that introduced new norms about gender relations. Soviet constitutions guaranteed equal rights for women and new decrees granted formal equality under the law on a scale that was revolutionary by world standards. This tradition extended into the international realm, where the Soviet Union figured as one of the initiators of the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and was one of the first countries to ratify that document.

But the Soviet state generally lacked government machinery specifically charged with enforcing women’s rights and public organizations committed to the aggressive expansion of women’s equality, a problem compounded in the Soviet model where the state itself created and dominated “public” associations (Evans, Henry, and Sundstrom 2006). In the 1920s, the Communist Party created a women’s department—the Zhenotdel—a kind of female auxiliary of the party that conducted outreach and education among women. But the Zhenotdel was abolished in 1930 by Joseph Stalin, who declared that women’s emancipation had been achieved. For a politically ascendant Stalin, women represented an economic resource useful in the service of larger national goals, not an oppressed group (Lapidus 1978). The consequences were enormous—decades of neglect for the woman question and generations of Soviet citizens taught that women’s emancipation counted among the great achievements of communism.

In the late 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev encouraged a new look at women’s status as part of his program of “de-Stalinization.” Although not refuting the claim that Soviet women possessed full equal rights, Khrushchev called for the formation of a network of women’s organizations, the zhensovety or women’s councils, to draw more women into political activity. After Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964, the women’s councils continued a more formal existence, apparently raising less weighty issues (Browning 1985; Buckley 1989).

Soviet gender discourse highlighted particular issues and rendered others invisible. A “biology is destiny” approach—viewing personality traits and inclinations as naturally flowing from biological differences between the sexes—meant the dismissal of societal bias as a cause for women’s absence from high-powered careers (Atwood 1990). The ideal Soviet woman was a “worker-mother” who embodied contradictory norms and expectations: emotional beings for whom love, motherhood, and a cozy, serene home are paramount, yet who participate in public roles, though opting for lesser roles that permit them to devote their energies to fulfilling their duties as wives and mothers (Lapidus 1978, 115).

Soviet policy promoted the worker-mother role through the “protection of motherhood”—protective legislation and welfare measures that included child care, maternity leave, shorter work days for nursing mothers, and so on. Starting with Khrushchev there were also promises that improvements in the consumer sector would ease women’s domestic burdens, that modern appliances like washing machines would resolve remaining deficiencies in women’s lives. Soviet working women did face an onerous double burden, averaging 40 hours a week doing household tasks, two and a half times as much as men (Voronina 1989). Falling birthrates in the 1970s heightened demographic issues and intensified the search for policies that would allow women to fulfill their productive and reproductive roles (Peers 1985).

Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform program spurred criticism of old shibboleths, including the dogma of women’s emancipation. There was a backlash against emancipation as an outmoded and misguided communist approach to gender relations that had gone too far in trying to make women equal with men (Gorbachev 1987, 117). A “send the women home” refrain echoed loudly from the mass media and political rostrums. At the same time a small group of scholars tackled Soviet-style emancipation by championing socialization over biologically determined differences between men and women, gender-neutral approaches to public policy, and the concept of equal opportunity (Nechemias 1991; Nechemias 2006, 161). A fundamental rethinking of women’s roles seemed underway.

Values and Women’s Place in Society

Though post-Soviet Russian gender relations are in flux, some generalizations are in order. First, calls for women to return to the hearth did not significantly alter the realities of Russian life, a topic dealt with in the section on women’s economic participation. Second, the equating of “woman” and “mother” continues to shape predominant gender ideology. Tackling discrimination against women means programs for children and families (Cook and Nechemias 2009; ABA/CEELI 2006), and Russia ranks among those countries most likely to affirm that a woman has to have children in order to be fulfilled (see Paxton and Hughes 2003). Third, the Soviet dogma that women’s emancipation is a reality, not an aspiration, commands strong though not universal support: nearly two-thirds of the Russian population believe women enjoy equal rights with men in their society (ROMIR 2006b). Finally, with death rates exceeding birthrates, demographic problems have burgeoned into a salient policy issue.

Discontinuity reigns in some areas. The image of the ideal woman is no longer the worker but a much more glamorous personage. Western advertising, the mass media, and a flood of cosmetics and consumer goods have promoted an entirely different world for women, including the role model of the housewife, at least as portrayed on soap operas. Behavioral changes have also occurred: marriage rates have fallen; living together outside of marriage has gained acceptability among the young; and the proportion of children born outside of marriage rose from 13.5 percent in 1989 to 29.5 percent in 2002 (White 2005). And women are forging new careers in civil society and in the small business sector.

