Have ‘Feministka’ Artists Made Progress in Russia Today?
Posted by: Joan Braderman
The following is an edited excerpt from Jo Anna Isaak’s article, “Reflections of Resistance: Women Artists on Both Sides of the Mir” that appeared in a Russian/English issue of Heresies/IdiomA in the 1980s..
IdiomA was the first Russian feminist art magazine. In the Russian language ‘a’ indicates the feminine gender of nouns. Feminine nouns and most personal names for women end in ‘a’ (Irina, Natalya, Natasha) or are formed by adding ‘a’ to masculine names (Alexandr/Alexandra; Yevgeny/Yevgenya).
Many feminine diminutives in Russian are derogatory. Baba, depending on the context, can mean “grandmother,” “peasant woman,” or simply “old woman,” but is also a slang term used in a demeaning or humorous manner by males for adult females in general. Feministka (feminist) is a word very few Russian women would call themselves; it is frequently used as a term of abuse.
In an interview, the prominent Russian writer Tatyana Tolstaya claimed that feminism was really a consequence of the commonplace habit in the West of thinking in terms of stereotypes. “You know what feminists invented? They invented the idea of phallocracy – that the world is bad because it is ruled by men. That is completely ridiculous because, for example, England is ruled by a woman.” Tolstaya speaks from within the limitations of essentialist thought, and her statements reveal both the limitations and the sexisms inherent in construing femininity in these terms. The fact that her opinions are similar to those that would be expressed by the least informed and most unsympathetic members of our society gives us some indication of how widespread the misgivings and misunderstandings are about feminism.
The artist Natalya Nesterova was reluctant to be included in an all-women’s art exhibition. She clearly felt the need to distance herself from the category of ‘woman artist:’ “I haven’t got a high esteem for female artists, apart from a few exceptions. Men happen to be more intelligent. Professions that require a lot of wit and intelligence should be done by men, and art is as much a matter of the mind as it is of the heart.” When asked about herself, she said, “Me, I am an exception.” In spite of such statements, Nesterova is not at all an unsympathetic woman. She wants only the right to forget herself as a woman, but her own comments reveal that to do so she must participate in exclusion or negation of women. Nesterova is a highly favored, official artist. Her views are commonplace among the few women who have achieved prominence within male- dominated institutions; the cost of their success can be read in such denigrations of their own sex.
Ironically, Soviet women can be the strongest proponents of male chauvinism. Galina Starovoytova was the only woman in Boris Yeltsin’s administration. Rather than see herself as a forerunner for the equitable participation of women in politics, she repeatedly refers to herself as if she were an aberration, saying that women have no place in political life, thereby making her presence as nonthreatening to her male colleagues as possible and deterring other women from entering the political arena. At the same time, there were many highly politicized Soviet women who, while being very supportive of their female colleagues, would resist being categorized as ‘women artists’ or ‘women writers’ and would not accept the terms of our American feminist debates. Their resistance is grounded in a complex post-revolutionary and postwar intellectual history.
Natalya Nesterova, Patience, 1995, oil on canvas, 31½ x 51¼ in. Courtesy of Christies