I. The New European Order: Human Rights,
Women's Rights, and Gender-based Censorship
by Nadezhda Azhgikhina
The recent decade marked a new stage in European
development, giving rise to new hopes as well as to new problems
and controversies. The fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, symbolized
the beginning of this new era, leaving behind the exhausting Cold
War and its traumatic realitiesthe escalation of mutual tensions,
the arms race, and the cultural isolation between the two parts
of the continent. Many people in both East and West welcomed the
fall of this Cold War symbol: artists painted on its fragments,
poets read their poetry on its ruins, and intellectuals still keep
small pieces of the concrete monster on their bookshelves as a souvenir
of that time's enthusiasm and romantic expectations.
Indeed, a lot of things that happened then
inspired us and encouraged us to speak about the prospect of an
abundant and shared cultural future. In the first years of the new
united Europe, democracy began to develop in Eastern Europe; totalitarian
ideology collapsed; censorship and state-party control over publishers
and the mass media were abandoned; and open intellectual debate
became possible. Many formerly banned books by East European authors
were published in their countries of origin, and later appeared
in the West. The Eastern European countries also welcomed an abundant
inflow of texts by Western authors, including feminist papers.
Cultural workers in different countries were
able, at last, to meet in person. The nineties were marked by all
kinds of contacts, conferences, discussions, and joint projects,
which began, in 1989, with the first meeting of Eastern and Western
authors, called "Beyond the Barriers," and initiated by
a woman philologist from Denmark. The Russian literary critic Galina
Belaya, a participant in this meeting, remembers it as "one
of the highest peaks" of her entire life. "Suddenly,"
she recalls, "I saw how diverse, rich and friendly the world
is, how interesting we are for this world. I saw that it was possible
to work, to create, and to discuss literature without turning round
to see who is watching you behind your shoulder, without fear. I
did not expect to live to see this happen."
The end of Eastern Europe's isolation from
the rest of the world, with the cultural vacuum that had created,
stimulated diverse initiatives within the region and the emergence
of many new and talented authors. One of the most remarkable manifestations
of this process was the appearance of new women's literature in
a number of countries. New collections of women's prose were published,
complete with authors' manifestos, reflecting women's view on current
events. Remarkable new authors appeared, like Yurga Ivanauskaite,
who later became the most popular writer in Lithuania, and Salome
Pavlychko in Ukraine. As soon as they were translated into other
languages, books by such women writers as Lyudmila Petrushevskaya,
Tatyana Tolstaya, and Svetlana Alexievich became the subject of
intense discussion and study by scholars throughout the world. Alexievich
was awarded Swedish PEN's prestigious Kurt Tucholsky Prize, and
when Wislawa Szymborska of Poland won the Nobel Prize for literature,
it seemed that Eastern European women authors had become a valued
and integral part of [world literary culture.
But a number of unexpected problems began
to emerge in the first years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Re-unified Germany was the first to be affected. Residents of the
poorer, eastern part of Germany were perceived as disturbing, even
threatening, competitors by citizens of the more prosperous western
Germany. Their long separation from the West gave rise to unending
social and psychological conflicts in which East Germans increasingly
complained of discrimination in employment, publishing, and even
The situation was aggravated by the "search
for Stasi trace" campaign (the Stasi was the former East German
secret service), by which many cultural workers were affected. In
the former German Democratic Republic, as in the former USSR and
many other Eastern European countries, many writers and translators
had been forced to sign a loyalty oath in order to get employment
or to go abroad. Now, in this new situation, the document they had
signed effectively blacklisted them from their profession. It is
notable that the "Stasi trace" campaign affected men and
women differently. Christa Wolf, known internationally for her feminist
and pacifist work, was selected as a major campaign target, while
many male authors, who also had had contacts with the Stasi in their
youth, were left alone. This situation was not exclusive to Germany.
In free Lithuania, Kasimira Prunskene, the first prime minister
of the independent republic, who contributed greatly to its attainment
of sovereignty, became the target of a massive campaign of harassment
based on her assumed (but not proven) former contacts with the KGB.
