- A. Wilson-McDonald
Masculinities and Femininities in Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine
Over the past several weeks we have watched Volodymyr Zelenskyy's resilience and courage in the face of the invasion of his country. He remains calm, cool, and collected, meeting with heads of state in army-green t-shirts. Rejecting appeals from world leaders to leave the country - he appears ready to die for his country. Zelenskyy's reported response to America's willingness to airlift him to safety sounds more like a line from a Die Hard movie than presidential rhetoric: "I need ammo, not a ride." On the other side of the war, Vladimir Putin's recent speeches appear chaotic and bizarre. He is frequently seen sitting at excessively long tables, isolated from all others during his meetings. Several television appearances show the Russian leader looking increasingly tired and frustrated, including with his own cabinet members. Many commentators in NATO countries have wondered if the aging Putin is mentally fit to run a country. Indeed these are strange actions from someone who deems himself the ultimate masculinist and has structured Russia's domestic and foreign policy around the masculine image of himself as leader of Russia.
Not even a month into the most recent installment of Putin's invasion of Ukraine Hulu has released a new documentary called "Two Men at War." While we may cringe at seeing a documentary about an event that is only a few weeks in the making, it nevertheless draws attention to these two individuals. Even the documentary's title is intended to draw attention to two men fighting one another—a literal and figurative show of masculinity.
The play of masculinities is central to this war, visible wherever one looks. But what does masculinity (and femininity) have to do with the current invasion of Ukraine and politics more generally? And what could we learn about this invasion by examining its politics through a gender lens? Actually, a lot more than you might think.
‘Sex’ vs. ‘Gender’
Before we go too far along the path of feminist theory and theories of gender in global politics, it is first prudent to define a few terms, the most important of which for our purposes is “gender.” Gender is defined as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.”1 Thus, gender refers to the socially constructed roles, norms, and stereotypes assigned to males and females. This is in contrast to sex, which refers to the genitalia and chromosomes one possesses. One’s sex does not determine one’s gender, even though you may have been made to believe so. For example, when little boys are told not to cry, or girls are told to sit with their legs crossed, they are being taught how to conform to a specific gender - a social construction. If something were natural, it would not need to be taught. We can also observe that gender is a social construction because it differs across time and space. Femininity in 1700s England differed from what was deemed to be feminine during the same time in Japan. Additionally, what is considered masculine in the 2000s in the U.S. differs from the modes of dress and behavior considered masculine in the U.S. in the 1950s. You might argue that some traits transcend time and space, like strength being perceived as a masculine trait, and you would be right, in an abstract way. How “strength” is understood can vary drastically. For example, strength through technology is a very different kind of masculine strength than strength through brute force. Moreover, strength through restraint can also be considered a masculine trait in certain contexts. In the words of Simone de Beauvoir, “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes a woman.”
While masculinity is typically associated with males and femininity is typically associated with females, both men and women can and do behave in both masculine and feminine ways - all the time. Gender is reproduced in society through how we speak, act, and dress. Individuals can deploy traits and actions that are deemed to be more or less masculine or more or less feminine by a specific society. When one gender is privileged over another, a gender hierarchy is created. A gender hierarchy in which masculinity is privileged over femininity (as is typically the case) is called patriarchy. Patriarchy is not a system where men dominate women; instead, it is a “structural and ideological system that perpetuates the privileging of masculinity.”2 Patriarchy depends on the actions of both men and women. It often goes unnoticed by those living in it, as it is perceived as normal.
When you live in a society where patriarchy exists and is cultural - being masculine or challenging another’s masculinity can be used as a form of political power.
The Soviet Gender Regime
Before we can get into the use of masculinity by Vladimir Putin as a form of political power, we first have to take a historical look at gender relations in the former Soviet Union. Both Russia and Ukraine were influenced by what Tetyana Bureychak refers to as the "Soviet gender regime."3 We all live under versions of gender regimes or what R.W. Connell refers to as a "gender order." The gender order includes the institutions, rules, and discourses that define gender relations. While the state always plays a role in determining gender relations, the Soviet gender regime was unique because the state played the dominant role in defining and controlling gender relations instead of other institutions like a religious institution, for example.
