The context, material, and methods

The feminist activists interviewed for this study connect their feminist politicisation with increasingly conservative state politics conducted by the Russian government in tandem with the Russian Orthodox Church. The launch of the conservative politics can be traced back to around 2005, when the government started to impose increasing regulation of sexual and reproductive rights (see for example Temkina & Zdravomyslova, 2014). It reached its climax between 2011 and 2013, when both women and non-heterosexuals encountered political limitations through limits placed on access to abortion and banning of public ‘propaganda’ on non-heterosexuality for minors. Russia’s conservative turn has been traced to attempts to address the country’s declining birth rate, which has been framed as a ‘demographic crisis’ (Rivkin-Fish, 2010). While similar tendencies of conservative governance exist elsewhere, there are peculiarities to the Russian conseivativism. For example, embracing conservative ideology combined with a strong national sentiment has been assessed as a strategy to win back Russia’s lost international status and to position the country as morally superior to an overly emancipated and liberal West that trumpets the value of human rights (Wilkinson, 2014; Stella & Nartova, 2016). The ideological distance the Russian government has built in relation to Western countries is evidenced in recently enacted laws abolishing non-governmental organisations’ right to receive foreign funding, while those that do are declared foreign agents. However, this is only one example of government-level attempts to police civic activism deemed not in line with its politics. Since 2005, freedom of assembly in public places has been limited, and in the wake of the mass anti-government protests of 2011-2013, officials have been equipped with a new set of tools for limiting public use of space and demonstrating (see, for example, Gabowitsch, 2017).

Meanwhile, the promotion of conservative moral values in day-to-day life is rhetorically centred on the concept of a ‘traditional family’ based on heteronor-mative gender relations that are portrayed as natural. For example, décriminalisation of some forms of domestic violence in 2017 was introduced to ‘protect the traditional family'. One of the key ideological figures in this traditional setting, positioned alongside the devoted mother, is the ‘real man’ (muzhik) who is able to protect both his family and, when necessary, the nation. Elena Gapova (2016: 36) shows how a man who cannot fulfil his duty as the head of the household and provide for his family (i.e., be a ‘real man') tends to be stripped of his masculinity and honour in this configuration. Gapova goes on to point out the close link between the Russian ideal ‘real man’ figure and national ideas of power, militarism, violence, and the army (ibid.: 63-65), as strong men are supposed to be a manifestation of a strong and virile country. The ideological campaign surrounding masculinity, also referred to as neomasculinism, presents new obstacles to feminist activism in the 2010s (Johnson & Saarinen, 2013: 550).

This chapter draws on research material produced through four months of fieldwork in St Petersburg and Moscow, primarily in 2015. Regular follow-up visits were also conducted between 2016 and 2018 in order to visit feminist events. The ethnographically produced material consists of 42 interviews with selfidentified feminists and with individuals who identified otherwise but were active on the fringes of the movement. The fieldwork for this research included both participatory and non-participatory observation during feminist events, unofficial meetings, demonstrations, self-defense classes, and theatre rehearsals. Alongside participant observation, my work has been informed by Internet observation as I analyse some key social media feminist actions. This is because social media serves as a central stage for contemporary feminist activism.

Most of the interlocutors identified as women, although there were some who identified as men or genderqueer. In addition, roughly half of my informants identified as non-heterosexual (LGBTQ). The key activists who will accompany us through this chapter are anarchofeminist Anna, radical feminist Katia, queerfeminist Sonia, and queerfeminist Zhenia.4 Most of them discussed trauma and violence in relation to their activism, at length, in the interviews. Only Zhenia was an exception, not discussing gendered violence or trauma but, rather, contributing to

Feminists performing collective trauma 177 the idea of feminism as a shelter for certain kinds of vulnerable subjects. Trauma is thus an emic concept deployed by the activists themselves, with the exception of Zhenia. However, among the numerous individuals interviewed for this study there were also many who avoided discussing violence or noted that it had become too big an issue within the movement. With this article, I choose to concentrate instead on the significant proportion of the activists who focused on gendered violence and/or discussed their trauma.

