Russia's 'derby grrls' are upending gender politics


As the Russian state continues its conservative turn, could this fringe sport push back against the country’s gender politics? на русском языке


Ulrike Ziemer
23 July 2015

In recent years, St Petersburg has emerged as a cradle of conservative politics, with Petersburg politicians such as Vitaly Milonov proposing the ‘homosexual propaganda’ law, and an enduring association with far-right politics and hate crimes.

Thus the arrival of roller derby—a women’s sport inclusive of all sexual identities—to the city on the Neva seems all the more puzzling.

White Night Furies

Just like many other women across the world, Zhanna, the founder and captain of The White Night Furies, Russia’s very first roller derby team, encountered the sport by accident.

In 2013, Zhanna’s girlfriend at the time, Kat, brought up the idea of setting up a roller derby team in Petersburg. Kat had discovered roller derby via friends in Iceland and, during a subsequent stay in Belgium, decided to join a roller derby team. When Zhanna watched a roller derby match online for the first time, her first reaction was: ‘Oh my God, they’re trying to kill each other’.

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The White Night Furies training with Kallio Roller Derby in Helsinki, their mentor league.

But after the initial shock at its physicality, and with the help of the online roller derby community, Zhanna fell in love with the sport, eventually setting up a team in Russia’s former capital.

Created in 1935 by entertainment promoter Leo Seltzer, roller derby was originally envisioned as an endurance game.

A decade later, the sport had become widespread. By the 1970s, though, roller derby was more like a roller wrestling competition. Its popularity then started to fade. However, in 2001, a small group of women in Texas revived roller derby as a volunteer-run, all-girl operated team sport.

Rejuvenated on the backbone of third-wave feminism, roller derby is one of the fastest growing female full-contact team sports in the world. According to the Roller Derby Flat Track Stats there are currently more than 3,000 registered teams in the world: with 2,069 in the USA, 760 in Europe, 362 in Canada, 288 in Australia, and 216 in Latin America.

Roller derby is one of the fastest growing female full-contact team sports in the world.

Played on roller skates, roller derby is organised according to a not-for-profit and do-it-yourself ethos. The sport was founded by women, for women, and is inclusive of sexual minorities. Increasingly, men are also playing the sport (there are currently 258 registered men’s teams around the world).

As has been noted by many commentators, ‘derby grrrls’ are pushing the boundaries of gender as they negotiate pleasure, pain, and power relations.

Skaters often talk about how they get knocked down and bruised, only to get back up again: this is how they celebrate their sporting femininities.

Jammers, blockers and pivots

A large body of feminist work argues that sport is a place for undermining gender inequality. Sport can provide women with experiences that ‘empower’, ‘heal’ and ‘transform’ them as individuals and, more broadly, challenge cultural norms relating to women and femininity.

Roller derby has thus re-emerged as a gender space for self-transformation, belonging and embodied contest. The rules of the game, in short, are as follows: there are five players per team – three blockers, one pivot and one jammer.

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The White Night Furies training on Palace Square, St Petersburg.

On the whistle, play begins with the blockers from both teams skating in a mixed formation known as the ‘pack’, in a counter-clockwise direction. The two jammers start behind the pack and must try to get through and out of the pack to the other side – the first to do so earns ‘lead jammer’ status.

While jammers try to chase down the pack and work their way through, blockers from each team try to get their jammer through while preventing the opposing jammer. Jammers score points for every skater they pass on the opposing team, starting from the second time they get through the pack. Within two 30-minute halves, each jam lasts two minutes or until called off by the lead jammer.

Even for the uninitiated or the non-sports enthusiast, roller derby can be intoxicating from the moment they enter the sports hall to watch a game.

When the first jam starts, jammers hurtle around the duct-taped oval track so fast that the crowd can almost hear a ‘whoosh’. Blockers on the track work together, lock arms, communicate, and use their hips and shoulders to keep the opposing team’s jammer from getting past them.

When one jammer gets through the blockers, this is the moment when the crowd in the sports hall becomes rapturous.

Often, as if out of nowhere, a jammer breaks through the seemingly solid wall of blockers. The seemingly underdog status of the jammer – one woman up against a ‘brutal’ and ‘aggressive’ pack – keeps the fans on the edge of their seats.

The most courageous fans can even sit in the so-called ‘suicide seats’ located on the edge of the track. In short, any newcomer to the sport will be surprised by the athleticism of those skating women in such a highly strategic and physically demanding game.

Record breakers

Russia’s recent record on gender equality and feminism leaves much to be desired. How then should the arrival of roller derby as a physically demanding and ‘risky’ sport, one that transcends ideas of traditional femininity, be understood in terms of Russia’s current gender politics?

To answer this question, we need to consider Russia’s past in light of its present.

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White Night Furies training on Palace Square, St Petersburg.

For instance, Russian sociologists Anna Temkina and Elena Zdravomyslova highlight the evolving reaction to the legacy of Soviet gender politics: how the hypocritical policy of gender equality transformed traditional patriarchy, with its naturalisation of gender roles, into an appealing alternative.

When the Soviet Union was formed in 1922, gender equality was introduced from above. Women received the right to vote, and were encouraged to study and work in any profession they chose. Nurseries and kindergartens were set up to allow women to combine full-time work with child-care.

However, in 1936, once the Soviet government realised the coming demographic problem, it prohibited abortions and initiated a political discourse, which reduced women to their ‘natural role’ as mothers, creating a double burden for most women.

Even today, President Putin is very fond of publicising motherhood as the highest achievement for women while presenting himself to the wider public as a macho, bare-chested, gun-toting man.

