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Sex, Politics, and PutinPolitical Legitimacy in Russia$

Valerie Sperling

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780199324347

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199324347.001.0001

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(p.311) Appendix: Methodology

(p.311) Appendix: Methodology

Sex, Politics, and Putin
Oxford University Press

I began this project in 2009, using the Web to uncover stories of political youth activism in Russia as well as to find contact information for activists both on their organizations’ websites and through their blogs and social networking pages. In June 2011, I traveled to Moscow and interviewed thirteen political youth activists (both pro- and anti-Kremlin) about their activism, their paths into politics, and the use of gender norms in their actions. Of the thirteen activists, four hailed from the pro-Putin camp (two women and two men), and nine opposed the regime (six men and three women). Activists came from three pro-Kremlin groups: Nashi (Ours), Stal’ (Steel), and Molodaia Gvardiia Edinoi Rossii (Young Guard, the youth wing of the pro-Kremlin party United Russia), and from three liberal opposition groups: Oborona (Defense), My (We), and Molodezhnoe Yabloko (the youth wing of the liberal Yabloko Party).

One striking finding from my interviews in 2011 was that few activists, male or female, viewed the objectification of women (e.g., in the pro-Putin birthday calendar) as a political problem or as evidence of sexist discrimination. In part, this may have been because the Russian women’s movement that reached its height in the mid-1990s had largely disintegrated since that time, meaning that there was little organized resistance to sexist assertions and behavior in the public realm.1 Yet, in the past several years, a number of small feminist activist groups had emerged in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and elsewhere in Russia, as had a self-described feminist punk band called Pussy Riot (a handful of whose members stood up in front of the Kremlin and sang an anti-Putin anthem in January 2012, and gave an unsanctioned performance of a “punk prayer” at Moscow’s most grandiose Orthodox church the next month, followed by the imprisonment of several group members). (p.312)

In June 2012, I returned to Russia to broaden my field of interviews, especially to include feminist activists. This second cohort included seventeen feminist activists (eleven in Moscow from eight different groups, plus the chair of the Gender Caucus of the liberal party, Yabloko, and five in St. Petersburg), and two gender studies sociologists (one in each city). The Moscow-based groups included: Initsiativnaia Gruppa “Za Feminizm” (Initiative Group “Pro-Feminism”), Moskovskaia Feministskaia Gruppa (Moscow Feminist Group), Moskovskie Radikal’nye Feministki (Moscow Radical Feminists), Chainaia Gruppa (the Tea Group), Feministskaia Initsiativa (Feminist Initiative), Tsentr “Sestry” (Sisters Center), Kampaniia protiv ekspluatatsii i diskriminatsii zhenshchin – Komitet za Rabochii Internatsional (Campaign against Discrimination and Exploitation of Women - Committee for a Workers’ International), and Molodezhnoe Dvizhenie “Ostanovim Nasilie” (Youth Movement “Stop Violence”). In St. Petersburg, feminist activists largely networked with one another as individuals rather than being organized in specifically feminist groups; some of the women I interviewed worked (or volunteered) at the Krizisnyi Tsentr dlia Zhenshchin (Crisis Center for Women), and one was organizing a project called FemInfoteka, a feminist library and discussion platform; several were affiliated with other groups, including Verkhotura (an art collective), Rossiiskoe Sotsialisticheskoe Dvizhenie (Russian Socialist Movement, a fairly small left-wing organization), and the Natsional-bol’shevistskaia partiia (National Bolshevik Party).

Russia’s young feminists were critical of the misogyny that they had encountered within left-wing political organizations (much as women in the second wave of the feminist movement in the United States had reacted to sexism in the civil rights and New Left movements)2 and of what they saw as an almost universally sexist political environment, where homophobia and sexism were widespread in the actions and discourses of both the regime and its opposition. In these interviews, activists shared the ways they used gender analysis to make sense of their political context, as well as information about their groups and the paths they had traveled into feminist political awareness and activism.

While in Moscow, I attended the second “March of Millions” on June 12, 2012, marching largely with the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered) and Feminist contingents, and with the supporters of Pussy Riot (several of whose members were at the time in pre-trial detention; in August 2012 (p.313) they would be handed two-year jail terms). In St. Petersburg I sat in on a meeting of young feminists to discuss sexism within left-wing groups. That summer I also reinterviewed three youth activists from the previous cohort (by that time two had left the anti-Kremlin group Oborona; another was transitioning from a leadership position in the pro-Kremlin group Nashi to become the head of a new political party).

The political youth activist cohort interviewed in 2011 was younger on average (a mean age of 25.5) than the feminist cohort (a mean age of 32), and their age range was smaller (19–30). Feminist activists’ ages ranged from 23 to 55, but the majority (53 percent) were in their twenties, with 29 percent in their thirties, and only three activists over forty. One-quarter of the activists were married (three in the youth political activist cohort, and four in the feminist cohort), and several more in each group were in non-marital relationships with men or women. Few of the activists (14 percent overall) had children; one of the male activists in the political youth cohort had a toddler, and three of the feminist activists were raising children (ranging in age from six to twenty-two).

All of the interviews in 2011 and 2012 were conducted in Russian. In two cases, activists chose to be interviewed together (from the Youth Movement “Stop Violence”; and from the Moscow Feminist Group). The interviews ranged from thirty minutes to over two hours and were recorded. Most often, they took place in cafes, but several were conducted in people’s apartments and at Yabloko Party headquarters; one took place in an interviewee’s office at the Russian Public Chamber. Public parks in Moscow provided the setting for two interviews, and another transpired outdoors on a particularly sunny day in view of the Gulf of Finland in St. Petersburg. All of the interviewees were guaranteed anonymity unless they chose to opt out of it, which all of them readily did. The activists interviewed for the project thus granted permission for their words to be quoted in this book, though occasional exceptions were registered and observed. (p.314)


(1) Sperling, Organizing Women in Contemporary Russia; Azhgikhina, “Proshloe i budushchee zhenskogo dvizheniia v Rossii,” 110.

(2) See Robin Morgan, “Goodbye to All That,” 1970, http://blog.fair-use.org/2007/09/29/goodbye-to-all-that-by-robin-morgan-1970/; Sara Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement & the New Left, 1st ed. (New York: Vintage, 1980).