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Transnistria women working jobs police bus driver boxer
Photography Anton Polyakov

The women defying gender norms in a post-Soviet time warp


TextAlex PetersPhotographyAnton Polyakov

With female employment rates at only 37 per cent, we photograph the policewomen and bus drivers tackling male-dominated industries

Welcome to Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity, a campaign dedicated to exploring what ‘masculinity’ means in 2019. With photo stories shot in Tokyo, India, New York, and London and in-depth features exploring mental health, older bodybuilders, and myths around masculinity – we present all the ways people around the world are redefining traditional tropes.

Nestled between the Eastern European countries of Moldova and Ukraine, lies a thin strip of land. The 469,000 people who live on this land are governed by their own parliament under their own flag. They have their own currency, army, police force, and football teams. Yet, you won’t find it on most maps and not a single member of the United Nations recognises its existence. It’s Transnistria, a land in limbo.

In the early 90s, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, tensions between the newly independent Moldova and the Russian-speaking majority of the region of Transnistria led to the nation declaring its own independence. Following months of armed clashes, a ceasefire was declared and since Transnistria has governed itself independently of Moldova – bolstered by military, political and financial support from Russia. Yet, neither country formally recognises the state.

Existing outside the usual markers of space and geography, Transnistria also exists slightly separate to time, filled, as it is, with artefacts of a bygone Soviet era – from old Soviet trolleybuses to the statue of Lenin that guards the steps of Parliament, the hammer and sickle Transnistrian flag, to the portraits of Stalin that fill the homes and government buildings of the state. That is, next to those of Putin, of course, and Transnistria’s President Vadim Krasnoselsky.                

Transnistrian society remains deeply traditional and is closely controlled by the government. Authorities monitor and censor public media, with critical reporting bringing harassment by the government, while legal restrictions on certain kinds of speech – for example, disrespect for the Russian peacekeeping mission – discourages free discussion. Same-sex marriage is not permitted and there are no laws criminalising domestic violence nor marital rape. 

Earlier this year, photographer Anton Polyakov travelled to Transnistria to capture the portraits of women working in traditionally masculine roles, from police officers and trolleybus drivers to boxers and bodybuilders. With female employment rates at only 37 per cent and very few women occupying historically male jobs – there are only three women in the 43-seat Supreme Soviet, Transnistria’s parliament – these women operate outside of the established norm. In 2013, a report on the situation of human rights in Transnistria by UN Senior Expert Thomas Hammarberg found that “family life remains divided into traditional male and female responsibilities” and “the role of women in society is still largely seen as the protector of the home sphere.” 

Here the women open up to Anton about gender roles, their daily routines and bringing glamour to their work.

ALEXANDRA VOLKOVA & OLGA TOKAN, POLICE OFFICERS 

How long have you been working in the police? 

Alexandra Volkova: For around four years. 

Olga Tokan: Seven years. 

How does your gender affect your work? 

Alexandra Volkova & Olga Tokan: Men are strong and we understand that. In some situations when an offender needs to be detained or when the violator resists, men can use their power. We’re taught basic self-defence skills and we also have special means that we can use in such situations to call in for reinforcement. 

At first, when women were allowed to work in the traffic police, people often didn’t take us seriously; in our society people are used to it being a male profession. Later, people realised we’re no less than our male coworkers, and we’re also literate, educated, and know our work well. After that, we were perceived differently and people began to treat us with more respect. 

In our opinion, women surpass men in some ways. We’re more attentive, more alter, and resistant to insomnia. In our profession, we often have to work at night and not sleep and we can cope with it very easily. Although, at the same time, it depends on the nature of the person…  

Can you wear make-up at work?

Alexandra Volkova & Olga Tokan: Make-up is permissible for us, but not bright colours. We have a charter in which everything is written down to the smallest details, including what tones of make-up can be worn or what colours we can wear on our nails. 

Do you plan to stay in this profession in the future?

Alexandra Volkova: I don’t have children or a family currently, but if that moment comes, I won’t be able to work in this profession. 

Olga Tokan: I have a child and a husband but it’s quite difficult for me to combine the role of mother and remain in the profession.

KARPOVA OLESYA, TROLLEY BUS DRIVER 

How long have you been working as a trolley bus driver?

Karpova Olesya: I’ve been a trolley bus driver for 15 years.  

Why did you choose this profession?

Karpova Olesya: It was always my dream to drive a trolley bus and my parents had been drivers all their lives. I absolutely can not imagine myself in any other profession.

What is your usual daily routine? 

Karpova Olesya: I get up at 3:30 in the morning. I drink coffee, bathe, and do my make-up. Then the car on duty arrives at 4:30 to take me to the trolley depot. In the depot, we are given a schedule of work and prepare the trolley bus for work. I check the car to make sure everything is all right, climb on the roof, inspect the trolley bus poles. The working day lasts at least 12 hours. 

How important to you is how you look? 

Karpova Olesya: I always do my make-up and hair before going to work. I’ll never sit behind the wheel without doing my make-up – all my colleagues know this. My appearance is very important to me because my face is how people perceive me. 

How does your gender affect your work? 

Karpova Olesya: I don’t think there are any differences between male and female drivers. My opinion generally is that some men are dumber than women though. The hardest time at work is during the winter, the trolley buses are old and sometimes things break. If the doors or wheels break, we often repair the faults on our own. In the new cars, you can tighten the nuts on the wheels for a couple of minutes, on the old ones it takes several days. There are girls weaker than me who usually call locksmiths to help them. 

Who is the ideal person for you? 

Karpova Olesya: For me, there are no ideals. To be honest, I don’t even have time to read or watch TV, so it’s hard for me to talk about ideals.

KRISTINA KRAVCHENKO, BOXER 

Why did you choose boxing? 

Kristina Kravchenko: At a certain period in my life I wanted something new, new sensations and emotions, so I decided to try it. Before that, I played football. 

How important is it for you to look good in your everyday life as well as during competitions?

Kristina Kravchenko: In everyday life, I always try to take care of myself and I often go to local beauty salons to get my make-up, hair, and nails done. When I have a competition, my make-up could start running and would distract me from a fight. 

What difficulties do women face in boxing? 

Kristina Kravchenko: Women’s boxing has its own unique beauty, girls have a different style of fighting. It’s quite hard being a girl in this sport as you inevitably get injured (fractures and bruises) so sometimes I have to mask them with make-up. 

What is the reaction of people when you tell people you’re a boxer? 

Kristina Kravchenko: Everyone wonders why and I’ve got a lot of criticism about it. Boys often say it’s not a female sport. There are also people who cheer me on and tell me to continue. 

EKATERINE SAMOKHINA, BODYBUILDER 

How long have you been bodybuilding? 

Ekaterine Samokhina: A total of eight years, three years before pregnancy and five years after.

How important is it for you to look good in everyday life, as well as during competitions?

Ekaterine Samokhina: During competitions, a well-crafted image is 100 per cent successful. Everything should be perfect: make-up, which is also applied to the body, swimsuit, hair, and jewellery. 

In everyday life I try to look well-groomed and tidy, I try not to stand out from the crowd too much. It doesn’t always work. People around me say that I have a good form and that you can’t hide it with clothes. 

What difficulties do women face in this bodybuilding?

Ekaterine Samokhina: The scene is not just beautiful photos for social networks, there is a lot of work behind it to build the perfect proportions and create an interesting and original image. 

What kind of person is beautiful to you? 

Ekaterine Samokhina: For me, a beautiful person is, above all, a healthy and happy person. In a good man, there’s no place for envy and anger.

Read more from Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity here.

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