2011 Chappell Scholarship

Pushkinskaya-10: Interviews and Impressions

After five weeks in St. Petersburg, adventure after adventure, and lots of lessons learned, I feel like I’m on my way to having an absolutely awesome research project (not that I wasn’t on my way before I got here). When I proposed this project, I was working off of a theme that was assigned for our study abroad program. For that assignment, we were looking at sites of memory in St. Petersburg, and developing short documentary films around interviews and filmed footage taken in the city. With that project in mind, I took my site, Pushkinskaya-10, and found a similar site in Vilnius, Fluxus Ministerija, and am now seeking to document their parallel existence with regard to the importance of physical space to artists and the legacy of unofficial art in the Soviet Union.


I first visited the Pushkinskaya-10 Art Center on my first free day in St. Petersburg, Sunday the 19th of June, five days after our arrival. My first impressions were remarkable because they seemed to fit my project perfectly. The place is literally tucked away in plain sight, a somewhat-sacred space fusing studio, exhibition, and living spaces. I saw a man standing in a doorway chain-smoking cigarettes and staring into space, people making music, and little repairs happening here and there. It was mostly empty, but the few visitors I encountered had looks on their faces that betrayed their confusion or serenity with the situation.

Since that first visit, I have returned at least once a week to gather materials for my project. Valentina Kirichenko, the Art Center’s young and organized International Programming Director, who I’ve been in touch with since the project idea came up, was an invaluable resource by helping to connect me to different artists and figures in the Art Center. So far, I’ve conducted five interviews with people associated with Pushkinskaya-10, and each one has been different, both in content, and circumstance.

My first interview was with Sergey Kovalsky, the brain-father of Pushkinskaya-10 and an artist who lives in the art center. I met him a week before I conducted the interview, and he seemed pleased to have people interested in his project. I arrived to conduct this interview with a small army, consisting of Sasha, Jes, Anastasia, and Caitlin. With so much help, there was not much that could have possibly gone wrong. Sahsa was particularly helpful for me, helping to get the questions across, and Jes helped to set up the visuals well. Kovalsky’s responses to my questions were mostly what I expected from him, which was nice, but also planned that way. Because he is a businessman, he has some set answers to these questions, and I had actually read most of his articles already. His big point, however, is his concept of the parallelosphere, which, to explain, takes a lot more than a blog post.

The next two interviews took place the following day, and, armed with only the camera, and Caitlin, I was a little intimidated. The first interview was with Boris Koshelokhov, an aging, chain-smoking, coffee-addict artist, who invited us into his studio with great hospitality, spending the first twenty minutes of our time making us coffee in cups that had possibly not been washed for years. Thankful for real coffee (something that I miss from the US) I accepted. Kovalsky came to watch over this interview, because Caitlin and I, obviously not phenomenal Russian speakers, needed the help of somebody who understood what was going on, so he reinforced our inability to speak with his experience from the day before. Aside from the excess of clutter and possibly contaminated coffee, we had a great time interviewing him and letting him show us his paintings, each of which he photographs.

The second interview that day was much less scary, especially so because we had already survived our interview with Koshelokhov. This interview was with Valentina, who I mentioned already. She was pleasant, and speaks English, which was just nice to know, even though we conducted the interview in Russian. Her responses to the questions were great because she is so young compared to most of the people at the art center, and for that reason, she is really hoping to bring more young people to the center. As a twenty-something who cares about the legacy of nonconformist art, she definitely brought a new perspective to my project, one that was not represented by the aging artists who actually participated in the unofficial art movement.

My last two interviews took place yesterday, and the, unfortunately, did not go quite as swimmingly as the others. The first was with independent filmmaker and actor Aleksandr Bashirov. Sasha helped me set up this interview, because he was acquainted with Bashirov at some point in the past, because they are both a part of the Russian Guild of Film Critics, and met last week by chance at the St. Petersburg International KinoForum. His film company, Deboshir Films (sounds like… debauchery?) has an office at Pushkinskaya-10, which is where we met for the interview. I had been warned about him, and was aware of his eccentric personality, which is why I was relieved to bring with me Caitlin, Anastasia, and Lena, Sasha’s wife. The four of us arrived on time to the interview, only to wait fifteen minutes for him to arrive. The interview was interesting to say the least. As I tried to conduct the interview, he was dead set on giving me lessons on filmmaking, telling me about the tragedy of the television that he had placed in the restroom, which had recently been stolen, and trying to conduct an interview with me, which led me to remind him on three occasions that the interview was with him and not with me. Although I got lost on my interview questionnaire, I was able to get a lot of good thoughts out of him, regarding the way people treat each other at P-10, and about the improvements that have, thank goodness, been made since the art center opened.

