What is Russia up to, at the Ukraine border and beyond? It takes a gender lens to see.
Russian troops on the Ukraine border and aggressive rhetoric from Moscow are causing fear among western states. Is Russia planning to attack its neighbour? The Kremlin calls such claims ‘alarmist’ and ‘hysteria’ but clearly wants to show its red lines. The foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, warns: ‘The nightmare scenario of military confrontation is returning’. Where does all this geopolitical muscle-flexing come from—and what is to be done about it?
This question cannot be answered from a gender-blind perspective. So, for those new to the topic, a very short introduction to gender theory: being male or female does not make a person masculine or feminine. As Judith Butler writes, gender is ‘performative’—it must be continually reasserted. What counts as ‘masculine’ is not natural but depends on the public discourses about it and so varies across the world and in historical perspective.
In Russia during imperial times, the word muzhik was used to designate a male peasant. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was reappropriated with a positive connotation of ‘real manhood’, becoming a kind of standard for Russian masculinity.
Basically, the minimum requirements for a muzhik are not being a woman, a child, a homosexual or western. According to that logic, a real man is associated with self-sufficiency, economic independence, brotherhood and loyalty. He is powerful, strong, dominant and ready to defend the family and the motherland.
Russians have traditionally celebrated the exploits of their armed forces each year on February 23rd, ‘Defender of the Fatherland Day’. Over time, people have started to celebrate men as a whole, for defending ‘their’ women (though intimate partner violence was partly decriminalised in 2017). This has created some social backlash, expressed in the popular saying Ne sluzhil, ne muzhik! (‘If you didn’t serve, you are not a man!’). Disappointed male civilians have, though, been quick to counter: Ne rozhala, ne baba! (‘If you didn’t give birth, you are not a woman!’). Behind all this lies a simple logic: men are soldiers, women are mums.
Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation, incorporates the features of a muzhik as few other men in his country. His hobbies alone would be enough to fit the label: Putin masters judo, tracks gray whales with a crossbow, plays ice hockey with former stars of the north-American NHL and swims bare chest in Siberia—all on camera, of course. But he also displays his personal masculinity in his public function as head of state.
At a return meeting in Moscow with the then United States president, George W Bush, Putin could not stop himself pointing out that his black Labrador was ‘bigger, stronger, faster than Barney’—Bush’s Scottish terrier. He told a German journalist in 2016: ‘I am not your friend, or your bride or your groom. I am the president of the Russian Federation …’ The next year, Putin said to the US film director Oliver Stone: ‘I am not a woman, so I don’t have bad days.’ And during important ceremonies he can stand in the rain without an umbrella, because he is ‘not made of sugar’ and so ‘won’t melt’.
Putin’s performative masculinity influences the country’s self-perception, his rhetorical style shaping Russian ‘national identity’. Already in March 2000, in a letter to citizens before the presidential election he won as acting incumbent, Putin wrote that Russia ‘has not lost its potential as a great power’.
According to him, Russia’s place in the world ‘will only depend on how strong and successful we are’; hence ‘we should not tempt anyone by allowing ourselves to be weak’. At the annual Victory Day parade in Moscow in 2017, he insisted: ‘There was not, there is not and there will never be a power that could defeat our people.’
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Over the years, Putin has drawn a clear picture of the role Russia should play on the international stage. As ‘the master of the taiga’, he argued, ‘a bear will not ask anyone for permission’. The polar bear is, by the way, the logo of United Russia, the country’s ruling party.
During a televised awards ceremony for students in Moscow, Putin asked a nine-year-old boy: ‘Where does Russia’s border end?’ After the child answered ‘at the Bering Strait with the United States’, Putin corrected him by saying that Russia’s borders ‘do not end anywhere’.
‘We can choke everyone’
During the last two decades, Putin has thus also incorporated masculinism into the country’s foreign-policy discourse. Responding to a journalist who complained that the presence of forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in east and central Europe since the demise of the Warsaw Pact felt like ‘suffocation’, he was clear: ‘We can choke everyone, why are you so afraid? We are not fearful, I have no fear and nobody should.’
