Lynne Attwod, Elisabeth Schimpfössl and Larina Yusupova (eds.): Gender and Choice After Socialism.

Lynne Attwod, Elisabeth Schimpfössl and Larina Yusupova (eds.): Gender and Choice After Socialism.

London: Palgrave Macmillan 2018, ISBN 978-3-319-73660-0, 245 pp.

Author
Anna Batori
Keywords
gender studies; oral history; Ukraine; Russia; homosexuality; transgender policy; LGBT rights; masculinity; female roles.

In their edited collection, Lynne Attwod, Elisabeth Schimpfössl and Larina Yusupova aim to contribute to the scholarship on the post-Soviet socio-political discourse via exploring the transformation of gender relations in Russia and Ukraine. While the region’s socio-economic transformation is a fairly researched topic, less attention has been given to the changing gender structures and sexuality politics. Gender studies might be a crucial approach to understanding the post-Soviet class-formation processes, the impact of neoliberal ideology and, in general, the Europeanization of the area.

While the socialist ideology aimed at creating a new socialist man which, inter alia, included a strong focus on motherhood and traditional gender roles, the new, capitalist age has fundamentally re-written the old understanding of sexes that saw men as breadwinners and women as mothers responsible for bringing up the next generation of socialists. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union have started the transformation of the old boundaries: the radical drop of birth rates in the post-socialist region, the opening up towards gay and transgender communities and the presence of women in businesses and politics show that Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet region have come closer to the ideals of socialist liberalism. While in the Soviet times, abortion and contraception were banned in order to increase the population rates, women now have the right to decide whether they want to be mothers or not. Thanks to birth-control as well as newly developed assisted reproduction technologies, together with the proliferation of cryobanks, female citizens of the former Soviet Bloc have a wider range of opportunities in making decisions about their body, motherhood and marriage. At first glance, it seems as though the change in the system had brought about positive developments in gender relations. However, the ideology of the Soviet system that treated homosexuals as outcasts, while associating women with the domestic space as well as motherhood and men responsible for the family’s financial security, did not vanish in one day.

Gender and Choice After Socialism investigates the impact of socialism on contemporary gender structures via exploring topics of homosexuality and homophobia, transgender communities, upper class femininities in Russia’s business world, and masculine gender roles in the post-Soviet age. All these topics are part of the ongoing heated debate in the region, often bounded with severe conflicts and riots. The edited collection of Lynne Attwod, Elisabeth Schimpfössl and Larina Yusupova is thus a very important and topical contribution to understanding the gender roles and sexual identities in the post-Soviet era.

The volume is divided into three parts (“Choice and the State”, Choice and Culture”, Choice and Modernity”) that are all structured around case studies supplemented by interviews and surveys conducted among, inter alia, leading Russian businesswomen and businessmen on their luxury lifestyle and conservative family values; single and/or divorced females who decided to live alone in patriarchal societies, and young males on heroic militarism in the Putin-led Russia. The book’s main approach – oral history – embraces the collection with an intimate atmosphere which, while providing first-hand experiences on contemporary gender roles, makes the chapters an easy and exciting read.

The first section (“Choice and the State”) concentrates on state policies, structures and gender norms in Russia and Ukraine. In the first chapter, “Half Hidden or Half Open? Scholarly Research on Soviet homosexuals in Contemporary Russia” (Attwod, Schimpfössl, Yusupova 2018: 3-23), Ira Roldugina, a Russian feminist, activist and academic, focuses on homophobia in Russia that, as she argues, is rooted in the Stalinist ideology and criminal codes that forbade same-sex relationship between men. In contemporary Russia, as Roldugina states, it is “[…] not just homophobia, but the absence of a notion of homosexual subject/historic actor” (ibid.: 5) and the strict control over state archival documents that hinders academic research and makes an open discourse on LGBT communities almost impossible. Central to the author’s argument is the parallel between the discriminatory practices under the national socialist regime in Nazi Germany and in Stalinist Russia. While in Germany the systematic assassination of homosexuals followed the rhetoric of biological determinism, Soviet ideology focused on the creation of a new person which anybody could become. Although corporal discipline was on the daily agenda – both against homosexuals and/or class-enemies – interestingly, it was not the secret service that had the largest influence on the formation of homophobic sentiments in Russia. Instead, as Roldugina observes, “It was the everyday life in the Gulag, which formed the image of homosexuality in people’s mind and determined the rhetoric of Russian homophobia” (ibid.: 12). While the author stresses the key role of prison memoirs that demonised homosexuality, and the consequences of the homophobic rhetoric in prison camps, the study does not elaborate on how and why the Gulag became the source of homophobia, which could have been a crucial point in understanding the foundation of anti-gay feelings in the Soviet Union.

In the next chapter, “Transgender, Transition, and Dilemma of Choice in Conemporary Ukraine” (ibid.: 23-47), Nadzeya Husakouskaya, a PhD candidate at the Centre for Women’s and Gender Research at the University in Bergen, discusses LGBT activism in Ukraine, with a special attention given to the medical and legal solutions available to transgender people. By highlighting the work of the two NGOs, Insight and T-ema, she celebrates the transgender activism in the country that, being part of the Europeanisation process and the spreading of neoliberal ideas, contributed to opening up a more civilised discourse on LGBT activism. Despite these positive changes, however, external governmentality offers limited discourses, practices and policies in Ukraine (ibid.: 38).

