The Great Divergence? Why Russia and the West Are Moving in Opposite Directions on Gay Rights

Never mind capitalism versus communism and democracy versus autocracy. More than anything else, Russia is still a patriarchy. 

By Darja Irdam

While LGBT movements have been winning more and more political support in the Western world in the last decade, the position of sexual minorities in Russia has recently become particularly alarming. Not only has the government adopted the law prohibiting ‘propaganda’ of homosexuality among Russia’s youth, but the ruling party – United Russia (UR) – is about to accept a law preventing homosexual couples both in Russia and abroad as well as single citizens of countries which allow homosexual marriages from adopting Russian children.

The main explanation that the government has for these measures is that it perceives any declaration of the mere existence of homosexuality – which is what is called ‘propaganda’ – to be morally destructive and particularly harmful for children as it “imposes distorted perceptions about human relationships” on children who do not yet have a “stable outlook”.

The government officially calls it ‘defilement’ to teach children about women harboring romantic love for other women and men loving men. In Russia, this is not a controversial stance: it has the support of all the major political parties and the majority of the population. Why is that?

Putin hunting, 2010

What women want

The development of Western European values promoting tolerance, non-racism and sexual freedom is a recent phenomenon. So it is in the West: less than half a century ago did the US witness attitudes change towards its severely discriminated black population while gay marriages were almost unthinkable as late as in the 1990s. Modernization theory predicts that most of the time, societies become more liberal as they develop economically and educationally. So, perhaps, as in other countries, homophobic trends might be fuelled by Russia’s inhibited socio-economic development. If this is true, the problem might be gradually ameliorated when the society is rich and happy enough to pay attention to more liberal values. However, the grounds on which Russian homophobia thrives seem to lie in the culture and the deeply embedded social norms.

That said, it can be useful to approach the issue of Russian homophobia from a different perspective: perhaps, apart from reassessing their own negative position on homosexuality, the sexual majorities, too, have something to be concerned about here? Let us consider two problems, which transcend the majority-minority relationship. The first problem is that the unusually dominant Russian state has a monopoly over establishing what normal is and where the boundaries of abnormality lay.

The government declared that Russia has a traditional set of values which contradict with the European ones mainly when it comes to liberal acceptance and tolerance. Clearly, such Russian values seem to fit fairly well within the paradigm of Orthodox Christianity, disregarding of the sizeable Muslim, Jewish and atheist populations of the country and allowing little potential for modernization. Even during Putin’s first presidency, and more so after Medvedev temporarily took over the steering wheel, a lot of political attention was paid to promotion of traditional family values, which were tightly intertwined with religious practices. UR has been particularly inventive when it comes to developing the religious nationalism context for its policy proposals. Not only does it draw on an eclectic range of contemporary, Soviet and Imperial-era narratives; it has reached as far back as the Christian Rus’ – the presumably Greco-Romano-Nordic warrior colonialists whose founded the polities that over time morphed into the Tsardom – for myths that can legitimize the patriarchy.

Gender roles continue to be very traditional: the accepted norms are still a brutal masculinity and an obeying, soft and flexible femininity. Hence, men have always been expected to be bread-winners, warriors, and politically informed figures (who by definition support the state); while women were supposed to be mothers, care-takers, domestic laborers, active tax-payers and supporters of their male partners. Only historical circumstance added slight variations to women’s roles and virtually exclusively when it was beneficial to the state.

Consequently, not only the Soviet state, but also modern Russia led by President Vladimir Putin has been actively promoting the culture of machismo. Consider, for example, Putin’ regular appearances with his torso bared, fishing or hunting like an exemplary masculine hero. But Putin is not simply a bad boy: he is also, at times, presented as a ‘tender beast’. His image as a sex-symbol who can still be trusted has been so successful that popular culture depicts him as an ideal husband for all Russian women, as he “does not drink and would not batter” his wife. Russian machismo is very different from, say, its Italian variant, as a Russian man is not expected to be pretty, groomed, well-dressed and creative when it comes to courtesy. He is not supposed to sing or dance, he is not supposed to write poetry and create miracles in the kitchen A real Russian man is supposed to be a manual worker, a proletarian; he is expected to have big fists, to smell like a factory, to be a bread-winner, to eat substantively and to hold his liquor.

