ENGLISH VERSION: Elena Volkova. Feminism, Prison and Church
Does the word “feminist” hurt you as an Orthodox believer?
Yes. It sounds obscene.
Sergey Beloglazov, a security guard of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, was so much traumatized by Pussy Riot’s performance (21 February, 2012) and the very word “feminist”, that he couldn’t do his work for a month. However, to get offended he had to search for the video of the punk-prayer in the Internet because he himself didn’t let the feminists complete their prayer in church. Hence he lied in court. Or, probably, it was the first time he heard the word “feminist” and didn’t know what it meant. The prosecution lawyer Larisa Pavlova, for example, used the word “feminist” in the meaning of “homosexual”.
“Feminism is not a swearing but an ideology which, according to the Russian Constitution, has equal rights with Orthodoxy”, – replied a Pussy Riot defense lawyer Nikolay Polozov.
Since the Pussy Riot trial Feminism has been considered by Russian Orthodox Church as a threat to ‘traditional family values’. Conservative patriarchal rhetoric became a keystone of the new political religion – the Caesar Idolatry – with Putin as a macho leader ‘sent by God’ and adored by ‘Russia as his only wife’.
When on 8 March, 2013, the International Women’s Day, a rally “Feminism is Liberation” was banned and ended in a wave of detentions, a women’s rights activist Tatiana Sukhareva said that “the Moscow administration is afraid of feminists and women who fight for their rights. That is why the march was banned… The word ‘Feminism’ is like a red flag to a bull”. The opposition also avoids feminist ideas as unpopular ones. “Feminists have no one to rely upon except themselves”.
A Feminist Martyr
Next year Tatiana Sukhareva, the first and the only Feminist politician in Russia, was going to run for a Moscow City Council. She was known then as a co-founder of the Women for Peace movement and the Women’s Power foundation. Her electoral campaign was focused in particular on gender equality and protection of women against home violence and social discrimination.
On 10 July, 2014 Tatiana expected her status of a candidate to be confirmed, but at 6 am about ten gunmen burst into her room, conducted a search and arrested her on insurance fraud charges. Tatiana worked in an insurance company, had PhD in Economics, and taught in university. The case was fabricated to thwart her political ambitions and threaten other women activists.
The police made rape-threats, beat her, denied access to food, water and toilet, she was not allowed to communicate with her defense lawyer and friends. “Then I felt such a heavy blow to my head that for some seconds I must have lost my consciousness. Then more and more blows followed. It was like bells tolling in my head, my ears were ringing, my vision grew dim, as if my eyes were wrapped with a bright blue tape. Another blow. And another.
Then I saw that I was being beaten with a plastic bottle filled with water”.
Tatiana spent 8 months in a detention prison, where she shared a cell with 40 other women, suffered from humiliation, abuse and cold, had to eat rotten food, went on hunger strikes twice. Prison undermined her health severely. Having been released to house arrest she wrote a book Life Beyond Justice (2015).
Her book tells a lot of heart-rending stories about women either completely innocent or unfairly sentenced to long terms. Some inmates took men’s crimes upon themselves or were framed by male colleagues. In prison they live in dreadful conditions, are cruelly denied medical treatment, abused and can be killed.
Life Beyond Justice presents a new wave of women’s prison literature in Russia, which has a lot of references to Gulag memoires written by Evgenia Ginzburg, Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, Angela Rorh, Emmy Goldacker and others. The same cry “How could it happen?”, the same hope “Soon they’ll see that I am innocent”, the same despair “I am going to die here”, the same wall of silence.
The key question “How could it happen (again and again)?” should call Christian theologians to think of the Gulag theodicy which, unlike the well developed theodicy of Holocaust (Shoa), has never been raised as a theological problem. Literature written in prison under Soviet and Post-Soviet regimes provide a lot of material for a theodicy research.
The humane core of such narratives is how much women care about one another and stand on their dignity in the face of death and of the ruthless administration who treat them as subhuman. The hardest thing for Tatiana was her “inability to change anything”, to help women around. But she has really helped them a lot by having written their stories and treating them in prison as her own sisters. She speaks of those ‘humiliated and insulted’ (Dostoevsky) as if she were a pastor of her own feminist ‘church’ in jail, no matter how secular that community was.
Orthodox Prison Ministry
In 2010 the Russian Orthodox Church opened a Synod Department of Prison Ministry. In last twenty years more than 500 churches were opened in prisons and penal colonies, hundreds of prison chaplains were appointed to save fallen souls. Bishops have given a lot of high-toned speeches about prison ministry as a call for moral transformation of inmates, a lot of clergy have been awarded for great results in their self-sacrificial service.
However in 2006 Fr Sergey Taratukhin who visited Mikhail Khodorkovsky in a remote Siberian colony was defrocked after he called the inmate “a political prisoner”. The priest refused to sanctify the office of the colony because they were “holding a political prisoner”.
In 2013 another political prisoner – a Pussy Riot activist Nadezhda Tolokonnikova – wrote an open letter “de profundis” about the violation of rights, long hours of exhausting labor work, physical abuse and tortures that women suffer in a Mordovia penal colony # 14. She went on a hunger strike to change the conditions for a thousand of inmates. But Fr Alexander Pelin, a prison chaplain, called her strike a provocation, he said that women were treated well and didn’t complain about anything. Tolokonnikova, added the priest, was seeking PR, while her supporters were paid for their protest activity.
Tatiana Sukhareva describes prison religiosity as a mixture of hope for justice and revenge. She refers to a folk curse ritual of praying for living persons as if they were dead, which is believed to invoke a supernatural power to inflict punishment on the enemy.
Women pray in prison a lot. Orthodox believers do it in the morning and in the evening, Muslims – at certain hours. Prison brings a lot of people to religion. […] When women renounced by their families and society return home they cannot find a job, and often go to a convent. […]
There is a small church in the detention prison. […] where women light candles for the repose of the dead. Those dead however are not their close people but “not departed servants of God”. Investigators, somebody who betrayed or framed them. […] It seems like almost everybody in church lights a candle for the repose of the living enemies.
“To the investigator! – said Ludmila and put a candle upside down. – It is burning so well! So well! Let her burn so well, bitch! In hell, asshole!”