ST. PETERSBURG — The women riffed with the audience about menopause, female genitalia and being single in modern Russia.
In many ways, Russia remains a step apart from feminism as it’s defined in parts of the West and elsewhere. While Communism gave Soviet-era women key freedoms decades ahead of their Western sisters — from the right to vote to legal abortion and maternity leave — sexism and old-fashioned gender stereotypes prevail in the country.
This is not unique to Russia. What is different, though, is that it was rarely comic fodder here.
“In Russia, women are always to blame, and men are innocent,” said Yulia Akhmedova, 36, who is fresh off her Harassment Tour, the first female stand-up act to ever travel around the country.
Compared with the West’s tradition of stand-up, the phenomenon is relatively new in Russia. Stand-up first emerged here in the mid-2000s with all-male performances in small bars. Television shows dedicated to the genre followed a decade later.
But the recent entrance of women, and their rapid rise to stardom, has provided a space where Russian women can commiserate, vent and tackle the battle of the sexes.
Akhmedova was one of 56 women — a fifth of all comedians — at the Stand-Up Festival in St. Petersburg in June, when up to 20,000 visitors thronged bars and theaters each day to hear sets filled with bits on government corruption, the influx of Chinese tourists and relationships. The festival is now in its sixth year.
'Female humor does exist'
The plain-clothes, no-frills aspect of stand-up holds peculiar appeal for a generation of Russian women eager to embrace the ideals of feminism, a term that until recently was treated by most Russian women with scorn.
For Viktoria Skladchikova, a 29-year-old former factory worker from Siberia, the development of Russian stand-up resembles the U.S. scene in the 1960s.
“We still have this stereotype that women can’t be funny,” she said.
A regular on the Moscow circuit, Skladchikova said she winces when the audience is encouraged by male club announcers to “support the girls.”
“The audience should not feel sorry for us,” she said. “There should be no gender division. Thank God women are doing stand-up, and we are proving that female humor does exist.”
The art is also going mainstream. A new TV show featuring women-only stand-up, the first of its kind in the country, is debuting in the fall on TNT, one of Russia’s most watched stations.
Russia's Me Too
The program will draw talent from the largely underground all-female open-mic sessions that have popped up in Moscow and St. Petersburg over the past several years.
The upcoming women’s TV show follows the wildly successful, almost exclusively male version that premiered on TNT in 2013.
During Akhmedova’s 25-city Harassment Tour, which finished in May, she spoke frankly about sexual harassment and having depression, both topics that are largely out of bounds in the Russian social space.
The tribulations of dating as a female comic are also a mainstay of her repertoire.
“In our society, if you’re not married with kids by 30, you’re a total loser. Older women thank me for showing that there is life after 35, and this makes me happy,” she said.
Akhmedova would begin each set by asking the audience to applaud if they knew what harassment was. On average, only about a third did. Then she asked whether they knew about the Harvey Weinstein scandal that erupted two years ago, igniting the global Me Too movement. Even fewer people would applaud.
Under President Vladimir Putin’s traditionalist ideology, Russian women’s rights are being squeezed as never before. The country is coming to terms with the partial decriminalization of domestic violence two years ago in a law Putin signed. Public expressions of support for women failed by the legislation are becoming increasingly common.
Russia is experiencing its own version, though fledgling, of a Me Too moment, with accusations of sexual harassment made against a senior lawmaker and a prominent reporter from the liberal journalistic community.
But progress has been slow. When U.S. comedian Louis C.K. admitted to sexual misconduct two years ago, Akhmedova’s male colleagues were at a loss to figure out what all the fuss was about. “In Russia, the only thing that shocks is rape. And he didn’t rape anyone, so it didn’t matter,” she said.
While women find her inspiring, Akhmedova has a harder time trying to engage the male members of her audience.
In the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, some men walked out during a performance. In other towns, men approached her after the show to ask for a selfie. “They would grab my wrists and say, ‘I hope this isn’t considered harassment’ and then laugh.”