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In Vladimir Putin’s speech on February 24, announcing what would be a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine (in his official Orwellian euphemism, a “special military operation” in the Donbas region), a whole paragraph was dedicated to the West’s supposed undermining of “traditional values”:
Properly speaking, the attempts to use us in their own interests never ceased until quite recently: they sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within, the attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature. This is not going to happen. No one has ever succeeded in doing this, nor will they succeed now.
To anyone following Russian politics and society, these words ring familiar. When Putin entered office for a third presidential term in 2012, in the wake of massive protests and declining popularity, his government wholeheartedly embraced the notion of “traditional values” as official ideology guiding both domestic and foreign policy. While a usefully vague and often undefined concept, “traditional values” are seen as encompassing patriotism, spirituality, rootedness in history, respect for authority, and adherence to heteronormative and patriarchal ideals of family and gender. In the rhetoric of the Kremlin and state-loyal media, LGBT rights, feminism, multiculturalism, and atheism are identified not only as foreign to Russia’s values, but as existential threats to the nation.
Feminists, whether activists in women’s peace movements or researchers in the academic field of feminist international relations, have long known that issues of gender and sexuality are at the heart of security. War is gendered not just in the sense that decisions to go to war are overwhelmingly made by men and that almost all the killing and other atrocities in wartime are performed by male bodies. Gender norms and gendered inequalities also shape how people are affected by war, whether we speak of men not being allowed to leave Ukraine, women being charged with the responsibility for evacuating children and elderly, or trans people whose mobility may be hindered by a mismatch between their gender and what is stated in their passport. As political scientist Iris Marion Young argued in “The Logic of Masculinist Protection,” ideas of masculinity, femininity, family, and “proper” and “improper” sexuality are vital elements of stories about who and what needs to be protected, from whom and by whom. Keeping to this script, Russian Kremlin-loyal media circulate footage of women and children in Donbas who, the story goes, are under attack from Ukrainian “Nazi” forces forced to flee to Russia.
Of course, questions of gender are seldom at the forefront of analysis when bombs are falling, tanks are rolling in, and civilians are slaughtered. As militarization unfolds, establishment, masculinist national security expertise tends to be privileged as the only rational and objective way of explaining the world; other perspectives, including feminist security analysis, are dismissed as naïve, idealistic, and out of touch with reality. As Putin’s speech hints, however, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—and its security policies more broadly—cannot be understood in isolation from the politics of gender and sexuality. The reality is that the Kremlin has constructed a pernicious ideology of homophobia as geopolitics, and in official Russian rhetoric the war in Ukraine is framed as the continuation of this politics by other means.
It is not necessary to dig deep or read between the lines to make the argument that national security in Putin’s Russia is a gender and sexuality issue. The Kremlin, for one, explicitly defines national security in gendered terms. 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.
With its full embrace of “traditional values” in the early 2010s, the Putin regime instrumentalized a nationalist, authoritarian form of gender conservatism that had gradually grown stronger in Russian political life since the late 1990s—promoted by the Russian Orthodox Church, intellectuals such as Natalia Narochnitskaya and Aleksandr Dugin and, increasingly, establishment politicians. As “traditional” family and gender ideals were framed as matters of national survival, adherence to hetero- and cis-normativity became qualifying conditions not just of respectability, but of national belonging. As Masha Gessen describes in The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (2018), false accusations of pedophilia became a way to demonize political opponents, and LGBT movements and feminists increasingly became targets of scapegoating. The 2013 law banning “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relationships” among minors not only restricted possibilities to speak and inform about sexuality and gender issues in public—something similar is now unfolding in the United States, it should be noted—but also designated homosexuality as a danger to children and to society.