Husakouskaya rejects the West/East dichotomy when it comes to the Ukrainian transgender question and warns about the possible danger of implementing Westernised forms of LGBT activism and politics in Ukraine. This is a very interesting thought that could have been elaborated more on in the study. Unfortunately, the author’s argument for a local/regional implementation of transgender and sexual politics remains unsubstantiated.

The volume’s next three chapters focus on free choice when it comes to questions of child bearing, homosexuality or the decision to live without a partner. By interviewing a single Russian women over 60, in her chapter “Narrating the Gender Order: Why Do Older Single Women in Russia Say That They Do Not Want to Be in Relationships with Men?” (ibid.: 81-109), Anna Shadrina sheds light on singlehood as a deliberate decision that reckons with the traditional roles of mother, wife and babushka.

One’s free choice regarding his/her body is also the subject of discussion in Lynne Attwood’s and Olga Isupova’s chapter “Choosing Whether to Have Children: An Ethnographic Study of Women’s Attitudes Towards Childbirth and the Family in Post-Soviet Russia (ibid.: 133-159) explores the Childfree movement in Russia. As an online community with about 5,000 members, the Childfree website gives space to free speech, thus fostering a modern discourse on living without children. This goes against the old Ty Ze Mat’ phenomenon (ibid.: 138) that claimed motherhood to be the vocation of women. As the authors highlight, “it is estimated that around 12-15% of young people at the present time will not have children” (ibid.: 135), which might radically rewrite Russia’s demography. Whether it is because of the financial instability, the lack of time, worrying about one’s post-birth changes in appearance or the focus on career, the Russian Childfree movement provides support to women who decide not to become mothers. This phenomenon is still new in the ever more conservative social climate in Russia and shows a great leap towards individual choices and freedom, thus suggesting a more liberal framework of sexuality and motherhood where one has the right to make decisions about her own body.

The final section of the collection concentrates on motherhood and masculinity in post-Soviet Russia. Anna Temkina, the Chair of Public Health and Gender at the European University of St. Petersburg, and Elena Zdravomyslova, the co-director of the Gender Studies Program at the same university, analyse the health-related choices of pregnant urban middle-class women who, practising “responsible motherhood” (ibid.: 162), pay for private maternity treatment. In their chapter “Responsible Motherhood, Practices of Reproductive Choice and Class Construction in Contemporary Russia” (ibid.: 161-187), Temkina and Zdravomyslova introduce a significant and less known phenomenon by shedding light on healthcare as a mechanism of class construction. Beyond doubt, this is one of the collection’s most pioneering contributions, as it explores how the rejection of the Soviet style medical service and the support of private clinics have created a social divide among middle-class Russian women and those who cannot afford private health care. In this regard, motherhood can trigger class boundaries and form a Post-Soviet division, privileging wealthy urban middle-class mothers.

Finally, Marina Yusupova’s chapter (ibid.: 187-217) on militarism and antimilitarism in post-Soviet Russia explores the paradoxes of masculinity in the country. On the one hand, as Yusupova highlights, military service is a constitutional duty of all male citizens (however, only a small number of men end up serving in the army). On the other hand, due to the strong legacy of militarism in the Soviet period -– men do not consider the army unnecessary. Yusupova concludes that rejecting the “military would not only undermine their masculinity, but also their love for their country” iIbid.: 205). The Army thus remains a point of reference for male citizens to emphasise their masculinity and patriotic duty. Without doubt, Yusupova’s chapter is an eye-opening contribution to understanding the relation between militarism, masculinity and nationhood in contemporary Russia.

Through in-depth interviews Gender and Choice After Socialism provides a comprehensive image of post-Soviet gender relations. Given the current cinematic wave of extremism, which often aestheticizes violence against female bodies on an often brutal, explicit level, the collection can be a ground-breaking and necessary contribution to film studies and an important starting point to the visual investigations on Russia and Ukraine as well as other post-socialist countries in the region.

Dr Anna Batori
Associate Professor in Film Studies
Babeş-Bolyai University
anna.batori@gmx.net

Bio

Anna Batori is an Associate Professor in Film Studies at the Babeş-Bolyai University (Cluj-Napoca, Romania) with an MA in Film Studies (Eötvös Loránd University, 2012) and a PhD in Film and Television Studies (University of Glasgow/Screen, UK, 2017). Her recent book, Space and Place in Romanian and Hungarian Cinema (2018), was published by Palgrave Macmillan. She writes and teaches on European and world cinema, modern film theory and digital narrative techniques.

Suggested Citation

Batori, Anna. 2019. Review: “Lynne Attwod, Elisabeth Schimpfössl, Marina Yusupova: Gender and Choice After Socialism”. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 9. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2019.0009.137

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner's terms.





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