Politics in Post-Soviet Russia: Where Are the Women?

By Nechemias, Carol | Demokratizatsiya, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Politics in Post-Soviet Russia: Where Are the Women?


Nechemias, Carol, Demokratizatsiya


In March 1991 the first national gathering of independent women's organizations in the USSR met at Dubna under the slogan "Democracy Minus Women Is Not Democracy," thus highlighting the absence of women's voices in high-level decision making. The breakup of the USSR and the emergence of an independent Russian state changed little with respect to women's access to the halls of power. Although they are 53 percent of the population, women remain outsiders in the Russian Federation's structures of power. The following figures, for March 1999, are illustrative: At the top levels of government there was one woman--Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko; among those holding ministerial portfolios, no women; among President Yeltsin's top aides, one woman--Dzhakhan Pollyeva, deputy chief of the president's administrative staff; among governors, one woman; among mayors of major cities, no women; in the upper chamber of the Federal Assembly, the Federation Council, two women; in the lower chamber, the State Duma, 10 percent of the deputies were women,(1) A ranking of Russia's one hundred leading politicians, published monthly by the newspaper Nezavisimaya gazeta, contained four women for April 1999; by far the most influential female was Tatyana Dyachenko, Boris Yeltsin's daughter.(2)

In this article I explore the extent of women's participation in the executive and legislative branches of Russian government, with emphasis on the federal level. In the executive organs of power the absence of women stems from decisions made by powerful political figures and leading bureaucrats; in parliament, public opinion plays a larger role. I will direct attention toward historical continuity, since much in contemporary Russian society, including barriers to women's political participation, reflects ties with the past. At the same time, the 1990s have given birth to new trends and unprecedented events, such as the growing activism of independent women's organizations and the surprising electoral victory of the Women of Russia bloc in the 1993 Duma elections. It should be noted that by focusing on the federal level, I inevitably neglect the greater success that women have had in securing political representation across Russia's regional units.

Women in the Executive Branch

When Sergei Stepashin succeeded Yevgeny Primakov as prime minister in May 1999, Ivestiya's headline captured the new leader's first words to his cabinet: "Gentlemen, let's begin work" (Dzhentl'meny, nachinaem rabotu).(3) The terminology was apt, as women have not yet shattered the glass ceiling in government. According to sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya's study of two thousand members of Russia's political elite in the mid-1990s, women held 3.9 percent of responsible government posts, despite making up 44 percent of workers in the state apparatus.(4) A UN analysis similarly documents the low level of women's representation among top government decision makers, crediting Russian women with holding only 2.6 percent of senior government positions in 1996.(5)

The most extensive data on women's status in the executive branch are contained in a 1998 booklet published by the Russian government. That report shows a steep pyramid in which women congregate at the bottom and fade out at the top (see table 1).(6) Since July 1995 there have been three categories of government workers in Russia. The highest category, not included in table 1, includes appointed and elected officials whose status is defined by the federal constitution, such as the president, cabinet ministers, deputies, and judges. Category B includes high-level executive positions such as federal ministers' aides and leading officials in federal agencies; women do relatively well here, securing almost 19 percent of positions, working as aides, speech writers, press secretaries, and so on. But category B employees constitute only thirty-two thousand out of more than twenty-two million Russian workers. …

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