Добро пожаловать to Life Abroad written by Natasha Bluth, a Brown University Junior studying this fall in St. Petersburg. Concentrating in International relations and Slavic studies, she has joined the blogosphere to her share cultural, political, and psychological musings, brought to you all the way from Russia with a splash of Soviet humor.
Being an American woman in Russia today has been an unavoidable and almost routinized lesson on gender studies. In class, feminism often returns as a topic of discussion. I consider myself a feminist – not the raging anti-men type, but one who subscribes to equality between men and women in the political, social and economic spheres. It’s built into my self and engrained in the culture of my upbringing. And in Russia, there has been more than one chance to assert this aspect, left so undisputed in the majority of my past experiences. Seeing the way Russian women model their wardrobes to attract the opposite sex and recognizing the overwhelming intolerance towards homosexuality, Russia is like the children’s book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, with a revamped title: Kitschy with a Chance of Deeply Embedded Traditional Gender Norms.
Recently, one of my Russian professors remarked that her American students tend to agree that a “beautiful woman” means a confident woman. We could only verify. Her subsequent laughter evidenced that Russians do not share this philosophy. In another discussion during the same week, a Russian student asserted that there are genderized versions of happiness. It is black and white and 1950s all over: men find happiness in their career, and family and homemaking remain irrefutably female realms of gratification. This is the backdrop for a hot topic in Russian news – Pussy Riot. The all-female rock group’s political demonstration last February in front of one of the country’s most famous cathedrals (Moscow’s “Christ the Savior”), labeled the Kremlin a dictatorship, chanting, “Mother of God, cast Putin out!” Group members were given various punishments, and the leader, now-famous Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, is allegedly missing in Siberia, currently being transferred to another prison after she went on hunger strike at her initial location.
It certainly takes visiting a new country to recognize that the society we have grown up in was handed to us on a more or less gender-neutral platter. This is not to say that in the US, women lead a burden-free existence, but in comparison to my experiences here, where a young girl is certainly not given the you-can-do-anything-you-want-in-life speech, the American mindset is much more gender-equal. What is most startling about the Pussy Riot scandal is the indifference of the Russian people to the group’s overall message. Instead, the voice of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and close ally of Putin, Patriarch Kirill, towers above all – “Feminism is a ‘very dangerous’ phenomenon that could lead to the destruction of Russia.” The conservative values of the Kremlin, mixed with Russia’s low birth rate lead to an unsurprisingly hefty fixation on women’s role as a mother. In Kirill’s words, “the country isn’t called ‘the Motherland’ for nothing.”
Unfortunately, the gender censorship of the perestroika era that stifled the discussion of progressive action has only continued to caricaturize feminism in Russia.
Questions, comments, concerns? Email Natasha Bluth at Natasha_Bluth@brown.edu to learn more about studying abroad in Russia.
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