History has proven that Russian women are forces to be reckoned with. They have left their marks on the world throughout the ages, and new waves of cultural arbiters continue to do so. From anarchists to great leaders, from activists to pioneers in the arts and sciences, here are just a few of the most compelling women in the history of Russia.
Catherine the Great
One of Russia’s longest reigning rulers, Catherine the Great served her people well from 1762-1796. She only came into power after she colluded to dethrone her unpopular husband, a move that would then place her at the helm. As one of Russia’s most revered leaders, she championed the arts during her time on the throne. She began collecting artworks, which would go on to form the extensive, world-class Hermitage collection. The tsaritsa also demonstrated she was a deft head of state: she expanded Russia’s borders, reached a peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire, and established her nation as a world force.
The collective made global headlines for their protest song inside Moscow’s Church of Christ Our Saviour, and subsequent arrest and detention. Originally an activist group protesting the treatment of Russia’s marginalised LGBTQ+ community, the members expanded their activism to protest against Putin’s government. Now global pop-culture icons, the balaclava-clad women exposed Putin’s intolerance to dissidence, and people around the world rallied behind them during their incarceration. Several of the members were part of the equally anarchistic Viona collective previously, which were also known for their outrageous protest performances and stunts.
Born in 1835 into an aristocratic family, Filosofova was one of Russia’s first women’s rights activists and a social philanthropist. Upon marrying into a family of country gentry, she grew aware of the mistreatment of serfs (indentured servants), in particular the frequent sexual exploitation of female serfs. As a result, she began to champion the rights of impoverished women. Recognising that education was a tool for empowerment, independence and financial betterment, Filosofova set about educating underprivileged women. In between all of her endeavors, this trailblazer managed to raise six children as well.
As a political activist, Baronova began to campaign against Putin during the 2011 national electoral violation controversy, which saw the streets fill up with protesters criticising Putin’s re-election amid a polling booth scandal. She initially questioned her allegiance to Putin when the President imprisoned oil oligarch and government critic, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in 2005. Many believe the imprisonment was an act of retribution for Khodorkovsky’s vocal dissidence. Now, Baranova has set her sights on Parliament herself and has entered into the 2018 elections. Although it is unlikely she will win, she has created positive groundswell around her, supported by many young women who believe now is the time for change.
The journalist, writer and human rights activist was shot dead outside her Moscow home on 7 October 2007 by contracted killers. A staunch critic of the Kremlin, her assassination is largely considered to be payback for doggedly pursuing State-directed human rights violations, as well as government corruption relating to the second Chechen War. Whoever ordered the killing remains unaccountable, although the Kremlin, high-ranking officials and elite business men entangled in government corruption remain on the top of the suspect list. Politkovsky’s murder also served to caution and silence other investigations. Despite this, her death has inspired a new wave of journalists – many of whom are women – who continue to hold the government to account.
In 1963, Tereshkova became the first woman to travel into space. At just 26, she spent three days outside the atmosphere, orbiting the earth 48 times. Inspired by Yuri Gagarin, this woman of humble beginnings applied for the Soviet space program despite having no experience as a pilot. Five women undertook eighteen months of training. They were tested on their coping abilities in extended periods of isolation, as well as extreme and zero gravity conditions. She was the only one of the five to successfully complete the training. Since her intergalactic adventure, Tereshkova has gone on to promote Soviet and Russian science around the world. And despite being in her eighties, she continues to do so today.
Akhmatova (1889-1966) is considered to be one of the greats in Russian literature. At the age of 21, she joined the St. Petersburg-based poetry collective, The Alchemists. This group went on to create a literary style that was defined by its clarity and articulation, which was a direct response to the vagueness of Russian symbolism at the time. The poet’s work, which was known for its feminine grace, detailed the intricacies of romance and intimacy. Despite introducing degrees of patriotism and religion into her work during the Russian Revolution, she was branded as ‘bourgeois and aristocratic’ due to her desire to retain the self-reflexive nature of her poems. After WWII, she was denounced by the State, and much of her work was destroyed. Akhmatova’s most notable work and tribute to her suffering under Stalin’s regime, Rekviem (Requiem), was only published after her death in 1989.
Not only was Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850—1891) the first woman in Europe to earn a doctorate in mathematics, but she went on to become the first female appointed as a professor in the field. At a time when many universities were only just beginning to accept women as students, Kovalevskaya entered a marriage of convenience so she could study in Germany. In 1883, she accepted an invitation to lecture in mathematics at the University of Stockholm, which transitioned into a tenured professorship by 1889. The scientist was the first woman to join the board of academic journal, Acta Mathematica, and the first woman elected as member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. On top of her maths and academic achievements, she also wrote novels, plays and essays.
Mukshina (1889-1953) became one of the Soviet Union’s most eminent sculptors under Lenin’s Plan for Monumental Propaganda. She created Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, the iconic sculpture still prominent in Moscow’s cityscape and the emblem of Soviet ambition. The sculptor and her project were selected to represent the USSR at the 1936 World Exhibition in Paris. The statue then went on to become the logo of the esteemed Soviet-era film production company, Mosfilm. Alongside sculpture, she taught fine arts, painted, designed costumes and made textiles as well.
Hailing from Perm in the Urals, Kosteniuk took up chess at the age of five, trained by her ex-army dad. By the age of 11 she became the sole breadwinner for her family, was a grandmaster at 14, and went on to claim the world vice-championship while still in her teenage years. The prodigy remains at the top of her game and is known for her sharp tactical mindset and steely aggression. On top of this, the chess mega-star is giving the game an image overhaul. Proud of both her brain and looks, Kosteniuk undermines the stereotypes that chess is a slow game for old men, and that women have to be masculine to compete against them.
Pugacheva is a Soviet musical icon and one of Russia’s biggest stars. The singer weaves Slavic music sensibilities with Western pop stylings into her unique brand of pop, which has earned her fans across Russia and the former Soviet Union. She plied her trade in relative obscurity for around ten years. Then, she was catapulted into stardom when she took the grand prize at the 1975 Golden Orpheus Song Festival in Bulgaria. Pugacheva continued to win over crowds during the late ’70s and ’80s, and regularly performed at the big Soviet festivals as well as sold out shows of her own. She earned the title of National Artist of The USSR in 1991, and even participated in the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest.