There is no point in trying to write a funny article about 8 March, International Women’s Day in Russia. That’s because the funniest article about it has already been written – in 2008, by one Dmitry Artemyev, a contributor to Russia’s APN (Agency Political News) website whose byline listed his credentials succinctly as ‘Orthodox Christian.’
Artemyev’s approach to Women’s Day was done in a style I like to characterise as ‘Orthodox Taliban.’ Everything offended Artemyev about the day, including its socialist roots, but he was particularly incensed by the idea that the holiday somehow celebrated women’s terrifying, mysterious bodies. Proving that Poe’s Law – that a parody of extremism or fundamentalism is indistinguishable from extremism or fundamentalism itself – also holds true in reverse, Artemyev declared that the flowers, which Russian women traditionally receive on this day, are symbolic of sex organs. Taking his argument to its natural conclusion, he wrote that the champagne traditionally drunk on this day is symbolic of ejaculation.
The flowers, which Russian women traditionally receive on this day, are symbolic of sex organs
Back in 2008, the Russian internet erupted with joy upon reading Artemyev’s essay. The comments section (which has not, unfortunately, been preserved, but I remember it as though it were yesterday) was a free-for-all. People asked Artemyev if he manages to go outside at all – what with cracks in the pavement also referencing sex organs. How ludicrous, everyone said. What a sad little man.
Back when religious fanatics in Russia were just a bunch of clowns driving stakes through Madonna effigies, and otherwise entertaining liberal journalists – as opposed to being a scary repression tool of pro-Kremlin forces, it was okay to laugh at them. This was before the show trial of Pussy Riot, and a controversial law banning insults to ‘religious feelings’; a law that has already resulted in censorship, with the director of a Wagner opera now facing trial in Novosibirsk for offending local clergy, for example.
In the last seven years, Russia has swung resolutely into a kind of reactionary conservatism, carving out a separate identity for itself, an identity that it sees as an antithesis to ‘scary, gay, godless Europe.’ People like Artemyev are no longer on the periphery of public discourse (though the author himself seems to have disappeared, or simply switched to a different pen name).
Today, the idea of Women’s Day eventually being declared ‘sinful’ and banned doesn’t seem like the bizarre paranoid fantasy it once was. Since the government has begun to function in lockstep with Russia’s religious believers there’s no telling where it will all end up years down the line.
Today, the idea of Women’s Day eventually being declared ‘sinful’ and banned doesn’t seem like the bizarre paranoid fantasy it once was.
Women’s Day through the ages
International Women’s Day has a pedigree in Russia that stretches back over a century, though its significance has changed drastically over the years. The holiday itself was founded back in 1909, by the Socialist Party of America, and was meant to commemorate an earlier strike by women garment workers. Famous female socialists, such as Clara Zetkin (whose legacy became particularly popular in the Soviet Union) later supported the notion of holding a Women’s Day every year. The holiday was first observed in Russia in 1913. In February 1917, the celebration of Women’s Day in then-Tsarist Russia is sometimes referred to as a kind of ‘precursor’ to the Revolution which occurred later that year – as women workers in St Petersburg went on strike to demand both an end to the First World War, in which Russia suffered devastating losses, and an end to tsarism.
Tulips in Russia are said to look like sex organs. Image by Ramil Sitdikov via VisualRIAN. (C)
The holiday was made an official Soviet holiday in 1966. 8 March became one of those heavily officious, earnestly celebrated holidays in the Soviet Union. The fall of the Soviet Union would see it become a much more frivolous – but perhaps no less earnest – affair. The emphasis has shifted. Hardly anyone talks about women workers on 8 March in Russia. Instead, women’s beauty and maternal qualities are more readily referenced (unless, of course you’re a religious zealot).
Today, at least one analytical piece about how Women’s Day is celebrated in modern Russia comes out every year. The piece follows a standard formula: the author declares that Women’s Day is a holiday that has lost its way. That it is now a bit like a pink power tool – a commercialised, heavily gendered event. That it used to be about celebrating women workers and now merely celebrates consumerist notions of femininity, a kind of post-Soviet, sexist Valentine’s Day for dumb broads who don’t know any better than to participate in their own oppression.
I find this line of reasoning irritating, because I think it misses the point. There is actually nothing wrong with celebrating ‘traditional’ femininity (which is itself a fluid concept that changes depending on the agenda of the day) – just as there is nothing wrong with celebrating traditional masculinity, which Russia does every 23 February, on Defender of the Fatherland Day. This is a ‘men’s holiday’ that has undergone a similar metamorphosis, from a celebration of men who have served in the armed forces to a celebration of men in general – and all of their useful masculine qualities (such as being able to move a couch, or something).