Such a machismo exerts a dual pressure as it does not only establish requirements for men, but it also defines the way that women are supposed to be. A woman who does not prioritize reproduction in her early twenties is widely perceived to be a ‘careerist’, while a woman who has not got married while at college, who values her independence and is not afraid to lose relationships in her pursuit of a more desirable partner is either an unlucky spinster, a sexually unsatisfied predator, or a lesbian.

Such a traditional position for women can seem milder than the corresponding one in many Muslim cultures. After all, Russia has gone through a partial sexual revolution. There is a relatively tolerant attitude to cohabitation, divorces, new relationships, and women mostly enjoy social independence.

However, since the Soviet transformations of gender roles was (only) an economic one, as opposed to most Muslim women, women in Russia are supposed to work outside their homes as much or more than their male partners. Just like Muslim women, however, they are still not seen as equals or potential leaders. Thus, the state takes a very ambiguous stance on gender roles, one that is economically modern, but socially traditional. It expects the woman do to the work and the man to hold the status.

Soviet era poster reused in modern Russia

“One child is good, two children are better!”
– At least when reproducing is a duty.

This is not an easy balance to maintain, however. When, in the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many women were forced to become their families’ breadwinners, they took to socially illicit trades such a personal entrepreneurship, which was frowned on by society. Since such work would shame the household if undertaken by the father of the family, it was left to women. But economic status does influence social status in Russia, too, and many men took to drinking and apathy when their social usefulness expired. It seems that homosexual and other ‘non-traditional’ gender roles are thus seen as even more dangerous in Russia than anywhere else, since they threaten a highly valued, but already very vulnerable patriarchy.

Add to this the continuous focus of the Putin administration on reproduction as not only the right, but the ‘duty’ of every citizen. As with many other social policies, it is a legacy of the Soviet past. Unlike much of the West that revisited their biopolicies after the Second World War, the USSR and its dependencies if anything intensified them to make up for the demographical catastrophe that had befallen them during the war years. Since Russia still suffers from a grave demographic illness – it only just recovered its shrinking population despite having a higher birthrate than, for example, the United States – it is understandable that policy-makers are concerned. However, instead of alleviating the problems women are facing when they carry out their dual roles by creating decent child-care facilities and paid leave schemes, for example, the state seeks to enforce that dual role even more.

At the end of the day, it looks like the problem here is in the very nature of Russia’s regime; in the ‘illiberal autocracy’ of the post-Soviet era. The concept of free choice just does not exist for the government. The president claims that homosexuals have exactly the same rights as all other citizens. Yet, sexual minorities are not allowed to have children, which the state perceives as ‘normal’. It turns out that the legislation prevents gays from having a right that all other ‘normal’ citizens have. Besides, gays now find themselves facing flexible and highly opaque legislation: the government has the right to penalize ‘homosexual propaganda’, it does not provide a single clear definition as to what such propaganda includes. Such malleable legislation has been used by President Putin for a while: just think about the laws on international NGOs being ‘foreign agents’ infiltrating into Russian politics to pose threats to the order and stability; recall the laws on taxation which led to the seemingly endless and highly selective hunt for some (but not all) of the oligarchs; consider the multiple arrests of opposition leaders. The government uses a lot of resources and media attention on what appears to be nothing else than a nationalistic, anti-Western securitization.