Political Participation and Representation

As the Russian state enters its second decade of post-Soviet independence, Western political commentators increasingly note the hollowed-out nature of Russian democracy. Under Vladimir Putin’s presidency media freedom eroded, independent sources of political authority were marginalized, and power was concentrated in the president and executive agencies he oversaw (Freedom House 2003). Although mass political participation and women’s presence in the legislative and judicial branches of government will be reviewed here, it is women’s access to top state offices and inner circles in the Kremlin that especially carries the potential for influence.

Gender asymmetry in mass political participation is moderate compared with that in elite politics. These patterns can be summarized as follows: though women are slightly more likely to vote than men, women express less interest in politics and are less informed, less likely to discuss politics, less appreciative of political freedoms, less supportive of a market economy, less willing to work in local governing bodies, less supportive of risky policies in the international arena, more pessimistic, more loyal to government, more oriented toward state support and patronage, and were more supportive of President Putin (Aivazova and Kertman 2001). Gender gaps in voting behavior have largely disappeared.

Turning to elite political participation, the Russian government has a poor record with respect to appointing women to high-level decision-making positions. In 2005, all 17 ministries at the federal level were headed by men; 2 of the ministries had female deputy ministers (ABA/CEELI 2006, 58-59). There were no women heads of the 6 federal agencies and 11 federal services; a woman served as the top official for one of the three state funds (“Russia in 2015” 2005, 68). However, a September 2007 reshuffling of President Putin’s cabinet led to the appointment of two women as government ministers. These women—Health and Social Development Minister Tatyana Golikova and Economic Development Minister Elvira Nabiullina—continue to hold their positions under President Dmitri Medvedev and are part of a key group of executive officials who meet weekly with now Prime Minister Putin. The highest-ranking woman to hold executive office in post-Soviet Russia is Valentina Matvienko, who served as deputy prime minister for social policy under both Yeltsin and Putin; she currently serves as the governor of St. Petersburg.

Broader analyses of the Russian political elite confirm that few women walk the hallways of power (Sobolevskaya 2007). Although 71 percent of federal public employees are women, they make up only 12 percent of the top level of the federal bureaucracy (Roschin and Zubarevich 2005, 37). The prospects for women enlarging their representation in important state offices appear dim: under Putin recruitment pools increasingly emphasized groups in which women are severely underrepresented—security and law enforcement agencies and big business. A particularly chilly area involves the diplomatic corps, where women hold 2 of 452 diplomatic posts and 1 of 142 ambassadorships (ABA/CEELI 2006, 63).

Further evidence of the low priority accorded women’s equality can be found in the 2004 reorganization of the Russian government, which dissolved several state structures dedicated to women’s rights (ABA/CEELI 2006, 34). These included the Ministry of Labor and Social Development’s Department on Women, Family and Children, the Permanent Round Table of Women’s Non-governmental Organizations, and the Governmental Commission on the Advancement of Women. Earlier, the President’s Commission for Women, Family and Demography had been abolished. Though a coordinating council on gender equality was established in May 2005 within the Ministry of Health and Social Development, women’s structural presence in the executive branch has eroded.

In the legislative branch, women face better but still long odds in securing access to public office. The 2003 parliamentary election witnessed the emergence of a dominant, almost monopolistic “party of power”—Unified Russia—that represented then President Putin and continues to support Prime Minister Putin, his hand-picked successor, President Medvedev, and their supporters. Women’s share of seats stands at 14 percent after the December 2007 election, compared with 13.5 percent in 1993, 10.2 percent in 1995, 7.5 percent in 1999, and 9.8 percent in 2003. (Nechemias 2000; Cook and Nechemias 2009). The 2003 electoral contest stopped the decline in women’s representation that occurred during the 1990s, and the most recent parliamentary contest saw a sharp rise in women’s representation. However, that increase coincided with the erosion of the legislature’s independent role. Currently, 63 of the 450 members of the State Duma are women. A majority—44—of these female deputies are affiliated with Unified Russia; the next largest contingent is the Just Russia Party, with 11 women deputies, and then there are 4 women deputies in both the Communist Party and in the Liberal Democratic Party. The State Duma is the lower house of the Federal Assembly; like many parliamentary systems, the upper chamber, the Federation Council, carries less weight, though it does have certain prerogatives. The Federation Council has not been directly elected since 1995; the system now calls for regional executives and regional legislatures to name a delegate to the Federation Council. Women constitute less than 6 percent of the Federation Council’s members.