Putin has felt particular ire about the popular ‘colour’ revolutions in the former Soviet sphere. In a reference to the 2003 Georgian ‘rose’ revolution, he said: ‘Next they’ll come up with a light blue one.’ That colour is slang for ‘gay’ in Russian. (In 2013 Putin signed a ‘gay propaganda’ law, denying youngsters access to information about LGBT+ issues.) Asked after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war whether it was true he had promised to hang the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, ‘by a certain body part’, Putin drily replied: ‘Why only one body part?’
As for Ukraine, which had its ‘orange’ revolution in 2004-05, Putin dismissively remarked in 2009 that ‘these transit countries should have no illusions, the girls should have no illusions—the groom has other choices, they have to understand it’. Indeed, he once told Bush: ‘You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country.’
Putin also uses personal experiences to explain foreign-policy decisions. In 2015, he said: ‘Fifty years ago, the streets of Leningrad taught me one thing: if a fight’s inevitable, you must strike first.’
The previous year, Russia had reacted to the ousting in the Maidan revolution of the Russophile president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, by annexing Crimea. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, compared Putin to Hitler, to which he replied that ‘when people push boundaries too far, it’s not because they are strong but because they are weak. But maybe weakness is not the worst quality for a woman.’
No dancing with boys
Masculinist rhetoric in Russian foreign policy is, moreover, far from limited to Putin. The foreign minister, Lavrov, is convinced ‘Russia simply cannot exist as a subordinate country of a world leader’. Referring to the tensions with NATO over Ukraine, in 2014 he said: ‘It’s childish—but what to do? Sometimes the big boys play games.’
When the ‘grab them by the pussy’ comments by the then US presidential candidate Donald Trump emerged in 2016, Lavrov told a CNN interviewer: ‘There are so many pussies around your presidential campaigns on both sides that I prefer not to comment about this.’ And after Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said that ‘it takes two to tango’ in the NATO-Russian relationship, Lavrov responded: ‘My mum forbade me to dance with boys.’
Sergei Ivanov, then Russia’s defence minister, made clear in 2001 that Russia would not be content with the role of NATO’s ‘junior partner’. He said: ‘Russia can bare its teeth too, as the West knows very well.’ During Barack Obama’s US presidency, Dmitry Rogozin, the deputy prime minister, tweeted a pair of photos, one showing Putin petting a leopard, the other Obama with a white poodle, commenting: ‘We have different values and different allies.’
In 2017, when the British defence minister, Michael Fallon, said the UK didn’t need the Russian ‘bear sticking its paws’ into Libya, his counterpart, Sergei Shoigu—perceived as one of the top muzhiki—told a conference organised by the Moscow State Institute of International Relations: ‘What is on [Britain’s] coat of arms, a lion, isn’t it? There is an old saying: every lion is a cat, but not every cat is a lion … We don’t think that there is an animal in the zoo that can tell a bear what to do.’
Indeed, more broadly, the official cultivation of masculinist behaviour has matched widespread public expectations as to what consitutes ‘manhood’ in Russia. Masculinist rhetoric not only generates political support at home but also continues to bring Russia into the international headlines.
Conversely, the more such rhetoric becomes established, the more it is adopted among administration members down the line and accepted as the new normality. In Russia today, masculinist language is no monopoly of male decision-makers but is echoed by female state personnel.
A prime example is Maria Zakharova, director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Zakharova is famous for her muzhik-style public communication across the Russian Federation and beyond.
Lessons from life
Understanding one another’s language and the underlying mentalities can be a first step towards the resolution of international conflict. And in the creative process of finding diplomatic solutions, it may help to draw some lessons from real life.
Imagine you are in a crowded bar and get involved in a conflict with an overly self-confident, well-trained, angry guy. He might be alone while you have some friends around you, but he seems way more ready to start a fight. The door is blocked, so running away is not an option.
How would you deal with the situation? If you don’t have a plan, you will quickly become part of the problem.