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The Russian zine looking to redefine gender for a generation

O-Zine is creating a virtual safe space for everyone to feel like they have a place and a voice

By Sauren Blaney

Since the anything-goes ethos of 90s Russia, feminist and queer culture has been forced to move underground in the face of the country’s rise in conservatism. From so-called “Gay Propaganda Laws” to its criminalisation of Pussy Riot (a Russian feminist protest punk rock group), the Russian state is well known for its rejection of progressive values. However, for Russia’s young people today, access to the internet is giving them a free space to transcend physical boundaries and create a new, online community.

It is within this dynamic that O-Zine must operate. The ‘O’ stands for ‘otkritie’ – or ‘open’ a word encapsulating the zine’s creation of an open and inclusive community online. This queer and feminist zine contradicts rigid and traditional gender norms and seeks to redefine what gender, femininity, and masculinity mean in a modern context.

© Daria Globina. Image courtesy of O-Zine

This is best demonstrated through a reinvention of Russian Women’s Day. While sharing a date with International Women’s Day, the Russian incarnation of this holiday is a far cry from #MeToo movements or feminist protests. Instead, the day has much more in common with Women’s Day in the post-war Soviet Union, where the holiday became a medium to solidify gender roles. Women’s Day in Russia is used to reaffirm an image of women as soft and delicate, as something to be protected. Women are gifted chocolates or flowers from partners, relatives, and even work colleagues in a bid to celebrate their femininity.

In O-Zine’s Women’s Day special, however, the zine seeks to smash these traditions and stereotypes through interviews with a diverse perspective of what a woman is in Russia today. As Lucia Chizhova, geologist and photo-editor, states: “I hate that a day of solidarity and equality has turned into a celebration of stereotypes.” The image of her black boot smashing a vase of tulips against a pale pink background encapsulates this message: women are more, and deserve more, than flowers.

© Daria Globina. Image courtesy of O-Zine

O-Zine does not shy away from the complexities of Russian femininity in their interviews. Trans-rights activist Maia Demidova provides a different perspective on Women’s Day; for her “being a woman is the choice to take on societal roles characteristic for women and not being judged for it.” Demidova continues, expressing her happiness at receiving flowers on Women’s Day as a marker of her “being accepted as a woman.” While receiving gifts on Women’s Day is a tradition other cis women in the article reject, for Demidova the act is a marker of her womanhood. O-Zine presents a multifaceted perspective on feminism, where women can be anything they want to be.

This delicate handling of what feminism and femininity mean for different women in Russia speaks to the heart of O-Zine’s ethos: to create a space where anyone and everyone feels they have a place and a voice. In particular, it is the zine’s online presence that gives it such power. 90s Russia is characterised by its freedom; young people could express themselves freely in public without fear of persecution. After the dissolution of the Soviete Union in 1991, Western culture flooded the bedrock of post-Soviet society. Suddenly Western clothes, films, and music were freely available, with few laws governing what could and couldn’t be published. It was here, within this decade, that queer and feminist culture was allowed to thrive, with publications such as Ptusch and OM documenting an underground rave culture that seems extreme, even by today’s standards. These freedoms did not translate to rural areas, however, where culture remained largely conservative. Besides a couple magazines, young people living there remained isolated from urban freedom with no material means to access it, let alone interact with it.

“This delicate handling of what feminism and femininity mean for different women in Russia speaks to the heart of O-Zine’s ethos: to create a space where anyone and everyone feels they have a place and a voice”

Today, freedom of expression is still almost totally centralised in Moscow and St. Petersburg, many queer people flee more conservative areas for fear of violence. Institutionalised homophobia has made queer Russians easy targets and as O-Zine co-founder Dima Kozachenko comments, “in other Russian cities gay clubs are ravaged and people get beaten regularly.” However, freedom to access the internet has meant alternative culture can be accessed by almost anyone. This is pivotal to O-Zine’s message of inclusion, as the online space allows it to combat one of the biggest obstacles for unity in Russia’s queer community: the size of the country. In the absence of a physical safe space, projects such as O-Zine have created a virtual oasis for any Russian, particularly young queer Russians, wanting to learn, read, and experience LGBTQ+ culture.

A pillar of this is O-Zine’s overwhelming positivity in the face of adversity. When accessing the zine’s site, the user has to confirm they are over 18, a requirement of Russia’s “Gay Propaganda Law.” For a western viewer, it’s a stark reminder of the restrictions the zine and the LGBTQ+ community faces in Russia. Within the site itself, however, optimism flourishes with queer pop-culture, artists, and music filling the pages. There are no expressions of the persecution against the community, only celebration of the positive strides it’s making. The inspirational twang of the zine is hard to ignore, and as queer teens are forbidden to seek support from teachers or therapists, O-Zine even takes on a didactic approach.

© Maksim Sekretarev. Image courtesy of O-Zine

Scrolling through O-Zine’s pages, there are the expected articles on underground queer parties and fashion, but also content relatable to any queer Russian. An article and photo-series on coming out emphasises this. Touching stories from the perspective of both parent and child provide an important message of hope and acceptance in a society where so little is given to the LGBTQ+ community. As Anton Danilov writes, these are stories which “prove that love is stronger than any prejudice.” Moving away from the presentation of queer Russians as alienated outsiders, O-Zine stresses above all that the LGBTQ+ community in Russia is one whose members want the same things as everyone else: to have a place and a voice.

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