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A New Russian Women's Movement -- Or A Cynical Political Ploy?

  • Tom Balmforth

A presentation in Moscow for the Otlichnitsy movement on June 1

A presentation in Moscow for the Otlichnitsy movement on June 1

MOSCOW -- They dress in all white, their insignia is the highest grade students earn in Russian schools, and their name essentially means "the teacher's pets."

The latest in a wave of public groups rushing to join Prime Minster Vladimir Putin's All-Russia National Front is a cliquey women's movement aiming to increase female participation in politics. Called the Otlichnitsy -- which roughly translated means "top students" -- the group was founded by Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a leading sociologist and a State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party.

At their inaugural meeting in Moscow on June 1, members said the movement's goal was to increase women's representation in politics from what they estimate as the current 6 percent to 50 percent "in all bodies of the authorities." They also say they will seek to elect a woman president in 2018.

"This is probably the first time that a movement like this has been formed not from above but from below -- that is, through the initiative of women," Kryshtanovskaya tells RFE/RL's Russian Service in explaining the movement's priorities. "What's more, these are not just women but those that we call 'otlichnitsy' -- successful women who haven't just studied and then done well at work, but those who have attained some kind of significant success in their line of work.

"We have Olympic champions, successful businesswomen, famous artists, scientists, professors, United Russia deputies.... These are women charged with success and charged with victory. They are active, energetic, and happy. That's the kind of aura we have around us."

With their all-white uniforms, the group's members dress the part. To further drive the point home, their insignia is the number 5, followed by a plus sign -- the highest grade in Russian schools and universities.

Prominent Supporters

The movement has already signed up several prominent women, including Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Maria Kiselyova, television presenter Nara Sheraliyeva, and opera singer Maria Maksakova. Spy-turned-television star Anna Chapman also attended the group's first meeting.

Spy-turned-television-star Anna Chapman (center) is one of the prominent supporters of the new movement.

But not all successful Russian women are sold on the movement. Olga Zdravomyslova, executive director of the Gorbachev Foundation think tank, is even skeptical about its branding.

"The first association with the word 'otlichnitsy' is that of a highly disciplined, obedient, go-getting girl with a white bow in her hair and a white apron," Zdravomyslova says. "She listens to the teacher and, of course, studies very well, is always first to put up her hand in class and without a moment's hesitation answers the question. I think we all know that people like that are not liked in school."

Moreover, analysts believe the Otlichnitsy is actually a thinly disguised springboard into the All-Russia Popular Front, the political alliance floated by Putin less than a month ago but that is rapidly gaining followers.

Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told local media last week that more than 450 organizations have already pledged their allegiance. "I think it's worth joining," Kryshtanovskaya said when asked about the front.

'All Fairly Straightforward'

Sergei Mikheyev, a political analyst for the Moscow-based Center for Political Assessments, says that the Otlichnitsy was clearly angling to get its members elected to the State Duma in elections scheduled for December.

"Through the All-Russia Popular Front, they can advance their own candidates as deputies," Mikheyev says. "This means they can get onto the list that is effectively the list of power. By doing this, there is a chance of becoming a deputy in the State Duma. It's all fairly straightforward, I think."

Olga Kryshtanovskaya: "These are women charged with success and charged with victory. They are active, energetic and happy. That's the kind of aura we have around us."

Lilya Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center agrees with Mikheyev. She points out that Kryshtanovskaya, a onetime critic of the Russian authorities, is now trying to preserve her future in the ruling elite.

"Olga Kryshtanovskaya has joined the circle of the authorities," Shevtsova says. "Every one of them is trying to do something to help themselves remain in this circle and also to help the authorities themselves. This is a typical way to succeed for people who adapt."

Despite these efforts, however, Shevtsova says she is certain that the Otlichnitsy will have vanished long before Russia gets a female president. She says all groups artificially springing up in order to join Putin's front will not last long.

"They do not have any basis in society," Shevtsova says. "They have been founded because of some people's attempts to help out today's system in some way to -- it is an attempt to help a system which is disintegrating.

"These groups will all have disappeared in a year," she adds.

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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