But a close look at the Russian president’s policies and language on gender and sexuality reveals a more complex picture. Putin’s message shows that he is not simply in the grip of ultraconservatives, but continues to find ways to balance competing elite interests while maintaining mass support.
Gender and sexuality are central aspects of political signaling from leaders, especially in Russia
Leaders use gender and sexuality norms to legitimize their regimes, whether through appeals to liberals who generally support gender equality and LGBT rights or conservatives who reject these views. Gender has played a particularly important role in political ideologies in Russia; the Soviet Union made women’s emancipation, or at least the appearance of it, a political project. Since 2013, when Russia passed a ban on “gay propaganda” arguing that promoting LGBT rights was harmful to children, the Kremlin has used statements on sexuality to signal that it is aligned with conservatives promoting a particular worldview of Russia distinct and better than the West.
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Putin has mixed these signals to balance competing interests since coming to power
We recently analysis two decades of Putin’s big annual speeches. Our study shows that his rhetoric is a balancing act, with messages aimed at many elite and mass audiences. Mixed messages help Putin manage the conflicting expectations of his constituents and maintain their support. In the early 2000s, Putin included progressive remarks on gender, signaling liberals. He decried the “scarcity of women in high government positions” and the fact that women “They sometimes get less for their work, unfortunately.” He promoted raising children as a joint venture, saying he wouldn’t want people “feeling that only women should take care of children; that would be wrong in general. He also spoke about Russia joining human rights and the emancipation of women.
After widespread protests against voter fraud began in 2011, Putin returned to the presidency and replaced this more progressive language with echoes of old Soviet approaches to gender, which combine conservative and progressive values. Putin most often mentioned the “maternity capital” program which rewarded women who had more than one child. Programs like this, modeled on Soviet policies to encourage reproduction, indicated support for Soviet-trained elites who were socialized to believe that men and women were equal, yet essentially biologically different. As revealed in survey datathis gender view is also that of the average Russian who leans conservatively on women’s responsibilities as mothers but accepts divorce and supports women’s equal right to work even when jobs are scarce.
In fact, we found that from 2011 to 2020, Putin only made two gender-related comments in his major national speeches that would resonate with the kinds of conservative ideologues who pushed Russia to invade Ukraine. the first was a rejection of “sexual minority rights” and a confusion of homosexuality with “pedophilia”. the second was mild support for the repeal of what Tories had called the “slapping law” that had criminalized domestic violence for the first time in post-Soviet history.
Putin likes to talk about Russians and Ukrainians as “one people”. Here is the deeper story.
There is evidence that Putin is turning to conservatives
As well as expanding Putin’s right to rule, Russia’s 2020 constitutional changes included an amendment defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, a provision that boosted turnout. In October 2021, Putin reaffirmed his commitment to traditional values, saying that Russians “must rely on [their] own spiritual values [and] historical tradition”. He also made, for the first time, explicitly transphobic statements, saying it was “truly monstrous…when children are taught from an early age that a boy can easily turn into a girl and vice versa.” And to his great annual press conference In December, Putin said, “I support 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.”
However, these recent moves do not necessarily suggest that Putin sided with this elite group. While doling out occasional cues to highly conservative elites and popular constituencies, two decades of evidence suggests that Putin knows his strength lies in his appeal to the broad middle and his ability to manage elites across the spectrum. As ostensibly as he may signal to conservatives, he still has to manage many different elites and muster the appearance of mass support to retain his power.
Janet Elise Johnson is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College CUNY.
Alexandra Novitskaya is a PhD candidate in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Stony Brook University.
Valerie Sperling is a professor of political science at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom is a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.