In response to:
No More Mother-Saviors from the April 29, 2021 issue
To the Editors:
In “No More Mother-Saviors,” [NYR, April 29], Sophie Pinkham begins her review of three books of Russian feminist poetry with a general discussion of how feminism has developed in the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. As a sign of progress for the feminist cause in post-Communist Slavic countries, Pinkham cites the recent political activism of women in Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Poland. But with the exception of Poland, where recent protests have centered on women’s rights, the motivations of female protesters and activists in these countries have had little to do with feminism.
In Belarus, the three women who gained renown as leaders of the 2020 political campaign against the Lukashenka regime—Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova, and Veronika Tsepkalo—focused on freedom for all Belarusians rather than on gender equality. As Irina Solomatina, head of the Council of the Belarusian Organization of Working Women, pointed out in an interview with the British women’s rights group FiLiA, “During the [presidential] campaign, Tikhanovskaya, Kolesnikova and Tsepkalo mentioned social problems exclusively in terms of care (about husbands, children and Belarusians). In their rhetoric, there was no place for either feminist or gender agendas. Women’s rights issues, such as domestic violence and labour discrimination, were not mentioned.” The same holds true for Ukraine’s EuroMaidan revolution in 2014. According to an in-depth study (Olena Nikolayenko and Maria DeCasper, “Why Women Protest: Insights from Ukraine’s EuroMaidan,” Slavic Review, Vol. 77, No. 3) of the motivations of women protesters, “Concern over gender equality in Ukrainian society was rarely mentioned as an incentive for women’s initial involvement in the EuroMaidan.”
As for Russia, Pinkham notes that “Yulia Navalnaya has become a well-known political figure along with her husband, Aleksei Navalny.” But Navalnaya does not intend to seek any formal political role in the Russian opposition movement. Interviewed in January by Harper’s Bazaar, she said, “It is more interesting to be the wife of a politician. And also, what I do myself is in some way also politics.” Navalny’s key aide, the lawyer Lyubov Sobol, plans to run as a candidate in the September 2021 Duma elections. Her platform addresses official corruption, nutrition for children in schools and day care, court reform, and other matters, but does not mention gender issues.
Finally, Pinkham mentions the protest rock group Pussy Riot’s Nadia Tolokonnikova as one of a growing number of outspoken Russian feminists who are making their voices heard. But Tolokonnikova has made it clear that the goal of defeating the Putin regime takes precedence over narrower feminist causes. In a February 2021 interview with Vogue she said, “I know it’s not healthy when we cannot discuss smaller political issues that are still influencing our life greatly, but right now we don’t have the luxury to discuss micro-politics. We just have to be sure that we’re not being assassinated by this evil man.”
Russia has a rich history of female political activism, dating back to the late nineteenth century. When the first Russian terrorist party, “People’s Will,” was formed in 1879, it included ten women in its original executive committee of twenty-nine. The Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, created in 1898, had the largest percentage of women members of all European social parties. Because both sexes were denied political freedoms, the overwhelming majority of these radical women focused on the common cause of revolution, rather than on feminist goals, and fought side by side with the men as equals. The Russian women who are struggling against the repressive Putin regime are continuing this tradition.
Although I consider myself a feminist, I do wonder whether it is appropriate, with Aleksei Navalny now facing possible death in a Russian prison, for Pinkham to be concerned about the representation of women on his staff.
Summit, New Jersey
Sophie Pinkham replies:
Amy Knight has misunderstood my point about recent protests in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. As the title “No More Mother-Saviors” suggests, I drew a contrast between the explicit, liberatory feminism of the F Letter poets (as well as Pussy Riot and the Polish protesters) and the role of gender in some post-Soviet political movements, where women have been cast as the maternal guardians of the nation or as valiant, devoted wives—visions that reinforce rather than question traditional gender roles. Post-Soviet Ukraine’s celebration of the image of the berehinya, or hearth mother-goddess, who perches on the top of the 2001 Independence Monument on Kyiv’s Maidan, comes to mind here. Although female protesters, activists, and politicians in these countries rarely profess what might be called “capital F feminism,” the high profile of women in these movements is striking, and it has attracted international media attention.
More broadly, I disagree with Knight’s idea that feminism can exist only on the terrain of “women’s issues” like domestic violence, workplace discrimination, and reproductive freedom. The participation of women in politics has helped to broaden the definition of who benefits from the achievements of a common cause. To oppose the universal and the particular in the way Knight does is counterproductive and ahistorical; universal emancipation is advanced by the liberation of particular groups. For most of history, political activity was itself coded as male. In imperial Russia, for women to take part in the common cause at all was transformational.