To show that it truly is a guardian of traditional moral norms, the UR has extended its role to an international actor. By stretching its laws outside its own population and by preventing foreign citizens from adopting Russian children if they are individually suspected of homosexuality, if their country of residence allows for homosexual marriages, or if they are American, “Russia is creating preconditions for more responsible policies on adoption” abroad. While in a liberal international community such a stance can be considered as one of the alternative subjects to discussion, sadly, Russia leaves little place for dialogue. Current and previous attempts of international human rights actors at preventing homophobia in Russia are according to Putin’s government “aimed at the destruction of our state and the erosion of its spirituality” and amounts to an “imposition of a foreign moral framework”

It is unlikely that the attitude of the state to its gay population and to their international supporters is specific to sexual minorities. It is a broader and a deeper problem of a fundamentally illiberal government. Using imaginary threats to enhance its nationalism and its patriarchal state is an art Russia has been practicing for a while. And with traditional male roles under further pressure from economic modernization, and as the government gains more and more confidence in facing the rest of the world, things are unlikely to change any time soon

Darja Irdam

Darja Irdam is currently pursuing her PhD in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Her current research covers the areas of economic sociology and public health, with a particular emphasis on post-Communist transitions, privatization, mortality, gender and class

How do we get Eastern Europe on the wagon?

By Darja Irdam

Eastern Europe is well known for its grim weather, grumpy service, gorgeous women, Communist past and excessive alcohol consumption. In fact, a Western mind struggles to understand how people can drink so much on so many occasions and likewise, how people can drink what they drink (because often it includes spirits literally not intended for human consumption). Excessive drinking in those parts of Europe does not only cause near-permanent damage to the image of their countries, the economic efficiency of labor and the crime rates, it also comes with the price tag of many human lives, including those of children. Naturally, alcoholism is a matter of concern for many, if not all, Eastern European governments, yet at the same time, alcohol taxes are sources of significant revenue for governments chronically struggling with deficit budgets. So what can be done to prevent people from drinking themselves to misery and is it rational for the state to do something about it?

“Only 56 per cent of adult males would
survive to the day
 (and the drinking party)
of their 65th birthday.”

To begin with, let us consider the extent of drinking and the range of alcohol-related problems. According to official statistics, excessive drinking was not so grave an issue before the collapse of the USSR. This was especially true of the Baltic States, which were famous for having the highest life-expectancy rates in the Soviets. Of course, the average Vanya would drink even in Soviet times, but somehow, they would find a way to stay alive. By the mid-90s, however, only 56 per cent of adult males would survive to the day (and the drinking party) of their 65th birthday. One of the main causes of this sharp decline in life expectancy was drinking and the consequent alcohol-related problems.

The period of rapid transition in which the new countries of the former Soviet Union went from central planning to a market economy was characterized by the coming of one economic cataclysm after another. The policy of mass privatization accompanying acute transition caused a skyrocketing level of unemployment, and together with delayed or withheld wages, it resulted in a dramatic impoverishment of the broad population. Even the people who held on to wage-paying jobs and were not paid in kind witnessed their purchasing-power being hollowed out in a matter of months. Millions of people responded desperately by drinking. Alcoholism became most prevalent among middle-aged men, the demographic who found themselves in the most hopeless economic situation. The effect on public health did not take long to appear. Along with an increased incidence of cardiovascular and chronic respiratory system diseases, the level of suicides directly related to alcohol consumption grew by 70 per cent. The levels of both alcohol poisoning and drunk homicides in Eastern Europe were roughly 10 times that of Sweden. When the numbers for the whole post-Soviet zone are taken into account, it turns out that about 70 per cent of men and at least 50 per cent of all women would have been considered heavy drinkers by Western standards. According to the UN, the habit of drinking away the problems caused by turbulent socio-economic changes in the early 90s took a toll of 10 million human lives.

“The state should controlnot prohibit
the business of the alcohol and tobacco industries.”

Apart from the direct health impact of excessive drinking, alcohol consumption is also significantly correlated with unhealthy eating habits and a sedentary life-style. These, in turn, increase the risks of the health problems of modernity: obesity, various cardio-vascular diseases and cancers. In other words, Eastern Europeans started suffering from white-collar diseases without getting the white-collar jobs Alcohol even causes risks for the reproductive health of the population. High alcohol consumption among women might cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, leading to growth deficiencies, facial anomalies, and problematic developments of the central nervous system in children. On top of that, drinking is directly related to the increase of HIV/AIDS rates of the heterosexual population, including representatives of better-off socioeconomic groups.