It seemed so easy for people participating in the campaign to forget
all she had done for the benefit of the country and to stigmatize
her as "a Soviet spy"perhaps as a warning to other
politically active women.
Ironically, the European public in many countries
has welcomed former staff officers of the KGB, men who have since
become writers of novels and stories, like Mikhail Lyubimov, a KGB
colonel, who was once expelled from the UK and declared persona
non grata, but who is now greeted as a guest of honor and invited
to prestigious literary events. (He is known to be a personal friend
of John LeCarre.) The fact that Victor Yerofeyev, one of the most
popular Russian authors in Europe, is the son of a KGB official
has never hampered his popularity with the liberal intelligentsia
in any country. These and other similar stories hint at some hidden
agenda in contemporary Europe, some process that, unofficial and
undefined, tends to separate men and women, creating favorable conditions
for the former and hurdles for the latter.
In the countries of Central and Eastern Europe,
literature has gone through an intense, dramatic process of liberating
itself from dependence on the state, not only in terms of ideology
but also of property. The ownership of publishing facilities and
media, formerly owned by the state and now privatized, and writers'
unions, which under the old regime were the source of benefits such
as country homes, writing stipends, and opportunities to travel,
have been key arenas of struggle. In Russia, this process went on
for a number of years and was so intense that it could be compared
to a "civil war" in literature. Writers who supported
democratic reform established the April Group; among its leaders
were remarkable women like the literary critics Natalya Ivanova
and Tatyana Ivanova, the prose writer Nina Katerly, and the poet
Tatyana Kuzovleva. Their publications caused heated debates in the
Women also played an outstanding role in the
revival of national literature and national identity in a number
of post-totalitarian countries. The Armenian poet Sylva Kaputikyan
was a symbol of the Karabakh Movement; the publisher Lydia Istrati
and the journalist Alla Molodanova founded the Women's Liberal Christian
Party in Moldova, which promoted the Romanian culture and language;
the writer Lyudmila Kovtun established the Yevfrosinia Polotskaya
Foundation, in Belarus, to support Belarussian literary traditions
and democracy; Salome Pavlychko and other Ukrainian women poets
joined the movement for the revival of Ukrainian culture; while
Yurga Ivanauskaite and many other Lithuanian women writers were
members of the democratic reform movement Sajudis.
However, this revival of national identity
and culture was not entirely free of negative side effects, including
the growth of national chauvinism and the exaggerated influence
of religious institutions, which has led to a kind of censorship
in which any open criticism of national or religious leaders is
banned. This censorship has strong gender aspects, not only because
the new ideology in post-totalitarian countries merges the national
ideal with the so-called "natural destiny of women" (that
is, to cook, clean, have babies, etc.), but also because it has
become virtually impossible to discuss certain aspects of women's
The case of Poland may be the most dramatic:
not only did the adoption of the infamous anti-abortion law cause
practical difficulties for women, it also deprived them of the opportunity
to discuss the problem openly. Even while busloads of Polish women
travel regularly to Belarus, ostensibly as tourists but in fact
to obtain an affordable abortion, respectable periodicals, including
Gazeta Vyborcza, the symbol of democracy in Poland, refuse
to publish articles and letters to the editor against anti-abortion
legislation because the press does not want to endanger its relations
with the Catholic Church. Relevant data collected by public health
services and reports by international organizations are never published
in the mainstream media. Instead, articles feature "women murderers
of babies," or discuss the "moral values of a true Polish
woman." A similar situation prevails in neighboring Catholic
Lithuania, where even the leading democratic newspaper, Lietovas
Ritas, refuses to publish any material in defense of women's
right to abortion. According to prominent woman journalist Dalya
Gudavichute, the church has not only outlawed abortion and contraception,
feminists have even been banned from entering Catholic churches!
In such an atmosphere, any reference to the
church that departs from strict canonical rules is punishable. A
novel written by the famous Lithuanian woman writer Yurga Ivanauskaite,
a love story between a girl and a priest, was banned soon after
publication, and its many readers could only buy it under the counter.
