Gender studies in Russia: mapping force fields

Nastya Dmitrievskaya

В поддержке журнала участвовали Вестминстерский фонд поддержки демократии, Ассоциация американских юристов (ABA CEELI), Фонд Евразия.

Издание справочника и создание Базы данных по гендерным исследованиям в России и СНГ (БДГИР) осуществлены при финансовой поддержке Посольства Королевства Нидерландов.

Мы благодарны USAID и Посольству Королевства Нидерландов за то, что оценили значимость этой работы и финансово поддержали проект.

Возможностью осуществить этот проект мы обязаны Фонду Евразия и Глобальному фонду для женщин.

Этот большой проект финансируется Фондом МакАртуров.

This text should have been devoted to the study of feminist solidarity networks in the post-Soviet space and the routes along which exchange and cooperation run. But while I was preparing it, I constantly found myself in a digital cemetery or ghost sites, wandering through the pages of gender centers, summer schools dedicated to gender studies, symposiums and conventions convened to discuss the feminist agenda and gender equality issues, foreign foundations that supported various NGOs, public organizations, and book publishing. This was especially true for Russian initiatives — some web-sites have not been updated since 2012, some since 2008 or 2006, and some since 2001. However, whatever it was, everything suggests that in the ‘90s there were centers for the production of new knowledge, various communities, and agendas. In the second half of the ‘90s, the (partial) institutionalization of gender research began, and in the ‘00s and ‘10s, many organizations of that time disappeared. That is why in the course of the preparation of this text the object of study (as well as its subject) has gone through many metamorphoses, and I concluded that the key interest within existing ultra-conservative policy is the infrastructure of opportunities and limitations that determined what was done in the 90s in post-Soviet gender studies and where all (not all, but much) was gone. Thus, the key topics were: capital and knowledge transfer, knowledge as capital, Russian legislation in the field of gender equality, NGOs, and foreign help to the tertiary sector. I will concentrate on the Russian situation, because, on the one hand, my colleagues and I face it, it surrounds and determines the possibilities of action, it also seems quite chatty, revealing many things beyond gender agenda.

New knowledge, democratization and a convenient moment (for utilization of the territory)

Sociologist Elena Gapova in her article, published in 2007, already from the temporal distance from  the '90s, discusses the way post-Soviet feminism was formed and developed.1 More particularly, she looks at gender studies and their conditions of existence. She points out that the emergence of gender studies as a new system of knowledge was part of the general process of epistemic westernization, which began in the ‘80s: “during perestroika, along with the process of delegitimation of Soviet knowledge and the simultaneous erosion of social hierarchies in big cities, groups formed for the development (study, discussion, dissemination) of various forms of "Western" or "new" knowledge. They took the form of scientific workshops, meetings of clubs of book lovers or film lovers (which made it possible to watch rare, forbidden movies), etc. "2. Along with the opening of “Spetskhrans” (the spaces in the soviet libraries, where censored literature was kept)  and the replenishment of open reading rooms with "literature of restricted access", the quantity  of  materials, available for researchers,  also expande3. Turn toward calls "More glasnost (literally means openness, transparency)!More democracy!" also played a role in increasing interest in the feminist agenda, which, unlike some others, was directly related to democratization and human rights. "With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became possible to create "independent" i.e. not state-governed universities and research centers. Almost all post-Soviet independent scientific structures with a liberal program, as well as cultural initiatives, magazines, and publishing houses, emerged with serious Western financial support4 because they were organizations that could become agents of new, democratic ideas,<...> and researchers and intellectuals were seen as direct agents of these democratic changes."5

In the 90s, the key efforts of many Western and, in particular,  American organizations and foundations were aimed at the development and promotion of democracy in the post-Soviet space. This impulse was the one of liberal democracy and  free market, which sought to colonize new territories liberated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For example, in 1990, after the fall of the Eastern bloc, the United States allocated about $1 billion for "private sector development, democratic pluralism, and economic and political stability" as an aid to the region6. One of the central concepts of this expansive discourse was the idea of civil society7. Wanting to support its development, the US Government and private American foundations focused on creating and supporting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Post-Soviet space8. In its policy documents on strategic plans, the US Agency for international development (USAID) stated that "an active civil society is an important component of a democratic state" and "that the Agency will focus its support for civil society on non-governmental organizations"9.