During the Soviet era, the state defined gender relations, and these relations were dictated by the needs of the state. For example, when the state needed more workers, gender relations were liberalized, and women were welcomed into the workforce. When the state experienced a drop in the birthrate, pro-natalist policies (those that encourage and support reproduction) were put into place. Under the gender regime put in place by the early Soviets (1920s and 1930s), the state worked to disrupt the nuclear family, which was characterized as the basis of bourgeois society. The Soviets sought to destroy the nuclear family through the Soviet policy of "defamiliarization." The nuclear family was to be replaced by a union between comrades and a labor collective. This gender regime came along with the liberalization of sexual relations, women's involvement in the labor force, and state involvement in childrearing. The state provided fully-funded daycares, laundries, and cafeterias so that women could join the workforce. As gender relations shifted in the Soviet Union, the state politicized motherhood, placed most of the responsibility for raising children on mothers and rewarded mothers for the number of children they would bear throughout their lifetimes. These shifting gender relations could also be seen in the 1940s U.S. when women were encouraged to join the labor force and help with the war effort during World War II. At this time, the U.S. government instituted fully-funded daycare for all children. After the war ended and men returned home, women, who had been so praised for their work, were structurally forced back into the home by layoffs from employers and the defunding of daycares by the U.S. government. Gender may be socially constructed, but its consequences on everyday life are very material.
The Soviet gender regime promoted specific idealized modes of masculinity. According to Bureychak, the Soviet man was socialized into one or more idealized masculine roles, including defender of the nation, selfless worker, athletic man, and builder of communism. These were promoted through the various posters of men at work that could be seen throughout the Soviet Union. The final ideal is the Soviet man as leader of the country. Bureychak argues that this ideal is "promoted as an abstract object of worship that represented the highest virtues of communist society and ideology." 3
“Putin’s assertion of masculinity is a vehicle for power”
Many might think that while the study of gender is interesting, it plays a minor role when tanks are rolling through cities, people's homes are being bombed, and nuclear war is threatened. They might suggest that these "social matters" should be put aside for discussion after the war is over. The tendency to privilege traditional analyses of national security as the only rational way of explaining the world leaves out other forms of analyses (such as gender analysis) that undoubtedly contribute to understanding the current war. The gender regime under which one lives plays a role in how state leaders portray themselves and the discourses they draw upon to establish power, legitimize their power and policy decisions, and maintain power. State leaders draw on versions of masculinity that resonate in their polities to "market" themselves to the public. In other words, foreign policies that demand the use of tanks and aerial bombings are only ever enacted when they are framed within a narrative that appeals to society. "Social matters" aren't secondary to foreign policy; they are foreign policy. And this is the case in both autocratic and democratic systems.
In the case of Vladimir Putin, his use of masculinity to legitimate his policy decisions and himself as leader of the Russian people has been used extensively and is well-documented. Shirtless images of Putin practicing karate, fly fishing, riding on horseback, and shooting weapons abound (check out the Vox documentary Vladimir Putin's topless photos, explained). They might be incorporated into memes and mocked in America, but many of these images are cast as heroic and attractive in Russian society. While we might laugh at these images, in the words of international relations scholar Taylor McDonald, "a shirtless Putin is no joke in Russia."
What is important to note is that Putin's masculinity campaign in Russia is not random. This isn't just some guy who likes to ride around on horseback with his shirt off. It is a deliberate campaign, part of his team's strategic efforts to legitimize his position as the nation's leader. In 2011, leading up to the 2012 election, the "Rip it for Putin Campaign" featured several college-aged women who called themselves "Putin's Army." They appeared in Youtube videos scantly clad and ripping their tank tops off in support of Putin.4 It was revealed that the Russian government funded this campaign. And this display of young, attractive women as supporters is yet another example of Putin's displays of masculinity.