For example, a greater responsibility has been placed on women as the nation’s child-bearers through pro-maternity policies, such as the 2007 ‘maternity capital’ policy offering financial incentives for mothers who choose to raise a second or third child. Feminists have criticised this programme, stressing its gender insensitivity, inefficiency, and the economic consequences of siphoning women out of the labour market. The current government, it should be noted, has persistently attempted to tighten Russia’s abortion laws.

President Putin is very fond of publicising motherhood as the highest achievement for women

However, despite Putin’s stellar popularity ratings, not every woman (or man for that matter) is willing to agree carte blanche with his policies.

In fact, a survey conducted by the Russian Levada Centre this year showed that 66% of Russians thought that an abortion is a private decision and that the government should not interfere. Only 20% of respondents thought that the government should control this matter.

Whereas the state continues to promote traditional family values, it does not seem to strengthen the rights of women in the domestic sphere. Instead, for many women, domestic violence still figures in their daily lives.

Indeed, data on domestic violence in Russia from 2013 presents a very grim picture: official figures show that, in a single year, 12,000 women died as a result of domestic violence in Russia. In addition, there were 36,000 reported cases of domestic violence directed against women.

Third-wave feminism

But, perhaps in a reflection of the state’s conservative mood on gender, and despite the disturbing levels of violence against women, feminism in Russia is still largely rejected as a ‘western idea’.

While in western Europe and the United States, roller derby has appeared as part of a feminist celebration of women’s empowerment, putting its own stamp on society through regular media exposure, in Russia, roller derby has only featured in two online publications to date (here and here).


White Night Furies training in Helsinki.

One explanation for this under exposure is that, as an ideology, feminism has always fought for change—something that could easily be interpreted as a threat to the current male-dominated power hierarchy in Russia.

Another explanation relates to the fact that few core texts written by second-wave western feminist writers, such as Betty Friedan, have been translated into Russian, while key writers such as Simone de Beauvoir and other French second-wave feminists have not been translated at all. In this way, one could assume that, in the absence of a fully-fledged ‘second-wave feminism’, ‘third-wave feminism’ (of which roller derby is a part) is yet to truly resonate in Russian society and culture.

‘Third-wave feminism’ is yet to truly resonate in Russian society and culture.

However, this view is currently being challenged. Some commentators argue that the beginning of third-wave feminism has already emerged following the controversial ‘performance art’ of the punk girl band Pussy Riot in 2012.

Since the release of Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in December 2013, these young women have promised to continue fighting for women’s rights. Likewise, the emergence of roller derby in Russia could also be interpreted as a sign that third-wave feminism may be gaining momentum.

While third-wave feminism is hard to find in today’s Russia, gay rights issues are at the forefront of politics in Russia and the west. Since 2006, there have been regular bans on attempts to organise Gay Pride marches in Moscow, and even this year, little progress on this front has been made. In fact, most recently, United Russia activists created a ‘flag for straights’ to defend traditional family values and to oppose the LGBT Rainbow Campaign.

These developments serve as a reminder how contentious the public expression of same-sex sexuality remains in Russia. Just like feminism, ‘non-traditional’ sexualities have been mostly portrayed as ‘western’ lifestyles, which are alien to Russian traditions. The culmination of these tensions was manifested by the introduction of the 2013 law against the ‘propaganda’ of ‘non-traditional’ sexuality to minors. In January 2015, the state included transgender status on the list of medical restrictions for obtaining a driver’s licence, and operating a motor vehicle.

So, how can we explain the appearance of roller derby in Russia? Here, Putin’s conservative gender discourse may be helpful as an explanation. After all, roller derby is set up by women (whom official discourse pictures as the weaker sex): the sport is thus not perceived as an instant ‘alien’ feminist threat.

Sports scholar Ben Carrington argues that ‘sport has often had an assumed innocence as a space (in the imagination) and a place (as it physically manifests itself) which is removed from the everyday concerns of power, inequality, struggle and ideology’.

In this way, roller derby in Russia, exactly as in other parts of the world, can offer a space for transcendence and freedom, viewed as a free and fun-oriented space, rather than a place were traditional discriminative gender norms promoted by the government are followed and reinforced. As Zhanna told me: ‘Roller derby is for every woman who wants to play it. Roller derby is devoid of any kind of discrimination, it is all-inclusive.’

‘Roller derby is devoid of any kind of discrimination, it is all-inclusive.’

Nonetheless, to keep roller derby growing, Zhanna maintains that she needs to act within the framework of current politics.

She knows that she cannot expect any help from the current government in St Petersburg as ‘they are the ones who make our lives hard, they are the ones imposing laws that can stop roller derby from thriving. They are the ones reinforcing traditional gender norms and inequality. We cannot expect support from them.’

Thus, Zhanna sought advice of how to register her team from the opposition party Yabloko (The Russian United Democratic Party). Even though Yabloko has not had a seat in the State Duma since 2003, the city of St Petersburg has always been a stronghold for the party, with Yabloko gaining 11.5 per cent of the vote in the 2011 parliamentary vote (compared to 3.4 percent nationwide). While most opposition parties in Russia reflect mainstream conservative politics, Yabloko has been more supportive of alternative politics and sexual minority rights.

Although Russian ‘derby grrrls’ do not describe the sport as political, roller derby is quietly challenging gender politics in Russia simply by virtue of its presence. The White Night Furies have created a space for themselves that is socially situated—a liberating act of resistance.

Viewed in the wider context of gender politics in Russia, roller derby has transformative potential. And though there may be only one small team with less than 30 skaters, those jammers still have the skill to break through the pack. 

All images courtesy of Slava Shatrovoy.

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