Monday, May 10, 2010

Thirteen Years

Dear reader, take comfort! I've attended my first academic conference on Russia. This blog is now legitimate.

Some may protest that eight or so speakers and twenty or so attendees makes for a workshop rather than a conference, but this event was billed as a conference so that's how I will report it.

The conference was necessarily intimate. It was unnecessarily concerned with methodological questions as opposed to theoretical or even factual ones. Although billed as interdisciplinary, Women in Russia was devoted to political science more than any other competing field of inquiry.

One speaker analyzed specific women's parties in Russia and the "Near Abroad." The statistical model was impressive; the significance of her quantitative approach into women's political parties less so. Probably she needed more time to explain why women's parties in Russia and other locations mattered. Her research seemed to suggest that they operated very similarly to non-women's parties.

Another speaker made a fascinating presentation on legal issues. Her work hasn't yet centered on Russian gender issues, but her general approach to the culture of legality (or illegality) in Russia seems likely to be extremely rewarding. She asked basic questions such as: When and under what circumstances do you seek legal redress? What are the hidden costs of using the law to solve your problems? She had already discovered that women were less likely to name an insult, claim a remedy for that insult, or seek to litigate then men were. They tended to self-incriminate: "This law suit was partly my fault." They saw themselves as non-conflictual and, to invoke a Russian cliche about inherent fatalism, believed that it was important to be resigned to one's fate.

One speaker rehearsed the gender discourse of the Soviet Union in the 1960s. At the time, the country experienced a sharp drop in fertility. The country counted on growth for prestige, labor, and military power, but divorce reated were up and it seemed that people didn't care enough for society, which was an intolerable proposition for a socialist society. This led to incomplete but real gender analyses. Did women have it too hard? Were they bearing a double or triple burdern? On the other hand, the women who had the fewest children tended to be the richest and most educated of Soviet women. Were women too overworked to think about families, or, conversely, were they too selfish or consumerist to embrace the joys of motherhood and family? The Soviets embarked on moral, values-based education to encourage women to have more children. They created "sexual socialization" courses. They looked for ways to make children more economically useful. The media took up these themes.

The hosts--always gracious--presented on their travels to the peripheries of the Russian state. The work was disciplined and methodologically sophisticated but one can't help but wonder if the whole field of political science might research a dead-end if its practitioners merely measure each and every question in ever greater mathematical detail. In their own presentation, they seemed to admit that gender and ethnicity didn't play a large role in the way Russian ethnic populations viewed the capacity of mayoral candidates. One admires the researchers' interest in the Russian periphery but wonders if there aren't more important things to measure.

Who knows? Perhaps this is how all interdisciplinary conferences turn out: each representative of a discipline doubts the methodological imperatives of the other disciplines. Certainly the conference's lone anthropologist received no sympathy from the political scientists in attendance. They doubted whether women's clinics in Russia (and the movement that supported them) said much of anything at all about the health of Russian civil society. They thought that the government had picked up the slack and now offered these services.

The conference raised all kinds of other issues in contemporary gender politics. For instance, is it legitimate for a nation to worry about dying in terms of population collapse? Do Russian women support Putin and the United Russian Party as well as this party's gender policies? And if so, why? Does Russia have a patriarchal culture that will inevitably lead to a search for strong, authoritarian leaders such as Putin? Are Putin's policies related to education, workforce development, and training helpful to women? Does it hurt women when the nation defines what a family should look like? What are the dimensions of gender violence in Russia? Why is Putin directly advocating for women and is this advocacy entirely useful or merely patronizing? His decision to grant women money for having more children was hotly debated. Would this help women, hurt women, or have no discernible effect on their lives? Was it inherently racist, since Russian women received payments for second and third children, but not for more than that (as some non ethnic Russian women were likely to do)? Why did the state think Russian women would send their children to orphanages if the state payment for children occurred before the age of three? Was Putin's attack on abortion bound to undermine the position of women in Russia, who currently have one of the highest abortion rates in the world? Did modern Russian women have even more problems than their Soviet counterparts had had? Did modern Russians fully accept the need for women to remain in the workforce to support the Russian economy? Were subway posters encouraging Russian women to have families having any positive or negative impact on society? Would Russian women always see the decision to have more than a couple of kids to be uncivilized or un-modern? How strong was the Russian state in terms of its influence on women?

A geographer took a generic approach to Russian women, just pointing out the trends without too much commentary. Russian men greatly outnumbered Russian women in the border regions due to the predominance of the extractive industries; Russian men died far earlier than Russian women (the gap in life expectancy is thirteen years, the highest in the world); Russia continued to suffer from a high mortality rate in general; Russian women had children late in life; Russian fertility rates were finally rising; the effects of World War II and Collectivization could still be seen in demographic tables; Russian life expectancy, always low, had risen slightly during the anti-alcohol campaign of the 1980s; 70 percent of Russian men smoke (27 percent of Russian women smoke); Russia has the second highest migrant stock (those living abroad) in the world at 9.8 percent of the population; Russian women migrated to Italy and Spain while Russian men went more frequently to Germany; Russian Jews had the lowest birth rate in Russia, Chechnyians had the highest, but only at 2.4 children per couple. The geographer's interlocutor, a former Harvard professor, seemed to be speaking a different language. The same numbers mean something entirely different when presented to a geographer and to a political scientist. But the fascinating thing was that Russia seemed to be a huge experiment for geographers on their age old debate: How low can fertility go?

At any rate, this blog has been woefully undernourished in the area of gender studies. The conference's participants suggest a remedy. Some of their books include: Women's Health in Post-Soviet Russia: the Politics of Reproduction, Dilemma's of Diversity: Analyses of Culture and Difference by US and Russian-Based Scholars, Post Soviet Women Encountering Transition, Ruling Russia, and Russian Civil Society, Women's Access to Political Power in Post-Communist Europe, Gender Violence in Russia, etc.

I also learned about the following journal: Post-Soviet Affairs. Who knew?

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