Reading Contemporary Russian Women’s Comics

The research and writing of this essay was made possible in part by a grant from The Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies.

One chilly Moscow morning in January, 2017, Alyona Popova, a social activist, lawyer, and founder of the mutual aid network You Are Not Alone, stood outside the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, holding a sign. The sign had an old Russian proverb: B’yot znachit lyubit (If he beats [you], it means he loves [you]) (Walker, “Putin”).1

Inside the building, the legislative body was voting on a legislative amendment which would decriminalize domestic abuse for a first offense (per year), making it subject only to an administrative fine. Only those who repeated the offense would face criminal prosecution.2 Popova had gathered almost 240,000 signatures in an online petition calling for the bill not to be passed, saying that 40 percent of all grave violent crimes occur inside the family in Russia (Balmforth, “Russian”).

Still, the yeas carried the day, 380–3. (After another successful vote in the upper chamber, President Vladimir Putin would later sign the amendment into law on February 7.) Elina Zhgutova, a conservative journalist who enthusiastically backed the amendment, defended it by saying, “Why should a wife trust the state more than her husband whom she chose to spend her life with out of love? No one forced her. Why should she have to deal with police inside this family?” (Balmforth, “Russian”). It was now hard to argue with those who claimed Russia gave husbands the legal right to beat their wives and kids once a year.

While data on domestic violence in Russia remains spotty (a problem in and of itself), studies by the Moscow-based Anna Center for the Prevention of Violence, Human Rights Watch, and other organizations have shown a pervasive pattern: a fifth of all Russian women report violence at the hands of male partners,3 while the state and police treat the problem as a “private” family matter, with legal repercussions for perpetrators (if they’re reported at all) exceedingly rare.4 Russia remains one of the few European countries without an explicit domestic violence law.

Russian Women’s Comics

Since their rocky origins in the tumultuous 1990s, post-Soviet Russian comics have weathered a shattered economy; domination of the market by foreign brands; and deep public disdain for the form as inherently frivolous. Much of the material produced in the first decade after communism—in such genres as science fiction, adventure, and humor—proved of such shoddy quality as to confirm Russian preconceptions of comics as subliterate trash. But partly as a reaction to Putinism, as well as a change in fortunes for the industry as a whole, the 2010s saw a wave of “serious” graphic narrative—made up of documentary and autobiographical works—what I elsewhere have called Russian Comics’ Nonfiction Turn.5 In this movement, women artists have led the way.

In the 2010s, a viable industry at last took hold—more than two decades after the fall of communism. Respectable sales, scores of comics shops, large-scale inclusion in mainstream bookstores, critical success, conventions and academic conferences—they all date to no earlier than the third Putin administration.6

As noted, women proved key players in the leading edge of this vibrant new movement. Adult-oriented alternative comics, including nonfiction, memoir, and (auto)biography, have helped change the popular perception of graphic narrative in Russia to something like its acceptance and appreciation in Europe, the USA, and Asia. (This was all before Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, of course.)

In particular, a resolutely post-Soviet generation of female comics artists, unaffected by their predecessors’ discomfort with the medium as “bourgeois trash,” injected a vital new strain of social-justice activism and political resistance into Russian comics culture. Their works focus on the marginalized and socioeconomically dispossessed of Putin’s Russia: immigrants, sex workers, rape victims, the disabled, the chronically ill, and LGBTQ+ people, among others. They have also galvanized popular interest in comic art through new modes of distribution: public exhibitions, workshops, lectures, international collaborations, social media, and the internet. In so doing, they continue to redefine the possibilities for comics in Russia, demonstrating the form’s potency as an expressive medium for demanding and visualizing social change.

Members of the younger generation of Russian women comics artists, like Yulia Nikitina (aka Ner-Tamin), Kamilla Mamedova (aka Kameelah), Masha Foot, Yulia Tar, and Katya Dorokhina have built on the work of figures who were breaking ground as early as the 1990s. Lena Uzhinova, for example, was producing short autobiographical pieces in the first post-Soviet decade.7 In 2014, she released the controversial memoir My Sex (Boomkniga Press)8 which strips the veil off Soviet-era sexual mores; inadequate sex education; lack of women’s hygiene products and contraceptives; and rape culture, all in the author’s trademark tragicomic style.

Viktoria Lomasko, the best-known Russian comics artist (though she chafes at that label), produces startling works of reportage, documentary, and graphic witness. Her 2011 debut, Forbidden Art (in collaboration with Anton Nikolaev, Boomkniga) dealt with the 2008–2010 trial of Andrei Erofeyev and Yury Samodurov for inciting religious discord in a 2006 exhibition, one of the great scandals of post-Soviet art.