The problem is with the toxic cultural static that surrounds both 8 March and 23 February.
The problem is with the toxic cultural static that surrounds both 8 March and 23 February – a culture that, for example, dictates that a woman is not a ‘real woman’ if she is not a mother; or that a man is not a ‘real man’ if he hasn’t shot a gun in his life (an idea that is particularly disturbing at a time when Russian men are heading to Donbas to fight with Ukraine’s rebels).
It is not only Russia’s religious right that takes issue with the holiday. Western academics in particular love to look down their noses at Russian performative hyperfeminity and hypermasculinity. Yet they often forget that Russia generally has a culture that loves exaggeration, spectacle, and raw power (as opposed to subtle power). Exaggerated gender roles are a product of that, I would argue. It’s reductive to examine them without taking a broader look at Russian society.
Ideas of femininity and masculinity in Russia also differ by class. Relatively well-off urbanites treat Women’s Day with a great deal of irony. For them, it’s a holiday that was beloved by their mothers, and annoyingly strict Soviet teachers. It’s a bit unfashionable to celebrate it in earnest – as unfashionable as wearing a huge fur coat that goes down to one’s ankles with a giant mink hat on top.
In the same fashion, Defender of the Fatherland Day is not celebrated un-ironically in Russia’s younger or wealthier circles, not least as the wealthier you are, the easier it is to avoid conscription.
It is urbanites who set the trends, however, which is part of the reason why both 8 March and 23 February have changed over the years, accentuating gender roles more than they used to, becoming more consumer-oriented, etc. It’s not just sexism that is driving these changes – it is the continuing shift to an urban lifestyle in Russia. And as villages and small towns continue to empty out, the culture begins to shift.
Russia’s religious revival – or, more accurately, the social demand to appear religious – is also playing a role, though once again, patriarchal religious leanings mean that 8 March is more negatively affected than 23 February.
I’ve heard more religious Russians I know, mutter these days that 8 March is ‘too secular’, or else a ‘product of the atheist Soviet Union,’ and ‘isn’t it much better to celebrate the Virgin Mary instead.’
A lot of people have begun to associate 8 March with spring. ‘Happy Spring!’ the e-cards arrive in my inbox with regularity. ‘Enjoy this holiday of beauty and awakening nature! Hope your menfolk spoil you with flowers and candy!’
The celebration of spring in conjunction with 8 March strikes me as a bit pagan – which actually fits quite nicely with the revival of monotheistic religions in Russia, because pagan traditions actually thrive quite nicely alongside them. Maslenitsa, the ritual of burning winter’s effigy ahead of Lent, is not based on anything in the Bible – but that doesn’t stop devout Orthodox Russians from enthusiastically taking part in it. And that’s just one example among many.
A chance for dialogue
Women’s Day has undoubtedly turned into a silly holiday over the years, but then again, I also find the hand-wringing over it to be silly. I’ve grown tired of sneering comments like ‘Don’t those Russian women know they’re being objectified by the pink flowers and candy’. Especially because I happen to believe that Russian women, particularly working-class Russian women, are the ultimate survivalists – juggling career and housework for generations; and survivalists are entitled to their silly holidays, be they slightly consumerist, or slightly pagan, or a bit of both.
Often, discussion of Russian women in the Western press follows the same lazy logic as its discussion of Muslim women. The central theme of ‘Some Russian women wear lipstick and high-heels: discuss’ is as patronising as the question ‘some Muslim women wear hijab: discuss’.
In the current political climate, where the British government now advises its (male) employees to steer clear of Russian women – lest they turn out to be evil spies – discussion of Russian femininity has taken on new, unpleasant dimensions.
Russia’s slightly tacky celebration of 8 March is the canary in the coalmine.
As silly as 8 March might be, it would be a very bad sign if Russians stop celebrating it en masse. It would mean that the extremists are winning. Russia’s slightly tacky celebration of 8 March is the canary in the coalmine. The last line of defence. The line in the sand.
Remember this, in years to come. Forget what Russian politicians say. As long as Russian women make themselves lush, gorgeous and sexy (according to some slightly preoccupied Western writers) on 8 March; as long as flowers are freely exchanged along with expensive bottles of champagne that seem to explode in ecstasy at the merest touch, there is always a chance for dialogue with Russia.
Standfirst image: 8th March card in Russian. Image by Berna Namoglu via Shutterstock (c).