Researcher of foreign aid to the post-Soviet space Sada Aksartova identifies two main reasons why NGOs became the organizational pillars of civil society: firstly, NGOs were a bureaucratically appropriate way of transporting finances, and secondly, by the early 1990s, NGOs had become the dominant form of association in the United States itself 10. Thus, the spread of a familiar organizational form in a region with an unfamiliar institutional system has become, on the one hand, a way to explore this unfamiliar space and develop a new sphere of influence, and, on the other, an opportunity to channel resources into this space.

In the non-governmental shadow

In the USSR from the revolution until 1986, there was no Institute of charity and a related sector of public associations. In 1986,  the Central Committee of the CPSU and the Council of Ministers decided to create several charitable foundations. This decision legalized charity in the USSR and made the first step towards the future development of public initiatives. The law on public associations, adopted in 1990, created a legislative framework for the creation and existence of independent public associations and charitable organizations11. The compilers of the directory "Women‘s non-governmental organizations in Russia and the CIS" also note that with the change in the sociopolitical context in the country in the early ‘90s, it became possible to expand forms of civic activities12. This period is considered the starting point of the extensive emergence of non-governmental women‘s organizations, but the "hidden accumulation of forces" occurred during the years of Perestroika. The first significant leap in the appearance of such groups dates from 1990, the next one occurred in 1994. They also note two gaps that confirm the stable centralization of the Russian resource distribution infrastructure: the first — an enormous gap in information and financial security between the "capitals" and the rest of Russia; and the second — between Moscow and St. Petersburg: "in 1990, 45% of all formed organizations in the Russian Federation accounted for Moscow, and St. Petersburg only 9%. During the second peak of 1994, this difference was erased in a way: 28.6% of organizations arose in Moscow and 14.3% — in St. Petersburg ."13

If we compare these statistical data with data on financial waves that came from Western funds, governments, and NGOs, the correlation is obvious. Thus, analyzing foreign aid to the Russian women‘s movement, Sarah Henderson, a researcher of civil society in the post-Soviet space, gives the following facts: “funds from foreign donors began to arrive in the early 1990s. USAID funded many programs, and (as of 2000) USAID continues to be a constant and major source of help. Among the organizations of the first wave of funding, we can find the MacArthur Foundation, the Eurasia Foundation, the Soros Foundation, United Way International, ISAR, and IREX. Typically, the first wave awarded small grants (less than $5,000). The major recipients of grants were groups dealing with human rights, the environment, education, the women‘s movement, and legislative development. The next wave of foreign donors appeared from 1994 to 1996 and marked the organizations such as World Learning and the Civic Initiatives Program, a consortium of American organizations. In 1996, a branch of the Ford Foundation opened in Moscow and worked on human rights projects, education, women‘s organizations, and the development of local initiatives. Foreign aid was the largest source of monetary support for women‘s groups over 50% of Henderson‘s respondents reported this. In comparison, the support of women‘s initiatives by the municipal authorities is much less — 32%, and the government — only 2%” 14

By 1998, about 600 associations were registered. However, the authors of the Handbook say that besides them, there were also unregistered ones: according to their estimates, there were about 2000 women‘s organizations in Russia 15. What kind of organization were they? Centers were the most popular form, followed by committees and clubs; associations, initiatives, and foundations were less common, and sometimes, institutions, projects, departments, and sections. "These organizations cover a wide range of political activities, ranging from feminist research groups in St. Petersburg and Moscow to individual organizations such as women‘s crisis centers and domestic violence hotlines, to political parties such as Women of Russia” 16.

Centers, networks, and infrastructures

I would like to examine the  centers for gender studies that are directly engaged in the transfer, accumulation, and production of knowledge. However, these centers were also involved in the building of the missing infrastructure that would make it possible to organize networks and communities, consolidate efforts, provide information for the women‘s movement, the existence, and development of knowledge and its legitimization. In the  article "Gender studies in Russia — ten years" published in 2000, economist and gender researcher Zoya Khotkina discussed the development of gender studies, which captures broader trends and events at the level of high  politics, rather than mapping a complex and multidirectional development 17.

She describes the first stage, which lasted from the late ‘80s to 1992,  as a period of creation and introduction of a new scientific paradigm, which, as Gapova notes, was primarily engaged in by "academic" women from the capital cities" 18. Notable events that took place during this time include the First international conference on gender studies in Moscow in 1990, which was organized by UNESCO; the First and Second independent women‘s forums in Dubna in 1991 and 1992. The first forum started the meeting of women from different Russian regions and other countries and the creation of the Women‘s information network, which was gradually updated with information on existing women‘s organizations in Russia and several post-Soviet countries  19. The second forum was aimed at developing a strategy that could be undertaken by  women‘s organizations 20.

