Feminists performing the collective trauma

A visiting group of Finnish feminists have just presented their activist project to an audience of about 60 in St Petersburg. After the presentation, a woman in her forties stands up to ask, in Russian, how the group could admit men to feminism, ‘since it is supposed to function as a shelter for women’. This question, posed in a tone of clear concern, haunted me long after my fieldwork in Russia. I had never before heard someone associate feminism with a shelter in such a direct manner. I gradually came to apprehend how vital this spatial metaphor is to understanding feminist activism in Russia, the setting for my ethnographic study. The shelteridea, I suggest, is pivotal for examining feminist activism in contemporary Russia and the root causes for the radical forms it takes, often stemming from experiences of gendered violence. The thematics scrutinised in this chapter thus resonate with the #MeToo movement and its aftermath, in which women around the world have become empowered to stand against gendered violence.1

Feminism has experienced a resurgence of interest in Russia in the 2010s, after a decline in popularity and public visibility that was largely due to paring back of funding for feminist projects earlier in the new millennium (Brygalina & Temkina. 2004; Hemment, 2007; Sahnenniemi, 2008). While Pussy Riot is the most well-known contemporary Russian feminist group internationally, the field of feminism in Russia is multifaceted and filled with activists tirelessly seeking opportunities for publicity on the scale achieved by that group with then ‘Punk Prayer’ performance and subsequent imprisonment? One key reason for feminism’s renewed popularity in Russia, especially among young women in bigger cities, has been the rise of conservative politics. Whereas President Boris Yeltsin's regime in the 1990s largely failed to develop a ‘national idea’ after the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Vladimir Putin’s government has sought a new basis for legitimacy in a conservative ideology closely connected to nationalist ideas (Temkina & Zdravomyslova, 2014; Sperling, 2015: 126,274-275). This concerns feminist activists most tangibly through several proposals and laws in the 2010s for limiting reproductive rights and public discussion of non-heterosexuality? Valerie Sperling (2015) has pointed out that the success of the Russian government’s patriarchal politics and laws is partially due to the absence of a strong women’s movement. However, the enactment of those laws has sparked a new generation of feminist activists, who at times carry out strikingly confrontational and radical actions.

As Eva Illouz (2008) has highlighted, the feminist and therapeutic discourse have similar starting points - they both encourage working on one’s relationship to oneself. However, relations between the two have been turbulent and dynamic from the beginning. In the 1960s, feminists raced in to challenge sexist forms of therapy and create their own feminist versions of it, ultimately forcing mainstream therapy to update its practices too (Herman, 1995). In fact, some scholars have suggested that, because feminism was so occupied with therapeutic practices of consciousness-raising, it actually lost its political dynamic (Becker, 2005; Cloud, 1998). Others have argued to the contrary that therapeutic strategies, rather than depoliticising feminism, enabled feminists to bring in a novel way of conducting politics (Stein, 2011). I contribute to these debates here by shedding light on how feminist activism in contemporary Russia takes therapeutic and political dimensions simultaneously, forming what I call therapeutic politics. Hence, my main focus is on the way politics and therapeutics come together and manifest themselves in feminist activism produced around activists’ traumatic experiences.

I will begin by discussing the relationship between the feminist and therapeutic discourses. With this background, I can then introduce the research context and material. My analysis is divided into two parts: In the first part, I examine how the ‘shelter’ mentioned above is narratively produced and what kinds of individuals and ideas assemble in this space. With the second part, I turn to how therapeutic elements are combined with public feminist activism.

Feminism, therapeutics, and trauma culture

Feminists were among the first political movements to draw from the therapeutic discourse, in the 20th century (Stein, 2011: 167). As therapy did, feminism offered a cultural resource that ‘invited self-examination, the acknowledgment of past injuries, and the revelation of those injuries to others in order to make sense of oneself (ibid.: 187). The feminist and therapeutic discourses shared not only the idea that self-examination liberates but also that of the private sphere and family as the ideal object for transformation aimed at fulfilling individuals’ desires (Illouz, 2008: 122-123).

As Ellen Herman (1995: 302) has shown, therapeutic practice was from the beginning both a friend and a foe for feminists. Conventional modes of therapy were male-dominated and often deeply misogynist and homophobic, as were the modes of psychiatry and psychoanalysis (Staub, 2015: 107). However, in how it construed the ‘female’, the therapeutic establishment, in fact, helped to concretise some of feminism’s main critical arguments along the way, thereby gradually forcing therapy experts to reflect on their sexist practices (Herman, 1995: 281). What may well be characterised as the finest aspects of contemporary therapeutic culture - its democratic and nonhierarchical practices - stem in large part from the advances sought by radical and feminist therapists (Staub, 2015: 107).

