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Anthropological Quarterly 80.1 (2007) 259-263

Reviewed by
Rachael Stryker
Mills College
Julie Hemment's Empowering Women in Russia: Activism, Aid, and NGOs. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Universit Press, March 2007, 208 pp.

Julie Hemment's Empowering Women in Russia is a patient and deeply embodied tale of one anthropologist's commitment to conduct Participatory Action Research (PAR) with women activists as they move to concretely address issues of gender, power and empowerment in post-Soviet Russia. Part critique of the theorizing and strategizing of international aid in post-Soviet transition, and part collaborative ethnography, the book's main goal is to both translate, and enable, women's navigation of the local contradictions that shape post-Soviet feminisms, citizenships and activisms amidst faltering market reforms, a reliably absent Russian state, and an initially promising emerging "third sector" largely comprised of non-government organizations (NGOs) since the mid-1990s. The book begins with Hemment's first meetings with informal women's groups in Tver, a provincial city outside Moscow. It then traces her collaboration with one such group (Zhenskii Svet) in its goals to enter the third sector by formalizing itself via state recognition and international funding, and the group's partially successful management of a Women's Crisis Center and a Center for Women's History and Gender Studies. The story is enhanced by Hemment's commitment to intellectual partnerships with the women throughout the process and her close treatment of the stories of two interlocutors and Zhenskii [End Page 259] Svet collaborators, Valentina and Oktobriana: the former, a history professor and founder of Zhenskii Svet who senses some opportunity for the advancement of Russian women through perestroika-era style discussion groups and temporary gendered coalitions that promote localized strategies to meet broader transformational goals; the latter, an unpretentious, enthusiastic healthcare worker literally bankrupted by transition and thus heartened by the promises and practice of Western aid institutions. The women act as two archetypical activists in a historical moment in Russia where grassroots optimisms and economic survival operate to compel women into the third sector.

As the book unfolds, we find that while the women's engagements with, and within, the third sector provide valuable economic, political and personal opportunities for gendered community that did not exist for them before, such global interventions are stymied by the unrealistic political demands and cultural incompetence on the part of NGO's to satisfy Valentina and Oktobriana's larger political hopes for women's equality, as well as those of the other women with which Hemment collaborates. At the same time that Valentina's Center for the History of Women's History and Gender Studies flourishes with grants from such organizations as the Ford Foundation, her dreams of an organically-led, practice-oriented, local women's movement are precluded by NGO's demands for hierarchy, a preoccupation with vanguardism, and dualistic thought. And despite her best efforts, Oktobriana cannot keep a Women's Crisis Center afloat because her lack of connections and access to Soviet-era patronage systems result in discrepancies between the Center's economic circumstances and the professionalism required of an NGO affiliate. Ultimately, Hemment argues, despite the skills, energy and vision of women activists, the future of "NGOization" in Russia as a vehicle for empowering women is uncertain because, "the third sector does not deliver what it promises: rather than allowing a grassroots to flourish, [it] provides a structural and symbolic framework for the reproduction of former elites of the Soviet regime" (144).

Hemment's initial chapters focus on clarifying the history and various positionings of feminism in Russia in relation to contemporary Russian women's activism. Post-Soviet women's search for cultural and political meaning as feminists began over one hundred years ago, when perevolutionary suffragettes, socialist women, radical feminists and Christian feminists were active, sometimes uniquely and sometimes in unison, in the project of improving women's status in the realms of family, work, and/or the state. After the Revolution, the Soviet state slowly began to appropriate the language of women...


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