The second stage, from 1993 to 1995, is associated with an increasing quantity  of gender centers: with the new ones opening in Ivanovo and Karelia regions as well as other places , and with the official registration of existing ones, for example, those in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 1995,  the fourth UN world conference “On Women” the  women  was held in Beijing. The Russian delegation took part in it, and in 1996, the Ministry of Education introduced a new program "Feminology" in some Russian universities, implementing the Beijing strategy 21. Not always, but still with some regularity, so-called "feminological studies" programs appeared in curriculums of some universities. Political scientist and gender researcher Elena Kochkina describes those programs  "the first fundamental political divide in the former USSR" between gender and feminological studies. "If gender studies held critical political positions regarding the situation of gender discrimination in all spheres of society, feminologists rather limited themselves to an objective statement of "gender differences" and refrained from criticizing the government and the direction of reforms" 22. Among the key problems of this stage, Khotkina notes the isolation of scientific work in different gender centers and weak connections between those who worked in this field.

The third stage, from 1996 to 1998 is described  as consolidating. It is during these two years that such kinds of work and collaboration as summer schools took place. First emerging schools were Russian summer schools for women and gender studies (RSSGS). They were organised in 1996-1998  by the Moscow Center for Gender Studies (MCGS) and universities from Russian regions, with the financial support of the Ford Foundation. And then, from 1997 to 2009, the Kharkiv Center for Gender Studies (KCGS), with the support of the MacArthur Foundation, conducted summer schools in Foros, which were aimed at the interaction of gender and feminist researchers from all over the post-Soviet space 23. Another important initiative of the KCGS of the same period was the launch of the journal "Gender studies". It was the only transnational professional magazine in the post-Soviet space at that time 24. These and other initiatives, as Elena Kochkina notes, formed "a certain network connection around the MCGS, and later-around two more organizations: the KCGS and the Gender program of the European University in St. Petersburg" 25. Also, I would add the center for gender studies at the European University for the Humanities, which was first located in Minsk, and then, in 2004, was expelled from Belarus and moved to Vilnius. KCGS, EU, and EUH operate to this day.

The fourth stage, which began in 1998 and did not end by the time of writing the periodization in 2000, is designated as a stage of activation of work aimed at legitimation and dissemination of gender studies within Academia. However, it is at the beginning of 2000 that there was a pronounced political turn, which was  noted in various articles by researchers and activists. I tracked these changes in three ways:

— legislation in the field of gender equality,

— legislation on non-governmental organizations,

— the statements and initiatives of the officials,

And then tried to understand how the restriction infrastructure was created for those whose activities did not fit into the general political and ideological lines. I capture the period from 1993 so we can see the stage when the state created new formal foundations for its existence and, following the democratic trend, was forced to re-form the external normative order of gender relations 26, and until 2017 when one of the last edits to the legislation on foreign non-profit organizations was adopted. Here I would like to move on to a collage of facts, or political evidence, that tells the story as clear as a coherent academic text usually does.

Sad timeline

1993: Decree of the President of the Russian Federation "On Priority Tasks of State Policy about Women".

1995: the "Women of Russia" faction disappeared from the State Duma.

1996: Presidential Decree "On Enhancing the Role of Women in the System of Federal Bodies of State Power and Bodies of State Power of Subjects of the Russian Federation".

1996: Adoption by the Russian Parliament of the "Concept of Legislative Activity to Ensure Equal Rights and Equal Opportunities for Men and Women".

1996: Adoption of the National Action Plan for the Advancement of Women and Their Role in Society, designed for 1996-2000 27.

2001: Adoption of the National Action Plan for the Advancement of Women and Their Role in Society, for 2001-2005.

the beginning of the 00s: "Numerous committees and commissions — the only government structures for ensuring gender equality by the requirements of international treaties and conventions, which in the 90s had mainly Advisory and coordinating functions " 28.

2002: "The Government of the Russian Federation has revised the political component of free technical assistance programs, especially those aimed at democratization and building civil society, freedom of speech and the media, and human rights "29

March 2004: Abolition of the Interdepartmental Commission for the Advancement of Women, an authority  whose functions included gender equality policies.

2004: Decrease in financial aid for gender oriented initiatives — out of 98 donors, only 10 donors had special women/gender/feminist programs.

January 2006: the Federal law "On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation" was Signed. It introduces several new requirements for public associations, non-profit organizations, and foreign non-governmental non-profit organizations. These new requirements limit the number of persons who can create and finance organizations in the Russian Federation, expand the grounds on which registration can be refused, and strengthen the state's control over organizations 30.

2006: "The Amount of funding for gender projects by Western donors has decreased by 10 times compared to 2003" 31.

February 2006: United Russia Party took the Union of women of Russia under its wing, re-elected its chairman (E. F. Lakhova was elected as the new chairman), and merged two competing for pre-existing structures — the Movement of women of Russia and the Union of women of Russia 32.

May 2006:Message from President Vladimir Putin to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation: "And now about the main thing. What's the most important thing? That's right. The Ministry of defense knows that we have the most important thing. It will be about love, about women, about children. About family. About the most acute problem of modern Russia – demography".

November 2008: The Second all-Russian women's Congress, initiated by Natalia Dmitrieva, Chairwoman Of the Committee for the Consolidation of the women's movement in Russia33. "The refrain was that 100 years have passed since the First Congress, and nothing has happened over these years, but we will do everything now. N. Dmitrieva and her supporters hold the position that there is no need to talk about women's rights (since this egoistic position is outdated), and today women should talk about what they can and should give to Russia; that it is necessary to strengthen the traditional family and revive Russian spiritual and moral values. In their opinion, the main task of Congress is to "establish" the all-Russian women's movement, which will unite all women's NGOs in one organization" 34.

July 2012: The Federal Law "On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation in Terms of Regulating the Activities of Non-profit Organizations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent" was Signed35.The law introduces two new key concepts: foreign agent and political activity of NGOs: by this law, the status of a foreign agent is granted to Russian non-profit organizations (NPOs) that engage in "political activity" on the territory of the Russian Federation, and that receive "funds and other property from foreign states, international and foreign organizations, foreign citizens and stateless persons".

May 2015: The Federal Law "On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation "36 or the law on undesirable foreign and international organizations in Russia was signed. In agreement with the Russian Foreign Ministry, the authorities will be able to prohibit the activities of undesirable organizations on the territory of Russia. The decision will be made by the Prosecutor General or his deputies. For carrying out activities on the territory of the Russian Federation of an undesirable organization, if these actions do not contain a criminal act, a fine is established.

July 2015: The Federation Council presented its list of 12 potential "undesirable organizations" of a precautionary nature. The list includes the International Republican Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Eastern European Centre for Multiparty Democracy, the Education for Democracy Foundation, the Ukrainian world coordinating Council, Ukrainian World Congress, Crimean Field Mission on Human Rights, Open Society Foundations, the MacArthur Foundation, and Freedom House.

May 2016: "We have removed many of these international organizations in Russia so that, excuse me, we don't get what we have in Ukraine today"— Ekaterina Lakhova, chairwoman of the Women’s Union of Russia said at the International forum of women leaders" Equal opportunities for a better future" in Minsk about foreign funds and how she stopped the introduction of sex education in Russian schools37

March 2017: The Federal Law according to which foreign or international non-profit organizations (NPOs) whose activities are considered undesirable on the territory of the Russian Federation will not be able to create legal entities in Russia was signed. The legislation in force at that time prohibited undesirable NPOs from creating structural divisions in Russia, but it did not prohibit them from creating Russian legal entities. The new law fills this gap and creates a "new consequence of the recognition of undesirable activities of foreign or international NGOs on the territory of the Russian Federation" in the form of a ban on the creation of legal entities38

Thus, if we try to summarize all this, we can say that when considering the history of the emergence and institutionalization of gender studies, we should not lose sight of their connection with foundations, governments, and missions interested in the development of liberal democracy in the post-Soviet space in the early '90s. However, it would be unfair to reduce the entire genealogy to Western support and the interests of "foreign agents": firstly, before their appearance in the region, there were already self-organized groups of researchers and activists; secondly, the provision of financial and material assistance does not create clones of their donors. The network of women's organizations and centers of gender studies that emerged in the 90s became a precedent: there was a women's movement, a new discourse, new educational programs. However, in the noughties, along with a gradual conservative turn, the metamorphosis of some old women's organizations and the emergence of new pseudo-feminist initiatives that used the gender agenda only to consolidate the traditionalist discourse about the role of women for the family, country, and nation began. Calls for a demographic boom have been growing from officials, and legislation on NGOs and foreign agents, hardly initially intended to destroy the critical gender community, has somehow affected it and cut off existing sources of funding. In this context, it seems to me politically significant to analyze the work of the predecessor and what prevented it.