But why is this tool so effective at establishing and maintaining political legitimacy? Drawing on the Soviet legacy, political scientist and gender scholar Valerie Sperling argues,
“in Russia political actors incorporated gender norms in their authority-building ‘toolboxes’ because of the accessibility and resonance of these aspects of cultural identity at elite and mass levels alike. They also did so because of particular features of the Russian historical, economic, political, and cultural landscape, as well as the country’s international position in the post-Cold War era.”5
Putin and his team draw on gender norms, and this is a particularly effective tool because of widespread resonance in Russian society. Gender norms are ingrained and thought to be normal. According to Valerie Sperling, “Putin’s assertion of masculinity is a vehicle for power.” 6
Using masculinity as a vehicle for power is not something one does covertly. In fact, the point is to construct policy in gendered and sexualized terms. One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of Putin’s blatant use of gendered rhetoric to justify foreign policy decisions. According to Emil Edenborg, the Kremlin explicitly defines national security in gendered terms. Edenborg finds that “the federal national security strategy, published in July 2021, makes at least 20 references to 'traditional values' in its 43 pages. Under the heading 'Achieving National Security,' the strategy document says that: Special attention is devoted to supporting the family, motherhood, fatherhood and childhood . . . children’s upbringing and their overall spiritual, moral, intellectual and physical development. . . . Higher birthrates are necessary in order to increase the population of Russia.”7
Putin’s regime has used gender conservatism to cast the so-called “West” as sexually liberal, decadent, and destructive to the “traditional” family, casting Russia as the savior of “civilization.” In a recent speech, Putin even portrayed Russians living in the “West” as the enemy when he stated that Russians living in Miami and the French Riviera “cannot do without foie gras, oysters or so-called gender freedoms.”8 In contemporary Russian discourse, sexual and gendered metaphors of Russia-West relations circulate widely. Europe is sometimes referred to as “Gayropa,” taken from the term “Europa.” Russian newspapers have repeatedly warned of a “gay revolution” occurring in Russia. A revolution, they claim, is sponsored by liberal democracies in the west. Suppose we understand this propaganda as Putin’s concern for a liberal revolution occurring in Russia. In that case, we can make more sense of the invasion of a neighboring country that enjoys these freedoms and is cast as part of “the West.” Indeed, democratic revolutions in both in the Republic of Georgia and Ukraine were followed by a Russian invasion shortly thereafter. Gendered metaphors surrounding the current war in Ukraine in popular media are abundant. Magazine covers depict Putin on a theater stage wearing a woman’s dress from MacBeth and dancing. And political cartoons depict Putin as a sexual aggressor towards NATO leaders, drawing on both sexism and homophobia to depict the war in Ukraine as a masculinity contest between Russia and NATO leaders.
Furthermore, discourses around gender and sexuality are used to discredit opponents within Russia by bringing into question their adherence to gender norms. Masha Gessen describes in her book how Putin’s regime uses false accusations of pedophilia to attack political opponents.9 However, if one’s power is based on masculinity, this requires constant exhibitions of one’s masculinity, and perceived decreases in one’s masculinity are a threat to power. Thus, the opposition attempts to demasculinize Putin, which it accomplishes by challenging his masculinity.
Recently, there have been cracks in Putin’s exhibitions of masculinity. Over the last few weeks, as Russian forces started their full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin looks frustrated, seen at long tables both physically and figuratively distanced from reality, and stripped of his black belt in Karate. He has seemingly lost his masculine edge. These displays are quickly reported on in the media. It has also become clear that Russian forces would not be able to secure a victory in Ukraine quickly. Zelenskyy has also taken on the leading role as a confident military man, even being depicted in a recent Polish magazine as Superman with the caption "a hero is born."
