The Soviet Union gave feminism a bad name. Women played a significant part in the revolution, which promised universal child care, easy divorce, access to contraception and abortion, freedom from the shackles of housework, and total equality between the sexes. In 1919 the Bolshevik Party formed a Women’s Department, or Zhenotdel, that elaborated a new vision of how women would live. Where women’s rights were concerned, the early Soviet Union was the most progressive state in history, though procreation was still viewed as a social duty. Female leaders were soon sidelined, however, with men taking nearly all the highest positions in government. The Zhenotdel was closed in 1930, on the grounds that women’s equality had already been achieved and any further activities would be divisive. Stalin became concerned about the falling birthrate caused by industrialization and agricultural collectivization, the latter having led to millions of deaths by causing artificial famine. In the mid-1930s the government put an end to revolutionary policies to develop and distribute contraception, while also shifting more of the responsibility for childrearing from the state back onto the family.
A 1936 pronatalist law made divorce more difficult and criminalized abortion except in the case of certain medical conditions. After Stalin’s death, and following a public movement led by a female journalist, a 1955 law recognized women’s right to abortion, but the procedure itself was apt to be punitive, performed with inadequate anesthesia or hygiene by uncaring staff. Yet poor access to contraception meant that until the end of the USSR, many Soviet women had to rely on abortion as birth control.* They found themselves bearing a double burden, still responsible for most housework while working full-time outside the home, in keeping with the Soviet emphasis on universal employment. It was exhausting. Soviet rhetoric celebrated women’s liberation, but Soviet women didn’t feel free.
This memory left many post-Soviet people skeptical of feminism, even as essentializing ideas about motherhood being the central purpose of a woman’s life survived into the post-Soviet period and took on more nationalist overtones. One of the longed-for results of the dissolution of the Soviet Union was newfound access to all the consumerist accoutrements of femininity. Early post-Soviet women’s fashion was inclined to maximalism, with an abundance of neon colors, rhinestones, and spandex. Stiletto heels and Technicolor makeup became ubiquitous. I remember a Ukrainian friend telling me, before we went out one night in Kyiv in the late Aughts, that I needed more sparkle; when one of my American friends conducted a public health workshop in eastern Ukraine, the first audience comment was that she should really try wearing heels. During morning rush hour, I marveled at women who seemed to be reporting to office jobs in hot pants.
Feminism was associated with Soviet disillusionment, drab clothes, and ugly shoes; in the hungry, unstable post-Soviet economies, many women had little choice but to try to capitalize on their looks. Almost nobody wanted to be called a feminist. This is not to say, of course, that post-Soviet women were helpless or weak. They were now bearing a triple burden: to workplace and domestic labor were added hair, nails, and makeup. Post-Soviet women often managed better in an overturned economy than did their male counterparts, who were more likely to fall into addiction, go to prison, or die in a fight. Women were crucial to rebuilding society in the 1990s, including in nongovernmental organizations and in politics.
Over the last few years, women in post-communist Slavic countries have won the world’s attention and admiration through mass protests. During the 2020 protests in Belarus, women of all ages dressed in the national colors of red and white, held armfuls of flowers, and sang folk songs. The protesters hoped the police would be too ashamed to beat women. The Belarusian president, Aleksander Lukashenko, had been challenged in an election earlier that year by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who became an opposition heroine after her husband, who had intended to run for president himself, was imprisoned. Many women were among those arrested en masse; their sex did not protect them. Female protesters and activists are still being arrested on a regular basis.
Women’s status in the Belarusian protests stemmed in part from a belief in women as the mother-saviors of the nation, an idea that gained strength in the aftermath of World War II. Because a large part of the male population had been killed, the Soviet government was forced to accept single motherhood as a new norm, and women filled many positions left empty by war casualties. (The prominence of women in Ukraine’s two post-Soviet revolutions was partly driven by similar dynamics.) In Russia, Yulia Navalnaya has become a well-known political figure along with her husband, Aleksei Navalny. When he was recently imprisoned for a term of two and a half years, there was speculation that Navalnaya would become the face of the Russian opposition; instead, his lead staffers, many of whom are women, have taken the lead in his movement. In Poland, meanwhile, thousands of women have gone on strike and filled the streets in a furious, explicitly feminist response to the mostly male right-wing government’s draconian restrictions on abortion rights.
As the stigma of Soviet “feminism” fades and the Internet makes it increasingly easy to share political ideas, the number of outspoken feminists in Russia is growing. Nearly a decade after their “Punk Prayer,” Pussy Riot’s Nadia Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina remain international celebrities, writing books, delivering lectures and performing around the world, and releasing high-profile music videos, the latest as an NFT (a limited-edition digital file) whose profits will go to charity. (Both women support Navalny; in January Alyokhina was arrested at a Moscow protest against his arrest, after which she was herself placed under house arrest until June, part of a crackdown on the opposition.) Victoria Lomasko’s comics journalism, which focuses largely on women, the queer community, migrants, and political activists, has garnered international acclaim; an English-language collection of her work, Other Russias, was published in 2017.
