A Girl in the Scarlet Sail

“I was still a kid when I suddenly figured out that my dad had spent several years in a prison camp and was only released after Stalin’s death. I was shocked!"

By Nadezda Azhgikhina*

This essay is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute’s 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers – all those who have supported us in our work towards diversity, inclusion, and fairer representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in the media. The paper version of the book will be launched at the Anniversary celebration on the 17th of November 2023 in London.  Watch this space for the other 24 essays.

I got my new U.S. visa in Warsaw, Poland, on February 24, 2022. 

Getting an American visa has been a nightmare for Russians for years, after the US Embassy in Moscow stopped issuing visas locally because of some diplomatic tension. The only way to get a visa was to go through an expensive agency, that would arrange a visa interview for you in another country. You then had to go to that country, pass the interview, and stay in the country until they issued your visa.

So, I went to Warsaw. 

My actual interview took about two minutes. It mainly consisted of exchanging pleasantries with the female visa officer – we chatted about a brighter, better future where you didn’t get a migraine from the process of getting a travel visa. It’ll get better soon! – we decided.

It didn’t.

A week later I got a message that my visa would be ready for pick-up the next morning.
 That was the evening of February 23, 2022.

At 9 AM on February 24, I got woken up by a phone call from Moscow.
“It’s war! Kyiv has been bombed!”
My Polish friend drove me to the visa agency and then to the office of Aeroflot, the Russian airline, to change my ticket so I could get back to Moscow ASAP. 

I was met by a phlegmatic-looking Lithuanian man, Dainius, who insisted that I take the next available flight to Moscow – in 2 hours – and even called the airport, asking them to hold the plane for me. “You’ve got just enough time to make that plane”, he said. He was a godsend. 

Back at the hotel, I grabbed my laptop, but as luck would have it, there was no one at reception to get me a cab. I ran to the nearest café. One of the waitresses, although she spoke nothing but Polish, understood my problem, left her clients to fend for themselves, ordered me a cab and walked me over to it, to make sure everything was alright. 

Upon seeing us, the driver immediately asked if I spoke Russian – and when I said that I did indeed, he said: “Your commander-in-chief bombed us today. He’s a mad man. Poor all of us….”

It turned out that he was from Ukraine. 

He got me to the airport in 15 minutes rather than the usual 30.

I’ll never forget these people, random people I’ve never met before, helpful people – and the fact that they didn’t see me as an aggressor, but only as a human being in trouble.

Thanks to them, I made my flight – as it turned out, the last direct flight from Warsaw to Moscow. As I sat on the half-empty and silent plane – not even the crew said much during the entire two-hour flight – I kept playing my life over in my head like a movie, my entire life from childhood to some recent international conferences and projects. It felt as if somehow at least half of my personal and professional life had just been unexpectedly reformatted, like a broken file on a laptop that you keep trying to open. As the broken file of my memories slowly loaded, I was overwhelmed by a wave of sensations long since forgotten– the smells and emotions of my teenage years in Moscow – the 1970s. A swirl of faces, sounds, colors, the tiniest details suddenly danced around me, slowly coming into focus. The broken file had almost loaded and in it I saw a world I was sure I’d never see again.

I was flying back to the USSR.

A Soviet Childhood

I was born in the USSR, just like my parents, friends, and many other much-loved people in my life. It wasn’t a totally boring and gray place, as many of my friends from the West thought it was. It was a strange place, a surreal, crazy and occasionally completely mad place, but it certainly wasn’t a country of emotionless clones crowding around the nearest military unit. Of course, from the official side, everything was always under Party control, everyone was unified and united. 

But there was another side to how we lived behind the Iron Curtain. We learned to look for exceptions to the rules, for the tiny islands of diversity in the vast ocean of grayness – islands of interesting experiences, different attitudes, atypical priorities. Some of those islands were clandestine, but there were those that managed to gain legally recognized status – like clubs and art schools that existed all over the USSR and were led by enthusiastic teachers who genuinely believed in their students’ talents. 
My first school was in Moscow, not far from the pompous hotel called “Ukraine” – one of the seven famous Stalin wedding-cake-type high-rises spread around the city. The school was located on a small side street, surrounded by a mix of old buildings with communal apartments and international diplomatic residences. Because of this rather peculiar location for a school, my class included kids from foreign families, children of Soviet bureaucrats, and others who came from a modest, or even poor background. 