In countries and regions experiencing a revival of Islam and Shari'ah
[check spelling] traditions, including Azerbaidjan, Tatarstan, and
the Russian Caucasus, the official media promote obligatory wearing
of veils and the hijab by women; advise girls to attend Moslem schools
where they can learn how to be good wives rather than professionals;
and even question the value of educating women.
In the nineties, the actual practical situation
of women worsened in all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
Economic reforms and the transition to market economies were associated
with crises in the national economies, the rapid growth of unemployment
(women comprise the majority of the unemployed), the disruption
of the system of social security, and the deterioration of women's
health. Along with their communist ideology, countries in transition
abandoned many socialist mechanisms for the protection of women,
including maternity pay and quotas for women in governmental bodies.
The feminization of poverty is a fact of our contemporary life.
So is the traffic in women, which is widely
acknowledged these days. Criminal gangs send thousands of Eastern
European women to brothels in both the East and West: women from
Poland and the Baltic countries are sold to Scandinavia, Germany,
and Italy; Albanian women are sold to Italy and Spain; Russian women
are sent all over Europe as well as to Israel and Japan. According
to international organizations, as many as half a million women
are trafficked each year from countries of the former Soviet Union
The press say very little about this. The
press has very little to say about women in general. In 1996, womenincluding
prostitutes, criminals, and pop starswere featured in only
1 percent of the articles in Russian newspapers. (Admittedly, in
1998, this ratio increased to 1.5 percent.) In all the countries
of the former Eastern Bloc, women's main form of public representation
can be found in pornography and sexist advertising, which are perceived
by some publishers as integral to media freedom. Virtually nothing
is said about women's real lives and issues, or about women's movements.
The mainstream media portray women either as sex objects or as housewives;
Gorbachev's idea of the "natural destiny of women" is
promoted, and active and independent women are made the objects
of ridicule. The new Eastern European situation, which combines
squeezing women out of the labor market, denying them access to
large-scale property, and creating new gender stereotypes in the
culture and mass consciousness, has been termed, by gender researcher
Anastasia Posadskaya, a "post-socialist patriarchal renaissance."
The reverse side of this "renaissance"
is that women themselves, including women writers, have been silenced.
The "traditional women's agenda" (ranging from peace activism
to protection of social benefits) was not included in the program
of market reforms designed according to neo-liberal concepts. Women
who were among the initiators of the political transformation found
themselves denied access to power. Now, even the sound of women's
voices raised in defense of other women citizens of their countries
seems to arouse suspicion among politicians and opinion-makers.
In many countries, the word "feminism" has a negative
connotation; it is commonly believed that "a real woman"
should not be a feminist.
Market reforms have also had a negative impact
on women's self-expression. Although, at the start of the decade,
many brilliant publications were brought into being, at present,
women writers are finding it increasingly difficult to get published.
Those women who do publish are under-reviewed or completely ignored
by the literary critics. Very often we hear that there is no such
thing as women's creative expression, that the well-known women
writers are just a few exceptions to the rule, and that women's
creativity is secondary to men's.
Due to the difficult economic situation, women
are increasingly limited to auxiliary positions in mainstream culture.
Low-paid journalists and assistant editors are mostly women, while
editors-in-chief, heads of writers unions, and directors of large
periodicals are mostly men. In Latvia, according to the journalist
Anita Kekhre, although almost 90 percent of journalists are women,
they either do not dare to write about women's situation or do not
understand the meaning of the women's agenda. In Russia, this feminization
of journalism, especially in local media, has been accompanied by
a sharp decline in journalists' financial security. Female staff
members of mass media organizations or publishing houses find it
extremely hard to convince their superiors that they deserve promotion
and support. Nor are women's issues on the agenda of human rights
advocacy: in fact, women's rights are generally not even perceived
as part of the concept of human rights. Alexander Tkachenko, director
of Russian PEN, honestly admitted during a conversation about women's
rights, "I do not understand anything about it."
