ST. PETERSBURG — 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, the Me Too 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 humor 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 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.