The legal enshrinement of compulsory heterosexuality and vilification of queer and trans people have continued since then. In 2020 a ban on same-sex marriage was added to the Russian Constitution. In late 2021 a number of LGBT organizations, including the umbrella NGO Russian LGBT Network (whose work to evacuate queer people from Chechnya in 2017 was documented in the recent film Welcome to Chechnya), were added to the federal list of “foreign agents.” LGBT organizations are not the only ones targeted. Critical journalists and researchers, oppositional politicians, and human rights activists are also harassed, silenced, jailed, or killed by the increasingly authoritarian regime. At the same time, queer and trans people often face specific and aggravated forms of exclusion and violence due to societal hostilities, lack of family networks, and discrimination in housing, work and healthcare. According to research conducted by Alexander Kondakov and the Center for Independent Sociological Research in Saint Petersburg, hate crimes against LGBT people increased significantly after the propaganda law was passed in 2013.
Russia’s turn to “traditional values” also has external dimensions, as indicated by Putin’s speech on the eve of war. The narrative that LGBT rights are a weapon used by the West to weaken and destabilize Russia has been a recurring grievance. Speaking to students in Belarus in 2018, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov spoke of the need to protect Christian values from “same-sex values that are being imposed . . . coarsely and openly.” According to this logic, the facts that NATO expands into territories Russia considers part of its “sphere of influence” and that European and American leaders talk of gay rights as universal human rights are two sides of the same coin.
In this way, “traditional values” and sexual politics become linked to geopolitics and, in effect, to the status of Ukraine and other post-Soviet states. In 2013 the Russian newspaper Izvestiya warned that West-sponsored LGBT activism could spark a “gay revolution” risking to throw Russia back to the societal chaos of the 1990s. This must be seen against Putin’s repeated warnings about a possible “color revolution” in Russia, similar to those that had taken place in Ukraine in 2004–5 and in Georgia in 2003. As the Maidan protests against the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych began in Ukraine in late 2013, Russia’s largest newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda claimed that the protests were co-organized by “nationalists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and homosexuals.” Understanding this explicit link that is made between sexuality, gender, and geopolitical confrontation is necessary for making sense of the statements made by Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, who spoke out in support of the war earlier this month:
For eight years there have been attempts to destroy what exists in Donbas. Donbas has fundamentally refused to accept the so-called values that are being offered by those aspiring for worldwide power. There is a specific test of loyalty to these powers, a requirement for being permitted into the happy world of excessive consuming and apparent freedom. This test is very straightforward and at the same time horrifying—the gay parade. The demand to organize a gay-parade is a test of loyalty to this powerful world. And we know that if a people or a country refuses this test, they are not considered part of that world, they are considered as aliens to it. . . . Therefore, what is happening today in international relations does not only have political meaning. It is about something different and much more important than politics. It is about human salvation, about on which side of God the Savior humankind will end up.
War, aggression, and colonization are supported by what political scientist Michael J. Shapiro calls “violent cartographies,” imaginary moral maps depicting the homeland as innocent and good and the territories of Others as dangerous and therefore legitimate objects of violence. All ambiguity and complexity not fitting this Manichean model must be ignored, denied, or constructed as foreign. In the geopolitical worldview of the Kremlin, Russia is standing up for “traditional values” in the face of a morally corrupt West weakened by sexual liberalism. In numerous speeches, Putin has positioned Russia as an international leader in the defense of “traditional values.” In this way, gender conservatism contributes to carving out a meaningful geopolitical role for Russia in a world order where LGBT rights have become international politics and increasingly framed as a question of civilization and modernity—an indicator of who, in the words of Hillary Clinton in her speech to the UN Office in Geneva on Human Rights Day in 2011, is “on the right side of history” and who is not.
The Kremlin and other actors actively promote this narrative beyond Russia’s borders. The rhetoric of “traditional values” and its concomitant geopolitical worldview are circulated in Kremlin-loyal Russian media and consumed by many Russian-speakers in nearby countries. As historian Bethany Moreton just noted in these pages, in transnational organizations promoting “family values” such as the World Congress of Families, Russian pro-Putin oligarchs fraternize with U.S. evangelicals, ultra-conservative Catholic organizations, and parts of the European radical right, seeking common strategies to combat “gender ideology”—a catch-all term of derision used to describe everything from abortion and sex-ed in schools to trans rights and same-sex marriage. In the United Nations, meanwhile, Russia has worked together with some states in the Islamic world and Sub-Saharan Africa, and more recently, nationalist populist regimes such as Poland and Brazil, to roll back sexual and reproductive rights.
