Katalin Fábián, Janet Elise Johnson, Mara Lazda (eds.): The Routledge Handbook of Gender in Central-Eastern Europe and Eurasia

New York: Routledge, 2021, ISBN 9781138347755, 586 p.

Simona Mitroiu
Central-Eastern Europe; Asia; gender; agency; women; intersectionality; authoritarianism; nationalism; genocide; discrimination; inclusivity; abortion rights.

We are living in a shifting historical and social context, witnessing challenging events that also involve painful transgenerational memories of the past. The fragility of the dividing lines between war and peace, authoritarian regimes and consideration for human life, promotion of inclusive values and discriminatory actions is incontestable. Current events have affected even those societies that considered themselves well above these struggles and those that seemed to have once and for all established grounding directions to provide stable and inclusive frameworks for societal developments. The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, including the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and genocide, shows us that for Central-Eastern Europe and Eurasia, the recent past is never “a foreign country” (Hartley 1953 and subsequently Lowenthal 1985), not only because of its lingering effects but also because of its recurring nature. Understanding the construction of gender involves multi-layered dimensions and intersectional, overlapping areas, structures, and influences; these include politics, histories, cultures, ethnicities, and religions alongside class, sexuality, coloniality, and racism. This multidimensional nature makes gender a viable instrument to use as a lens revealing interconnected histories and influences and illuminating both past and current violence and exclusion politics. Gender analysis can also reveal efforts for diversity and inclusive politics as well as women’s agency. Various political acts restart earlier debates related to women and gender. Several nationalist-driven anti-LGBT campaigns have already occurred in the region, as have tentative calls for reaffirming the family’s fundamental role in society. One example of this is the unsuccessful 2018 Romanian referendum calling on people to support the definition of ‘a family’ in the Romanian Constitution as limited to that being founded on the free-willed marriage between ‘a man and a woman.’ In 2020, Poland effectively banned abortions, with the procedure performed legally only on the grounds of foetal defects. The elimination of the constitutional right to abortion by the United States Supreme Court this past June has reopened discussions about bodily autonomy, privacy, and women’s rights and the necessity of forging stronger connections between histories, life experiences, and memories (Ciobanu, Șerban 2021).

The Routledge Handbook of Gender in Central-Eastern Europe and Eurasia assumes this exact role, highlighting regional specificity and inviting global connections. Through its extensive scientific approach to gender and by using an intersectional lens, the Handbook is a reference work for students, scholars, practitioners, and artists who can use it as a source of inspiration for their work. Addressing contemporary historical and political approaches to gender in Central-Eastern Europe and Eurasia, the Handbook constitutes a powerful instrument for reading and interpreting current reality and establishing an inclusive framework for scholars and others to study the transformations and challenges we are currently witnessing. The volume uses intersectionality, seen as a “dynamic matrix through which various structures of power operate,” as well as the postsocialist and postcolonial created dialogues in gender studies (Koobak, Tlostanova, Thapar-Björkert 2021: 3).

The Handbook includes six thematic parts that bring together chapters united by their approaches to gender dimensions, with each part having an introductory section. Part I, “Conceptual Debates and Methodological Differences,” argues for a multidimensional, transnational, and reflexive approach to studying gender. The collapse of Soviet power revealed the role of social and economic conditions in defining gender as a structure of power “shaped by distinct historical context” – an idea that leads the editors to argue that “gender represents systems of difference, privilege, and oppression that affects us all” (ibid.). This part includes literature overviews, addressing the main feminist debates in the region (“Fluidity or Clean Breaks?” by Joanna Regulska and Zofia Włodarczyk and “Neoliberal Intervention: Analyzing the Drakulić-Funk-Ghodsee” by Eva Maria Hinterhuber and Gesine Fuchs), the gender dynamics, and gender analytics in histories of socialist modernities (“Legacies of the Cold War and the Future of Gender in Feminist Histories of Socialism” by Anna Krylova). In the chapter “Between Regional and Transnational Contexts,” Maria Bucur finds that the most fruitful direction in gender analysis seems “to be a combination of locally, nationally, regionally, transnationally, and globally framed research” (ibid.: 16). Gender analytics are discussed by exploring comparative and interdisciplinary approaches (“The Case and Comparative Methods” by Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom) and by including quantitative and experimental methods research as a toolkit for data collection and organization (“Quantitative and Experimental Methods” by Olga A. Avdeyeva and Nellie Bohac). The authors highlight the necessity of transforming past theoretical difficulties into opportunity – to expand and re-theorise gender categories in order to encompass “non-binary modes of thinking about woman- and man-identities” (ibid.: 49). This part ends with two fascinating chapters – “Postcoloniality in Central-Eastern Europe and Eurasia” by Tatsiana Shchurko and Jennifer Suchland and “Post-Soviet Masculinities: Sex, Power, and the Vanishing Subject” by Eliot Borenstein – that analyze postcoloniality and the recurrent questions of multiple centres and peripheries and of post-soviet masculinities. Both chapters include literary and artistic examples, such as performance pieces, opening new spaces of exploration for entangled gender and historical representations.

