April 12 (UPI) — Russian President Vladimir Putin mentioned “gender freedomsmore than once to justify Russia’s war on Ukraine and simultaneously repress its own citizens.
More directly, he alleged that Russian citizens seeking “gender freedoms” (next to foie gras and oysters) are part of the anti-Russian “fifth column”.
Gender and sexual freedoms – or rights, as they are more commonly known – are about bodily autonomy, diversity and inclusiveness. Feminist and LGBTQ+ activists argue that every human being deserves respect, recognition and equal rights, regardless of gender or sexuality.
What is the connection between Putin’s animosity towards Ukraine and gender and sexual rights in Russia and around the world?
Putin’s gender and diet
Putin’s regime has increasingly relied on very conventional sexual and gender norms.
When he first ascended to the presidency, image makers used Putin’s KGB background and penchant for fitness to cast him as a macho strongman who could reverse Russia’s waning power . and “remasculinize” the country after a decade of so-called geopolitical flaccidity in the wake of the Soviet collapse.
In other words, an inflexible and clearly patriarchal notion of masculinity has been at the heart of the legitimacy of Putin’s regime.
Russian foreign policy has also relied on rigid gender norms. When Ukraine experienced its first pro-democracy revolution in 2004, Russian media interviewed masculinity of its leaders.
Putin also used homophobic terms to dismiss Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003responding to a reporter’s question by saying, “A pink revolution – then they’ll come up with a light blue one.” In Russian, “light blue” or goluboi is slang for “gay man”.
Putin has often been portrayed as the undisputed leader of Russia’s power hound – an image focused on masculinity.
However, even as the leader of a personalist dictatorship – a regime in which there are few institutional limits on the ruler’s power – Putin must balance competing interests between important elites and maintain at least the appearance of public support in order to be seen as a legitimate ruler.
Until 2020, Putin used gendered language in his speeches to signal his alignment with a variety of elites and public constituencies that supported him. He was sending mixed signals both relatively progressive Russians who value the role of women in the workplace and conservatives wanting a return to “traditional family values”, in order to keep everyone on their side.
But after July 2021, when he published an essay claiming that Ukrainians and Russians are one peoplePutin no longer shy away from making sexist and LGBTQ+-phobic comments in prominent places.
At an October meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club – a Moscow-based think tank and discussion forum with which Putin is closely associated – he said teaching children about gender fluidity was “truly monstrous” and “bordering on a crime against humanity.
At his national press conference in December, Putin announced:
“I maintain the traditional approach that a woman is a woman, a man is a man, a mother is a mother and a father is a father.”
And at a press conference shortly before invading Ukraine, he dismissed Volodymyr Zelensky’s supposed dislike of the Minsk agreements, a 2014 ceasefire agreement to end fighting between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. Putin said of the Ukrainian president: “Like it or not, girl, you gotta put up with it— a possible reference to a Soviet punk song that justifies raping a dead woman.
Putin was also signaling his allegiance to critics of the “moral decadence” of Western nations whose outlook, and this is no coincidence, overlap with Putin’s hardline advisers on Ukraine.
Several weeks into the war, however, cracks seem to be emerging among the elites. If a palace coup is in sight, it may come from high-ranking officers of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, who are more concerned with their own power than with protecting Putin and his “shirtless cult of personality.”
Target feminists, LGBTQ+ advocates
Over the past decade, gender and LGBTQ+ issues have become central targets of repression in Russia aimed at protecting the Putin regime from perceived domestic threats.
In 2013, the LGBTQ+ community became an enemy of the people under the so-called “law on “gay propaganda” which sparked vigilante violence and pushed many LGBTQ+ people flee Russia and seek asylum in the West.
There has also been an increase abortion restrictionsand domestic violence has been partially decriminalized.
The state also silenced feminist and LGBTQ+ scholarship in labeling of research centers in gender studies as “foreign agents” and forcing academics out of the country.
Feminist and LGBTQ+ advocates have also faced vicious harassment from far-right hate groups like the infamous Male State with the tacit approval of the Russian authorities. The same hate groups are among the happiest cheerleaders of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Anti-war and anti-Putin activism
It is not surprising that women, feminist and LGBTQ+ activists have been at the forefront of anti-war and anti-Putin resistance.
In recent weeks, Pussy Riot has produced a NFT will raise funds for Ukrainefeminist activists have risked being arrested and beaten for having taken part in demonstrations against the war and mothers of soldiers in Siberia attempted to hold local authorities accountable for using their sons as cannon fodder.
Whether or not these activists use stereotypical gender roles (such as soldiers’ mothers) or asserting a non-normative gender politics (as feminists or queer activists), they challenge a regime that relies on patriarchy for the legitimacy of its leader.
In short, women’s rights are explicitly democratic, so they threaten authoritarian regimes like that of Russia which is based on traditional and unequal gender roles, on heteronormativity and, above all, on the cult of masculinity.
Putin’s anger at Ukraine over its assertion of autonomy, including towards democracy and human rightsis fueled by her patriarchal belief that Ukraine’s “feminine” role was to submit to the will of its strongest neighbour.
Ukrainians are paying the price for a regime that disregards the sovereignty of their nation and the autonomy of Russian citizens.
Valerie Sperling is a professor of political science at Clark University; Alexandra Novitskaya is a doctoral student in women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Stony Brook University; Janet Elise Johnson is Professor of Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies at Brooklyn College; and Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom is a professor of political science at University of British Columbia.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.