In 2012, Lomasko curated the first Feminist Pencil exhibit in Moscow. Among the outstanding comics works was Tatyana Faskhutdinova’s Unknown Stories from the Life of Lyonya Rodin (in collaboration with Leonid Rodin), on the difficulties of living with a disability in ableist culture. In 2013, art historian Nadezhda Plungian curated Feminist Pencil 2, which included Yanka Smetanina’s The Residents of Psychiatric Hospital No. 5 in Kot’kovo, a harrowing piece on rape and mental illness.

Lomasko’s 2017 book, Other Russias (N+1 Press), gathers several hard-hitting short pieces such as “The Girls of Nizhny Novgorod,” on modern-day prostitutes, and “Slaves of Moscow,” on the plight of immigrant workers. This book appeared in English and other European languages, but not in Russian. Ditto for her 2022 book, The Last Soviet Artist, published while the author was living in Western Europe after leaving Russia in the wake of the Ukraine invasion.

Despite sharing a gender, these artists of course vary in their conception both of comics and of feminism. And, in any case, many women in the post-Soviet era flat-out reject that label.

This Shenandoah collection of several translated excerpts from contemporary Russian women’s comics aims not for a comprehensive view, but merely to provide the reader a tantalizing window onto a body of work that—like Alyona Popova standing outside parliament with her sign—commands attention.

These are artists from a part of the world whose comics culture for too long has remained virtually unknown in the West, and I thank Shenandoah for the opportunity to bring their visions to a larger audience.


Alaniz, José. Resurrection: Comics in Post-Soviet Russia. Ohio State University Press, 2022.

—. Komiks: Comic Art in Russia. University Press of Mississippi, 2010.

Anna Centre For The Prevention Of Violence. “Domestic Violence Against Women In The Russian Federation: Alternative Report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.” October, 2015.

Balmforth, Tom. “Russian Duma Approves Bill To Soften Penalty For Domestic Violence.” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (January 27, 2017).

V kruge Sveta. “B’et – znachit liubit?Ekho Moskvy (May 12, 2020).

Walker, Shaun. “Putin Approves Legal Challenge That Decriminalises Some Domestic Violence.” The Guardian (February 7, 2017).

  1. In May, 2020, Popova, co-author of draft legislation on the prevention of domestic abuse, and lawyer Maria Davtyan appeared on an Echo of Moscow radio show to urge greater attention to a surge in domestic violence as a result of the isolation regime imposed by the state in reaction to the coronavirus outbreak. Despite the difficulty of making accurate determinations, they estimated domestic assault had increased by up to 200% in this period, but police were still not adequately responding – unless the victim was “seriously” injured or killed (V kruge Sveta, “B’et”). ↩︎
  2. The legislation had strong backing from the Russian Orthodox Church and far-right groups, which supported it on the grounds that it would strengthen families. Critics argued this basically gave Russian husbands a pass to beat their wives and children once a year (Walker, “Putin”). ↩︎
  3. Anna, “Domestic”: 3. ↩︎
  4. Anna, “Domestic”: 5; HRW, “I Could”: 4. ↩︎
  5. Alaniz, Resurrection: Conclusion. ↩︎
  6. The Russian comics industry in the 2010s is largely the story I tell in much more detail in Alaniz, Resurrection. ↩︎
  7. See Alaniz, Komiks, Chapter 8. ↩︎
  8. Under a pen name, Alyona Kamyshevskaya. ↩︎

José Alaniz, professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Department of Cinema and Media Studies (adjunct) at the University of Washington, Seattle, has published three monographs, Komiks: Comic Art in Russia (University Press of Mississippi, 2010); Death, Disability and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond (UPM, 2014); and Resurrection: Comics in Post-Soviet Russia (OSU Press, 2022). He has also co-edited two essay collections, Comics of the New Europe: Reflections and Intersections with Martha Kuhlman (Leuven University Press, 2020) and Uncanny Bodies: Disability and Superhero Comics with Scott T. Smith (Penn State University Press, 2019). He formerly chaired the Executive Committee of the International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF) and was a founding board member of the Comics Studies Society. In 2020 he published his first comics collection, The Phantom Zone and Other Stories (Amatl Comix). His current book projects include Comics of the Anthropocene: Graphic Narrative at the End of Nature.