Since 1994, when my university colleagues and I founded the Kharkiv Center for Gender Studies (KhCGS), we have implemented many different projects, including conferences, summer schools, training courses, and network activism. But the main focus of our work was on the popularization of Western feminist theory in the post-Soviet region. In the Gender Studies Journal (published since 1998), as well as in translated book series—including Gender Studies and Feminist Collection—we made available works by Judith Butler, Rosi Braidotti, Helene Cixous, Andrea Dworkin, Nancy Fraser, Jane Gallop, Elizabeth Gross, bell hooks, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Teresa de Lauretis, Juliet Mitchell, Gayle Rubin, Joan Wallach Scott, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak, and many others. These publications are still in demand, sought out by a new generation of feminists and gender researchers in the countries of the former USSR: they are read, republished, and remain the basis for the formation of feminist consciousness in our countries. Since Putin’s troops began trying to occupy Ukraine, I have received many letters of support from people from different countries and generations who have written to say that they grew up and became feminists alongside our books and magazines.
When we first created KhCGS at V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, we thought we were making a local university program, in the mode of a U.S. university’s women’s studies programs. But in fact it turned out we worked for the entire former USSR as well as the other countries of the former socialist bloc. We soon realized this, and in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, our main project was titled “University Network for the Countries of the Former USSR.” In our work introducing gender studies to post-Soviet universities, we closely cooperated with colleagues from many countries of the former USSR—Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Latvia, Lithuania, etc.—and this seemed to us absolutely natural: after all, we still quite recently were citizens of one common state and we faced very similar and overlapping tasks and problems.
Our stated goal was to transform the post-Soviet academy toward greater openness, diversity, and readiness for critical thinking. But the strategic task was a more global task—the fight against the totalitarian legacy of the USSR, the so-called “decommunization,” which we sought to carry out in the form of feminist intervention in the structures of post-Soviet patriarchal power–knowledge. All these years, we were sincerely convinced that feminism and gender studies would serve to emancipate Soviet people from the traumas of a repressive totalitarian past, and our Western partners (in particular, in the MacArthur Foundation, which supported many of our projects) hoped that in this way post-Soviet feminism would help the world to get rid of the main threat to Western liberal democracy and, above all, the threat of nuclear annihilation.
But today it turned out that the threat to the world of liberal democracy was hidden not where it was expected—not from the side of the communist idea, but from the side of the fascist idea. As Russian political philosopher Artemy Magun put it, “We fought against Stalinism, but got fascism.” This is the so-called “new fascism,” in which, as Judith Butler identifies, 1) the “freedom to hate” is legalized; and 2) ressentiment is mobilized to make people feel a sense of infringed national greatness, which is then used as a pretense for destroying democratic rights and democracy as such. In this context, as Butler notes, it is important to distinguish between the fascism of the mid-twentieth century—which instrumentalized the frustration of the petty and middle bourgeoisie, and directed the hatred of the bourgeoisie to the proletariat—and this new “liberational” (in Butler’s ironic expression) fascism, when representatives of the poor are encouraged to hate other members of the poor and not be ashamed of their racism.
Today, looking back at the time of the late USSR, we note with surprise that compared to Putin’s Russia, with its revanchist militarism, the USSR was a much safer state for the world: more predictable, capable of negotiating, limited to local conflicts. The military doctrine of the USSR did not consider the possibility of using nuclear weapons first, unleashing a nuclear war. Inside the country in the late USSR, there were also opportunities for alternative cultures, or “spaces of being outside,” as Alexei Yurchak writes in Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More (2006). The USSR even punished dissidents more leniently than what Putin has now introduced (fifteen years imprisonment for “fake news” about a “special operation” in Ukraine).
It is very important to understand that there are a lot of people in Russia who do not support aggression and are saying “no to war,” risking their freedom and life. Since the start of the invasion of Putin’s army into Ukraine, many of the supportive messages I’ve received have come from inside Russia. Therefore, it is absolutely wrong and unacceptable to identify all Russian citizens with the Putin regime, with those who represent his “war party.” The Putin regime clearly distinguishes its citizens as either “correct” or “incorrect.” It is likewise important for us to distinguish between those who build chains of anti-fascist solidarity in Russia and those who stand in solidarity with Putin and justify his crimes.
In the 1990s, politicians who sought to destroy the USSR relied on nationalism as an alternative to communism. This led to the discrediting of the idea of proletarian internationalism and its identification with the policies of totalitarianism. Putin has hijacked the idea of solidarity and support for the peoples of the countries of the former USSR and manipulates it today in order to amass political mobilization in support of his war. We need to take it from him and make it a weapon of anti-militarism again. As Slavoj Žižek noted, our present moment should not be misconstrued as a struggle between “Russian truth” and “European truth.” Rather it is a struggle of all of us against the warmongers, which requires anti-fascist solidarity and a critical look—including at oneself—that allows one to perceive the traps and manipulations of militarism. Today more than ever we need to stay united.