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Book Reviews (5 titles)

Amy Caiazza, Mothers and Soldiers. Gender, Citizenship and Civil Society in Contemporary Russia. Routledge. New York and London 2002.

Elena Zdravomyslova

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1This book examines the importance of gender and citizenship ideologies and the opportunities available for interest groups and related civic initiatives in relation to the role of conscripts mother’s in contemporary Russia. Amy Ciazza asks: what is the role of gender culture in the development of the Russian civil society? The author argues that gender-typing of citizenship and popular beliefs about the different civic obligations of men and women can be efficiently mobilized by interest groups that wish to exercise pressure on the policy makers.

2The author is correct to conclude that Russian perceptions of civic participation have never been gender neutral. Both state ideologies and popular views share the basic assumption of fundamental (but not essentialist) gender difference and deduce legitimate differences in gender roles and civil participation. The core of man’s civic duty is obligatory military service. The core of women’s civic role is motherhood combined with waged labour. However, this gendered citizenship seems to be in crisis in Russian society, at least in male terms, since the late Soviet period. The author focuses her attention on the 1990s when Russia was still in the situation of the crucial institutional transformation with the uncertain rules of the game in public realm.

3During the post-Soviet period, the crisis of gendered citizenship reveals itself in the mass evasion of obligatory military service which is plotted not just by the draftees themselves but by their families and often with the help of civic organizations. The mostly tacit and seldom articulate resistance stemmed from both particularly harsh conditions in the military and wavering public support for the Chechen war. The crisis of obligatory military service in Russia influences not only the military and conscripts but all the whole of Russian society and makes an impact on women’s participation in civic affairs.

4Women care. In most societies this is the part of their gendered self. But then the questions are: what is the repertoire of the care; where does the care reach to; and what are the target objects of such care? This makes difference crucial to distinct gender orders. In the case of Russian women’s civic organizations their care is not limited to the private life of their families: their version of maternal care has political potential, reaching out to the political realm. Women care about human rights, about economic provision for families, about military reform and alternative military service. Sometimes they organise in order to achieve concrete goals positioned by the shared understanding of the care priorities. Obviously not just women’s status in society is their concern: their ‘female consciousness’ as Amy Ciazza calls it (referring to Reinhart) extends the limits of traditional definitions of woman’s gender role.

5The book starts with two introductory chapters which give the reader a comprehensive framework for the following discussion. In the first chapter a general concept of the book is outlined as well as its theoretical underpinning. In the second the context of the Russian political-institutional opportunity structure is presented. The author bases her argument on a comparative study of four cases of the Russian interest groups that differ in their policies, political importance and in their gender ideologies. The data includes structured in-depth interviews with activists and experts as well as evidence from the media, legal documents, pamphlets and leaflets and mass opinion surveys which the author uses to illustrate her arguments in terms of her theoretical model.

6After these two introductory chapters the text is divided into two main sections: the first focusing on gender ideologies and motherhood policy and the second on gender ideology and military service policy. In the first of these two parts the author discusses the women’s policies of two very different organizations: the political movement “Women of Russia”; and the Moscow Center for Gender Studies, an academic unit and NGO. The second section analyses two organizations that strive to exercise influence on the military service policies in the Russia: Russian Committee of Soldiers Mothers - RCSM (which claims to have 300 branches all over the country and which has been active since the late 1980s) and Antimilitarist Radical Association (a small civic initiative based in Moscow, established in 1995).

7The development of the theoretical model in the first two chapters is clear and inspiring. The author develops her argument on the basis of political opportunities structure approach developed by the theorists of social movements which put emphasis on stable and changing aspects of political context on the emergence, development and forms of civic participation and collective action (McAdam 1982; Tarrow 1989; Tilly 1978). By political opportunities they mean elements of political context that encourage and constrain collective mobilization. They focus on static and dynamic aspects of the rules of the game in political institutions and look into the ways in which they affect the levels of mobilization, strategies and outcomes of protest (Kitschelt 1986; Kriesi 1995; Rucht 1996). Political opportunity structures comprises four main dimensions:  (1) the relative openness of the institutionalized political system; (2) the level of stability of elite alignments; (3) the role of elite allies; and (4) the state’s capacity for repression. Recent work has pointed to the need of distinguishing between the institutional opportunities and discursive or ideological opportunities shaped by political cultures. Ideological opportunities determine which constructions of reality resonate with mass beliefs and which actors and claims are considered legitimate in the public discourse.

8Following this approach, which proved to be heuristic in different contexts, Amy Caiazza differentiates institutional and ideological opportunities. She correctly admits that in the transitional societies political opportunities are structured very differently than those in most consolidated Western democracies. Describing Russian political institutions in 1990s she speaks about instability in the ‘rules of the game’, the relative closure of the political institutions and the lack of responsiveness for the interest groups especially in traditional hermetically-sealed field of the military policies. Economic hardship and inequality made it difficult for interest groups to rely on significant resources from the Russian citizens; and the ‘Soviet legacy of oppression’ made it difficult for groups to network and mobilize popular support because of fundamental distrust in politics and political activism … (pp.8- 9) A relatively unresponsive and inefficient government meant that opportunities to influence policies were limited. The new constitutional design, the institutional crisis of 1993, new electoral law rules as well as the Chechen crisis all created an unclear institutional background for mobilization. On the other hand political opportunities allowed the very existence of the initiatives and their in some cases surprising achievements.

9It is possible to elaborate the major theoretical model Caiazza uses. It would be possible to use the concept of political opportunities to discuss civic activism in contemporary Russia, and to expand such a discussion further in order to account for the specific barriers for civic participation caused by the culture of networking and the modes of using social capital (in terms of Bourdieu and not Putnam) in order to find solutions for the families and individuals concerned. On this note, several questions present themselves: why should citizens politicize their demands if they can find necessary solutions using private channels? What is more risky and costly? What is more costly is obvious for a rational Russian citizen. However, if private channels for evading certain civic obligations (i.e. military draft) did not work it would result in a mass societal mobilization on these issues. Path-dependency in corruption is the major cultural obstacle for any civil society. However, this corruption is framed by the Russian citizens as a legitimate social arrangement necessary to achieve justice when proper reforms are not undertaken and put into action.

10Another aspect of ‘political opportunities’ that needs more scrutiny than given in Cianzaa’s study is, in my view, its regional aspect. In the case of Russian Federation, national, regional and municipal opportunity structures differ significantly. Differences in regional political regimes have their impact on different strategies of regional civic initiatives and different framings of their agenda and identities. There are regions where Soldiers Mothers work hand in hand with regional military commissariats in a corporatist way. In other situations they radically oppose the local military. Another organisation, ARA probably only has a chance of functioning effectively in Moscow and there are no branches of these organization in the regions. That is why ARA remains a group with small visibility in spite of the attractiveness of its agenda for the democratic public.

11In general the approach and empirical research used in the book seems to me extremely Moscow centered which is rather typical for post-Soviet studies (though there are a few exceptions). It overlooks regional differences in political opportunities, mobilization strategies and success which are essential for Russian civil society and the Russian political landscape.

12Another aspect of political opportunities mentioned in the book but not included in the basic conceptual scheme is the trans-national level of political opportunities such as global civil society pressure on the Russian authorities and international support for civic human rights initiatives that in turn provide the chance for mobilization of the domestic human rights NGOs. Nowadays it is an especially relevant level of analysis both when the an ‘anti-spy’ campaign has marked the relationship between Putin’s regime and civil society and when conservative parliamentarians denounce the provision of Western resources to the Committee of Soldiers Mothers.

13The concept of ideological opportunities also needs to be expanded. Ideological opportunities are not limited to gender beliefs. The possible mobilization of female consciousness that could be could called a ‘Lissistrata strategy’ should be underpinned by other – diagnostic and prognostic framings - developed by the groups. The master framework of human rights is currently one of the major pillars on which different groups ground their framing strategies. The reviewer’s own research shows that the human rights ideological package really became the master framework for civic initiatives and NGOs in Russia.

14Another theoretical issue that needs further clarification is the issue of the success of civic initiatives. In the social movement literature this concept has always been tricky. From the perspective of political science it is clearly the political influence that a group is able to exercise. Caiazza even suggests the formal criteria for success in the case of the political movement “Women of Russia”, success being measured by the number of parliamentary decisions supported by the Women of Russia faction in the Parliament that passed the majority vote. However, for sociologists it is clear that success is not limited to the accomplishment of a goal formulated in the program of organization, especially when speaking not about a political party but about grass roots activism. One should take into account other aspects of success, such as the very visibility of the group and legitimacy of its existence. The movement’s effects are not always immediate and apparent. Sometimes the impact is rippling with effects experienced decades after the movement's most intense period of agitation.

15The organization itself has a complicated vision of its success. Recently (November 2004) Soldiers Mothers announced that it was going to establish the political party as an act of despair because other political actors are not able to address the issues of demilitarization and Chechen war.  If  Soldiers Mother’ is registered as political party and takes part in the 2007 election should that be considered a success or the evidence of the failure of the peacemaking activities of the civic initiative? For the reviewer the answer is far from obvious.

16The tricky thing is that the success can be ascribed to an organization when it is just one of many actors that have contributed to certain political or cultural change. For example, the Soldier’ Mothers success in advocating the adoption of the Law on Alternative Military Service is impossible to distinguish from the influence of various parliamentary factions, the reformist branch of the military and the contribution of a list of influential interest groups. In the reviewer’s opinion it would be better to speak about the success of the social movement whose aim was to establish an alternative to the military draft and to see what were the strategies of all the actors who contributed to success.