For the first time since the Second World
War, the European continent has witnessed bloodshed, bombings, and
attacks on civilians. The first armed conflicts began in the USSR
shortly before the collapse of the Berlin Wall; these were the tragedies
of Sumgait and Baku, the plight of the Meskheti Turks, the hostilities
in Moldavia and in Central Asia. Many in Western Europe did not
pay much attention to those events, since they seemed to be taking
place very far away. But a few years later, war began in the Balkans,
shaking Europe with its brutality. Soon after, the first Chechen
war broke out. Both conflicts persist. People of many nationalities
are still dying in Kosovo, and the war in Chechnya continues, causing
uncounted losses and an exodus of refugees through Russia and into
neighboring countries. In the Northern Caucasus, people are routinely
kidnapped, and while some Russian and Western European hostages
have been freed, many others are still captives, facing the threat
of death. Human rights are violated on a daily basis, while both
the international community and national governments stand by helplessly.
Among those whose rights are systematically violated are minority
ethnic groups, women, and children. These wars have exceeded the
boundaries of local conflict; they have, to an extent, had a global
effect by threatening European stability and the normal development
of the region.
Wars invariably breed hatred and revenge and
are used to justify censorship and ethnic intolerance. The information
warfare waged by international media around the conflicts in former
Yugoslavia and Chechnya threatens to erect a new invisible, psychological
wall between East and West in Europe that may be as hard to wreck
as the Berlin Wall. Information warfare creates a strong mythological
image of an enemy, locating the perceived "threat to humanity"
in whole nations, rather than in individual governments, paramilitary
groups, or criminals. This happened during the recent war in Kosovo,
when the world's most influential media spoke about "Serbian
atrocities," without distinguishing between the Milosvic government,
the Yugoslav army, Serbian paramilitary troops, and the civilian
population, making the public believe that the whole nation was
a threat to European security. "I feel sorry for Serbian children,"
said Marit Paulsen, a Swedish member of the European Parliament,
"because today it means to be children of the devil. It should
not be so. I know what it means, because my father served in the
Thousands of people in democratic countries
were influenced by propaganda that justified NATO's bombing of civilians
by demonizing the entire Serbian population as villains and nationalists.
Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in
the early days of the conflict that "violence and violations
of human rights took place on both sides." But, like all military
propaganda, the justification of the NATO bombings did not stop
at quoting incorrect figures and distorted facts. Not until the
Albanian population returned to Kosovo, and it became apparent that
not even the peacekeeping forces could protect the Serbian population,
did the media begin to admit that the violence had been mutual,
and that no one is totally right or wrong in a conflict, just as
no one wins any war.
A similar situation is developing in and around
the Russian Caucasus. Trying to justify their military operation
in Chechnya, Russian official propaganda has demonized all Chechens,
making no distinction between bandits and peaceful citizens. As
a result, the majority of Russians are in favor of this war; for
many Russians, being a Chechen equals being an enemy and a terrorist.
Notably, the demonization of women has also been a part of war propaganda.
Many Russian media featured stories about women fighters, mythological
"snipers in white pantyhose," whom no one has ever seen
but everyone has heard about. These women, reportedly fighting on
the Chechen side, are not ethnic Chechens, but Lithuanians, Russians,
Ukrainians. They supposedly fight with extreme cruelty, aiming at
soldiers' knees and genitals, and are universally loathed by Russian
soldiers. This myth, which, in fact, had started long before the
Chechen war, around the time of the hostilities between Georgia
and Abkhazia, has proven very persistent. Its emotional appeal highlights
the fear and loathing of women that often surfaces in time of war.
Similarly, Chechen propaganda, echoed by the mass media of some
Western countries, depicts all Chechens as heroes, forgetting the
hundreds of kidnapped, among them many peacemakers, ignoring the
killing of innocent hostages, such as the British engineers who
Escalation of ethnic conflict and mutual hatred
does not facilitate a civilized resolution of the conflict and the
restoration of human rights in the region. One cannot but remember
the words of Swedish physician and humanist Erzsi Einghorn, a survivor
of the Nazi concentration camps, who said that "even the greatest
European culture cannot save a country from fascism when it is in
the state of humiliation and misery." He was speaking of Germany
in the thirties, but his words hold true today, as the virus of
nationalism and aggression spreads throughout Europe. The dogs of
war wander in our streets, threatening basic human rights, freedom,
democracy, and stability.