You could always spot the foreign kids in our school, because they sold and traded illegal chewing gum and fancy ballpoint pens. They were Mongolian, French, Latin American, Yugoslav. It seems surprising now, but we didn’t think about ethnicity back then – it was never a reason for hatred or bullying of any kind. I don’t even think I really knew the ethnic origins of all my classmates. Looking back at their last names now, it seems that we had about a dozen different ethnicities in our class of 30 kids. 

The only ethnicity we cared about back then was that of the grandparents of one of our classmates. Her grandparents worked at Romani – The Moscow Gypsy Theater. Romani was a very popular theater, and our class not only got to go to all of their kids’ shows, but we were privileged (and cool!) enough to go backstage and meet the actors afterwards. The entire school was jealous of us. The actors’ granddaughter was a friend of mine. She lived in the Hotel Ukraine, whose lower floors served as apartments for artists and writers. Her family had a very lavish apartment, with unusual furniture and silver dishes lined up inside a glass armoire. Nobody else in our class lived like that.
Another classmate’s grandpa was a religious Jew, who regularly went to synagogue. When we visited their home, grandpa gave us some matzo and showed us books with weird-looking letters. None of us had ever seen such an alphabet before!

I didn’t know it back then, but two guys in my class were Chechen. I only figured it out when we met up as adults.
The biggest secret we all kept in elementary school was religion. One of our friends had been baptized, despite the fact that his father was a Communist Party member. And one day, my girlfriends and I had gone to services at Novodevichiy Monaster. We were enthralled by the beautiful service and singing; it was so unusual, so clandestine. So that was our huge childhood secret – one baptism and one church service.
I was somewhat different from the other kids, which I came to realize at a young age. Firstly, I had chronic tonsilitis, and as a result I spent a lot of time at home as a child. Secondly, because of my poor health, I never went to Pioneer summer camp, like the other kids. And if that wasn’t enough, I was too tall, too thin, I wasn’t as well-dressed as the other girls (and especially the girls with diplomat dads), my parents were divorced, I liked reading, I liked writing just for myself and for fun, and I even wanted to become a writer. I didn’t really like being a girl – although it was never said out loud in my childhood that women were always second-best, I still felt I would’ve been better off being a man. 
But then came high school. High school was different. It was a special school, where each class had a specific focus – math and physics, biological sciences, or the humanities. I got into the humanities class, and suddenly – I was surrounded by people just like me, people who weren’t part of the mainstream. 

My parents, just like my new friends’ parents, listened to Western radio stations (BBC, Voice of America, Radio Liberty, Deutsche Welle, etc.). We all had home libraries full of pre-revolutionary books, or books that it was forbidden to own. Talking to our parents and their friends taught us how to be critical and how to think for ourselves. 

I was still a kid when I suddenly figured out that my dad had spent several years in a prison camp and was only released after Stalin’s death. I was shocked! And then I quickly realized that many of my friends’ relatives had also been gulag prisoners, and some had even died or been killed in the GULAG camps. And then, just as suddenly, I was no longer alone. It was like I became part of this newly discovered minority composed of descendants of prisoners. And among us there were those with a background much more complex than mine. I had a classmate whose one grandpa had been a camp prisoner, and the other grandpa – a gulag officer. 

My schoolmates liked Vladimir Vysotsky and the Beatles and blue jeans, which weren’t sold in Russian stores. At the same time, we were fond of Silver Age poets, and knew dozens of their poems by heart. We created a world of our own, an alternative to the stuffy and boring world that surrounded us, and we were happy. It was, in a way, a form of immigration within our own society. Later on, many of us joined a subculture or a dissident movement.

I was incredibly lucky – I won a literary contest and was invited to write for The Scarlet Sail, the teenage section of the youth newspaper Komsomolskaya. I’d never even been inside a newspaper office before!
But the moment I walked it, I felt a kinship with all those other teens, all the young people crammed into a small room full of papers, books, drawings – they were my kind of people. And I wanted nothing more than to stay in that room. 

After my first published story, I got about a hundred fan letters from all over the USSR.  So, I got to stay in that small room. 

And it was in that room that I got my first lessons in journalism and professional ethics and dignity, which have stayed with me ever since. 

It was a really strange place, led by liberal-minded journalists who believed in personal dignity and taking responsibility, who dreamt about freedom and were fluent in the Aesopian language. They taught us that our lives and our writing should reflect our personal beliefs and choices, and that one could remain an honest journalist and a decent human being in any situation. In the end, I learned more about Russian and Soviet history, literature, and liberal movements in that crammed room than I did during my years at university.

