Reading how woman is constructed as sign in what was, until recently, Soviet society is like entering the Russian futurist play The World-backwards. Like many letters of the Russian alphabet that seem reversed to us, the ways in which “woman” is represented are frequently the mirror inversion of the representation of woman in the West. In looking at the image of women on the other side of this mirror, we have an opportunity (almost as we could with computer image programming) to see how our lot would differ if our image was different.
The project of feminists in Russia today is to initiate an exploration of contemporary representational systems that have determined the social production of sexual difference and gender hierarchy and to raise questions about how women speak and are represented within these systems. To undertake this task of writing and “righting” in the context of the powerful patriarchal syntax of Soviet culture is to initiate a more difficult project than that undertaken in 1968 by the French feminists or by Western feminists in general. Psychoanalytic theory, so instrumental in the development of the theoretical formulations of the women’s movement in the West, has, until recently, been unavailable to Soviet feminist theoreticians. As a result of its suppression, they have been working without an account of the cultural construction of gender. Russian women do not share the forty years of feminist intellectual work that followed upon Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 statement, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Without this intellectual history and without a theory of the construction of subjectivity, discussions of gender take place within the circularity of essentialist, biological paradigms, or collapse into the sexual “in-difference” of totalitarian androgyny.
Even among the intelligentsia and artistic groups in Russia, there is still a strong resistance to shifting the intellectual debate about gender equality away from its deadlock within binary oppositions (men vs. women) and facile formulations. In a recent interview the prominent Russian writer Tatyana Tolstaya claimed that feminism was really a consequence of the