The summer of 2020 found Russian-speaking Facebook users in a huge linguistic free-for-all. The uproar stemmed from a poem written in support of Yuliya Tsvetkova, the activist who was at the time facing criminal prosecution for her drawings of vulvas. That poem, titled “My Vagina” and written by Galina Rymbu, frankly describes the lifeways of the female body and contains well over a dozen explicit references to its controversial subject. It has since been attacked on the grounds that “the v-word” has no place in real poetry and defended in terms that essentially dismiss the opposing camp as sanctimonious reactionaries.
The “vagina” controversy is only part of the turbulent discussions on language that have occupied Russia’s intellectual community over the past couple of years. A resurgence of the global fight for women’s rights has presented Russia with a list of action items and added fuel to the linguistic fire.
When I was studying at the Literary Institute in the early 2000s, praise for a female student who had written a poem could well be worded as “You’re not just any old poetess, you’re a real poet.” The assumption behind that formulation was that “women’s poetry” is a thing and always a bad thing, but, although you’re of the female persuasion, you write well, just like a man. Those accolades might come from a male classmate or from an instructor, and the girls patted on the back in that way usually found it sincerely gratifying. Concepts such as mansplaining, sexism, and objectification had not yet hit the big time in Russia.
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