The unlikely rise of Russian female comics

Yulia Akhmedova is the first Russian woman to have her own stand-up show, entitled ‘Harassment’

Amie Ferris-Rotman
Saturday 24 August 2019 15:17 BST

The women riffed with the audience about menopause, female genitalia and being single in modern Russia.

There was even a gag about husband killing. The crowd – mostly young women – immediately got the joke.

This is Russian stand-up comedy: #MeToo edition.

Slowly at first – but now in increasing numbers – Russian female comics are taking to the stage to challenge the status quo. Embedded in the humour are also serious reckonings on their countrymen’s grip on power, both in the Kremlin and over their personal lives.

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 in Russia.

“In Russia, women are always to blame and men are innocent,” says Yulia Akhmedova, 36, who, fresh off her Harassment tour, is the first female stand-up act to ever travel around Russia.

Compared with the west’s tradition of stand-up, the phenomenon is relatively new in Russia. Stand-up first emerged 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 become 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, where up to 20,000 visitors thronged bars and theatres 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.

The plain clothes, no-frills aspect of stand-up holds peculiar appeal for a generation of Russia women eager to embrace the ideals of feminism, a term which 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 US scene in the 1960s.

“We still have this stereotype that women can’t be funny,” she says.

A regular on the Moscow circuit, Skladchikova says she winces when the audience is encouraged by male club announcers to “support the girls”.

“The audience should not feel sorry for us,” she says. “There should be no gender division. Thank God women are doing stand-up, and we are proving that female humour does exist.”

The art is also going mainstream. A new TV show featuring women-only stand-up, the first of its kind in Russia, is debuting in autumn on TNT, one of Russia’s most watched stations.

The programme 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.

Russian comedian Yulia Akhmedova

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 says.

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 if they knew about the Harvey Weinstein scandal that erupted two years ago, igniting the global #MeToo movement. Even fewer people would applaud.

Under President Putin’s traditionalist ideology, Russian women’s rights are being squeezed as never before. The country is coming to terms with the partial decriminalisation 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.

Though fledgling, Russia has its own version of a #MeToo moment, with accusations of sexual harassment lobbied against a senior lawmaker and a prominent reporter from the liberal journalistic community.

But progress has been slow. When US comedian Louis CK 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 says.

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.”

© Washington Post

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