For example, anarchofeminist Anna mentioned not being able to ignore the theme of violence in practice even if she was already fed up with it: ‘Even if you do not really want to discuss violence but do something, all the same you end up talking about violence in the end. And that is why feminism is so important in Russia: because it gives people statements about violence’.

Further, I suggest that the contemporary Russian political context invites certain radical expressions of feminism ‘onstage’. In this I refer both to radical feminism and to radical forms of action. The former, which focuses on a binary gender order and often views gendered violence as a ‘keystone of women’s oppression’ in patriarchy (MacKay, 2015), takes strikingly visible forms in Russia today. Radical forms of action, in turn, are visible in Russian feminism in its vocal disagreement with the current regime and its politics.

For Katia, who was in her late twenties, radicality in activism took on many dimensions. As she identified as a radical feminist, her activism was focused chiefly on fighting gendered violence and male supremacy over women. However, since Katia took part in confrontational street actions, radicality manifested itself in her public actions too. Katia emphasised that she was not an ‘elite’ feminist but a feminist politicising the situation of those she saw as holding the most vulnerable position in the society: lower-class women with limited resources. For her, feminism was thereby an issue of class. This is Katia’s narration of becoming a feminist:

I was in a new relationship. And as I still suffered from an unhappy past relationship, I started searching for psychological articles on the Internet in order to solve my problems. And it so happened that I found an [feminist] article about abuse... I started reading it, further and further, and it turns out that Katia had become a feminist!

Katia was not the only one to associate feminism intimately with psychology. In fact, I soon noticed that psychology was something the activists were often as keen for as feminism itself in their strivings to deal with painful past experiences and to initiate change in their life. Many of the feminist events I attended included sessions that drew on psychology, with titles such as ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Psychological Trauma’. I soon noticed that these sessions were often the most well-attended events held at feminist gatherings. As I will show in the analysis, the therapeutic dimension to feminism encompassed much more than merely listening to lectures on psychology for aid in tackling difficult life situations. That said, before I delve into the activist narratives about thefeminist ‘shelter' and therapeutic politics, I want to highlight that the therapeutic functions feminism served should be considered in context with the fact that activists such as Katia rarely had access to psychotherapeutic services or other social support structures.

Producing a mental shelter for the traumatised

Remarkably many of the activists I spoke to had a personal story to share about violence and abuse. Katia was not alone in this, and her experience was that women often came to feminism expressly because of such experiences: ‘Those women who have it all good rarely become feminists’, she sighed. Some activists described having faced violence while growing up, whereas others described later violence, whether in intimate relationships or in encounters with strangers. Many of the activists also mentioned popular videos spread via the Russian-speaking Internet that present gendered or sexual violence against young women without criticising this phenomenon - serving rather as a platform for young men showing off. During my fieldwork, a teenage girl was killed in a violent attack by a group of teenage boys, and various peaceful demonstrations were organised in her memory and to call attention to the issue of gendered violence.

For queerfeminist Sonia, the experience of feminist awakening was associated not only with a culture of endemic violence but also specifically with trauma:

I, like many people in this society, had a very traumatising experience of family in childhood. My father was violent, and our family very authoritarian. This was followed by a traumatic experience as a woman. [...] with a lot of things, people, violence. Though I think almost all the women I know share my experience.

Attaching one’s experience to the concept of trauma was common practice for many of the activists: the concept of trauma was employed as a collective tool for narrating past injuries and experiences, many first-hand but others indirect. For instance, anarchofeminist Anna labelled her trauma as a ‘moral’ injury when recounting an encounter with a stranger who had nearly raped her but whom she had dissuaded by giving him money:

Well, I am alive and was not strongly traumatised in a physical way, rather morally. And, of course, I told everyone about it: this is what happened to me. Because it was very triggering for me - but I can talk about it, and I believe it is important. All the women I told about it, and even all the men to whom I mentioned it, then started reminiscing about how their friends had experienced something similar... It was somewhat symptomatic.

