N.B.: This site is an archive of interviews I conducted in 2009 and 2010. My current website is http://www.sophiepinkham.com. Some of the people interviewed here feature in my 2016 book Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine, as do many of the themes explored here. Check it out on Amazon.
For the last several years, I’ve worked on the health and human rights of people who use drugs in Eastern Europe, with much of my work focusing on women. In 2008 I received a Fulbright grant and moved to Ukraine to research activism connected to women’s rights, HIV and drug use. Inspired in part by the ACT UP Oral History Project, which records the stories of American AIDS activists, I interviewed people involved in non-governmental organizations in Ukraine and Russia. Having worked with and met many extraordinary people in my time in Eastern Europe, I wanted to collect some of their stories and share them–especially with English speakers who have limited access to information about this region.
My original goal was to try to understand how women’s role in political activism and in non-governmental organizations had changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. I eventually expanded my focus, using long, open-ended interviews to explore the reasons for which people choose to devote their energy to controversial social questions such as women’s rights, HIV, and drugs.
Development and doublespeak
After the fall of the Soviet Union, citizens of the newly independent states had the chance to create a “civil society,” a “third sector” independent of the government. Poverty and instability created an urgent need for organizations that could fill the gap left by the collapse of the Soviet-era welfare system. Meanwhile, foreign aid for non-governmental organizations flooded in as donors attempted to ensure a smooth transition to democracy by supporting local civil society. In Ukraine, 2004’s peaceful Orange Revolution reinvigorated the activities of American and other foreign donors eager to support democracy. From the beginning, programs promoting women’s rights and gender equality received special attention from many foreign donors. In the late 1990s, explosive HIV epidemics in Ukraine, Russia, and other countries of the region began to attract international funding as well.
The development of a Western-style “civil society” in Ukraine and Russia was not as straightforward as some donors had hoped. Citizens of the former Soviet states had minimal experience of these kinds of organizations. The Soviet Union had made “activism” synonymous with conformity to Party rule. In prison, “activists” were prisoners who received special privileges in exchange for informing on others. Along the same lines, “volunteer” work had come to mean mandatory unpaid labor on Saturdays. The “emancipation” of women had led to a system in which women bore an exhausting double burden of work and household duties, without having any meaningful political influence. In order to survive the Soviet system, many people paid lip service to Party “ideals” while using all possible informal means to attain a decent standard of living for themselves and their families. Unsurprisingly, people were left skeptical of political idealism.
An example of this attitude came in my interview with Oleg Galaktionov, head of a small Kiev NGO for prisoners, who told me, “When I say that I have to go on a business trip [for my NGO], [my wife] says, ‘And where’s the money?’ And I say, ‘For free, I have to use my own.’ She says, ‘Are you an idiot?’ And I say yes. I tried to explain it to her. She can’t understand it.” Though Galaktionov puts a high moral and emotional value on his work, he does not argue with his wife. I would argue that this reflects, in part, the enduring late-Soviet conviction that clever people devote their energies to their own welfare, while people who do otherwise are simply fools.
A number of scholars, including Alexandra Hrycak, Sarah D. Phillips, and Kateryna Pishchikova, have pointed to the fact that donors, while ostensibly promoting the growth of a politically neutral and independent “civil society,” in Ukraine, tend to support organizations that they prefer for ideological or pragmatic reasons. Donor priorities and strategies do not necessarily reflect the culture, context, or expressed needs of their “target groups” (a subject discussed in the context of health development by Michele Rivkin-Fish).
This cultural dissonance is particularly evident in language. Donors use concepts and English words, like “feminism,” “advocacy,” “training,” and “empowerment,” that are unfamiliar or even incomprehensible to many Eastern Europeans. In other cases, foreign organizations use words like “volunteer,” that have very different connotations in Ukraine or Russia than they do in the United States or Western Europe. I experienced some of these problems of linguistic and cultural translation firsthand. When I worked at the Open Society Institute, a New York-based foundation that works extensively in former Soviet states, we spent much time trying to explain our understanding of the concept of “advocacy” to Russian speakers. Many of our grantees understood the word as being applicable to any activity to protect the rights and well-being of a member of their organization’s constituency. Organizations that presented proposals in line with our own definition of “advocacy” as strategic work to change public policy had a marked advantage in getting funding. When I went over my planned interview questions for this project with my Russian tutor, he told me that the words I wanted to use were not intelligible in Russian, though I had been using them with Russian-speaking colleagues for years. I sometimes found my interview subjects puzzled by my use of those Western words that had not passed into their own highly specific professional vocabulary; these loan words became intelligible only to tiny communities of people in contact with certain types of foreign organizations.
On the other hand, the shift from the disingenuous Soviet use of a phrase to its more straightforward international use could be a revelation. Layma Geydar, a lesbian activist, told me:
I remember the feeling of catharsis when I understood what “human rights” meant. I read the [Universal] Declaration on Human Rights and something inside me changed, clicked…“human rights” was like an insult in the Soviet Union. And suddenly I understood what it was about, and why it was necessary for me, personally.
Most of the people I interviewed worked at NGOs that received international funding. Most either spoke English, had studied abroad, or had been exposed to foreign ideas related to their area of work. Many of those who had studied abroad cited that as a decisive turning point in their lives, one of the principal reasons that they developed a political consciousness and became active in political and social causes. While this points to the transformative effects of exposure to foreign culture (something I myself experienced in my time in Ukraine), it is also likely to reflect donor preference for supporting the work of people who share their frame of reference and basic values. NGOs and activists that speak the language of donors—whether literally or metaphorically—have a marked advantage in getting funding. As Hrycak points out, organizations that have a genuine “grassroots” approach but promote more traditionalist or Soviet-era perspectives are less likely to receive funding. (Natalia Nagorna challenged this idea in my interview with her, saying that many donor-funded programs for women promote traditional gender roles, focusing on motherhood and family unity no matter what the circumstances.)
Feminism vs. gender harmony
As foreign words and concepts enter the vocabulary of Ukrainian and Russian NGOs, meaning has often been transmuted. As Hrycak points out, the new meanings assumed by loan words reflect the tension between foreign strategies and local realities, and the degree to which locals have adapted foreign priorities to their own needs. These new meanings were often evident in my interviews.
One of the clearest examples is in the words “gender” and “feminism.” Irina Konchenkova told me that Yulia Timoshenko, then Prime Minister of Ukraine, was “not a gender woman,” meaning that she did not take gender into account in her policies and did nothing to advance the cause of what Konchenkova called “gender balance.” When translated into English, the phrase “gender woman” is meaningless. But if we substitute the word “feminist” for “gender,” Konchenkova’s statement sounds natural and (depending on your definition of feminism, a contentious concept in any language) quite logical. Timoshenko did not place women’s equality high on her list of political priorities; she was more than willing to be the only woman in the all-male club of Ukrainian politics, as Natalia Tochelinkova points out in another interview. But Timoshenko consciously cultivated an image as a nationalist mother-goddess. Konchenkova herself notes that Timoshenko created an image of herself as a classically Ukrainian woman, winning the hearts of traditional Western Ukrainians with her classic braid and newfound fluency in Ukrainian. This showed a masterful manipulation of politicized gender identities. Timoshenko is not a feminist, but her political role is highly gendered.
Why doesn’t Konchenkova use the word “feminism”? Like many of the Ukrainian and Russian women I met, she makes it clear that she does not accept “feminism.” Instead, she supports what she calls “gender balance”, “harmony”:
Feminism and gender balance are simply completely different things. I, for example, am not a feminist. Absolutely. So you simply have to make a clear definition of where the understanding of gender ends, and feminism begins. I don’t know. I’m against extremism in everything. I’m for harmony.
While many strains of feminist discourse encompass ideas of gender not incompatible with those held by Konchenkova, she takes “feminism” and “gender” to be mutually exclusive ideologies. This reflects the desire to avoid associating oneself with the label “feminist,” which is stigmatized not only in Eastern Europe, but also in many countries, including the United States. More specifically, it reflects the post-Soviet resistance to “feminism” produced by highly negative experiences under Soviet rule. And, finally, it reflects some of the peculiarities of gender politics in post-Soviet societies. Though women face very high levels of discrimination according to a range of measures, it is widely believed that women were better able to cope with the aftermath of communism, showing greater flexibility, resilience, and adaptability than men did. Women were often the first to lose their jobs when state industries scaled back, but they were also leaders in creating new kinds of income-generating activities—notably, non-profit organizations that filled gaps left by the shrinking and impoverished state (Phillips 2000, Hrycak 2001). Like Oksana Vasilenko in my interview with her, many of the women I’ve spoken with in Eastern Europe have told me that women are “stronger” than men, that they are better at surviving.
Disturbingly low life expectancies and very high rates of alcoholism and drug addiction among post-Soviet men point to a gendered health crisis produced, in part, by social expectations of all-powerful masculinity coupled with an unstable economic climate that leaves many men feeling helpless and inadequate. These feelings fuel substance abuse, domestic abuse, and other problems that have a tremendous negative effect on the lives of women and children. It is therefore understandable that some women activists feel that “gender harmony” and an improvement of the situation of men with women is more important than the advancement of women alone—after all, most women go home to a man at the end of the day.
In her article, “Why I Am Not A Feminist,” Mira Marody writes, “While in Western societies an individual confronts the social system fighting for her or his rights, in Poland the society-at-large was put in opposition with the state…the social-individual distinction predominant in Western societies was replaced by a public-private distinction in Poland.” The promotion of “gender harmony” rather than “feminism” may reflect a desire to improve the overall well-being of the family unit rather than fighting for the advancement of women as a separate group whose identity is distinct from the mixed-gender family units to which most women belong.
Passion and professionalism
Another issue that scholars like Hrycak, Phillips and Pishchikova, among others, have raised is the “professionalization” and even commercialization of activism through foreign funding mechanisms. On one hand, it is unrealistic to expect people to work for the greater good on a strictly volunteer basis: few Ukrainians or Russians can afford to devote large amounts of energy to work that offers no economic reward. It is standard practice for grants to include money for the time spent on a project by NGO staff. While the young feminist activists at FEMEN, probably the most radical of my interview subjects, disagreed, it is generally accepted that activists will try to get grants to fund their activities and compensate them for their time. As Phillips discusses at length in her ethnography of women activists in Ukraine and as I observed in my work with people with a history of drug use, the creation of NGO can also be a means of economic survival for people who cannot find work in more traditional areas, whether because of discrimination or a lack of marketable skills or experience. Phillips found that even if her subjects did not receive salaries for their work, marginal benefits—for example, double helpings of humanitarian aid packages—made their NGO work a means of survival.
On the other hand, many donors intentionally or inadvertently promote a kind of “professionalism” that mimics their own bureaucratic, managerial structure. This can create a jarring contrast with the passion and idealism that often motivates people to become activists. Moreover, donor practices can strike local activists and organizations as irrational, misguided, or even cruel, and the instability of donor funding is a great source of stress. These tensions can contribute to disillusionment, burnout and anger, which I often saw in my work and which were evident in some of my interviews. For example, Galaktionov told me, “When I was an activist, it thrilled me. It doesn’t anymore. It’s all work…but now, thank God…I watch as my professionalism grows.” At the same time, many of my interview subjects complained about the fact that they were worn out by working for free in their activist projects.
Another theme that emerged in my research was use of the word “activist” to describe only people lobbying for the rights of the group to which they belonged. This was particularly true among people involved in work related to HIV and to drug use. When I asked the question, “how did you become an activist?” some of my interview subjects were quick to explain that they themselves were not activists, because they didn’t have HIV or a history of drug use. Though they were actively involved in work to secure political and social change, their status as paid workers advancing the well-being of a group to which they did not belong set them apart from activists. A more abstract sense of solidarity was not enough to define a person as an “activist.”
This narrow definition of an “activist” reflects a rigid understanding of identity politics that is, I would argue, advanced in part by international policies to include “affected populations”—people living with HIV, people who use drugs—in policy dialogues and program design. These policies were created to draw on the invaluable insight of these groups, and to give them a say in designing programs meant to help them. The importance of this first goal is clear, and is evident in the nuanced views expressed in some of my interviews with activists who have a history of drug use and sex work. There is a dramatic difference between the approaches to sex work taken by Irina Mishina and by FEMEN, and, as Mishina explains, her experience has played an important role in shaping her philosophy.
But such policies also institutionalize people’s professional identities as members of “affected populations,” at times allowing these identities to take precedence over alternative identities—for example, someone’s identity as a doctor, a director of an organization, or a social worker. An institutionalized identity oriented around past personal experience or biological fact can have negative consequences. Though an increasing number of HIV and harm reduction organizations make an effort to employ drug users (sometimes active, sometimes former), the jobs given to people with a history of drug use are often lower-paid and have fewer opportunities for advancement. At the same time, the idea that someone is qualified for a job purely by their personal experience can make it difficult for organizations to take measures to ensure that their employees are competent. On a more abstract level, the idea that people can only take part in activism related to their immediate, literal identity could limit broader, unifying movements for social justice. I should, however, emphasize the fact that this narrow definition is by no means universal—I have met many people in Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere in the region who consider their activist activities to be a matter of passion and principle rather than self-defense.