Many of those who wrote for The Scarlet Sail ended up becoming well-known writers, directors, and opinion-makers. Many became leaders of the country’s democratization during President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika years. Many live abroad today.

Gender. Post- Socialist Patriarchal Renaissance. Association of Women Journalists.
My first article in a mainstream newspaper was published when I was 16. I was really lucky, because as a young journalist I was never faced with sexual harassment or direct discrimination. Of course, all board members at the paper were male, and women, even the most famous and well-respected among them, could only work as writers or maybe chair the “letters-to-the-editor” department. 

Yet I still felt the support of both my male and female colleagues – and of course, I simply ignored the stupid comments from everyone else about how a woman could only have a career with the help of her husband. I was rather successful, and when in 1995 I married Yuri Shchekochikhin, an investigative journalist who worked at the liberal weekly “Literaturnaya Gazeta” (“Literary Newspaper”), I was actually earning more than he was – which was never an issue for us. 
During perestroika, many authors and nearly all liberal media started talking about a woman’s “natural destiny” and calling to liberate women from their “labor duties”.  Looking back, it was almost the opposite of the plight of women in the West – officially, the male and female genders were considered equal in the USSR and back then many women wrote letters to the newspapers about being exhausted from work and wishing they could just stay at home with their families. By Soviet law, men and women alike had to have jobs, so being a housewife was not just impossible – it was illegal. I didn’t necessarily agree with these new ideas, but if I was being honest, I didn’t pay much attention to the topic back then.
The first time I thought about women’s rights was when a group of young female writers published a collection of stories about the female experience, including that of sexuality and violence. It was a kind of new female prose manifesto. 

And suddenly, all the major critics attacked them in the press. One famous critic went as far as to say that “the very existence of women’s prose is impossible, as their soul is just too close to their body”. At the time, I was working in Ogonyok, a top magazine. I wanted to write something in support of these women, but my editors wouldn’t have it – in fact, they agreed with the critic!

Soon afterwards I met Western Slavic scholars and was introduced to gender studies. I met Katrina vanden Huevel, an American editor and publisher and former editor of The Nation; Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, a Slavic studies scholar and the first woman to head the Harriman Institute at Columbia University in New York; and Helena Goscilo, a Slavic studies scholar at Ohio State University. We became friends.

I remember telling them that Soviet women didn’t face direct discrimination, and that only a handful of idiots said that women should be subordinated to men. 

But I learnt quickly that mass media, especially after the fall of the USSR, could turn any stupid idea into a dangerous tool of violence and discrimination. When I wrote an article about unemployment among women called “Unemployment with a female face”, I discovered that, with the collapse of the economy, many women lost jobs precisely because of the “natural destiny” propaganda. Male employers decided that “it’s better for women to stay home with the kids”, despite the fact that, in many cases, the woman was the sole bread-winner and a highly qualified employee. 

I began writing about the new women’s movement. The fact was, nobody expected it to turn into a movement. Even the intellectuals and journalists who were enthralled by neo-liberal ideas didn’t see women’s rights as part of the democratization process. Quite the contrary – in November of 1991, a popular liberal newspaper described the first Independent Women’s Forum in Dubna, a town near Moscow, as “a harmful gathering of ugly lesbians”, demonizing feminism as a threat to normal people and their lifestyles. The “freaky” Forum’s slogan? “Democracy without Women is Not a Democracy”. Frightening, indeed.

A new ideology, which came to be known as the “post-Soviet patriarchal renaissance” amongst scholars, was quickly becoming a new trend in the 1990s.
In the mainstream media, women were presented only as victims, sex objects, beauty contest winners, pop stars and criminals; in fact, much attention was focused on the reported growth of prostitution. These news organizations — now purportedly part of a “free press”–wholly ignored female professionals and even civil liberties activists. 
So, my colleagues and I decided to establish an Association for Women Journalists, with some male colleagues joining us as well. We organized discussions about gender and invited scholars, artists, and our colleagues from abroad for public talks. We started a regular analysis of print media and found that, in 1991, only 1% of mainstream articles were about women, including female criminals and pop stars. We published materials on gender in the media and worked with international organizations such as UNESCO on women’s issues. In 1994 we received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation and organized a series of national and international conferences on gender and the media. 