So, moral considerations aside, the harm caused by alcoholism to human health is obvious. It is also difficult to argue that increases in tax revenues can compensate for the millions of lives lost in the labor force and among taxpayers. Now, what should the governments do to improve, or at least to stabilize the situation? Prohibition is out of the question; Eastern Europeans have some painful memories of that from recent history. Alcohol restrictions imposed in the USSR by Gorbachev’s government in 1985 stabilized drinking only for a short time. While people in developed countries, like Finland, can afford taking weekends off to escape the world of highly priced alcohol in Estonia where they drink themselves unconscious, people in less wealthy countries will simply switch to alcoholic substitutes. Thus, people drink aftershave (sold with fruity fragrances – raspberry and lemon – to make drinking a more pleasurable experience for gourmets) and homemade booze (which comes in ‘mild’ variants as well as versions fired up by everything ranging from guano to medicaments and photographic developer). Therefore, simply cutting off official supplies will not work.

If we try to look for more effective policy solutions proposed by the leading academic studies, it is clear that scholars emphasize the ability of the state to control, not to prohibit the business of the alcohol and tobacco industries. Some recent public health studies demonstrate that a combination of policies together form the most effective prevention of alcoholism on a population level. Those should at least include limiting the access to alcohol in space and time and an increased alcohol tax. Moreover, it is important to make all alcohol subjected to taxation, rather than simply to increase the taxes for hard liquor.

“The ability to hold your liquor
is one of the defining features of manhood,
male pride and virile glory.”

However debatable from an economic perspective, it is generally advised in the literature to introduce state monopolies on alcohol sales: spirits should only be sold by state-approved vendors, and not even at licensed sale points. Besides, it has been proven that a reduced number of hours when alcohol can be legally purchased leads to a remarkable decrease in homicides and accidents, while a higher legal age for buying alcohol significantly reduces the frequency of drunk driving.

Eastern European politicians should stop daydreaming about eventually arriving at a sober society. Heavy drinking, for all its individual impact, is primarily a social problem. Hence, it requires a state-level solution, even if there is no easy cure and might sometimes short-circuit the free market. Apart from considering the policies discussed above, it is important that governments implement programs aimed at informing the population about the harms and risks associated with drinking; advertisement restrictions might also be considered.

However, Eastern Europe is still Eastern Europe, and has a long culture of heavy drinking. Heavy drinking is considered one of the most important symbols of the machismo so cherished in those parts. The ability to hold your liquor is one of the defining features of manhood, male pride and virile glory. It is also an inevitable condition for an active social life especially among the young. Only nerds and cowards abstain; cool guys prove their virility by drinking ‘za zdorovye’. Holding such ideals, it is no wonder that drinking is so prevalent. After all, culture is one of the strongest advertisements imaginable. It is time for Eastern European politicians to realize that a healthy lifestyle should not just be the prerogative of individual hipsters and boring academics, but a task for the government to promote to the entire population.

Darja Irdam is currently pursuing her PhD degree in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Her current research covers the areas of economic sociology and public health, with particular emphasis on post-Communist transitions, privatization, mortality, gender and class.

Russia’s Elections Explained

originally posted on March 4, 2012

Leading up to today’s presidential elections in Russia, most Western media have had quite an extensive coverage of Russian politics. Or rather, a coverage of Putin and his manhandling of the election system. This, we are told, is the reason why the emerging middle class cannot get their voices heard. Puzzlingly, nobody has talked about the opposition. Even in a quasi-liberal electoral system, there is an alternative to the incumbent. However, even the most generous search through liberally minded Western media (don’t even talk about the conservatives) saw a very willing ignorance when it came to describing both sides of the electoral equation.

Vladimir Putin The Russia As such, Amy Knight claimed in the NYRB blog that after the Duma elections, “everything changed”; Masha Gessen claimed in the Daily Show that Putin’s time was over soon. The Economist saw the beginning of the end of Putin, spelled in by the emergence of an IKEA-going middle class (there are now 14 IKEAs in Russia, up from 1 ten years ago). The few voices that have talked about the opposition have generally focused on how Prokhorov’s Ralph Nader-effect might be engineered by Putin. As such, Julia Ioffe, writing in the New Yorker, briefly implied that while not being keen on Putin’s reelection, the protesters are not fans of Prokhorov or of the Communists, either.