This is not to suggest that Putin is a puppet-master directing attacks on women’s and LGBT rights elsewhere. But it is indisputable that the current Russian regime has articulated a powerful and influential counternarrative to the liberal idea that LGBT rights are an inevitable element of modernity—one that has been received appreciatively by some Christian conservatives and far-right figures in the West, who see Putin’s Russia as a bulwark against wokeism and political correctness.
In the narrative of Russia standing up for “traditional values” against Western gender indoctrination, the figure of the innocent child has a key position, as media studies researcher Maria Brock argues. Protecting Russian children—embodying the nation’s future—from predatory homosexuals as well as from harmful LGBT ideology has been a recurring argument, used to motivate both the 2013 gay propaganda law and the 2013 “Dima Yakovlev law,” which banned U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children. Recently, transgender people and trans rights have become the perhaps most potent symbol of how progressive ideas of gender supposedly endanger children. For example, pro-Kremlin media have reported about bathrooms “for the third sex” being introduced in Scandinavia. In a speech at the Valdai club in 2021, Putin called the idea “that a boy can become a girl and reversely” a “monstrosity” and a “crime against humanity.” In an interview with the Financial Times in 2019, clearly targeting an international audience, Putin painted a dystopian picture of Europe, using gendered and racialized tropes, as he argued that the liberal idea has created a society where children are told “they can play five or six gender roles” and “migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity.”
Putin’s words clearly echo Western far-right and conservative movements, reiterating their tropes of children being indoctrinated by transgender ideology and immigrant men raping white women—the former president of the United States, after all, launched his candidacy with a promise to build a wall to keep out “Mexican rapists.” However, this obvious mimicking and discursive borrowing should not lead us to view Russian authoritarianism and geopolitics through a U.S.-centric “culture wars” lens. Indeed, while sharing some tropes of gender and race with right-wing nationalists in Europe and the United States, the narrative of Russia standing up for “traditional values” against a degenerated West has long-standing roots in Russian intellectual history.
The myth that Russia has a divine mission in carrying the torch of true Christian civilization after the West’s plunge into ungodly materialism, secularism, and individualism dates back to at least sixteenth-century thinking of “Moscow as the Third Rome” and is prominent in the works of nineteenth-century novelists such as Dostoevsky. The contrasting of a supposedly godless, atomistic, mechanistic, and immoral West to a deeply religious, communitarian, spiritual, and moral Russia characterized nineteenth-century Slavophile thinking and was picked up by late-Soviet and post-Soviet religious nationalist writers.
Much has been written about Russian nationalism and its complex relationship to Europe—and to the form of “modernity” represented by the West. One important aspect with repercussions for sexual politics is an ambivalent relation to imperialism. One the one hand, Russia has pursued an imperial, “civilizing” mission against peoples seen as culturally and racially inferior, for example in the Caucasus and Central Asia. On the other hand, Russia is perceived as historically suffering under Western cultural, economic, military, and epistemological hegemony. This peculiar colonizer/colonized identity, characterized by decolonial and feminist scholar Madina Tlostanova as a “subaltern empire” narrative, has important repercussions for sexual politics.
According to historian Dan Healey, discourses on gender and sexuality in Russia have been shaped by a “tripartite geography of perversion” where Russia is imagined as an in-between space of sexual morality and innocence, neither part of the “decadent” West or the “primitive” Orient. Such a moral mapping influenced the conservative gender politics of the 1930s Stalin regime, when the Communists reintroduced the ban on sodomy (which had been lifted after the 1917 revolution) and explicitly depicted homosexuality as a security threat in the form of underground, pro-Hitler networks of homosexuals—Healey calls the conservative turn under Stalin the “birth of modern Russian political homophobia.” In this way, Putin’s and Kirill’s framing of the war as tied to Russia’s brave resistance to Western sexual promiscuity and gender indoctrination of children draws on well-established narratives, familiar to most Russians.
