Vedic Femininity as a Post-Soviet Laboratory of Gender and Labor
Scholars have observed that Russian alternative spiritual movements invoke traditional gender stereotypes more frequently than their Western counterparts (Aitamurto 2014, Tiukhtiaev 2017). Historically, this makes sense. In the 1960s, Western hippies combined the spiritual revolution with a sexual one, and contemporary American movies celebrate the witch as an emblem of female empowerment. Meanwhile, Russian spiritual experimenters – from fin-de-siècle preachers of the “eternal feminine” to bearded post-Soviet wizards – have left traditional gender norms largely unquestioned.
When I started researching Vedic femininity back in 2011, I saw it as a predictable if curious manifestation of these very gender stereotypes. But, as it inevitably happens when staying with a research object long enough, I have been consistently surprised and challenged by its complexity. Beyond the heteronormative truisms, Vedic femininity has been an important domain for working out important aspects of the post-Soviet condition, such as the pros and cons of gendered behavior and the challenges of digitally mediated labor. In this post, I’d like to take you along on a condensed version of this research journey.
What is Vedic Femininity?
Vedic femininity is a framework of self-development that focuses on the cultivation of traditional gender qualities. The main ideas were formulated and popularized in the 2000s by lecturers from the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, such as Ruslan Narushevich and Oleg Torsunov. As the concept gained popularity, Vedic femininity naturally slipped into Russia’s diverse milieu of spiritual paths identified as Vedic by their followers (Sadovina 2017) And soon crossed over into the realm of self-help. As a result, Vedic femininity followers are diverse: some are Krishna devotees, some seek to return to Russia’s ancient Golden Age, and others are simply interested in practical advice for improving their relationships.
How to Be a Vedic Woman (or Man)?
For a quick introduction to the Vedic feminine lifestyle, have a look at a list of women’s duties, based on the lectures of Oleg Torsunov but often reposted without attribution. Here are just a few:
“1. Start a family.
2. Preserve her family
3. Organize all domestic tasks.
8. Inspire her man.
9. Eat sweets.
11. Wear beautiful clothes.
12. Wear long skirts.”
That’s how it goes: respect the man, value the man, admire the man, obey the man. A similar list exists for men who are expected to take charge within and outside of the family, find fulfilling and appropriate careers, and grasp the meaning of life.
As this list makes clear, Vedic femininity teaches that women are nurturing and submissive, while men are natural leaders. Strict adherence to gendered behavior is the basis of a spiritually uplifting and materially secure life, whereas deviation from these norms creates individual and social problems. Though both genders have their responsibilities, Vedic femininity discourse is focused on women. Increasing femininity is seen as a powerful tool for positively transforming the external world and improving the behavior of potential or actual partners.
How Well Did Vedic Femininity Do?
Initially, very well. In the early 2010s, the seeds of Vedic femininity fell on fertile cultural soil. It benefited from the widely accepted notions of femininity prevalent in Russian society. Its rise also overlapped with the turn to traditional family values in the rhetoric of the Russian political establishment (Riabov and Riabova 2014, Sperling 2015). Even so, the popularity of this niche spiritual discourse has been astonishing.
In the course of one summer, Vedic femininity swept through the community of spiritual seekers in St. Petersburg where I conducted fieldwork. The young women I interviewed embraced it readily. Over the past decade, I have watched a minor spiritual teaching solidify into a movement, splinter into different paths, inspire copycats, and spark debates. Today, the two most well-known figures in the community – Oleg Torsunov and Olga Valyaeva – have 300,000 to 400,000 followers on social media. Impressive as these statistics are, the cultural significance of Vedic femininity is even better measured by its popularity beyond its initial sympathetic audience. The teaching inspired grassroots initiatives, clubs, workshops, blogs, and clothing brands all over the country, including my home town of Yoshkar-Ola. Vedic femininity even made it onto the pages of Cosmopolitan.