One of the latest Russian feminists to be targeted by the authorities is Yulia Tsvetkova, who is now twenty-seven. She had her first art exhibition while still a teenager, in her hometown of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, in the Russian Far East. In her twenties, she became the artistic director of a children’s theater, where she put on shows like The Pink and the Blue, about gender stereotypes, and she tried to organize an activist art festival with antiwar messages. Tsvetkova founded an online group called “The Vagina Monologues” and shared materials and drawings on feminism and sex education, including a series of body-positive drawings called A Woman Is Not a Doll, with slogans like “Real women menstruate, and that is normal.”
In 2021 activism like Tsvetkova’s may sound run-of-the-mill, even retro. The Vagina Monologues: so 1990s, so cis, so white! But in Russia these kinds of activities are not only novel but dangerous. Tsvetkova, who is a lesbian, was stopped on the street by people who asked whether she was male or female. In 2019 the local police received an anonymous tip that she was “corrupting children.” Tsvetkova was interrogated and her apartment and theater studio were searched. She was accused of disseminating pornography and “homosexual propaganda,” fined and put under house arrest, and threatened with a sentence of up to six years in prison, though the prosecutor later backed down. She was ostracized and received death threats, including one that demanded 250 bitcoins in exchange for her life. Memorial, Russia’s leading human rights group, declared her a political prisoner.
Russian sexism and homophobia are inscribed in law. In 2017 Russia decriminalized domestic violence, and amendments to the Russian Constitution in 2020 included a provision defining marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman. (Homosexuality was decriminalized in the early Soviet Union, but once again became a crime in 1934. Even after Yeltsin decriminalized it in 1993, discrimination remained widespread.) These legal changes have been accompanied by the violent rampages of vigilante groups like Saw Against LGBT, which takes its name from the American horror movie franchise Saw and encourages its members to publicly expose, pursue, and assault people it identifies as queer. In 2019 a St. Petersburg LGBTQ activist named Yelena Grigoryeva was murdered after being put on the Saw list. She had reported receiving numerous death threats, but the police did nothing to protect her. When I visited a sex worker drop-in center in St. Petersburg that same year, I was screened by a security camera before I could be buzzed in. The director showed me their red panic button. They had increased precautions after becoming a target of a neo-Nazi vigilante group led by a former mixed martial arts fighter known as Red Tarzan; in one notorious incident, the group raided a brothel and marched sex workers (many of them African immigrants) and their clients through the streets naked, filming the event and posting it online.
Activists in Russia and abroad mobilized to support Tsvetkova and protest her prosecution. At one of the protests—an online poetry marathon—Galina Rymbu, a Siberian poet who is only a few years older than Tsvetkova, recited a protest poem, composed specially for the occasion, called “My Vagina.” She wrote about her vagina’s experience as it moved through the world, and about her own naiveté as a teenager:
I didn’t know then that everyone had an interest in my vagina:
the state, my parents, gynecologists, strange men,
Orthodox priests with epaulets under their robes
and women’s blood on their robes,
employers, anti-extremism agents, the military, fascists, immigration cops,
banks, conservative critics of “depraved lifestyles,”
patriotic cultural figures, appropriators of traditional values,
washed down with brandy.
Rymbu’s poem provoked its own backlash, as Kevin M.F. Platt, who translated the poem for n+1, detailed in his introduction to it. Like most Russian arguments about poetry these days, this one took place on Facebook. Bakhyt Kenjeev, a well-regarded poet of the older generation, said that Rymbu was “a good poet,” but that the word “vagina” reminded him of “the smell of chlorine and formaldehyde, like from a morgue.” At the word “penetration,” he said, he “began to feel nauseous.” Many agreed with him in less civil language. To write about the vagina in a Russian poem is still shocking, an affront not only to cops and politicians and priests, but to other poets.
“My Vagina” concludes the recent collection F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry, edited by Rymbu, Eugene Ostashevsky, and Ainsley Morse. (Like all volumes in the new isolarii series, the orange-bound book is tiny, less than pocket-sized; it’s hard to read, but has an enchantingly secret quality.) F Letter consists of works originally published in an online journal of the same name. Founded and coedited by Rymbu, it is the first Russian-language journal of feminist literature. In accordance with Russian law, its millennial-pink website is introduced with a warning: “May include materials inappropriate for those under 18.”