What pathways did these women follow to reach the Duma? Do they advocate on behalf of women? How do they conceptualize women’s issues? A study of women who served in the fourth State Duma (2003-2007) demonstrated that the recruitment pool for deputies primarily involves two routes—the old nomenklatura, or communist-era officials who have adapted to new conditions, and the growing numbers of legislators drawn from big business (see Cook and Nechemias 2009). The women deputies overwhelmingly come from the first group, having worked in traditionally female spheres of activity like Komsomol (Young Communist League), departments of education or social welfare, or as trade union or women’s council activists. Virtually all possess higher education; some had lower-level electoral experience before running for the State Duma. Many relish helping others through “obshchestvennaia rabota” (public or social work).

These women’s strengths include ties to regional elites, name recognition, and professional reputation. These, along with support from political parties or local political machines, allow the women deputies to overcome their lack of a key resource—money. Most women candidates have backgrounds in local and regional bureaucracies; as state budget employees, they cannot finance their campaigns compared with well-heeled candidates drawn from big business.

The women generally are team players, dependent on the patronage of powerful male leaders, often strong governors, and they serve as part of a gender-balancing strategy that includes women as a “decorative” element. Most United Russia women deputies deny that there is a set of “women’s issues” separate from broader problems common to the society as a whole. These especially include poverty, health care, and low wages for public employees. In contrast to earlier Duma sessions, there is little joint activity among women deputies from different political parties; stronger party discipline has undercut women’s cooperation across party lines and has virtually eliminated gender influences in roll-call voting (Shevchenko 2002). For those interested in gender issues, the Committee on Women, Family, and Children provides the key forum, though much of that effort focuses on traditional social welfare measures.

With respect to electoral mechanics, there were two different channels for securing election to the national parliament for the elections held from 1993 through 2003. In these cases half of the State Duma’s 450 deputies were elected from single-member districts (SMD) and half through a party-list ballot. Despite conventional wisdom that party-list systems favor women’s access to parliaments, Russia has been a deviant case: over the course of four elections there was no clear pattern. Starting with the December 2007 parliamentary election, all deputies now stand for election via party lists.

The State Duma demonstrates little concern over the low number of women deputies and has rejected a measure that would require a minimum of 30 percent representation for women in the federal and regional legislatures by a vote of 226 to 117 (“… And Male Deputies” 2005). Quotas, badly tainted by the communist experience of guaranteeing the social representation of women, peasants, and workers, command little support in the Russian political context.

Further complicating the prospects for improving women’s parliamentary representation is the dearth of women in the pipeline at the subnational level. In regional legislatures, women’s proportion of seats is low—averaging 9 to 10 percent—and stagnant. In 2004, women’s control of legislative seats across Russia’s 89 federal units ranged from zero to more than 30 percent; the higher scores fell in the most underdeveloped, remote areas of the country, where competition for seats is less intense (“Russia in 2015” 2005, 158-159; Zhenshchiny 2004, 180-183). Women’s representation among leading executive posts at the regional level is severely limited; women occupied only 7 of 322 policy and leadership positions in the late 1990s (Kochkina 2000, 74). In 2007, only 1 of Russia’s 89 governors was female. At the bottom of the apex, there are substantial numbers of women in local councils.

This inability to reach the upper rungs of political life also extends to the judicial branch. Though most federal judges are women, chief judges are overwhelmingly men. For the Russian Federation Supreme Court, 17.6 percent of the judges are women, and women are only 3 of the 19 Constitutional Court judges (ABA/CEELI 2005, 59).

The glaring lack of gender equality in the political system and progress toward greater inclusion of women parallels policy formulation and implementation. Since the turn of the millennium the Russian government has neglected gender-equality issues (“Russia in 2015” 2005, 59-60). In major addresses to the nation, Putin heavily emphasized demographic problems and the goal of stimulating birth rates by offering generous child-related benefits (Putin 2006).