“Activism is for the soul”
For me, the most powerful theme that emerged in my interviews was the idea of activism as redemption. Many of the people I interviewed considered their activism a way of redeeming the suffering that they endured or inflicted, using their traumatic experience to help them alleviate the suffering of others and fight injustice, making amends for their mistakes by helping others in similar situations. Galaktionov told me,
Activism is more for your soul…in my life I caused people harm. I used to want so much to compensate for that. And now I’m not so worried about it anymore. But I can’t get away from it, and I try, if possible, to do good….
Anastasia (interview to be posted later) went even farther, explaining that she once coped with loneliness and loss by using heroin, but now uses activism as a better kind of medicine. She interprets her survival as a sign that her life has meaning and purpose, that she was destined to help others like herself. Oksana Vasilenko takes her unlikely survival of a near-death experience in the penitentiary system as a kind of defiance, a triumph that has allowed her to speak out against the injustices she experienced. Past suffering has given these activists enormous compassion and a profound commitment to their work.
The name of this site, “Pineapples and Caviar,” is a reference to a promise made by Chernovetsky, the former mayor of Kiev, to give all the city’s grandmothers a lifetime supply of pineapples and caviar if they voted for him in the next election. The phrase evokes the cynicism of contemporary Ukrainian politics, as well as the history of deprivation that makes pineapples and caviar so appealing to a generation of widows who lived through some of the most traumatic events of the twentieth century. Yet at the same time it suggests a dream of a better future and a world of comfort and abundance.
I conducted many formal interviews and benefited from even more informal discussions and interactions with colleagues and friends. I had a selection of interviews transcribed and I translated selections that best reflected the themes that had emerged in the course of my research. The versions on this site are edited for length. Where my questions served mainly as prompts, I’ve deleted them in order to make the interviews read more easily. Where the interviews were a conversation, I have left my questions in the text. I apologize for any errors of translation.
My research focused on Ukraine, but I also interviewed a few Russian acquaintances. I found interview subjects primarily through contacts from my work at the Open Society Institute and the US Embassy; recipients of foreign aid are thus over-represented. My selection of interview subjects was not meant to be either representative or random, though I made an effort to meet with people of different backgrounds and working in different areas: feminists aspiring to a liberal American or Scandinavian model, a grassroots organization of young feminists opposed to prostitution, ex-prisoners, drug users, sex workers, lesbians, people living with HIV.
Just after I finished my interviews, Viktor Yanukovych was elected President of Ukraine. This marked a major reversal; the Orange Revolution had been prompted by evidence of fraud in his election campaign, and the victory of his opponents, Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Timoshenko, was heralded as a triumph for Western-style liberal democracy and civil society–much like the Arab Spring this year. Yushchenko has now left politics, Timoshenko has been arrested, and the work of many of the people I interviewed has become much more difficult. HIV prevention programs, for example, have encountered major obstacles because of renewed political resistance: substitution treatment doctors have been jailed and the operation of harm reduction services has become much more difficult. FEMEN members, too, have been arrested. They continue their campaign to make it illegal to buy sex, as Ukraine prepares for a flood of tourists during the 2012 EuroCup. FEMEN’s “topless feminists” have become a fixture in international news, and I hope that my interview with them will help give deeper insight into their ideology and organizing methods.
I want to thank the Institute of International Education for the Critical Language Enhancement Award and Fulbright grant that made this project possible. Most of all, I am enormously grateful to the people who shared their thoughts and experiences with me during the course of my research.
Hrycak, Alexandra (2001). “The Dilemmas of Civic Revival: Ukrainian Women since Independence.” Journal of Ukrainian Studies 26, nos. 1–2.
Hrycak, Alexandra (2006). “Foundation Feminism and the Articulation of Hybrid Feminisms in Post-Socialist Ukraine.” East European Politics and Societies, Vol. 20, No. 1, p. 69–100.
Marody, Mira (1993). “Why I Am Not a Feminist: Some Remarks on the Problem of Gender Identity in the United States and Poland.” Social Research, 60:4.
Phillips, Sarah D. (2000). NGOs in Ukraine: The Makings of a “Women’s Space”? The Anthropology of East Europe Review 18(2): 23-29.
Phillips, Sarah D. (2008). Women’s Social Activism in the New Ukraine: Development and the Politics of Differentiation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Pishchikova, Kateryna (2010). Promoting Democracy in Postcommunist Ukraine: The Contradictory Outcomes of US Aid to Women’s NGOs. Boulder, Lynne Rienner.
Rivkin-Fish, Michele (2000). “Health Development Meets the End of State Socialism: Visions of Democratization, Women’s Health, and Social Well-Being for Contemporary Russia.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 24: 77–100.