Part II, “Feminist and Women’s Movements Cooperating and Colliding,” readdresses the question of women’s agency in promoting visions of social change and breaking gender barriers. The chapters’ approaches vary from historical and topical overviews to analyses of women’s movements and political activism. In “Challenging Tradition and Crossing Borders,” Agatha Scwartz writes about women’s activism during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, while Iveta Jusová and Karla Huebner analyze Czechoslovak feminism during the interwar period. Elena Gapova completes the analysis by discussing the socialist emancipation project in the context of the Russian Revolution. Magdalena Grabowska (“From Soviet Feminism to the European Union”) and Nanette Funk (“Transnational Feminism and Women’s NGO’s”) elaborate analyses of transnational women’s movements based on a genealogical approach and by revealing intersecting paths of emancipation. Jill Irvine explores the debates and dilemmas associated with funding gender equality in Central-Eastern Europe, while Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild focuses on women’s political activism in creating “centers of resistance” (ibid.: 103) and uses the 1908 all-Russian Women Congress as a case study. The legacy of the socialist emancipation project is developed following three interconnected lines: the vision of gender equality that emerged from it, transformations in women’s agency, and its impact on feminists in the context of the post-industrial era. Furthermore, Shana Penn uses the analysis of the gendered construction of dissent (in Poland’s Solidarity) to indicate both the feminist movement’s failure to recognize the historical agents that played a role in shaping the recent activism and a “critical, present-day moment” (ibid.: 140) valorising the fight for rights. The last chapter, by Jessica Zychowicz and Nataliya Tchermalykh, dedicated to the global trajectories of Pussy Riot and FEMEN, offers another fascinating example of viewing the female body “as the most prominent site for social movements in the first two decades of the 21st century” (ibid.: 172). This chapter discusses gender in the context of rising authoritarianism and nationalism. The collapse of the border between politics and art, exemplified by FEMEN and Pussy Riot, supports new comparisons, analyses, and debates regarding the role of art in carrying political agency and transgressing borders of politics, histories, and social forces.

Part III, “Constructions of Gender in Different Ideologies,” addresses the ideological pressure exerted on gender constructions through assimilation, instrumentalisation, and opposition, and determines recurrent power hierarchies. This part exposes “fissures within gendered ideologies while revealing the interactions and overlaps in their constructions of gender and sexuality” (ibid.: 184) by questioning the political incorporation of gender into construction of national unity (“Nationalism and Sexuality in Central-Eastern Europe” by Anita Kurimay), the idealisation of women’s maternal role in “a context of considerable violence” (ibid.: 183) practised by fascism (“Far-Right Expectation of Women in Central-Eastern Europe” by Andrea Petö), the emancipation of women proposed by socialist and communist regimes (“Paradoxes of Gender in Soviet Communist Party Women’s Sections” by Elizabeth A. Wood) and the reinforcement of Orientalism and imperialist priorities, alongside the idealisation of Russian women (“Women’s Education, Entry to Paid Work, and Forced Unveiling in Soviet Central Asia” by Yulia Gradskova). In the opening chapter, Kurimay challenges the premise that LGBTQ people are “a product of the post-1989 democratic era” and “western imports” – the idea that “provides a convenient ideological foundation” (ibid.: 194) for resistance to granting rights and recognition to LGBTQ communities. In “Gender, Militarism, and the Modern Nation in Soviet and Russian Culture,” Karen Petrone the “mutually constitutive nature of gender and national identities through the soldierly ideal” (ibid.: 202). Unfortunately, as Petrone argues, the current Russian cult of the soldier continues to affirm male hegemony and disempower women. Petö analyses the connection between agency and the inclusion of women in far-right movements and parties, while Wood continues the discussion by focusing on the Soviet Communist Party’s women’s section (‘Zhenotdel’). Petö argues that far-right women’s attempt to create an “alternative, anti-modernist vision of women’s emancipation” is seen as a complementary analysis to women’s “ideological-political involvement with racism and the Holocaust” (ibid.: 213). Meanwhile, Wood underlines that the role played by the state’s involvement in domestic affairs in emancipation of women under communism remains controversial. Analysing women’s reproductive freedom at the intersection of new eugenics – targeting those “considered to potentially endanger population quality” (ibid.: 237) – and race/ethnicity in post-Stalinist reproductive politics, Eszter Varsa questions the “linear history of progress in terms of family and reproductive politics” (ibid.: 242) for Roma women. In the chapter “Legalizing Querness in Central-Eastern Europe,” Judit Takács argues for an “intersectionality-sensitive analyses of genderphobia, and intimate, sexual and trans citizenship, that recognize decriminalisation as a broad multilayered process” (ibid.: 253). In “Gender and the Democratic Paradox in Latvia,” Daina S. Eglitis, Marita Zitmane, and Laura Ardava-Ābolina discuss the failure of the democratic states to “recognize and remediate gender inequalities in the economy and politics” (ibid.: 264). Agnieszka Graff closes this part by investigating the role of ideology in how activists frame their work. Her chapter “Anti-Gender Mobilization and Right-Wing Populism” reveals the connections between the story of anti-genderism and the collaboration between conservative forces in the Church and the nationalist groups.