How does Putin respond? Since his political power is based on displays of masculinity, he must exhibit his masculinity somehow. In response, we have witnessed him organize a grand gathering to celebrate the invasion. At the celebration he donned a white turtleneck with a blue puffer jacket; the style of someone who is relaxed, unconcerned with the current situation. At the event, he slyly commands the stage with millions of viewers cheering him on, and the camera quickly cuts to young women cheering in the crowd. It was no coincidence that he stages a faux victory rally, calling the invasion a “special military operation” at this particular time. Furthermore, he describes Russian soldiers as acting valiantly, bravely, and proudly doing their duty, sacrificing to “liberate.” At the event, he repeats his lies about the invasion and affirms to a Russian audience that everything is going well, all is on track, and there is no need for concern, reaffirming that he is the one in control. If we understand that the purpose of this rally was to send a message of confidence, then gender was the primary vehicle through which to do so.
Feminism as the Answer
Gender is not simply an element of politics. In some circumstances, it defines politics itself. This is why feminists and feminist movements are essential in a polity. Of course, no two feminist movements are the same and feminists disagree on a myriad of topics. Nevertheless, a feminist movement is essential because it is feminists that make it their mission to spotlight gendered power relations and enable a critique of these power relations. Feminists challenge the very legitimacy of patriarchal claims.
As is probably evident at this point, Putin is not the only world leader who draws on masculinity as a vehicle for power. But unfortunately, Russia has historically had a weak feminist movement. Feminism was demonized under the communist regime. It was considered a bourgeois ideology and unnecessary in a society already built on the foundation of equality (equality that was not achieved in practice). Today, activists in the country face a new threat through continued state repression. In 2013 the Russian government instituted a law banning “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relationships.” Laws such as this restrict and even criminalize discussion about sexuality and gender issues. Thereby making it more difficult for opponents to draw critical attention to the regime’s use of gender for legitimacy purposes.
Feminist activists and organizations play a critical role in resisting masculinized power. This is crucial in every country, as masculinized power can lead to the devastating consequence we are witnessing today. In the words of Emil Edenborg:
“Gender norms—tropes of masculine protection, women-and-children in need of saving, and sexual and gender deviance as a threat to the body politic—fuel and perpetuate authoritarianism, militarism, and, as Russia’s war on Ukraine now makes all too plain, state aggression. Without addressing the former, there is little hope of changing the latter. …To women’s rights defenders, LGBT activists, and other groups fighting for democracy and social justice in both Russia and Ukraine, the links between militarist authoritarianism and the policing of gender and sexuality are already well known. They have been among the first targets of the authoritarian crusade for “traditional values” and now stand in the frontlines protesting Putin’s aggression. Their expertise should be widely acknowledged and their work supported in every possible way.”7
Supporting feminist activists and LGBTQ+ rights activists both in Russia and around the world can play an immensely positive role in resisting masculinized power. This is because these movements challenge the legitimacy of those who use masculinity to stay in power. By challenging this power, these activists are not only challenging gender norms but are also standing up for democracy.
1 Definition of “gender” from the Istanbul Convention https://rm.coe.int/istanbul-convention-factsheet/168078ec5c
2 Cynthia Enloe 2004 The Curious Feminist Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire
3 “Masculinity in Soviet and Post-Soviet Ukraine: Models and Their Implications” Tetyana Bureychak 2012 University of Toronto Press. Olena Hankivsky and Anastasiya Salnykova’s 2012 book Gender, Politics, and Society in Ukraine
4 “Taking it off for Putin” https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/taking-it-off-for-putin
5 Valerie Sperling’s 2014 book Sex, Politics, and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia.
6 Valerie Sperling’s 2016 article “Putin's macho personality cult” in Communist and Post-Communist Studies https://www.jstor.org/stable/48610430
7 “Putin’s Anti-Gay War on Ukraine” https://bostonreview.net/articles/putins-anti-gay-war-on-ukraine/
8 “Putin says Russians living large in Miami, French Riviera are traitors to the motherland”
9 Masha Gessen (2018) The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia