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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 realities—the 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 literary reviews.

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 press.

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 lives.

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 alone.

The press say very little about this. The press has very little to say about women in general. In 1996, women—including prostitutes, criminals, and pop stars—were 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 German army."

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 were decapitated.

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 services.

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 sons—NATO soldiers—back 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 Chechny—all 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 coverage.

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. We—women writers, publishers, editors, and journalists—are 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 common interests.

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 of view.

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 democracy.

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 Journalists.