A day off work is seldom controversial in Russia. But that seems the only thing about March 8, International Women's Day, that isn't.
The day will be celebrated in the traditional Soviet-era manner, à la Mother's Day, with men scrambling to buy flowers and gifts to present to their womenfolk, capped off with fulsome toasts. Women will remark, as they do every year, on the utter hypocrisy of it all – often as they trundle off to wash the dishes after the festivities are over.
"Who needs this holiday?" says Alyona Doletskaya, former editor of the Russian edition of Vogue. "I would so much rather have simple respect and genuine caring around the year than one day of flowers and praise."
But what still doesn't get much discussion is the glaring paradox of modern Russia.
It is a country with many strong female leaders, where women with higher education vastly outnumber the men – but which lacks any widely-recognized women's movement and the word "feminism" is scorned, not only by the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, but even by liberal-minded professional women.
That lack of women's solidarity around critical issues affecting them, or any powerful organizations able to enforce it, could prove disastrous as Russia undergoes its biggest wave of resurgent social conservatism in generations. The powerful Orthodox Church has played a major role behind the scenes in promoting legislation to curb gay rights and decriminalize domestic violence, and is currently lobbying for a law to prohibit abortion.
The church showed its teeth around the Pussy Riot affair five years ago, when a group of radical female performance artists were sentenced to serious prison time, with the full support of the Kremlin, for singing a "blasphemous" song in a Moscow cathedral. Some observers noted at the time that the principal menace perceived by the church was the allegedly feminist subtext of the women's protest. That view seemed to be confirmed by an official statement by Patriarch Kirill, claiming that "feminism" is a "very dangerous" phenomenon that threatens to destroy Russia.
Aside from a handful of liberals and intellectuals, few Russians at the time supported the Pussy Riot women, who have since been released from prison.
"There is no law or institution in this country that defends women's rights. The state protects the rights of businessmen, children, but women are not protected at all," says Galina Mikhalyova, chair of the liberal Yabloko party's gender faction. "This conservative turn is gaining momentum. The only good thing is that at least we can speak publicly about these issues today."
The idea of Women's Day came to Russia amid the turbulent struggles for equality and voting rights a century ago, and was acknowledged by Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin after organized women played a key role in overthrowing czarism in the February Revolution 100 years ago. But the holiday’s historical grounding is virtually absent from the showers of coverage devoted to it by most Russian media.
Some blame 70 years of Soviet life for the contradictions that Russian women have inherited. Though radical feminism was a part of the revolutionary experience, and independent women's organizations flourished into the 1920s, they were gradually crushed and women were mobilized into the labor force as the USSR underwent a rapid, forced industrialization in the 1930s. The state created a vast network of daycare facilities for working mothers, and provided free education that brought Soviet women to dominate in some professions, such as teaching, medicine, and even engineering.
But it also clamped down hard on any discussion of domestic relations between women and men, or gender politics in the workplace. The official Soviet Women's Committee, a satellite of the Communist Party, stressed the role of Soviet woman as patriot, worker, and lover of peace.
The USSR's parliament, the Supreme Soviet, had more than 30 percent female representation. But that was enforced by quotas from above, and all real power lay with the Communist Party. Soviet life definitely created a new kind of Russian woman, but one that – like the rest of society – was politically inert.
"After World War II, the educational level of women started to exceed that of men, a tendency that persists to this day," says Irina Tartakovskaya, an expert with the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow. In fact, recent statistics suggest that 56 percent of Russian women have higher education, compared with 44 percent of men.
"But women's salaries were never higher than men's. In Soviet times, a woman typically made about 70 percent of what a man does, and it's much the same today," she says. "But the Soviet system allowed a woman to live without being dependent on a man. The state worked to remove women from the traditional patriarchal family, and also protected them to some degree. In fact, women depended more on the state than on their husbands."
The collapse of the USSR 25 years ago led to the disintegration of state support for working mothers and threw millions of Russian women into serious economic difficulties. But it also opened the political field for women to organize in defense of their own rights.
"After 1993 there was even a women's caucus in the State Duma, although it didn't promote a feminist agenda," says Ms. Mikhalyova, the liberal activist. Women's participation in politics also appears to have peaked, with about 14 percent of Duma deputies being female in 1993, compared with 10 percent today.
Gender equality 'a fiction'?
The state under Vladimir Putin has cracked down on independent civil society groups, and moved to curtail any expressions of "identity politics" in the electoral sphere.
Russia does have some very impressive female politicians and officials, such as Central Bank chief Elvira Nabiullina and head of the Central Electoral Commission Ella Pamfilova. But the Duma's female component is also filled with ex-Olympic gymnasts and former figure skaters with no political background who were simply added – some say as "decorations" – to the ruling United Russia party's candidate list.
"Gender equality in Russia is the same fiction as a multi-party system," says Olga Li, an anticorruption activist in the central Russian city of Kursk, whose bid for an independent Duma seat was derailed by official pressures last year. "But let's start with the fact that participation in politics in Russia is difficult, not only for women but also for men, that is, if we're talking about honest people."
The closest thing Russia has to a nationwide women's movement today is the Union of Russian Women, the state-sponsored heir to the former official Soviet Women's Committee. It is well-funded, has a wide reach, and does take some good stands, particularly on providing more facilities to aid working women and increasing subsidies for women who want to have more babies.
But standing up to conservative pressures, or promoting a distinct women's identity in politics, do not seem to be their brief.
"A woman's mission is to give birth to children and help the state to improve the demographic situation," says Yekaterina Lakhova, a senator and chair of the Union of Women. "The state creates conditions for women to raise children and to realize themselves. Only about 5 percent of our women are career-oriented. There are plenty of women who prefer family and homemaking, and the majority combine home and work."
Little of this is being aired on this particular Women's Day in Russia. But some activists say that Russian women will eventually overcome a century of being diverted by the state's agenda, and start to press their own demands.
"Men manage everything, and they do keep women out of positions of power," says Svetlana Murashko, chair of Women to Power, a public movement that promotes equal participation in management. "Women in this country are ready to go into politics. If we had fair and honest elections, there would be a lot more women in power."