Limits of Women’s Political Participation

Several factors depress women’s political participation, including money, gender stereotypes, and the absence of a strong women’s movement. At the regional and national levels, money has become an increasingly important barrier to running for public office (Mereu 2003; Cook and Nechemias 2009). However, the primary obstacle involves widespread attitudes and a lack of gender solidarity among women. A 2001 survey indicated that 41 percent of men and 30 percent of women believe “politics is not for women” (Aivazova and Kertman 2001, 28). Although 63 percent of the population indicates a readiness to vote for a woman president, 31 percent strongly oppose the idea (“Survey Shows” 2006 ). According to the Women of New Russia Survey, women themselves exhibit little gender solidarity or do not accord a priority to battling gender discrimination: when queried as to how they would vote if the presidential contest was between a man and a woman, 63 percent of women expressed a preference for a man. A majority of women (59 percent) think that there are no sociopolitical differences between the interests of men and women and that it is therefore unimportant whether men or women defend those interests (Women of New Russia Survey 2002).

Women activists recognize that change needs to occur in women’s as well as men’s gender consciousness. The women’s movement, however, is too weak to challenge mass consciousness or push for change in the public arena.

Women’s Economic Participation

Though women’s share of the labor force has fallen to 47 percent, the bulk of women continue to work: as in the Soviet era, women’s contribution to the family budget is necessary; women’s high level of education encourages economic activity; women enjoy access to a wide array of occupations; women’s labor force participation remains socially acceptable (Roschin and Zubarevich 2005, 8); and women believe the state should help working mothers (Ashwin and Bowers 1997; White 2005; ABA/CEELI 2006). In fact, female employment rates have been growing since 2000, and women’s share of university students reached 57 percent in academic year 2003-2004, further accentuating trends from the communist past (Zhenshchiny 2004, 79).

Although the postcommunist economic transition has been harsh, characterized by the impoverishment of a large chunk of the population, galloping inflation, a tattered welfare system, and wage arrears and payments “in kind,” economic growth and greater stability have taken hold since the turn of the millennium. Nonetheless, poverty persists as a central issue, especially for single mothers and elderly women, and large numbers of middle-aged women engineers and specialists experienced downward social mobility and now work at jobs in beauty salons or catering or operate small kiosks (Bridger, Kay, and Pinnick 1996; Khotkina 2000).

A central problem for women in the workplace involves low pay. Although women’s average earnings as a percent of men’s average earnings reached 70 percent under communism, women have lost ground—by 2003, that figure had slipped to 64 percent (Roschin and Zubarevich 2005, 10). This is a troubling sign that contemporary market conditions are negatively affecting the prospects for women’s economic equality. A third of the wage gap stems from horizontal and vertical gender segregation in the work force: predominantly female sectors of the economy are poorly paid; and women tend to be concentrated in the lower rungs of hierarchical occupations. In Russia, discussions of women’s low wages often point to a public sector/private sector divide: so-called “budget” or public sector workers generally receive less pay than private sector employees, and women figure disproportionately among the former. This especially affects fields like education and health care.

Barriers to Economic Participation

Outright discrimination also contributes to the wage gap. A narrow majority of men and 62 percent of women believe men have better opportunities for well-paid jobs (Roschin and Zubarevich 2005, 19). Stereotypes brand women as less valuable employees: because of household responsibilities, women are assumed to be less committed to the workplace and to career development. The failure to address inequality within the family undercuts women’s competitiveness in the labor market: women average 30.3 hours per week on domestic work compared with just 14.0 for men (Roschin and Zubarevich 2005, 20). This imbalance reinforces expectations concerning women’s commitment to the workforce, particularly with respect to intensive work and work-related travel.

A legacy of lofty rhetoric and feeble enforcement continues, as illustrated by the growing practice of job advertisements that specify gender. There is no precedent for legal action to counter violations of the law, nor are there government mechanisms to carry out national legislation.