Part IV, “Lived Experiences of Individuals in Different Regimes,” tackles the question of gendered power negotiation in terms of agency exercised under various conditions and political systems. This part indicates that, in response to the control exercised by authoritarian regimes over the public and private domains, individuals “did not give up control over the intimate, which could enable survival and produce resistance” (ibid.: 280). In “Late Imperial Russia and its Gendered Order in the Countryside,” Christine D. Worobec argues that women’s agency was fundamentally defined in terms of carving out “spaces for themselves within a hierarchical patriarchal society” and adapting to “a diversifying economy as laborers and consumers” (ibid.: 290). In “Gendered Moral Panics in the Late Habsburg Monarchy,” Nancy M. Wingfield discusses the danger of association between the nationalist view, discrimination, and exclusion practices during “the racially saturated sexual politics of the interwar era” (ibid.: 299). Melissa Feinberg readdresses the topic of gender equality in relation to authoritarian movements that “openly portrayed gender equality as a threat to the nation” (ibid.: 309). Both Dovilė Budrytė and Anna Hájková analyse the question of agency in connection with the center-periphery relationship. Budrytė addresses the memories of the Gulag by arguing for the importance of including narratives of non-Russian women (“Deportation and Gulag as Gendered Processes”), while Hájková focuses her analysis on experiences of the Holocaust (“Sexuality and the Holocaust”). Hájková demonstrates that a gendered analysis of Holocaust experiences can shift the “understandings of individual agency” (ibid.: 319) during extreme violence and, furthermore, requires an exploration of the social construction of sexual violence. Ivan Simić discusses the “socialist periphery” (ibid.: 333) in relation to the Yugoslav gender experiments, while in the last chapter in this part Alice Weinreb addresses the way in which the communist food economy shaped gender in the German Democratic Republic by changing discussions around the family meal within a socialist discourse of women’s emancipation (“Struggles to Reconcile Women’s Wage Labor and Kitchen Labor in the German Democratic Republic”).

Part V, “The Ambiguous Postcommunist Transitions,” engages with the reconstruction of gender in the context of changes brought by the separation from communism. This section’s authors use a cross-regional analysis alongside different analytical lenses, such as postcolonialism. By analysing the impact of economic transition on women’s employment patterns and standard of living, Jill Massino argues that the economic changes experienced by the countries from Central-Eastern Europe were a “function of both local and global realities and processes” (ibid.: 364). In “Democratization, Authoritarianism, and Gender in Russia,” Andrea Chandler writes about the difficulties of institutionalising gender equality when the political context is correlated with a “volatile, precarious environment” (ibid.: 372). Andrea Spehar asserts that the analysis of the impact of Europeanisation on the promotion of gender equality reinforces the distinction between policies and their implementation or between equality of rights and equality of results. Momentum for legislative reform regarding LGBT rights in the region was clearly determined by the EU accession process. In “The Europeanization and Politicization of LGBT Rights in Serbia,” Koen Slootmaeckers argues that different actions undertaken by domestic activists also contributed to the observed change, while the politicisation of LGBT rights complicates these activists’ struggles. Alexandra Novitskaya and Alexia Bloch demonstrate in their chapters that transnational migration raises questions about the categories that determine one’s ability to move across borders, as well as about intimacy practices and patterns. Belinda Cooper discusses the systematic sexual violence based on analysis of the legal framework established by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, while Sinéad Walsh addresses the topic by focusing on the gendered impact of the conflict in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Other chapters pay close attention to the “new wave of militarism, authoritarianism, and the rising tide of anti-genderism” (ibid.: 432) as the political intransigence, connections between authoritarianism and militarisation, and discourse of nationalism are not limited to places of former armed conflict.