The new round of militarization, with NATO
expanding to the East, will not counter this trend and promote stability.
Instead of supporting their national social security systems, many
countries in Central and Eastern Europe are being forced to invest
in NATO programs, further distorting economies already suffering
from neo-liberal policies. An unhealthy environment develops around
new military bases; according to Hungarian women journalists, NATO
soldiers view Hungarian women merely as available providers of sexual
Two years ago, at a meeting of women from
Central and Eastern Europe focusing on these issues, women from
non-governmental organizations and the mass media expressed their
concern over NATO expansion and adopted a document that described
the new militarization of Europe as a direct threat to women. Need
it be mentioned that only the independent women's press covered
this event, while the official media did not find it significant?
Nevertheless, during the recent military conflicts European women
developed new strategies, refusing to be passive victims and witnesses,
the only roles ascribed to them by the national authorities.
In Russia, a broad and highly respected movement
of Mothers of Soldiers has been active for a decade. In 1995, they
organized the March of Motherly Compassion from the Kremlin to the
Chechen village of Samashki, where they were welcomed, as in all
the other places they passed on their way, with friendliness and
understanding. The Russian Army forced the mothers to terminate
their march when their appeal to stop the war elicited a broad public
response. Jointly with Chechen mothers, the Russian Mothers of Soldiers
committees have established Echo of the War, an organization whose
priorities are to promote peace and non-violence, to help soldiers
suffering from post-traumatic stress, to search for and identify
the bodies of killed soldiers, and to free prisoners-of-war and
hostages. Dozens of POWs have been liberated by their efforts. Another
priority of this organization is to offer protection to young men
who refuse to go to war.
Similar women's pacifist movements are emerging
all over Europe. During the war in Kosovo, German mothers marched
along the streets of Belgrade; they appealed for peace and took
their sonsNATO soldiersback home. The Women in Black
movement in former Yugoslavia has gained international recognition.
For eight years, every Wednesday, women dressed in black have stood
silently in Republic Square in Belgrade, holding anti-war placards.
In Transcaucasia, the Dialogue of Transcaucasian Women has brought
together women activists in Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, many
of them translators, poets, and journalists, and has established
a rehabilitation center for child war victims from all three countries.
The Dialogue's main goal is to create a culture
of peace and non-violence, to promote the non-violent resolution
of political issues. "If I succeed in convincing my neighbors
that Abkhasians are not our enemies, that our enemies are corrupt
officials and all those who push us to conflict and aggression,
that will be my contribution to the cause of peace. We, the women,
should start with ourselves, with reaching out to other women,"
says Nani Chanishvili, professor of philology in Georgia. These
ideas are shared by members of Women for a World Without Wars and
Violence, whose members are from the Transcaucasian countries, Russia,
and the ethnic regions of the Northern Caucasus.
Many women journalists and writers have also
spoken up about the realities of war. Their reports from the major
conflict zones have elicited a tremendous response, primarily because
the women did not write from a military point of view, focusing
on contested localities seized by either of the conflicting sides,
or on the number of losses, but instead wrote about the human, or
rather the inhuman face of war. Ciara Valentini from Italy, Teresa
Moutinho from Portugal, Elena Masyuk and Nadezhda Chaikova, Russian
reporters who covered the events in Chechnyall have shown
us how war affects every human life. The fact that the international
community has defined mass rape, based on ethnic origin in Bosnia
and Herzegovina, as a crime against humanity owes much to the efforts
of these women journalists, as well as to women's human rights organizations.
Wars are directly related to the competition
inside criminal structures, primarily those in the production of
and trade in weapons. Many countries in Eastern Europe are riddled
by corruption and largely controlled by mafias. In this situation,
journalism has become an increasingly dangerous profession. The
Russian Committee for the Protection of Glasnost and the international
Committee for the Protection of Journalists both issue yearbooks
with reports of violations of media rights in post-Soviet territory.