Like Tsvetkova’s artwork, the poetry assembled in F Letter is not only shocking but politically dangerous. F Letter includes poems that deal with sexual assault, the prosecution of three girls who killed their abusive father, and the torture and execution of gay men in Chechnya. More than a poetry collection, it’s a testament to a feminist community. In a long poem about working in the Moscow bookshop Word Order, Oksana Vasyakina hopes to sell a “tiny frightening book” by her “favorite poetess,” Lida Yusupova. (Russian feminists have reclaimed the word “poetess,” preferring it to “poet.”) Several of Yusupova’s poems are included in F Letter.
These same poems appear in The Scar We Know, Yusupova’s first full-length collection in English. Born in 1963, Yusupova is a kind of matriarch to the younger generation of Russian feminist poets. As Ainsley Morse, the book’s editor and one of its translators, explains in her introduction, Yusupova was one of the first Russian poets to write about her own experience of sexual violence, and her descriptions of lesbian sex use a vocabulary and a type of explicit description that are still taboo in Russia.
Yusupova is originally from Petrozavodsk, a small city in Karelia that is famous for the 1977 “Petrozavodsk phenomenon,” when a large number of people in many different locations glimpsed a sparking, luminous jellyfish in the night sky. (It may have been caused by the launch of a Soviet satellite.) She moved to Leningrad to attend university but had to leave after she was accused of depraved and anti-Soviet behavior. In “Mateyuk,” translated by Morse, Yusupova tells a story from her youth: she’s been hanging out with some friends when an unfamiliar young man, Mateyuk, joins them. The others go home, and Mateyuk, who is on parole, persuades her to spend the night with him at a friend’s apartment. Yusupova has limitless sympathy for the oppressed and downtrodden.
There are ominous signs at every step, and anyway we know what’s going to happen—Yusupova has already told us. She thinks of jumping out the ground-floor window and running away, but she can’t find the resolve to do so. Mateyuk lies down on top of her, and she doesn’t resist physically. She only says, “This isn’t right,” again and again, the repeated phrase filling a full page and concluding the poem. Sonically and visually, Yusupova replicates the broken-record thud of disaster and futile protest. Her words don’t stop her rapist; they only fill her mind and the reader’s mind as they speckle the page in their regular pattern.
Yusupova left Russia in the 1990s; she now divides her time between Toronto and a small island in Belize. Her writing, therefore, belongs to the expanding body of Russophone writing that is not written in Russia. Both Morse and Vasyakina, who also wrote an introduction to The Scar We Know, observe that in the Russian original, Yusupova’s poetry often sounds like it has been translated from English. It’s infused with English- and Spanish-language references and words, unwieldy foreign objects in transliteration. Margaret Atwood is mentioned, and her influence is palpable in Yusupova’s reimagining of women’s historical experience of crime. Even the structure of Yusupova’s phrases tilts toward English.
These qualities make her poetry unusually amenable to English translation, as does her emphasis on narrative and her minimal reliance on rhyme, meter, and wordplay. Some of her poems have an almost essayistic quality, like “The Center for Gender Problems,” translated by Hilah Kohen, which recounts a day in January 1999 when Yusupova visited the small St. Petersburg organization of that name. She had just come back from Canada, where she “had read a whole lot of books/about feminism,” and she wanted to share what she’d learned with Russian feminists, at a time when the Internet barely existed. She also “wanted to meet lesbians and feminists.”
The women who greet her don’t smile, while she smiles too much; with her long hair and makeup, she later learns, she has offended their feminist sensibilities. The journalist Masha Gessen, visiting from America and not yet famous, happens to be at the center, too, and refuses the wine offered by a staffer; Yusupova asks for a glass and is refused. But one of the women she meets there will soon become her lover. Later in this poem, thoughts of lesbians and Leningrad lead Yusupova to recall the story of two women who survived the siege of Leningrad because one loved the other enough to share her food ration. A butch and a femme, they were together for the rest of their lives; Yusupova met them in the late 1980s.
Yusupova’s series of poems called “Verdicts,” a few of which are included in The Scar We Know, rely on another kind of narrative. These poems are collaged from Russian court verdicts posted online. (There is some affinity with the Russian-American Objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff’s 1934 Testimony, which was assembled from trial transcripts dating from 1885 to 1915, but while Reznikoff was concerned with subverting notions of historical progress, Yusupova is writing political protest poetry.) The found language of legal proceedings is chilly and clinical, unsparing as it convicts itself.
The “Verdicts” included here, in Madeline Kinkel’s translations, tell stories of rape, femicide, homophobic murder, and infanticide. Intensely disturbing, they upend the use of crime (whether real or fictional) as entertainment, a horrifying deed investigated and the criminal brought to justice. Here the judge’s ruling is often almost as appalling as the crime. In a case in which a woman was raped, tortured, and left for dead in a park, dying 102 days later of her wounds, the verdict revolves around the assertion that “the vagina is not a vital organ.” An assault on the vagina, the judge reasons, can therefore not qualify as an attack on a person’s life. A description of the fatal act and the phrases “the death of the victim” and “the vagina is not a vital organ” splinter into a kind of fugue, cycling and repeating over the course of many pages. While in “Mateyuk” the phrase “this isn’t right” formed a block or a loop, here the repeated phrases gallop and reel. As in the other “Verdicts,” we have a painfully clear glimpse into the dehumanizing contempt with which the Russian state treats women, queer people, and migrants.
