Masculinity Politics in Putin’s Russia
According to some in academia and journalism, Russia seems to be obsessed with masculinity. Stereotypical images of strong and heroic traditional masculinity permeate mass media and popular culture – who is not familiar with pictures of a horse riding, bare-chested Putin, or with Soviet-style military parades proudly displaying their disciplined soldiers? As part of a political discourse, these images play an important role in contemporary Russian politics and history, and are key to understanding Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
From crisis to revival of Russian masculinity
Images and discourses of heroic military men remind us of Stalinist times when representations of the heroic Red army soldier inspired propaganda posters and promoted militarism and patriotism. Post-Stalinist Russia, however, was characterised by an opposite discourse where men were said to be in “crisis”. Believed to be caused by the feminisation of Soviet men, voices in media and culture scorned men for their lack of responsibility and passivity. Looking at the birth rate crisis that had hit the USSR in the seventies, however, offers a more viable interpretation for this alleged “crisis” of Soviet masculinity. As proper examples of the so-called masculinity politics, they showcase how representations of strong or weak masculinity intersect with politics and often relate to larger state interests.
This explains why in times of war, images of heroic and militarised men appear in society. Drawing on tradition and myths, they function as means to virilise society and mobilise the male population. Conversely, in times of defeat, representations of emasculated men tend to appear, symbolising the loss of power. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked the beginning of a period where a victimisation discourse of so-called failed masculinity permeated society. Worth mentioning, however, is that the discourse had its root in reality as it partially referred to the high mortality and unemployment rate among the male population.
The arrival of Vladimir Putin in power at the beginning of the new millennium meant a radical turn, away from the discourse of crisis towards the rehabilitation of Russian masculinity. And again, there was a good institutional reason for this.
As a new wave of Islamic fundamentalism threatened Russia’s southern republics, a new intervention in the Northern Caucasus was believed to be necessary in order to prevent a second Chechen scenario to happen. To avoid the latter, the support of the population was needed, and particularly the willingness of men to serve their country. The first Chechen war (1994–1996) had been a disaster for the Russian army; mass draft evasion and desertion had become normal; the myth of the “warrior” had lost its attractiveness in society. This resulted in a situation referred to as the “crisis of military masculinity”. The second Chechen campaign (branded as a struggle against terrorism), however, went along with a discourse which rehabilitated military masculinity and imposed a new image of the heroic Russian soldier. The image was embodied by no less than the new president himself, whose image as a strong leader opposed both racialised Chechen masculinity, and the weakness of the former president Boris Yeltsin.
Masculinity in service of the regime
With less draft evasion and increasing support to serve in the army, operation “military masculinity” was a success. This militarisation, however, should not be seen as an end in itself, but rather as a step in the general re-traditionalisation of Russian society. This had begun around Putin’s second term in office and went along with a revival of patriotism and a reassertion of traditional values. In this ongoing process, a fixed understanding of “authentic” Russian masculinity has been developed, characterised by virility, heterosexuality and patriotism, and spread into the public sphere. Masculinity functions again in service of the regime as part of a larger political discourse. Here is why.
First and foremost, a stable understanding of masculinity is a means to secure leadership. Often seen as a macro version of the family, the nation and particularly its leader, the image is compared to the father figure (Stalin was called the “father of the fatherland”). Consequently, when the leader of the nation acts, or appears to act as a responsible and stable father to his family, his power and grip on society is justified and his position secured. Putin’s image, originally based on his past as a KGB officer, developed from a normal and professional man to a hyper virile and patriotic image.
Secondly, a static and controlled understanding of what constitutes masculinity in society is a potential instrument to overcome societal challenges such as demographic crisis and even alcoholism. The current regime, in cooperation with the reviving Russian Orthodox Church, has been fostering the norm of virile and heterosexual masculinity by advocating a return to the traditional heterosexual family model, wherein men are encouraged to take up responsibility and embrace their former role as “breadwinner”. Women, on the other hand, are urged to prioritise motherhood before a professional career. As a consequence of the norm, non-heteronormative sexualities are being marginalised.
Finally, the representations of stable national masculinity function as an expression of Russianness in that it is the standard against which non-Russian, often Western masculinity is gauged. By characterising authentic Russian masculinity as strong, heterosexual and patriotic, understandings of other masculinities are automatically becoming fluid, unstable and even immoral, often symbolising the collapse of the other nation.
Mass media and popular culture meet Russian masculinity
For the discourse on “authentic” masculinity to be effective, that is, for people to buy into the beliefs and act accordingly, the regime needs to manipulate public opinion. In order to do this, it makes uses of classical techniques of propaganda. Propaganda, described by Magedah E. Shabo as manipulation, is intended to control other people’s thoughts and actions and needs to fulfil four requirements to be effective: it has to be persuasive, target a sizeable audience, represent a specific group’s interests and make use of faulty reasoning and emotional appeal.
Popular culture funded by the government functions as an ideal means to get the message of strong and “real” Russian masculinity across. Television series and films about the Chechen wars, or the recent Ukrainian-Russian conflict, are prime examples of the latter as they stage heroic military masculinities fighting for the Russian motherland. The booming genre of historic films, however, is most effective as it links great male leadership and their suffering to Russian history and to the model of new Russian masculinity, fostering a perception of an eternal Russian male identity. An example of the latter is the film Admiral (2008), directed by Andrei Kravchuk, about the heroism and self-sacrifice of the White Army admiral Alexander Kolchak (1874-1920).
An even more effective means is the deployment of mass media, both in its mainstream and digital variant. We find a remarkable example in a programme channelled on Russia’s Public Television Channel (Pervy Kanal) called Armejsky Magazin (Army Magazine) dedicated to army life and aiming at promoting the army and subsequently also the idea of military masculinity. Due to the power of social media, images and rhetoric surrounding “real” Russian masculinity are available 24 hours a day online, and now also to foreign audiences through Kremlin funded English-speaking media outlets such as RT.
How masculine will the future be?
According to the French intellectual and sociologist Michel Foucault, “where there is power, there is resistance”. This has already been the case in Russia, with the notorious Pussy Riot affair as prime example. These protests targeted the very essence of the masculinity discourse: Putin’s authority as the leader of the nation. The persona of Putin is, indeed, essential in Russian masculinity politics, which raises the question: what will happen when Putin resigns or is replaced? History has shown us that representations of masculinity are non-static and malleable across time and space. In addition to the very nature of the complex phenomenon called masculinity, resistance is always waiting to challenge hegemonic discourses. How masculine will the future be?
Erik Vlaeminck is a Ph.D. student in Russian Studies at the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, University of Edinburgh