Posted on Thursday, July 16th, 2009 at 6:28 am
Author: Natalia Antonova
This may seem like an odd question to ask in the aftermath of the murder of Russian human rights activist Natalia Estemirova, but please bear with me.
The mainstream of Russian society is, I would argue, undeniably macho. At the very least, this is the image that people often like to project. Russian women may work as scientists, criminal investigators and engineers, for example, but they do so knowing that they shouldn’t “get ahead of themselves.” Men are the ones that, whether on the surface or not, inevitably run society and they won’t let you forget it. Even in progressive families, young women are often reminded that for a marriage to be successful, it’s important to at least make a man think he is making all the major decisions. A decidedly cloying, submissive, sugary version of femininity is worshiped in the media and on holidays such as March 8th. Internationally, Russian women are understood as perpetually sexually available receptacles.
And yet, Russian women are being murdered in high-profile killings, in circumstances murky enough to make a thriller author blush. Anna Politkovskaya. Anastasiya Baburova. And now, Natalia Estemirova.
This begs the question – if women really are “the weaker sex,” why are they dangerous enough to dispatch with bullets?
Now, Slavic women have long been taught to disassociate themselves from the violence committed against their sisters. As prominent feminist Maria Dmitryeva put it to me – “We’re taught to think – ‘I am a good girl. And bad things only happen to bad girls.’ It’s a concept of false safety.” Although Estemirova’s killing is publicly being met with shock, privately, I can imagine most people are thinking – “why did she stick her neck out in the first place?”
Estemirova worked in the Caucus, arguably one of the most macho regions of macho Russia. She investigated human rights abuse in Chechnya. Although internationally, consensus has already been reached and “pro-government” figures are thought as the likely culprits, the truth is, this woman could have crossed just about anyone. In a region with a history of war and ongoing violence, plenty of people may have wanted Natalia Estemirova dead.
People are used to seeing Russia as a place with top-down murder conspiracies that inevitably originate in the Kremlin. The truth is, Russia is a huge place that still operates under the saying “the sky is high, the Czar is far” – meaning that both great distances and cultural and ideological barriers make enforcing both the law and private interests in Moscow much different than from enforcing them in, say, Ingushetia, where Estemirova’s body was found.
What I keep coming back to, however, isn’t the mystery of Estemirova’s death, but that which is most obvious about it. You destroy that which you believe in. And Estemirova’s killers must have believed in Estemirova – believed in her power, believed in the danger she presented to them and their methods – especially when you consider the fact that she was kidnapped in plain sight, a gesture as terrifying as it is symbolic.
Both outsiders and many Russians themselves have a mythologizing approach toward Russian and, in general, Slavic femininity. A “real” Russian woman is beautiful, of course, and, what’s more important, she does not “threaten” a man’s view of himself as fundamentally better. This is a fantasy that is belied by the existence of women like Natalia Estemirova, the ones who, like their male counterparts, can only be subdued with a gun.
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