Strength, patriotism, patriarchal values and a macho leadership style characterise Vladimir Putin’s current term as president. Strangely, this traditionalist authoritarian agenda has often been promoted by women.
The few Russian women who are represented in the highest federal posts – just 15.8% of the parliamentarians in the Duma, three of its 33 ministers and three of 85 regional governors – are usually responsible for “social policies” – healthcare, education, or social issues. Many female MPs are elected in accordance with common stereotypes of female leaders – celebrities, cosmonauts, Olympic champions and television hosts. All are expected to be cooperative and family oriented: in December, several female MPs protested against long parliamentary sessions, saying they needed to be home in time to feed their husbands.
The few liberal women who make it to the upper federal posts are either high-level, professional technocrats helping the regime run smoothly, or women with reputations as democrats who help legitimise non-democratic procedures. But they do not shape the political agenda.
Instead Putin can call on one special, truly politically active cohort of women: the conservative, pro-religion anti-feminists. Putin’s iron ladies have a crucial function in propaganda, politics and the initiating of decisive laws. Feminist scholars posit that including women in decision-making leads to policies that are more responsible, less confrontational and more likely to address issues of interest to women and ordinary citizens. However, Putin’s female political elite mostly refutes such an analysis.
The role models are women such as senator and ex-MP Yelena Mizulina, famed for her comment: “Even when a man beats his wife it doesn’t hurt as much as humiliation hurts a man.” Mizulina initiated the recent decriminalisation of domestic battery and the notorious 2013 law banning gay “propaganda”. She consistently advocates a ban on abortion, or the need for parents’ or a husband’s permission – despite the fact that only 12% of Russian women support an abortion ban. She also calls for the elimination of surrogate motherhood, and the seizing of children from gay couples – and advocates naming Orthodoxy as “the basis of national and cultural distinctness of Russia” in the constitution.
Putin’s anti-feminists champion repressive, controversial laws and practices. These include: restrictions on rallies and demonstrations; the “foreign agents” law that paralysed and stigmatised NGOs with foreign funding; curbs on civic freedoms and intellectual debates; and support for the state’s intervention in citizens’ privacy. The latest package of laws proposed by MP Irina Yarovayarequires telecommunications companies to assist the government in breaking into encrypted messages, increases the penalties for “extremism” and bans praying outside of “specially designated places”.
The human rights ombudswoman, police general Tatyana Moskalkova, supported the Chechen authorities’ policy of burning down the homes of insurgents’ family members. In 2012, after the protest by the feminist punk group Pussy Riot in Moscow’s cathedral of Christ the Saviour, for which three of its members got two years in prison, she proposed a law criminalising any “assault on morality”.
In this way Putin’s conservative female cohort help to shape and legitimise state ideology and propaganda, which compensate for a lack of reform and defunct institutions, and strengthen a regime that depends on these women to forge popular support. Propaganda portrays Russia as a distinct centre of power with unique values and “spiritual bonds” that combine Soviet, imperial and Orthodox values in a unified world view.
This eclecticism makes it easy to sell and promote the “Putin brand”: that of a pragmatic, strong, traditional leader, embodying masculine behaviour, and representing a resurgent Russia that challenges and offers an alternative to the “morally corrupt west”. According to Olga Vasilyeva, Russia’s education and science minister: “It is impossible to build the future without a foundation, and that foundation is patriotism – anything else is unimaginable.” She referred positively to Joseph Stalin, who, in her view, revived patriotism.
Putin’s female elite come from different generations, backgrounds and political pedigrees, from Soviet-era communist bosses and former democrats of the 1990s to young nationalists and Orthodox activists. Anna Kuznetsova, the new ombudswoman for children, is a 35-year-old ultra-conservative mother of six, wife of an Orthodox priest, and a monarchist. Natalia Poklonskaya, currently an MP, and popular as “the most beautiful prosecutor of Russia”, mobilised support for the annexation of Crimea.
Poklonskaya is on the west’s sanctions list for Ukraine as are several others of Putin’s female elite, who zealously support Russia’s involvement in conflicts abroad. It was Valentina Matviyenko, an ex-Communist party leader who is now the speaker of the upper chamber of parliament, who gathered members of the senate for an emergency session in 2014 to give President Putin permission to use armed troops in Ukraine. Matvienko promotes cooperation between the state and the Orthodox church, and resists external attempts to “impose alien values” on Russia.
The Kremlin clearly sees these conservative women as useful in legitimising Russia’s slide towards a patriarchal society, promoting security services’ repressive agendas and setting standards of female political behaviour. And when someone like Mizulina proposes extreme traditionalist measures, the Kremlin can curb her initiatives, signalling to society that if not for Putin, obscurantists would rule.
Still, these women enjoy more political freedom than men because they are not seen as political rivals. A recent pollby the Levada Center showed that 54% of Russians don’t want a female president, and 38% don’t want to see women in a senior government role, a 10% increase from last year. Meanwhile, Russia’s future public leaders, mostly men, tend to be bred in closed security institutions and carefully monitored for their loyalty.
Propaganda about “traditional” values works effectively in Russia. Society adapts to its new marching orders, while the acute problems faced by Russian women – domestic violence, unequal pay, the stigmatisation of rape victims, and grave violations of women’s rights in the conflict-torn region of the North Caucasus – remain in obscurity, and unaddressed.
Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, Project Director, Russia & North Caucasus.