With popularity came notoriety. Psychologists, journalists, feminist writers, and bloggers began to voice concerns about Vedic femininity, arguing that it encourages codependency, spousal abuse, and problems with mental health. Parodies of the Vedic femininity worldview also appeared online. In obvious reference to Torsunov’s list of women’s duties, the blogger Lena Malaa published “Vedic” maxims like “A good woman is an unemployed woman” (the blog is now defunct). A frequently reposted comic by Valera Uspenskaia mocks the stereotypical Russian “Vedic woman” by pitting her against the Hindu goddess Kali.
As I write this post in November 2020, Vedic femininity is no longer in its heyday. The initial enthusiasm has passed, and even the controversies seem to have died down. Russian-speaking women seeking psychological insights online have more options today than they did in 2010. Thanks to the latest wave of feminist activism, critical discourses about gender are more readily available (Perheentupa 2018).
In this new context Vedic femininity often appears more limiting than enabling, its potential to harm women all too obvious. But while feminist-minded outsiders may be tempted to dismiss Vedic femininity as a remnant of a more patriarchal and naïve recent past, such a dismissal would rob us of the insights into contemporary spirituality and post-Soviet culture in general, which this movement offers.
Why Does Vedic Femininity Matter?
Like most visions of self-improvement, Vedic femininity is ambivalent. It proves both restrictive and liberating, both empowering and harmful. It’s helpful to view it as a sort of laboratory where ideas and practices are developed, tried on for size, elaborated on, and criticized. Quite apart from its explicit content, the Vedic femininity movement has provided a space where women engage with available options for doing gender and figure out ways to build sustainable relationships and working lives. Sometimes they are successful. More often, they get opportunities to recognize the complexity of life – and that, in itself, is a lot.
I am indebted for this insight to my conversations with Anna Fenina – writer, blogger, and one of my closest collocutors in this project. Anna began her career in the late 2000s, writing about crafts, sustainable living, and sometimes Vedic femininity. Having found its ideals to be too restrictive, she moved away from promoting them. Unlike many of her peers, however, she refused to dismiss Vedic femininity as unambiguously harmful. Instead, she has written about her own experience in the movement, at times meaningful and at times frustrating, acknowledging the complex role it has played in her life. In a recent post about spiritual abuse, for example, she reflected on instances in which the discourse of femininity was used against her as a tool of harassment and manipulation.
Since 2018, Anna sometimes describes herself as a vedicheskaia feministka – a “Vedic feminist,” using the term to flag her discomfort with identity labels, challenge stereotypes, and stake out her right to grow. Bloggers like Anna are less interested in defining their belonging to a movement as they are in cultivating ways of being a person online, which include acknowledging past selves while refusing to be defined by them, embracing new forms of critical reflection, and creatively approaching the task of earning an income.
Aitamurto, Kaarina. “Gender in Russian Rodnoverie”. Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 15, no. 1-2 (2014).
Perheentupa, Inna. “Digital Culture and Feminist Politics in Contemporary Russia: Inside Perspectives”. Digital Icons: Studies in Russian, Eurasian and Central European New Media 19 (2018): 117–127.
Riabov, Oleg and Tatiana Riabova. “The Remasculinization of Russia?” Problems of Post-Communism 61, no. 2 (2014): 23–35.
Sadovina, Irina. “The New Age Paradox: Spiritual Consumerism and Traditional Authority at the Child of Nature Festival in Russia.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 32, no. 1 (2017): 83–103.
Sperling, Valerie. Sex, Politics, and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Tiukhtiaev, Andrei. “Performance of Gender Identities in New Age (the Case of Pilgrimage to Archaeological Sites in Krasnodar Region).” The Journal of Sociology and Social Anthropology 20, no. 5 (2017): 151–166 (in Russian).
Cite this article as: Irina Sadovina “Vedic Femininity as a Post-Soviet Laboratory of Gender and Labor”, in New Age in Russia, 14/01/2021, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/5456