Women Entrepreneurs Create Opportunities

In Russia, women head 35 to 40 percent of small and medium enterprises, a figure consistent with advanced market economies and among the highest internationally. To put this in perspective, it should be noted that small business occupies a smaller place in the Russian setting than is typical for a market economy: small business accounts for only 12 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product and 12 to 16 percent of employed adults. Nonetheless, small business is growing rapidly, and talented, hard-working women have found a niche. Many of these women entrepreneurs started small enterprises out of necessity—to feed their families after being laid off in the late 1980s and early 1990s—and found a calling. Because the consumer and service sectors of the Soviet economy were underdeveloped, the advent of capitalism provided a natural opening for women to move into this area where there was pent-up demand and where the work was stereotyped as part of women’s sphere. Women’s high levels of education and workforce participation also provided a foundation for women’s extraordinary activism in creating small businesses. This first wave of women entrepreneurs were pioneers, often working in areas for which they had no formal training. They learned from life, negotiating their way in conditions where initial investment funds came from family and friends, where personal ties were essential to securing permits and work space, and where pressure from corrupt city officials often formed part of the business routine. Among young women and women with a higher education, the image of a businesswoman as the main role of a Russian woman has gained support in recent years (ROMIR 2006a), a trend that suggests a bright future for women entrepreneurship.

Discrimination also persists in the top ranks of business management. Although Russia lacks women tycoons, women do well in middle management and in small business. In fact, Russia ranks with the United States and the Philippines in having the highest proportions of women in management. In 2002, leading Russian businesswomen founded a new organization, the Committee of 20, modeled after the Committee of 200 in the United States, a powerful lobby group for women in business. This is a promising development in that highly successful businesswomen have lacked a voice. Women have held their positions in education and the workforce but have failed to break through into the higher echelons of economic management and the political arena.

Impact of Transnational Feminism

After 70-plus years of isolation from the outside world, the postcommunist transition opened the floodgates to external influences. As in the pre-1917 period, contacts with the transnational feminist movement flourished. This time, however, the international women’s movement is not only strongly established in the civil societies of Western countries but also entrenched in the governments and policies of the most developed countries and of the UN. The impact on Russia has primarily affected the government and women active in civil society rather than the general status of women. The Russian Federation signed the Declaration and the Platform of Action of the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, thereby committing itself to creating national machinery responsible for improving the status of women. In the 1990s, UN documents, the European Union Social Charter, and some World Bank activities strongly influenced the Russian government to shift its approach to gender issues from fostering favorable conditions for women to combine their workplace, maternal, and household tasks to the creation of a society based on gender equality. The new Russian Family Code is a prime example: elaborated on the basis of UN documents, it takes a gender-neutral approach; for example, leave to look after young children is available to fathers and other family members, not just to mothers. National plans of action to improve the status of women have been drafted but remain little more than rhetoric. And both declarations and action faded away as the Putin administration viewed women’s problems only in the context of child and family issues, especially the demographic crisis. These political developments reflect a larger context: Western models enjoyed greater popularity in the early to mid-1990s than during the contemporary period with its stress on “sovereign democracy” or the idea that Russia will adapt democratic practices to fit her own traditions and peculiarities.

The transnational feminist movement provided crucial support for feminist organizations in Russia. The UN, the European Union, countries like the United States, Canada, Germany, and Holland, and a host of women’s organizations, have established partnerships and provided financial aid, training, and other types of assistance. In the mid-1990s, there was a tremendous infusion of financial aid from organizations like the Ford Foundation and USAID (Sperling 1999). This was serious help, and feminist organizations garnered the lion’s share of this assistance, though the Russian feminist movement represents only a small wing of the spectrum of women’s activism. This aid supported work on women’s rights, the gender analysis of public policy, the establishment of Internet connections between women’s groups, domestic violence centers, gender/women’s studies curriculums, and efforts to combat sexual trafficking. To a large degree this stream of foreign funding is drying up as countries like the United States have moved on to other priorities.

This assistance led to positive results, such as gender studies programs at a number of Russian universities and a network of crisis hotlines and domestic violence centers, though these accomplishments should be regarded more as toeholds than as widespread, deeply entrenched institutional features of Russian society. But there are a number of negative effects. These include the fear that foreign assistance promotes priorities rooted more in Western experience than what would “bubble up” from grassroots organizations in Russia; that donors especially privileged academic feminist groups in Moscow and St. Petersburg who had the cultural skills to work with Western organizations; that the competition for grants caused women’s organizations to compete rather than cooperate; and that the grants system led women’s organizations to orient themselves toward donors rather than toward building a mass membership (Hemment 2004; Kay 2004; Henderson 2003; Sperling 1999; Sperling, Ferree, and Risman 2001; Richter 2002). Organizations working in the area of human rights especially rely on foreign funding, and those deemed Kremlin-critical face harassment (or worse) from a Russian government increasingly prone to view their work as unacceptable interference in Russia’s internal life (Abdullaev 2007).

