Feminism is a contact sport for Moscow roller derby team

By day, Aurelie is a public school teacher in Moscow, but after work, she escapes to the outskirts of the Russian capital to a bare Soviet-era gymnasium, where she is known as “La Debouche,” the rebel.

Aurelie is a member of the “Rollerciraptors,” Moscow’s first and only roller derby team. The young squad recently celebrated their first anniversary on International Women’s Day, March 8.

“I finally met women similar to me,” says Aurelie, who moved here from France five years ago. “We are all different, and we accept that you can be different. In school, girls learn to be nice and pretty. But we are not about that.”

Roller derby has attracted women across the globe keen on breaking gender norms. In Russia, the idea of women playing a contact sport is still something to get used to.

“My family always says it’s too dangerous,” says Masha, who grew up in Moscow and joined the team four months ago. “Everyone always told me that I am too strong, and that I should behave more like a girl. This is where I can finally do what I am capable of. It’s a feminist sport.”

Feminism can be a dirty word in Russia, where forms of domestic violence have been decriminalized, and a so-called “gay propaganda” law, signed in 2013 by President Vladimir Putin, has exacerbated the hostility LGBT people in Russia have long suffered.

The young team is determined to defy the so-called “traditional values” espoused by the Kremlin and to provide a safe haven for the marginalized feminist and LGBT community. The Rollerciraptors are low-key about publicity, and asked that CNN not publish their last names, citing hostility towards members of LGBT-friendly groups by some in the country.

Twice a week the 15 women roll onto the wood-paneled track with their colorful, taped-up skates, and put on helmets emblazoned with stickers paying homage to women’s empowerment.

The gym is far from the smooth tracks you can find in the US or European countries, where the sport experienced a revival in the early 2000s and has long moved from the underground into competitive leagues, with an organizing body based in Texas. Until recently, the team didn’t even have a place to train.

“Roller derby is still underground in Moscow. No one knows what it is and what we do,” says Ksusha, a founding member of the team. “It’s pretty tough being the only team here.”

To avoid harassment, the Rollerciraptors are careful to advertise membership only in places where they expect a welcoming crowd.

“We hand out flyers at feminist events and punk concerts around the city,” Ksusha says. “It’s just easier.”

All-women derby is characterized by a do-it-yourself attitude. It’s also essential to getting the team off the ground in Moscow. To kick off practice, the women often watch social media videos and translate training manuals from other roller girls around the world. The women take turns to be the captain each time they meet.

“Everything here is very totalitarian, and I got fed up with it,” Aurelie says. “It’s a big release to have a space where we use every talent, trust each other and give every girl a responsibility.”

The fast-paced, full-contact sport requires strategy, team spirit and lots of body checking. Jamming and blocking are techniques to be perfected. Injuries are part of the game, and there are plenty of bruises and even scars to go around.

Many of the rollergirls here identify as outsiders in Russia’s patriarchal society, and say that they have finally found a sense of belonging.

“People stare and yell things at me in street all the time,” says Larissa, an African-American skater from Tennessee who joined the Moscow team two years ago. “This is the space where I knew I could go and people won’t laugh at me just for my mere existence and treat me like a freak.”

Looking ahead, the team is preparing for their first bout against the more established “White Night Furies” of St. Petersburg in May. It will be the first competition between two Russian teams.

As the days are getting warmer in Moscow, the team plans to start practicing outside in parks around the city.

“People might stare at us,” says Aurelie. “Who knows, maybe we can inspire some girls that you can be tough and they’ll want to join.”