Anna highlighted that her trauma stemmed from a constant threat of violence and referred to it as ‘symptomatic’ of cultural ills. This echoes how Cvetkovich (2003: 18) defines trauma in the context of trauma cultures. Even if the traumas

Feminists performing collective trauma 179 the activists narrated were different in nature, the narratives were tied together by the way the activists discussed the trauma: they did so from a collective point of view, thus building collective identity and a sense of we-ness by recalling similar kinds of threatening or violent moments in their life. Ron Eyerman (2001: 5-6), who associates memory closely with cultural trauma, has stated that a group is solidified and becomes aware of itself through reflection of a shared memory. The past becomes collectively experienced and interpreted - it is construed as a reference point for upcoming action (ibid.: 7).

I suggest that the feminists in Russia, by narrating their traumatic experiences, constructed a mental shelter to shield themselves from the ‘culture of violence’ even if only momentarily. The term ‘shelter’, in its dictionary definition, denotes a safe place or a refuge. When one feels the need for a shelter, this is because one feels vulnerable to something outside the shelter. While the metaphor is connected with a physical space of safety, that space in the context of feminist activism in Russia remains without physical walls or a roof. Indeed, feminist groups seldom had a permanent place to hold their meetings. For these activists, who were constantly on the move and on the lookout for available spaces, even only a metaphorical space of their own to which they could withdraw conveyed a relative feeling of comfort. At the same time, though, the ‘shelter’ notion also very concretely refers to physical havens for people who have faced gendered violence. The notion of feminism as a shelter thereby resonates with the fact that there is a great shortage of physical shelters for victims of gendered violence in Russia. With the decline of foreign funding for feminist initiatives in Russia in the first years of the 2000s, most NGO-run shelters were closed down. Today, it is mainly state-led public crisis centres that can afford physical shelter spaces (Johnson & Saarinen, 2013: 555-556). Accordingly, those shelters still available focus on a more conventional notion of violence (ibid.: 561) and are most likely not sensitive to non-normativity and feminist issues.

The narratives of finding one’s path to feminism were often also narratives of non-normative gender and sexual identity cast as deviant by the conservative political discourse. Zhenia, a genderqueer feminist, discussed feeling like an outsider everywhere. Reflecting further on this outsider identification, Zhenia connected it with personal gender and the toughening public atmosphere that followed on the heels of the ‘homopropaganda’ law and other conservative laws limiting activists’ space. While describing a complicated relationship to even the feminist community, this personal narrative at the same time seemed to identify feminists as the only community Zhenia could somewhat relate to. This was crystallised during a discussion of the police having inspected a local feminist event: while not having been there during the incident, Zhenia lamented: ‘How could they invade my space?’ In Zhenia’s narrative, feminism featured as the community and collective coming closest to the idea of belonging, something like a home for Zhenia. The metaphor of home that Zhenia hinted at resembles, in many ways, the idea of a shelter. As Saara Jantti (2012: 81) has pointed out, safety is a notion often associated with the home, since a home is a place that is expected to provide a shelter from the world outside. At the same time, avast body of feminist scholarship illustrates how the reality for a significant proportion of the population is not actually safe, because of domestic violence (ibid.: 83). The idea of belonging that was articulated by Zhenia suggests that feminism offers an alternative space of belonging for those who feel at home and safe neither in the realm of the heterosexual normative family nor in a national community that depicts them as deviant outsiders and even as a threat to national unity.

I suggest that feminism has offered those coming together in its ‘shelter’ a resource and a refuge for momentarily detaching themselves from sticky concepts such as binary gender, most often bound up with conservative definitions of womanhood and heterosexuality. In the research material, various narratives of feminist becomings highlighted a strikingly narrow understanding of womanhood on the part of the surrounding society and its conservative context. The ‘shelter’ metaphor reflects an idea of the feminist collective as a space of withdrawal from that context, a space in which activists can take a ‘time out’, together healing their traumas and spending time with like-minded people who are not hostile towards feminist ideas and non-normativity.

Although feminism clearly took on shelter-like functions, it was connected also to ideas of publicly speaking out and making the trauma and ’culture of violence’ visible. Indeed, the idea of the feminist shelter could, alongside other concepts, be discussed in dialogue with the notion of the political underground, with resonance as the place for political dissidence in the politically repressive Soviet era (see, for example, Zdravomyslova, 2011). It can be interpreted accordingly as a momentary collective refuge for those whose political demands are silenced in national politics but also as a platform from which public resistance arises.

 
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