The Nature of Civil Society

Civil society is weak, a legacy of communist rule that left the population without the trust, social cooperation, and leadership skills to facilitate the building of organizational strength. According to survey research, participation rates in voluntary associations range from 2 to 5 percent of the population, and Russians generally lack interest in and knowledge about civil society (“Russians Not Interested in Political Activity” 2001; Women of New Russia Survey 2002). Nonetheless, hundreds of women’s groups emerged during perestroika and especially during the 1990s, though many could sustain activity only for a short period and/or relied heavily on the energy and drive of a handful of enthusiasts or even one leader. Civil society has attracted many talented women who, shut out of the political arena, find that organizational work provides opportunities for creativity and dedication.

There are three major categories of women’s organizations: (1) the Women’s Union of Russia (WUR) and women’s councils; (2) independent, feminist-minded organizations; and (3) a large array of grassroots organizations. During perestroika, Gorbachev sought to reenergize the women’s councils and called on the Soviet Women’s Committee (SWC), formerly an elite organization that “represented” Soviet women in the international arena, to assume a new, active role in Russian society. Most importantly, he placed the women’s councils under SWC’s leadership. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the SWC registered as the WUR, a non-state, independent organization. The WUR entered the postcommunist era with a head start and tremendous advantages: local affiliates, insider ties to male leaders, office space and equipment, and linkages with women’s organizations abroad and with the UN.

The WUR’s work exhibits strong continuities with the communist past, given its emphasis on social protection and motherhood. But it also argues for greater political participation for women, contending that women’s distinctive qualities—such as compassion, patience, and the ability to compromise—must offset men’s approach to decision making. WUR often works closely with regional and local government officials on social welfare programs and receives “in-kind” assistance like free office space. Initially, WUR responded to the new conditions of post-Soviet Russia by forming, along with two smaller women’s organizations, an electoral bloc called Women of Russia (WOR) to contest the 1993 parliamentary elections. Though one of the major surprises of the 1993 election—WOR drew 8 percent of the vote and secured 23 seats in the State Duma—this success proved ephemeral and further attempts to form a women’s party appear highly unlikely (see Slater 1995; Nechemias 2000; Ishiyama and Kuntz 2000).

Feminist organizations grew out of the “informal” groups that emerged independent of state control in the late 1980s. Key figures particularly involved academics who had conducted research on Western women’s movements and then applied feminist critiques to their own society. They formed foundation institutions like the Moscow Center for Gender Studies, the first unit in the Soviet Union dominated by feminists, and the Information Center of the Independent Women’s Forum, which created a network for feminist-oriented groups in Russia (Cockburn 1991; Nechemias 2006). As discussed earlier, international assistance has supported a great deal of activity that would not have otherwise occurred, but feminist organizations must sink deeper roots in Russian society to gain credibility.

Compared with feminist organizations, there is a plethora of grassroots women’s groups working to provide tangible help to women. These organizations seek to fill the gaping holes in the battered Russian safety net. They offer assistance to needy and vulnerable groups like mothers of many children, deaf children, invalids, and so on. Such organizations rarely receive Western aid and rely on volunteers and donations of supplies from businesses. One of the most significant grassroots organizations in Russia does not address traditional social welfare concerns: this is the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia (Caiazza 2002), which uses the image of motherhood to defend the rights of servicemen and fight against human rights abuses in the military.


The postcommunist era has opened up new possibilities for women as entrepreneurs and as civil society activists. The discontinuity between women’s substantial share of seats in the Soviet-era legislatures compared with the present situation is more apparent than real. Under communism and in postcommunist Russia the bottom line is the same: the exclusion of women from high-level decision making in politics. In the economy, top-level positions continue to be held almost entirely by men. In many ways these are surprising findings, given the high level of social capital—education and professional work experience—women bring to the table. Gender ideology seems at the heart of the problem: essentialist, “biology is destiny” approaches limit women’s chances for moving up the ladder to high-powered positions. This is further complicated in contemporary Russia by the salience of demographic issues with their attendant focus on how to boost birthrates rather than how to foster a more egalitarian society.