In 1993 Ogonyok published a collection of my articles about gender issues in Russia. I think I was one of the first people to use the word “gender” in mainstream media. I still remember how, for the longest time, press proof-readers, who had never seen this word before, kept correcting it to “tender” or other words ending in –ender. They were sure it was a typo, because “gender” was a totally unknown word at the time.

That Ogonyok issue came out right before the elections, and the magazine asked why women weren’t running for the presidency. They published a number of expert comments, including one from the newly established Moscow Center for Gender Studies. 

After the issue came out, hundreds of journalists and international experts got in touch with the magazine, so the editor-in-chief decided that we should open up a new department and that I should head it. Even then some of my colleagues found my interest in feminism confusing – after all, I was young, pretty, married, and had a great career. They were absolutely sure that feminism was something only losers were into. 
I ran into sexism at my very first editorial board meeting, which began with a colleague uttering: “What a pity, now we won’t be able to tell any good jokes at board meetings.” I had a good relationship with this colleague, and he respected me as a journalist, but decision-making in the media was still a male-dominated process. Still, I survived.
But I learned that sexism had deep roots in our culture, much deeper than the Soviet system itself. And so, together with my Russian and international colleagues, we set out on a journey to combat sexism. In 1994, my colleague and I became the Russian editors of a Russian-American women’s magazine “We/Myi”, founded by feminists Katrina vanden Heuvel and Colette Shulman. The magazine was dedicated to reporting on the international women’s movement and gender issues all over the world. The Russian edition came out until 2003, though many of our texts were reprinted in other publications for years afterwards. 
Our association became the forerunner of a new movement, as many women founded their own media outlets and gender issues became more and more part of a public discussion in academia, civil society, culture and even politics. One could arguably call the late 1990s a Golden age of Russian civil society movements, in which women played a key role.
I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that it was the women who saved Russia during the market collapse and economic crises that hit the country. While the unemployed men suffered existential despair and drank their lives away, unwilling to change careers or do menial work, it was the women who created support groups, who worked as cooks and cleaners, it was the female professors and engineers that spent long hours in street markets, selling Chinese tea and Polish underwear to feed their kids and husbands. Women’s groups all over Russia taught their members to learn new skills and arranged for urgent support for those in need. It was a grass-roots movement that truly changed the face of Russian civil society in under a decade’s time. 
International cooperation started in the early 1990s, but became more widespread after the 1995 Beijing UN Conference on Women. Women journalists and writers did their best to cover these developments. Step by step, gender issues became part of the human rights agenda. Lyudmila Alexeyeva, chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group and an icon of the human rights movement, contributed to that a lot. 

In 1995, the Women’s section of the national independent political daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta published my interview with Alexeyeva about women in dissident movements and current Russian politics. We had incredible reader response. 

I headed the women’s section from 1995 until 2006; sadly, it was the only gender issues platform in Russian mainstream media. We published interviews with Russian female politicians, with foreign political figures and opinion-makers, with European ministers and MPs, with artists, scholars, feminists. Many Russian women’s groups and female leaders got their start and first public recognition from our bi-weekly Women’s section. At the same time, our Association for Women Journalists began regular training seminars for media professionals, on gender issues in Russia and the former USSR, as well as training for NGOs that focused on communication skills and working the media.
We were lucky to partner with US and European foundations, including the United Nations Development Program, International Labour Organization, and UNESCO. By 2001, we had conducted several dozen training sessions in more than 30 Russian cities from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka, and also in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kirgizstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. 
  Despite the new restrictions placed on non-governmental organizations in recent years, despite the rise of patriarchal trends in society, it is clear that our efforts since 1990 have not been in vain. 
Back in 2002, it was easier to publish a letter written by an openly gay man than, for example, my article about domestic violence.  It was put on ice for four months and published only after some shocking figures were made public by the police. It turned out that 14,000 women were killed by their partners and relatives that year. That’s more than all the soldiers USSR had lost during the Afghan war.

By contrast, today most Russians understand that domestic violence is a crime and agree that it should be punishable by law. Police officers called for a special law that would enable them to respond appropriately to domestic violence; the law is waiting to be passed. Many TV series include plots in which “good cops” combat domestic violence and gender discrimination. This is a direct result of 30 years of the joint efforts made by women’s groups and journalists. 

International partnership. Media Diversity Institute and other partners.