Compared to Yusupova’s tales of rape and murder, Rymbu’s poems, which are now available in the volume Life in Space, are almost sunny. Rymbu was born in Omsk in 1990; her consciousness was shaped by the chaos of that decade, as institutions crumbled, workers went without salaries for months, and currency became almost worthless. In “We Made a Fire of Illegal Size on the Territory of Power Plant No. 5,” translated by Joan Brooks, Rymbu recalls a day in 1999 when she was walking with her father “among the ditches filled with industrial waste,/small heaps of junk, warped trees, looking for copper.” When they find rubber-coated copper cables, her father decides that they should burn the rubber off on the spot. Firefighters soon arrive, attracted by the flames, and they threaten to call the cops, who will take Rymbu’s father to the station and fine him. But her father calmly asks them not to—“my kid’s with me. we’ll put it out and go home. we don’t need a fine”—and Rymbu understands “that now I needed to be as much a child as possible.”
There’s a happy ending: the firefighters let them go and the dad-daughter team sells the metal. They buy a drink for dad and some candy for Galina, who eats it with her smoke-blackened hands. Mom is delighted with the money, though she asks her daughter, “Why do you reek of fire?” This could have been a sordid or depressing memory, but the poem changes the anecdote into an almost tender recollection of exploration and family devotion. The playful title, meanwhile, turns the cumbersome language of Soviet-style bureaucracy into a boast. That said, there may be another kind of transmutation at work: elsewhere, Rymbu has recounted her family’s cycles of domestic violence. The “reek of fire” could be understood as the violence that saturates everyday experience.
Food is a recurrent motif in Rymbu’s poetry; her first chapbook was called White Bread. In one of that collection’s poems, translated here by Brooks, she recalls
going into a shop at thirteen fear
uncomfortable unbearable in front of a good-looking familiar boy
to ask the shopkeep give me a loaf of white
on partial credit, I’ll give you four rubles now,
and bring two later
The shopkeeper recommends the hot black bread, but she has nothing to eat with hot black bread—no meat for borscht. Later, as a student in Moscow, she’s still stuffing herself with unsatisfying white bread from the discount supermarket; there are fancy Belgian bakeries in Moscow now, but that kind of bread, “with sesame seeds and sea salt,” is too expensive for her. Words for her are a kind of food; in the Russian original, her carefully chosen phonemes create stanzas of rich, dense wordplay.
Rymbu is preoccupied with the body, with its fluids and malfunctions. Even after she’s had a child of her own, she writes about how she and her mother lie in a room together, waiting for her father’s paycheck, “like a miracle, like the messiah, like when I was little, like the end of the world,/when we’ll all eat ourselves sick and die/and we’ll see the shining of a world without time.” Her father is sleeping in the kitchen, coughing: “His lungs don’t open like a crimson flower, like in poems, but rumble and slosh inside,” ruined, presumably, by the toxic fumes in the factories to which he’s given his life. Rymbu’s feminism is a materialist one, shaped by class difference, poverty, and hunger, though also by leftist theory from around the world. Like many progressive Russians, she has left her country. She now lives in Lviv, Ukraine, with her young son.
The feminist and LGBTQ movements in post-Soviet countries have often seemed to lag behind those in Western Europe and the United States. In liberal or progressive circles, Eastern European discussions of gender, sexual orientation, and (especially) race can sound shockingly backward to foreign ears. But at times post-Soviet feminism has leapt ahead. In the summer of 2016, Ukrainian women shared their experiences of sexual assault and harassment as part of the online movement Ia Ne Boius Skazati (I’m not afraid to tell), which soon spread to Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. A year later, Me Too took off in the United States.
The title of Yusupova’s The Scar We Know is taken from her poem “the scar we’ve known about from the very beginning,” about a friend who heard voices. Yusupova didn’t know until it was too late, and she blames herself for having failed to prevent his suicide. Not all scars are visible; sometimes the most important wounds are the ones that are hidden. Though Yusupova doesn’t go in for Twitter-style irony, in its frankness and sense of resilience, her poetry has something in common with Patricia Lockwood’s famous poem “Rape Joke,” in which she writes: “Time is different, becomes more horrible and more habitable, and accommodates your need to go deeper into it./Just like the body, which more than a concrete form is a capacity.” Stories, especially testimony, of sexual assault and harassment have unusual currency in our society at this moment. On several continents, writers are asking what happens when accounts of crimes are turned into poetry, and when the writer’s body is brought to the center of the story.