17The main focus of the book is the very idea of mobilising mothers and the role of traditional identities and relevant framings in the development of transitional civil society space. This idea is proved also by the research on ethnic mobilization in Russia. However, I would point out the idea of femininity and motherhood in Russia is far from traditional. To repeat again it is the path dependency from the Soviet period that the role of a mother is not secluded in child-caring, child-rearing, nor domestic care since at least 1917 (and even before in the social democratic rhetoric) the public role of the ‘new’ woman who had to fully participate in social life was part of an ideological package: meaning that a woman has civil duties of public participation. Motherhood ideas can underpin certain duties and rights of the new woman: such as her duty to economically contribute to the family budget or even to be a major breadwinner in the family or the duty for civic control of the military draft. But the image of a radical fighting for the human rights during motherhood is quite distant from the traditional understanding of motherhood itself. That is why the Russian mobilization of motherhood differs strategically from the silent mourning protest of the Madras of Plaza de la Mayo, but instead uses use lobbying, picketing, marching, manipulation and various business-like strategies.

18The case studies presented in the book provide rich information about policy making in Russia, especially on the Family Code and military policy. The perspective is comparative throughout. The researcher locates case studies within the broader context of the different  opportunities opened for their agenda and activities of interest groups  In the second section Caiazza contrasts political organization Women of Russia and Moscow Centre for Gender Studies convincingly showing that the family politics of the parliamentary faction underpinned by traditional ideology of women’s competence was more successful at political activism than academic feminists trying to introduce the liberal version of the equal opportunities concept to the parliamentary commission dealing with the issues of ‘women, family and children’. But why should one compare these groups that are so different in their strategies? In my view, in each case success has to be measured in its own way. If a political party’s success obviously can be measured by its electoral presence and the viability of its proposals in the Duma, the success of a think-tank or of academic unit is a different one. It includes the introduction of gender studies in the universities, the network of researchers doing gender studies and a methodological mainstreaming of gender approach for instance

19The most interesting section is chapter six dealing with the radical mobilization of mothering by the Russian Committee of Soldiers Mothers. Caiazza gives a very good account of the diverse strategies used by this organization in its efforts to influence military policy in Russia. Among these strategies are political organization building, networking and international support. The exploitation of traditional ideas about women and motherhood shows to be one of the major resources of Soldiers Mothers. The researcher argues that the success of the group is basically due to its maternal image which resonates to popular gender beliefs in Russia. To the reviewer, though these ideological resources are very important because they help to legitimize the group activities vis-a-vis military patriarchs and the broader public they are not sufficient to explain the successes of the movement itself. The branches of Soldiers Mothers organizations exist all over Russia. Soldiers Mothers units exist in 300 Russian towns. Not all of them follow the radical agenda of CSM. But anyway all of them demand better draft conditions and fight violations of human rights in the army. At the same time, their agenda is shared by other groups such as the ‘Mothers’s Right’ Foundation, ARA and others. However, the speakers for all the anti-military movement in public opinion are Soldiers Mothers and this is not only due to their gender ideology but also due to skilful agitation campaigning, networking and organization. Organizational networking is important resource for the committee. Another reason for the visibility of Soldiers Mothers is the growth of mass grievances and escapism caused by the military draft and military policies in Chechnya. If these problems were not considered of priority for the Russian families Soldiers Mothers could not capitalise on their slogans and on their gender framing.

20The book argues that ideas about gender played a central role in shaping the ideological opportunity structures that existed in Russia. The general conclusion of the author is that two groups of factors facilitated the success of the organizations – institutional opportunity structures and gender ideologies. When the institutional structure is weak and comparatively non-responsive as in the case of Russia in 1990s, gender ideologies are the key resources for success. The reviewer shares this assumption but thinks that the relevance of the agenda of the group to the mass grievances and discontent that are framed in terms of human rights’ violations should not be overlooked. Soldiers Mothers could utilise the idea of radicalised motherhood only because the crisis of obligatory military service as well as endless war in Chechnya and terrorist attacks caused tensions in society and made the elite sensitive to these issues. Gender ideology is packed into the ideology of human rights and this makes it attractive and this combination is crucial for interest groups’ activity framing.

21The research on the role of traditional (gender) identities in civil participation in the case of Russia should be continued.  It seems that certain vivid and influential segments of civil society can emerge on the basis of so-called primordial identities. The strategies of international NGOs have to take into account this conclusion that Caiazza brings forward in her book.

22And now the final question mark: what will be the future of these organizations, these interest groups that were studied by Caiazza in the earlier phase of Putin’s presidency? The corporatist strategies of presidential office (that sometimes are called the strategies of social partnership or associational democracy) are highly selective. Will Soldiers Mothers negotiate with authorities or it will establish oppositional party? What are the limits for gender ideologies capacity to mobilise support? Prognoses are difficult.

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Bibliographical reference

Amy Caiazza, Mothers and Soldiers. Gender, Citizenship and Civil Society in Contemporary Russia. Routledge. New York and London 2002.

Electronic reference

Elena Zdravomyslova, « Amy Caiazza, Mothers and Soldiers. Gender, Citizenship and Civil Society in Contemporary Russia. Routledge. New York and London 2002. », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 2 | 2005, Online since 15 April 2005, connection on 28 March 2017. URL :

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About the author

Elena Zdravomyslova

European University at St Petersburg

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Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License

This text is under a Creative Commons license : Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic

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