Nastya Dmitrievskaya is an artist, organiser and independent researcher based in Vyazniki, Russia. Her interests include feminist and queer perspectives on invisible labour in conjunction with infrastructure construction and maintenance as a part of knowledge-production. She also uses an infrastructural and feminist perspectives to interrogate right-wing politics in post-Soviet space. As an artist and organiser she has held multiple conferences as well as other events. She is a co-founder of Kafe-Morozhenoe, a media-aсtivist group questioning working conditions in art, academia and activism in post-Soviet space. She is also a curator of ‘Labor’ section on sygma. media platform.

Translation into English done by Angela Sileva

[1] Gapova E. The class question of post-Soviet feminism, or the distraction of the oppressed from the revolutionary struggle, 2007 // Gender studies #15. http://kcgs.net.ua/gurnal/15/04.pdf

[2] Ibid.

[3] Makhotina N. Library censorship in Russia: to the historiography of the issue, 2010.


[4] Janine Wedel, Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Aid to Eastern Europe, 2001; Sarah Mendelson and John Glenn, The Power and Limits of NGOs: A Critical Look at Building Democracy in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, 2002; Jude Howell and Jenny Pearce, Civil Society and Development: A Critical Exploration, 2001.

[5] Gapova, 2007.

[6] Wedel J. Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Aid to Eastern Europe, 2001.

[7] Aksartova S. Why NGOs? How American Donors Embraced Civil Society After the Cold War? 2006: “The end of the Cold War made civil society the central idea of the 1990s. Its rise was prompted by the events in Eastern Europe, whose intellectuals, such as Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Adam Michnik in Poland, were the first to describe the decline of socialism in their countries as the triumph of civil society over the totalitarian state”.


[8] Aksartova, 2006.

[9] Hansen G. Constituencies for Reform: Strategic Approaches for Donor-Supported Civic Advocacy Groups, USAID Program, and Operations Assessment Report No. 12 (PN-ABS-534), Washington, DC: USAID, 1996

[10] Aksartova, 2006.

[11] LeGendre P. The NonProfit Sector in Russia, CAF/Russia, 1997

[12] Abubikirova N., Klimenkova T., Kochkina E., Regentova M. Women's organizations in Russia today // Women's non-governmental organizations of Russia and the CIS, 1998.


[13] Ibid. This is interestingly supplemented by the remark of E. Gapova about how the Russian language has a gender: it was "coined by "academic" women of the capital cities that have begun to reformulate meaningful to them, but not in the USSR "women's issue", created the first feminist groups and are authors of a new discourse."

[14] Henderson S. Importing Civil Society: Foreign Aid and the Women's Movement in Russia, 2000.


[15] Handbook, 1998.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Khotkina Z. Ten years of gender studies in Russia, 2000.


[18] Gapova, 2007. Also about the development of feminist ideas, new associations, and reformulation of the "women's issue" during Perestroika, see, for example, E. Zdravomyslova. Perestroika and feminism, 2013. Grunel M. State of the Art. Women’s Studies in Russia. An Interview with Anastasia Posadskaya-Vanderbeck, 1997.

[19] For more information about the First forum:


[20] For more information about the Second forum:


[21] Later, the discipline became known as "Feminology and genderology "and became part of the educational program in the direction of "Social work".

[22] Kochkina E. Gender studies in Russia: from fragments to critical reinterpretation of political strategies, 2007.


[23] For more information: http://kcgs.net.ua/shkola/

[24] All issues of the magazine from 1998 to 2010:


[25] Kochkina, 2007.

[26] Aivazova, 2007.

[27] "Neither the first nor the second National plans for the advancement of women were directly funded from the state budget". Aivazova, 2007. Interestingly, the same situation was observed in Belarus in 2012.

[28] Aivazova, 2007.

[29] Kochkina, 2007.

[30] For more information in Russian:

https://rg.ru/2006/01/17/nko-poryadok-dok.html ; in English: http://www.icnl.org/research/journal/vol8iss3/special_1.htm

[31] Kochkina, 2007.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Information site of the Congress see here: http://agora.guru.ru/display.php?conf=women-2008&page=item027&PHPSESSID=b10009051f047acd7d9aa5f6980d136d

[34] Voronina O. The Congress will eat everyone. Features of Russian women's self-awareness at the stage of sovereign democracy, 2008. http://kcgs.net.ua/gurnal/18/20.pdf; Also about the Congress: Gapova E. Results of the Congress: once again about the class project of post-Soviet feminism, 2009.

[35] For more information in Russian:


[36] For more information in Russian:


[37] An interview with E. Lakhova in the Sputnik, 2016.


[38] Putin approved a ban on the creation of undesirable foreign NGOs of legal entities in the Russian Federation, 2017.