The final interview took place later that day after Lena had left us, with a sound artist named Nikolai Sudnik. Unfortunately, it was not I that conducted this interview. I called Sudnik half an hour before the interview to remind him that I was coming, and he asked me to bring him beer. Out of professionalism, I told him I couldn’t, but my beginner’s Russian made me sound stupid to him. When we began to conduct the interview, he objected to my interview questionnaire, saying that it reminded him of a KGB interview, and, therefore he wouldn’t allow me to use that. When I began working from memory, he decided that my inability to speak Russian was offensive, and that his English was definitely better than my Russian. Ultimately, Anastasia worked from memory to conduct the interview in Russian, while I sat there, fuming at his selfishness. He offered very few constructive answers to my questions, and on more than one occasion wandered off the path to talk about his adventures from the night before. Let’s just say that I was glad for more reasons than one when the interview was complete.

I will be heading back to the United States next week with nearly seven full digital videocassettes filled with footage from both Vilnius and St. Petersburg, from Fluxus Ministerija and Pushkinskaya-10, and a great number of crazy interviews. I have a lot of work to do transcribing and translating my interviews, but the fact that I have the interviews done is a relief in itself. The great thing about these interviews was not that they revealed tons of research material, although they did that as well; it was also that they taught me about conducting journalistic interviews. Setting up the interview space was something that Jes was teaching us, but getting onto the scene helped me to find a balance between the time we have, the space available, and the resources. I learned how to overcome technical difficulties, especially with microphones. The most interesting, however, was dealing with the consent forms. Getting written consent for these interviews was nearly impossible because my interviewees were so uncomfortable with signing anything that seemed official. My consent forms were written and translated in my best professional language, and that scared many of my subjects. For that reason, after jumping some hurdles that I wouldn’t have managed without Sasha’s help, I got advice from Jes and Sasha, and decided to conduct the rest of my interviews with oral consent at the end of the interviews.

I am reluctant to say it, but I look forward to getting home, and working on my transcriptions, translations, and video production. In the mean time, I hope to enjoy my last six days in St. Petersburg for all they’re worth!

Check out the rest of my adventures at

2010 Chappell Scholarship

Women’s Movement in Contemporary Russia (Summary)

The Soviet Union claimed to leave behind the bourgeois notions of patriarchy and the subjugation of women, declaring the genders equal in all endeavors.  My interview with Olga Lipovskaya challenges these assertions and portrays her as a symbol for a more radical form of feminism that never came to fruition in contemporary Russia.  Here was a woman, well versed in Western feminist theory, fluent in English, entirely unable to find funding in her own country and finding it harder and harder to get foreigners to help out her small outfit.  The interview underscores just how marginalized women’s issues are in contemporary Russia to the point of their absence in the public forum.  It appears that this topic has been entirely passed over and the only ones interested in it are a small number of activists and Westerners interested in gender issues and women’s movement in Russia.

The setting for the interview itself provides an excellent example of just how little the Russian people and government seem to care about women’s issues.  I conducted this interview not in the office of an NGO dealing with women’s issues, not at an educational institution, not even at her home, but in the run down playground in between some Soviet era apartment buildings.  We sat on some tree stumps in one corner of the courtyard, amongst the beer bottles and food wrappers strewn about.  Two older men slept in another corner, while some teenagers ate and drank in a third.  Here was one of the few places in this vast country where anyone cared to discuss women’s issues.  Any foundation or NGO that still does operate exists on such a small scale that it is nearly impossible for it to have a true impact on Russian society.

The Soviet propaganda machine made a great deal of showing women in traditionally male roles of factory work and tractor driving, in order to underscore the depth of gender equality.  However, in speaking with Olga Lipovskaya I found that by the late Soviet era this was mostly an illusion, especially in the more educated professions.  While Lipovskaya does not deny that there were more women than men pursuing higher education, this did not translate into women’s representation in professional careers.