Every year, women journalists are among those listed as killed,
beaten, or threatened and harassed. Nadezhda Chaiko was killed in
Chechnya under unknown circumstances; Elena Masyuk was held hostage
and humiliated by Chechen bandits (although her sympathies were
often with the fighting Chechen units). Larissa Yudina, editor-in-chief
of a Kalmyk opposition newspaper who exposed corruption around the
president of Kalmykia and was killed, became a symbol of professional
honor and integrity for all Russian and CIS journalists. During
the recent war in Chechnya, military commanders tried to keep reporters
away from the war zone; nevertheless, journalists wrote about the
war, and their reports, like Anna Politkovskaya's articles and essays,
reflected the real state of things, often in contrast to official
Any war is unacceptable to women, not only
because it causes death and suffering. Wars marginalize women, who
traditionally are a majority among refugees and forced migrants.
Wars are used as justification to remove women's agenda from the
list of perceived priorities. Wewomen writers, publishers,
editors, and journalistsare convinced that violence is unacceptable
in principle as a method of conflict resolution. We believe that
the tradition of using force before exhausting all diplomatic resources
is responsible for the continued violence and bloodshed in our continent.
We insist that our potential in diplomacy,
dialogue, and discussion of all issues be tapped, for we are certain
that European women have sufficient wisdom and experience to be
able to prevent new tragedies. Women should be part of all negotiations
relating to war; we are a vast source of underutilized skill and
wisdom. Women are never interested in war, we never gain from war,
although some of us do fall into nationalist traps and become victims
of political manipulation. Women's experience in conflict zones
shows that women on both sides of a conflict are able not only to
overcome prejudice but to cooperate productively, because they have
We are against kidnapping and terrorism in
all its forms. We believe that all those responsible for terrorist
acts and hostage-taking must be brought to open trial, rather than
used by various political forces to provoke new rounds of violence.
We are against the present militarization of Europe, which threatens
us with new aggression, including psychological aggression. We insist
on the priority of social issues over military interests.
We are against information warfare in the
mass media, and we are convinced that information should be focused,
as a matter of priority, on the interests of the individual, and
on basic human rights and freedoms. National stereotyping and intolerance
in the mass media, whether the national media or global broadcasting
networks, such as CNN, could bring us to the edge of a new global
confrontation. We oppose the creation of new Cold War-type stereotypes;
we oppose nationalism in all its forms; we are against any nation
or country being presented as "the enemy."
We stand for the free exchange of information
and for cooperation. We stand for freedom of expression, for the
freedom of the media and literature from all types of censorship,
for the right of a writer and journalist to her or his own point
We are against the victimization and marginalization
of women. We stand for the development of women's initiatives and
for a broad and open discussion of all issues with non-governmental
movements and organizations because, very often, the non-governmental
initiatives have the experience and expertise that the authorities
lack and that are necessary to stabilizing a situation.
We stand for the unconditional observance
of rights of all minorities, including the smallest groups in any
country, because protection of minorities is an integral part of
We stand for cooperation between Eastern and
Western countries, for a constructive dialogue about the future
democratic development of our continent.
We believe that the common sense and good
will of the healthy political forces in Europe will ultimately win.
We believe that our continent will become peaceful and affluent,
that the day will come when writers are respected more than military
commanders, when children know the meaning of the word "war"
only from history books, when all cultures, nations, and groups
develop in the spirit of mutual friendliness, and enrich one another
by their diverse and unique talents.
Although we believe this time will come, how
soon it comes will depend, to a large extent, on our talent, persistence,
goodwill, and belief that tomorrow should bring more harmony to
the world than we are experiencing today.
Nadezhda Azhgikhina, a writer, journalist,
and activist, is the founding editor of the Women's Page
of the Moscow Independent, and co-editor, with Colette Shulman,
of the Women's Studies journal, We/Myi: The Women's Dialogue.
She is the founding co-chair of the Association of Russian Women