Important as this historical genealogy is, there is nothing uniquely Russian about imagining collective identity or national security in gendered terms. Associating the geopolitical foe with sexual or gender perversity is part of a queer-phobic state repertoire known from many contexts. The 1950s gay panic in the United States, when accusations of homosexuality became a smear tactic in Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade and homosexuals were barred from serving in the federal administration as they were seen as potential Soviet spies, has obvious similarities to how LGBT movements in today’s Russia are described as a fifth column planted by the West. In several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Uganda and Zimbabwe, political and religious leaders talk of homosexuality and LGBT activism as pawns of Western attempts to re-colonize Africa. A somewhat similar pattern can be noted in the Chinese government’s recent regulation banning “sissy men,” referring mainly to male celebrities inspired by South Korean and Japanese androgynous fashion trends, from appearing on television and streaming sites.
Fear-mongering over gender dissolution, the feminization of men, and sexual and racial degeneration as signs of a nation’s or civilization’s decay comes straight out of a nationalist and fascist playbook. In these ideological schemes, national rejuvenation and the recovery of collective greatness requires a return to a mythical time when men were supposedly manlier and women womanlier and white hetero-patriarchal hierarchies went unchallenged. German Nazism and Italian fascism both celebrated “traditional” femininity and equated national strength with male virility. Similarly, contemporary far-right movements in Europe and North America see the weakening of men’s authority in family and society, feminism, LGBT rights, multiculturalism as signs of the West’s fading in the world.
Feminists have shown how European colonial expansion and imperial domination historically has been imagined in sexualized terms, as penetration and subjugation of feminized peoples and territories, described as “virgin lands,” “terra incognita,” or “dark continents.” In contemporary Russian discourse, especially in online commentary, Internet satire, and memes circulated in social media, sexual and gendered metaphors of the war in Ukraine and Russia-West relations abound. Half-jokingly and half-seriously, Europe is sometimes referred to as “Gayropa.” Comparisons between Ukraine and a prostitute selling herself to NATO and Western leaders are one example of how feminizing tropes work to strip the Other of agency and the capacity of self-determination. Pictures of Putin or a Russian bear fucking NATO or a Western male leader from behind draw on both sexism and homophobia to depict the war in Ukraine as a masculinity contest between Russia and the West.
On a more general level, also beyond overtly aggressive and imperialist rhetoric, gender and sexuality are important building-blocks when nations define a collective “us” and identify what must be protected from whom. Russia’s geopoliticization of gender is mirrored by homonationalist and femonationalist discourses in the West, when gay rights and gender equality are portrayed as evidence of “our” national superiority vis-à-vis backward Others, whether Muslim immigrants or homophobic Russians.
In the contemporary world, the identification of “outsiders within” who allegedly threaten the domestic gender order and the promise to save and rehabilitate sexual morality and respectability from disintegrating forces have become an important part of an authoritarian toolkit. Variants of this logic are evident in Christian conservatives and nationalists’ attempts to ban “gender indoctrination” in schools and higher education across the West, in Hungary’s recent ban on information that “promotes homosexuality” to children, and in Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s repeated attacks on feminists and LGBT advocates.
The consequences, it must be recognized, are dire and deadly. These are not harmless skirmishes in the “culture wars” of late-stage capitalism: they are grave matters of life and death. 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. One step must be to resist the glib dismissal of gender and sexuality as having nothing to do with military and security matters. 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.
Emil Edenborg is Associate Professor of Gender Studies at Stockholm University and Associate Research Fellow in the Global Politics and Security Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. He tweets @emiledenborg.
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