She mentions that as one looked to the higher rungs of the career ladder, especially in academia, women were more and more seldom seen to the point of hyper-marginalization.  In the interview, Lipovskaya speaks to how only about 1% of those with the highest academic degree in Russia were women.  The very patriarchy that Soviet Union claimed to defeat was alive and well in late Soviet culture.  Lipovskaya, in the interview, mentions many times the concept of “limitations” for women, many of which were implicit.  People seemed to know just how far women could go, from the collective farm to the high reaches of the Politburo, the presence of influential female leaders was rare and in many cases only a result of tokenism.  Even by the end of the Soviet Union, during the apex of glasnost’ and perestroika, only one woman, Alexandra Biriukova, was on the Politburo in a nonvoting capacity (Engel 252).  The first female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, admonished the state for not addressing the health risks of certain occupations on women (Engel 251).  Here was one of the most famous and successful Soviet women, acknowledging that the system from which she supposedly benefited was in fact detrimental to women.  Lipovskaya, with her own firsthand knowledge speaks about the former regime’s empty talk about the rights and equality of women.  All of this evidence makes clear the lack of true equality for women in the Soviet Union, any pretense of this notion was entirely false.

The official state apparatus for addressing the concerns and rights of women, in Lipovskaya’s opinion, was a shell that did nothing to improve the condition of women.  Her own reaction to the existing outlets for women’s expressions mirrors that of the American feminists.  They formed their own organizations and published their own journals in order to tell the world how they felt about things.  Of course in the Soviet Union forming organizations outside the state was expressly prohibited.  However, the tradition of samizdat (self-publishing) provided at least some form of expression for these women.  Lipovskaya established the samizdat journal Zhenskoe chtenie (Women’s Reading) and later was one of the organizers of independent Women’s Forum in Dubna, Russia.  These initiatives became the viable alternatives to the work of the official Soviet Women’s Committee.  Lipovskaya speaks a great deal about the lack of substance in any Soviet organization aimed at helping women.  These organizations were in place merely to quiet those, especially in the West, who demanded the state to do something for women.
Lipovskaya notes that feminists achieved a modest progress in at least one sphere–that of academic research.  Since the opening of Russian society after the fall of the Soviet Union Women’s and Gender Studies programs have emerged in Russian universities.  While these programs are usually not involved in social activism, they at least ensure that young people discuss gender and women’s issues in academic context.  One of the most active of these is the Center for Gender Studies at the European University at St. Petersburg, but of course this is a private university, receiving a lot of its funding from the West, again illustrating the lack of interest by the state in women’s issues.  It is one thing for Western scholars and academics to posit about Women’s rights and problems in Russia, but it is quite different when Russians do this for themselves.  This provides those in Russia with ownership of their own unique challenges and allows them to work on them in their own context and culture.
Lipovskaya’s work as a poet and writer got her involved in the movement in the way that many other Russians got their own start in political activism during the Soviet period.  Lipovskaya’s participation in a samizdat journal, presents an example of one of the small niches that people in the Soviet Union were able to carve out to publicize their own views counter to the official ideology of the state.  While these were banned and participation in them was strictly prohibited they were for many the only means to make their ideas known.  The late Soviet feminist movement started as a dissident group, expressing their ideas in samizdat journals such as Women and Russia and Maria, which were released in Leningrad in 1979.  They wrote about discrimination against women, reproductive rights and domestic violence.  The KGB confiscated their journals and forced the publishers of these journals, Tat’iana Mamonova and Iuliia Voznesenskaia, to emigrate in 1980. The state did this as a way of cleansing the country of any dissident elements that might disturb the largest international showcase in the country’s history, the Moscow Olympics.  There could be no agitation against the official Marxist doctrine when the whole world was watching.  While the state succeeded in suppressing activists, their example inspired others.  Olga Lipovskaya was one of those women and in the late 1980s she published her own samizdat journal.
Another interesting aspect of Lipovskaya’s own personal convictions and philosophy comes in her refusal to use her patronymic.  This second name created from one’s father’s name is used as a sign of respect in Russia, much like the use of mister or miss with someone’s last name in the United States.  She chooses not to use her patronymic for, what she called feminist reasons, acts as a wholesale rejection of what she sees as patriarchal.  This is not unlike many young women during the height of the third wave feminist movement refusing to take their husbands’ last name.  However, this kind of act is unheard of in Russian culture and is far more radical than what most even in the Western women’s movement would do.
Lipovskaya’s personal brand of feminism seems even more extreme when looking at one of the most open moments in Russian society.  During the height of glasnost’, when Gorbachev pledged that the Soviet state would be honest with the people and allow for debate, a backlash against feminism emerged.  People felt insecure and vulnerable during this period, fearful that there entire way of life could come crashing down.  Many thought that the best way to combat this was with a reassertion of traditional values in order to once again gain stability (Engel 253-4).  People felt this most acutely in relation to Gorbachev’s wife Raisa.  She was a strong, vocal female political figure, who many Russians viewed as too prominent in official discourse.  Lipovskaya’s call for a true, Western-style women’s liberation scared many Russians who feared a breakdown of their society.  Even when Lipovskaya and other women activists should have been at there most influential, economic hardships and the Russian cultural conventions relegated their message to outsider status, never allowing them to enter the political discussion as equals.
When further commenting the existing women’s organizations she seems to express some resentment in their scope and goals.  She disparages the organizations founded by mothers of soldiers and disabled children to improve the lot of their children.  She refers to them as mamochki, a diminutive term that does not give much credit to their organizations or work (Engel 267).  But, these organizations have made great strides.  The soldiers’ mothers have been able to reduce the extent and the severity of the hazing that exists in the military.  Their ability to bring to light some of the worst practices of the military and actually make a difference is commendable.  On their website they mention that they have worked for nearly 18 years and have helped about one million people (Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia).  Similarly, the mothers of the disabled have been able to get some concessions, such as ramps into buildings and more accessible forms of transport for their children, in a country which has been almost wholly inaccessible to the disabled until recently.
One understands that Lipovskaya does not think that this is the best use of the soldiers’ and disabled children’s mothers’ time and energies.  Rather than working towards specific practical goals, she wants a more system wide approach, something to overthrow the patriarchy that surrounds women and holds them back in all arenas.  However, her views once again appear too radical and abstract for most Russian women, who would rather spend the time to achieve goals that can alleviate the burdens on their children.  Again, one sees Lipovskaya as advocating for a more radical form of feminism, which is not very palatable to activism minded citizens in Putin-era Russia.
Works Cited
Engel, Barbara Alpern.  Women in Russia, 1700-2000.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Lipovskaya, Olga.  Personal Interview.  11 July 2010.