It could be put much more bluntly: they’re stuck without anybody to vote for and they’re not going to run themselves. Moreover, the big majority of Russia’s population does not share the concerns of the Jewish intelligentsia that have aired their (understandable) concern. In fact, it’s a little bit like writing about American politics and reporting on Obama’s low approval ratings, but forgetting to tell about the affluent slickness of Romney, the grandiosity of Gingrich, the zealousness of Santorum, the absurdity of Paul or the complete inelectability of Huntsman. Below, we bring you a guide to today’s presidential elections in Russia:

Gennady Zyuganov

Gennady Zyuganov and his Communist Party of the Russian Federation are true, CCCP partiyets. They aim at the restoration of the Soviet Union and the rejuvenation of Stalinism (no whiny reform-communism here!). The official website of the party is flooded by Soviet symbols, portraits of Stalin and posters of muscular workers pointing voters in the right direction. Some mellowness is supplied by pleasant panoramas featuring Zyuganov the predsedatel’ in a red tie and a short-sleeved shirt, casually slinging his jacket on his shoulder, taking a lunch break stroll amidst the endless Russian wheat fields. The July noon is plumbously dense and stuffy: on the horizon, dark clouds gather before a hot summer storm is unleashed.


Mikhail Prokhorov is a billionaire, a public cutie and a friendly oligarch; he’s the engineer next door with whom other engineers would like to grab a beer and ladies would like to go home with for a drink or two and marriage. And a divorce. From his Moscow office, Prokhorov has such an overview that he has been able to see that the living standards of most Russians have already risen to the level where dealing with them any longer is mostly unnecessary. Now, it’s time to turn the page and begin a new chapter in Russia’s history. Prokhorov’s chapter is filled with a strong legal system, a free press, direct elections to the regional governorships and more “public control over the government”. Applying sophisticated tools from his business mindset, Manager Vseya Rusi also suggests that Russia’s economic model needs to be changed before it leads to a catastrophe of collapsing oil prices.


Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky is the candidate of the Liberal Democratic Party. A singer, a provocateur and a Jewish anti-semite, Zhirinovsky shares most of United Russia’s agenda while officially disapproving of UR aiming at it. Opposing everybody, the Liberal Democratic Party presents you with a square throng of suit-clad men whose collective stern gazes ostensibly convince voters to give their support. The first and main goal of the LDPR is the restoration of Russia as a great power; apart from that, the party states its key issues as “Creation, not destruction”; “Well-thought-through reforms”; Liberalism “which supports the freedom of thought and approaches”; and Democracy, defined as “honest and free elections.” Finally, the LDPR gives itself the task of “Creating mechanisms that will allow the citizens to fully realize their potential and liberate Russia from violent and anarchic systems”. Odnoznachno!


Sergei Mironov

Sergei Mironov is the candidate of A Just Russia (CP), a social-democratic party, which seems to be the party with the smallest appetite for propagandistic symbol usage. As part of its strategy, CP has spawned international franchises all over the post-Soviet space. Talking to the cosmopolitanism of its voter corps, it is also the only party with an official English translation of its webpage. A Just Russia criticizes Russia´s current overreliance on natural resources and its ‘squeezed’ political system. CP sees UR as a party of conservative bureaucrats, KPRF as lost in the Soviet past, LDPR as a loud protestor which quietly accepts compromises with the ruling governments an Right Cause as a comfortable group of oligarchs. Among the claims of AJR are improvement of redistribution, fight against corruption and empowerment of the civil society. All in all, it’s a very sane analysis. Sadly, it’s way too sane for Russia, and way too intellectual. They’ve used their 64 Duma seats to win two of twenty-nine committee chairmanships: “Family, Women and Children” and “Science and Science-Intensive Technology”. Don’t bet on CP to be big in either the Duma or the presidential races anytime soon.