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

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