Gender Studies, European University at St. Petersburg.  Accessed 14 October  2010.

Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia.  Accessed 6 October 2010.

Chappell Scholarship Summer 2010

Women’s Activism in Contemporary Russia Summary

The Soviet Union claimed to leave behind the bourgeois notions of patriarchy and the subjugation of women, declaring the genders equal in all endeavors.  My interview with Olga Lipovskaya challenges these assertions and portrays her as a symbol for a more radical form of feminism that never came to fruition in contemporary Russia.  Here was […]

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Chappell Scholarship Summer 2010

Trouble With Transcribing

My research involves taking interviews in Russian and then transcribing them and then translating them into English. The most difficult part for me is the transcribing. It is hard enough to make complete sense of what someone is saying to me in Russian when I can see their body language and facial expressions. It is […]

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Chappell Scholarship Summer 2010

Women’s Roles in Russia

My research focused on the work of women activists in Russia, but this comprises only a small portion of the women in that country.  Due to the highly patriarchal nature of Russian society, women are often relegated to less prominent positions both socially and professionally.  Never reaching equal footing with their male counterparts.  This is […]

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Chappell Scholarship Summer 2010

My First Interview

The first interview that I did in Russia was one of the most surreal experiences that I had over there.  First off, setting up the interview was a challenge in its own right.  My interview subject was staying at her summer cottage or dacha, taking care of her granddaughter, so it was quite difficult to […]

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Chappell Scholarship Summer 2010

Thoughts About Russia

Well, I’m back from my time in Russia and I want to spend some time just talking about my experiences there and how it was doing research in a foreign country.  Of course the language barrier was the most difficult to get passed, just figuring out how to get places was a challenge.  Even with […]

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Chappell Scholarship Summer 2010

Oral Histories of Women Activists in Russia

Hello, I’m Jacob Lassin and I am a member of the Class of 2012 and Government and Russian and Post-Soviet Studies double major.  I am very excited to have the opportunity to spend my summer in St. Petersburg, Russia doing research on the Women’s Movement in Russia as a Chappell Fellow. . Over the course […]

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