What happened to democracy in 2020? We ask our contributors

When I was making the digest in 2019, I was really shocked by the scale of the development of the modern Russian feminist movement. I thought the digest…

When I was making the digest in 2019, I was really shocked by the scale of the development of the modern Russian feminist movement. I thought the digest would contain a couple dozen events, but it turned out that there are almost 40 of them in Moscow alone. There are many more events throughout Russia, and they are very diverse in content: meetings, lectures, discussions, film screenings, self-awareness groups and various therapeutic groups, workshops (for example, creating zines, posters), workshops on various art forms, get-togethers with an educational programme. Feminist activists also held entire feminist festivals, for example, FemDay in Samara, RIOT GIRL FEST in Murmansk or FemBayram in Ufa. Some events were long-distance (for example, the “It’s not my fault” music festival dedicated to the problem of violence against women, or the actions of the SotsFemAlternative group), which shows that there are feminist networks of mutual assistance and co-organisation in Russia.

Feminist activism in modern Russia is, of course, very unstable. On the one hand, it is developing with almost no monetary support. Internal funding opportunities are still minimal, while external funding is limited by the law on foreign agents. Basically, what happens in different cities relies completely on the goodwill of activists, what they do in their free time. In this context, institutional support becomes very important. Usually these are some kind of cafes, libraries, cultural venues, underground galleries, even bakeries, where activists can organise meetings and events for free. It is very difficult for a movement to develop without these kind of places.

Feminists continue to consolidate around topics that have been discussed in the movement for a long time. This is primarily domestic and sexual violence and, in general, the problem of women’s safety in our society. It has been discussed before, but it sounds especially loud today against the background of discussions on a new bill against domestic violence.

In connection with the criminal case against the artist and theatrical director Yulia Tsvetkova, this year the conversation about creative freedom and feminist art has come to the fore again. (Yulia faces up to six years in prison for publishing images of naked people and vaginas in her body-positive group on the VKontakte social media site.) But this, in fact, is not a new topic for the Russian feminist movement. Women’s interest in art, feminist art and female self-expression has been growing throughout the 2010s, since the first performances by Pussy Riot and the Feminist Pencil exhibitions. In 2014-2015 in Russia, there was a surge of feminist exhibitions, and according to my observations, these events continue to be held. For example, just before the lockdown in March, Volgograd hosted the FEMART festival of Volgograd women’s* art. I wonder why it is feminist art that has become such an important topic in the Russian context – there are probably reasons for this.

Of course, the development of feminist activism is greatly influenced by the general political atmosphere Russian – for example, legislation. Moreover, according to my observations, this isn’t about new laws, but about whether real investigations are conducted under these new criminal statutes.

In 2018, Russia’s Investigative Committee opened an extremism case against Omsk feminist activist Lyubov Kalugina for her posts and messages on social networks. (The case was dropped for lack of evidence that a crime had been committed). In 2019, the authorities began to investigate Anna Dvornichenko from Rostov-on-Don, who ran a gender studies club at the Southern Federal University and organised a LGBT meeting there. Anna was threatened by local Cossack communities and the counter-extremism police, and as a result had to leave Russia. Finally, we have the fresh case of Yulia Tsvetkova from Komsomolsk-on-Amur, who is accused of both gay propaganda and pornography. The last two cases are directly related to the fact that feminism is close to LGBT activism. I see that these investigations have influenced the tactics of feminist activists. In some cities, they begin to avoid the topic of LGBT rights and ask their supporters, for example, not to bring posters on LGBT themes to feminist rallies, so as not to put participants and organisers in a difficult position.

Of course, amid the pandemic, many activists had to curtail almost all of their offline work. But not all projects were closed – and even new ones appeared, for example, the Fortress crisis centre in Moscow. It was set up by libertarian feminists from the feminist fraction of Mikhail Svetov’s civil society project. The work of the centre has provoked a lot of discussions among people who are involved in helping victims of domestic violence (including because of the connection with Svetov), ​​but its very appearance, it seems to me, is important.

Many feminist initiatives have moved online during the pandemic. For example, the Perm festival We-fest, which has been held for several years, took place online this year (in November). New forms of online activism and activist (self) education have also appeared, various online reading groups, platforms for gender research, mutual support groups. In general, the movement lives and develops, and I think that in the coming years it will only grow – as well as interest in the gender agenda in general.

For all these reasons, feminism in Russia remains rather volatile and situational. Comparing my feminist digests of 2019 and 2020, the map of Russian feminism has changed a lot. New groups have sprung up, previous ones have become less active, their blogs have ceased to show signs of life. Feminists in Russia are in no hurry to register their organisations, because it can only bring them problems. Informal alliances break up due to burnout or internal conflicts (of which there are a lot in this nervous environment). The movement is not developing evenly, and there is no reason to think that it will stabilise in the near future.

“The pandemic has transformed people’s experience of politics”

Adam Ramsay, openDemocracy editor

(c) Peter Byrne/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved

To understand what people think about democracy, I think it’s useful to ask people what they think about a synonym for it: politics. And to get a better handle on this, I spent February wandering around central Europe. The most revealing comment I heard all year was actually said by two different people. One was a young man, a truck driver, outside a bar in Mukachevo, western Ukraine, on a snowy night in February: “we need a whole new political system.” Then another person, a man I first met in 2004 in Appalachian Tennessee, used exactly the same words to describe the US when I called him up this summer. And that is the consensus view of politics across the western world.

What’s striking, though, is that this belief is most strongly held in Britain. Research company Edelman produces an annual trust barometer on 35 states. The two countries that came bottom in 2020 in terms of public trust towards institutions were the UK and Russia. That same study showed that 60% of people surveyed in the UK, and 70% of the wealthy and educated, think “democracy is losing its effectiveness as a form of government”.

In the 2019 election, Boris Johnson actively channelled this anti-political energy against democracy. His response to this lack of belief in politics, and the processes of politics, was to say: well, why don’t you just leave it up to people like me, the ruling class, to decide everything – and get politics out of your life. This sentiment is encapsulated by the slogan “Get Brexit done”, which was, I think, a work of political genius in the sense that it tapped into deep feelings of resentment and fatigue.

But then the pandemic arrives. And it has transformed people’s experience of politics – from this abstract TV show that takes place in central London, to something that directly relates to the daily reality of their lives. In its neoliberal version, politics is a sort of theatrical performance of power and a few buildings where real power is exercised – but now in the UK it’s starting to change into an actual conversation about how we live together. People began to look very closely at the systems and processes governing the UK, and found them, unsurprisingly, deeply wanting – the COVID cronyism scandal is just one of them. And this has tapped into anger against the ruling class: oh wait, you’re just running this all? In order to get Brexit done, we didn’t really mean that you could run everything, including solving the pandemic together with your mates.

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