Part VI, “Postcommunist Policy Issues,” demonstrates how increasingly nationalist political regimes have reinterpreted gender roles and rights in the past 30 years in the context of “nostalgia for stability, without the veneer of Soviet promises of emancipation” (ibid.: 437). This part indicates that gender can be used as a broader indication of the current state of affairs: “the interpretation of gender and the implementation of welfare have become important signals of whether the state is aligning with varieties of democracy and authoritarianism” (ibid.: 437). Drawing attention to the fact that attitudes towards gender identity become “successful wedge issues in re-dividing Europe” (ibid.: 438), a variety of topics are discussed through their overlapping characteristics: the structural barriers to equal representations for women in politics (“Women’s Representation in Politics” by Sharon Wolchik and Cristina Chiva), gender violence prevention campaigns in Ukraine (“Hybrid Regimes and Gender Violence Prevention Campaigns in Ukraine” by Alexandra Hrycak), the way in which the debates around human trafficking are gendered and racialised (“Trafficked Women and Men to and from Russia” by Lauren A. McCarthy), the role of the state as an agent of systematic institutional violence, and the re-traditionalisation of gendered practices in the post-Soviet context (“Social Welfare and Family Policies in Central-Eastern European Countries” by Dorota Szelewa and “Bride Kidnapping and Polygynous Marriages” by Cynthis Werner). Elżbieta Korolczuk uses the analysis of assisted reproduction in Poland for a further exploration of biomedicine as a space where “power relations are renegotiated and imaginaries, ideals and norms regarding family, gender and citizenship are reconstructed” (ibid.: 483-491). Various hierarchical structures are revealed, as well as forms of exclusion and marginalisation (“Gender, Sexuality, and Disability in Postsocialist Central-Eastern Europe” by Teodor Mladenov), and systematic disadvantages (“Single Mothers, Family Change, and Normalized Gender Crisis in Russia” by Jennifer Utrata). However, this part also indicates the role of “individual female agency” (ibid.: 492) in creating alternative narratives. Cynthia Buckley demonstrates that the “substantial commitment to individual agency ideas, autonomy, and informed choice in reproductive health by policymakers” (ibid.: 500) is similarly important for reproductive health as it is the states concerned with population growth.

While some chapters focus on ideas, debates, and literature overviews, others creatively discuss fascinating case studies, opening possibilities for new areas of research. The handbook’s chapters can be used as a reliable source of information on specific research topics by a broad audience ranging from scholars to policymakers. Through its content and structure as well as the intersections between and among its 51 chapters, this volume is one of the best resources in the field of gender in Central-Eastern Europe and Eurasia.

Simona Mitroiu
Institute of Interdisciplinary Research
“Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iași, Romania


Simona Mitroiu, Ph.D. is a senior researcher at the Institute of Interdisciplinary Research, “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iași, Romania. She is the author of Women's Life Writing in Post-Communist Romania: Reclaiming Privacy and Agency (DeGruyter, 2022) and editor of the volumes Life Writing and Politics of Memory in Eastern Europe (Palgrave MacMillan, 2015) and Women’s Narratives and Postmemory of Displacement in Central and Eastern Europe (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018). Her research focuses on memory, life writing, cultural expressions, and post-socialist re-interpretations of the past and gender studies in East-Central Europe.


Ciobanu, Monica, Şerban Mihaela. 2021. “Legitimation crisis, memory, and United States exceptionalism: Lessons from post-communist Eastern Europe.” Memory Studies 14(6): 1285-1300.

Hartley, L.P. 1953. The Go-Between. London.

Koobak, Redi, Madina Tlostanova, Suruchi Thapar-Björkert. 2021. “Introduction: Uneasy Affinities Between the Postcolonial and the Postsocialist”. In Postcolonial and Postsocialist Dialogues. Intersections, Opacities, Challenges in Feminist Theorizing and Practice, edited by Redi Koobak, Madina Tlostanova, Suruchi Thapar-Björkert, 1-10. London.

Lowenthal, David. 1985. The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge & New York.

Suggested Citation

Mitroiu, Simona. 2022. Review: “Katalin Fábián, Janet Elise Johnson, Mara Lazda (eds.): The Routledge Handbook of Gender in Central-Eastern Europe and Eurasia.” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 15. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2022.00015.310.

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

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