The coupling between feminist and therapeutic discourse grew tighter in the 1970s when feminists started politicising issues of sexual abuse. This alliance involved connecting experiences of abuse to the therapeutic concept of trauma (Illouz, 2008: 167). Feminists pointed out that people could be damaged psychically, not just physically, and that damage from traumatic events may exert effects years after the events themselves. They emphasised, further, how trauma greatly threatens self-development and a healthy psyche, to which all citizens have the same rights. Feminist activists deployed therapeutic knowledge so as to transform private trauma of abuse into a public issue (ibid.: 168-169).

One central method launched by the feminist movement in the 1960s was collective work carried out in feminist consciousness-raising (CR) groups. As Dana Becker (2005: 8) has demonstrated, CR enabled women's collective reflection on their gendered experience in both personal and political terms. The self and private experiences were taken as a starting point for politicisation and for seeking common ground among women of all stripes (ibid.: 136). The idea for CR was of women coming together in order to reach a feminist consciousness - that is, recognise the connection between their ostensibly personal problems and social structures - and, as their consciousness grew, becoming politically activated to promote social change by bringing those ‘personal’ problems to the public’s awareness. The feminist slogan ‘personal is political' encapsulates this idea of politics running through all levels from personal to political.

Numerous scholars have claimed that what ultimately transpired was quite different: therapeutic practices applied in CR ended up merely privatising social problems. Dana Cloud (1998), for example, has suggested that the CR groups, in fact, shied away from confrontation with systemic power by withdrawing to the realm of their ‘therapeutic enclaves’. According to Cloud, an additional problem with CR was that it mainly attracted middle- and upper-class women, who tended not to be focused on the profound social change envisioned by radical feminists. Feminist politics has been accused also of falling back to identity politics, as it had no apparent push for moving beyond the personal (Becker, 2005: 136-137). Conversely, it has been argued that feminists of that time showed success in launching a new personal way of conducting politics (Illouz, 2008: 170). This brave approach gradually encouraged other groups to share painful feelings publicly instead of holding them back (Stein, 2011: 192) and opened a discursive political space of action for those who had previously been marginalised and lacked a public voice (ibid.: 189).

While Western feminists were politicising the personal in CR in the 1960s and the 1970s, feminism in the Soviet Union was heavily suppressed. Nonetheless, 1979 did see a dissident feminist group publish an underground paper (Almanac: Women of Russia) dealing with abortion, the miserable conditions of Soviet maternity hospitals, and the challenges of single parenting, although the group was soon brought under the surveillance of the State Security Committee (KGB) and some of its members were ultimately deported from the country in the early 1980s (lukina, 2007: 456-457). As did feminism, the ‘psy' disciplines occupied a relatively marginal position in Soviet society and were not popular among the masses. Instead, biomedical, physiological, and pedagogical discourses were employed to make sense of the self, emphasising correct Communist socialisation. (Matza 2010, quoted in Salmenniemi & Adamson, 2015: 90-91.)

It was with the breakdown of the Soviet system that both feminist thought and psychological knowledge started to spread in Russia. Motivated by foreign grants and funders eager to support the country’s democratic development, its feminist groups began politicising the ‘private’ with the aid of CR (see e.g. Sperling, 1999). However, the expanding women’s movement and various women’s organisations were situated mostly within the academic realm and remained accessible primarily to the middle classes and elite (Salmenniemi, 2014).

Also, various forms of popular psychology were being disseminated in the 1990s via television, self-help books, and meeting groups (Honey, 2014; Lerner, 2015; Salmenniemi & Vorona, 2014). The number of therapy professionals grew rapidly, accordingly (Matza, 2009). However, the intervening years have not made them affordable for many: private psychological services are provided and consumed mostly by the middle classes and the elite (Matza, 2012). While psychology itself, especially in its popular form, has maintained its appeal among the masses, feminism was rather supplanted, with anti-feminist sentiments coming to dominate in the early 2000s. Postfeminist ideas were domesticated in Russia with self-help books directed to female audiences (Salmenniemi & Adamson, 2015) highlighting not so much the collective as the individual-oriented sides of feminine agency, intimately tied to neoliberal ideas of personal-level responsibility and self-governance (see also Gill, 2007).

With this chapter I suggest that the generation of feminist activity that has emerged in the 2010s is producing a public trauma culture. Via this concept, introduced by Ann Cvetkovich (2003), the walls often erected between therapeutic and political are brought down (see also Salmenniemi et al. and Yankellevich in this book). Here, I will follow Cvetkovich’s lead in analysing trauma as a social and cultural discourse (rather than clinical) that emerges in response to struggling with the psychic consequences of historical events and ‘cultural memory’. With this analysis, I explore the feminist activism produced around trauma to uncover how psychic injury and painful memories are assembled to form therapeutic politics.

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