In 2001 I took part in the International Federation of Journalists Congress in Seoul, where I was invited by the Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ). To tell the truth, back then our association was more well-known internationally that RUJ was. I talked about women journalists in Russia and joined the IFJ’s Gender Council. In 2001, after a crisis hit my newspaper, I joined the RUJ and soon became its Secretary General for International Cooperation. I involved our partners in RUJ activities, and we conducted a number of successful projects on safety, combating corruption, union-building, and of course gender. In 2007, at the Moscow IFJ Congress, we organized an international gender event called “Stop Sexism in the Media”, with the slogan “Sexism is the last resource of losers”. 

Later on, I met Milica Pesic in Bali, at the Bali Global Media Forum organized by the Norwegian and Indonesian governments, just after the murder of 12 journalists in a terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo newspaper office in Paris. I watched her presentation of MDI’s work and was greatly impressed with both the organization’s approach and activities and Milica’s personal dedication and talent as a public speaker. She opened my eyes to a new perspective on professional concerns, and the concept of diversities inspired me. I immediately grabbed some materials from her, and started hosting panel discussions on hate speech based on her statement that we all are racists, but we should understand and combat that. 

Rather soon Milica became the top expert on a RUJ–Norwegian joint project, which focused very much on diversity, ethnicity and religion in Russian media and offered training to Russian journalists willing to improve their professional skills. She was among the first Western journalists to come to the Northern Caucasus after the Chechen War. We visited a number of cities, and journalists found it not only useful and informative, but many said that working with Milica helped them gain a deeper understanding of current events in Europe as a whole.

I was happy that we continued our cooperation later, with a special MDI-RUJ (Russian Journalists Union) project, which examined how Russian language media reported on Muslims and gender, again bringing hands-on training to mainstream journalists but also offering journalism academics seminars on the development of modules focused on inclusive journalism. I do know that those meetings, discussions and trips contributed a lot to the discussions and debates over gender studies and the media. We were working together on building a new media environment.

Today, the media situation in Russia is very tough. Journalists are faced with pressures and censorship unseen since the Soviet years. Many have left the country, while others just feel frustrated and unable to work properly. Many independent media sources have been blocked online, or have vanished completely. But just recently, a number of new initiatives have appeared and many journalists continue to take a stand for decent and honest journalism and understand that we are not yet at the end of our story. 

Quite recently the Yabloko party, the only party currently openly calling for peace, organized an open discussion on the future of journalism. Everyone agreed that the Russian experience of resisting pressure and calling for freedom and justice, which is at the core of the Russian cultural tradition and is an important part of the national identity, will once again be a great help in rebuilding the future. It is important to study these qualities and to develop them. As Arseny Roginsky, founder of Memorial said, “Everybody has a small Stalin in his or her heart”. Him, Andrey Sakharov, anyone and everyone. What’s important is understanding that and making a conscious effort to destroy that part of yourself. This is close to what Milica Pesic said when speaking about racism. 

Over a hundred years ago, the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, the explorer of the Russian soul, wrote in a letter to his publisher “about this man who, drop by drop, squeezes the slave’s blood out of himself”. To understand ourselves and our complex of the positive and the negative, and to nurture our internal freedom and squeeze out the slave’s blood – this is the only way to arrive at a better future. A future that depends on us and nobody else.

*Nadezhda Azhigikhina is a Russian journalist and executive director of PEN Moscow since 2018. She was the vice president of the European Federation of Journalists and is a member of the Russian Writers Union. Azhingikhina was a staff journalist for Ogoniok and Nezavisimaya Gazeta. She has been the Article 19 trustee since 2020. 

*Nadezda Azhgikhina, journalist and writer. Director of PEN Moscow. Board Member of Article 19. Member of Russian Chamber for Media Complains. Graduated from Moscow State University, Ph. D. Worked as correspondent, chief department and columnist in Ogonyok Magazine, Independent Newspaper. Business Tuesday, Journalist (Russia). Writes for The Nation (USA), Russian and International media. Co-founder of Association of Women Journalists (Russia 1994-2002). Vice-president of European Federation of Journalists in 2013-2019. Member of International Federation of Journalists Gender Council in 2001-2016.Participant and coordinator of number of International projects on freedom of expression, gender equality and culture under umbrella of UNESCO, UN WOMEN, OSCE and other institutions. Editor and author of books and collections of prose and essays on media development, culture and gender. Lives in Moscow.