Vladimir Putin’s belief that liberalism is obsolete predetermines many patterns of Kremlin’s political behavior on a number of issues, from perception of power balance in the world to internal issues, including human rights. Related concepts, from gender equality to rights of LGBT+ community, are brought together, deprived of their initial meaning and instrumentalized. Their demonization is a convenient tool to state that country is under attack from external forces that seek Russia’s moral decay. Moreover, promoting the idea that these concepts are, essentially, artificially created by the West lifts from Kremlin the heavy burden of changing its policies, doing actual work to fight discrimination in different areas and improve the situation – which is rather dire.
In its 2019 country report Freedom House states that “LGBT+ people are … subject to considerable discrimination, which has worsened in the last decade”, with Chechnya being a particularly troublesome region infamous for forced disappearances, torture and murder of LGBT+ representatives.
According to Global Gender Gap Index 2020, Russian Federation ranks 81st in the world, between El Salvador and Ethiopia. Official Russian statistics, which are likely to downplay the problem for a number of reasons including how often cases remain unreported, insist that “domestic violence takes place in approximately one out of ten Russian families”. Russian police claims that “up to 40% of all violent crimes are committed within families”, and yet domestic violence has been decriminalized and reduced to misdemeanor – not without the pressure from certain business and political groups.
This step raised wide concerns, which remain unanswered to this day, as it is deeply discouraging for a country where “on average 1 woman dies from domestic violence every 40 minutes” and popular newspapers like Komsomolskaya Pravda advertises beating one’s wife: “Recent scientific studies show the wives of angry men have a reason to be proud of their bruises. Biologists say that beaten-up women have a valuable advantage: they more often give birth to boys!”, amending it only after public outcry.
Russian Orthodox Church
Over the years Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has put a tremendous amount of effort in stalling protection of human rights. Patriarch Kirill claimed that laws on same-sex marriages
abolish the moral nature of a man and cause the same indignation as laws of Nazi Germany
He has supported decriminalization of domestic violence. There were reportedly 180 ROC-tied groups that signed a letter to Vladimir Putin denouncing the attempts to revoke it – with one of the justifications, interestingly, being a claim that these attempts are linked to the work of “foreign agents”, a label that has long been put on pro-democracy NGOs in Russia.
Church is expected to have a strong position on many issues linked to human rights protection, and in a truly secular state such position is not much of a danger. However, while constitution states that Russian Federation is a secular state, the claim is, as with many others of its provisions, rather far from truth. ROC is heavily involved in policy building in Russia, not as a religious institution but as a political entity. As International Center for Defense and Security puts it,
In today’s Russia, the Kremlin imparts a spirit of religiosity to all state pursuits, including religion itself. As early as 2000, Putin declared that Orthodoxy had ‘determined the character of Russian civilization’ and that it was the source of its ‘spiritual and moral rebirth.
ROC has not just endorsed a number of crucial political projects Kremlin has embarked upon. The church, led by a former KGB officer, has been actively involved in Kremlin’s hybrid influence in a number of countries and remains an active actor in war against Ukraine. It has been a heavyweight player in Russian politics for a long time – back in 2007, with nuclear strategy which seems as far from religious issues as possible, Putin claimed that
Traditional confessions and the nuclear shield are those components that strengthen Russian statehood.
This claim demonstrates the importance of ROC in the civilizational project designed by Putin’s regime for Russia, which distances it from the West and, to a large extent, centers around “traditional values” – the front protected by ROC from the alleged relentless attempts to impose the values of “decaying Europe”.
Oligarch Konstanin Malofeev is one of the most notable actors linked to ROC. He has been among the key figures to oppose preceding attempts at passing a law against domestic violence. Malofeev has expressed certain political ambitions of his own, dreaming about a monarchist party, but he is more known as an owner of “Tsargrad TV”, religion-oriented channel that promotes the usual Kremlin narratives on the USA, Europe and Ukraine, but with an Orthodox twist. Channel focuses on traditionalist views that are well in line with Malofeev’s beliefs – and have nothing to do with human rights. In one of his interviews, he stated that
we must spiritually, and then on cultural and social levels get rid of materialist, artificial teachings of XX century, to which I attribute Marxism, fascism and liberalism.
His perception of women’s rights, then, comes as no surprise: Malofeev firmly beliefs that feminism is harmful and that it is much less important for a woman to work than to have children – the more the better.
His position as a media oligarch, however, does not showcase his real proximity to Kremlin, which may be assessed as rather strong. After all, it was precisely Malofeev who has partially put his financial resources into Russian aggression against Ukraine. He remains, at least to an extent, involved in the issue – in March 2020 the oligarch took part in the meeting of “Donbas Volunteers Union”, Moscow-based organization of Russian soldiers and mercenaries that took part in hostilities in Eastern Ukraine. Its explicit ties with Kremlin are underlined by the fact that the Union was organized by then Putin’s top aide and the architect of Russian hybrid war against Ukraine – Vladislav Surkov.
Surkov’s own views on the issue are not as explicit – and as often expressed – as religiously charged beliefs of Malofeev, yet the dismissive ridicule with which he assesses liberalism leaves little room for speculation. Moreover, in 2018 he published a piece, criticizing the rise of “matriarchate” in the West and stating that
female populism has arguably become the most effective doctrine for those who strive for political heights. All the signs of yet another “decline” of Europe (more precisely, EuroAmerica) are evident.
Ironically, the article was published on February 14 – as mocking greetings.
Although now out of Kremlin – and public sight, – he used to hold a position of immense power in Kremlin and back in 2000-ies was credited by many not only as president’s vizier, but, essentially, as one of creator’s of Putin’s Russia. With extensive influence over domestic agenda, Surkov laid out the canvas for Russian autocracy – dubbed sovereign democracy, – remodeling political landscape at large, from working with systemic opposition to organizing youth movements. There is little doubt that many of his ideological perceptions remain in power, even if Surkov himself does not. “Solitude of a Half-Blood”, also published in 2018, explores the idea of Russia’s separate path on the world arena, neither to West, nor to East – the idea that, obviously, does not belong to him but seems to yet again momentum in Russian Federation, as Putin himself has recently claimed that “Russia is a distinct civilization“.
Another man known as an ideologist of Putin’s regime is Alexander Dugin. If Surkov was a political technologist and a manager, Dugin is a philosopher. Geopolitically, he is a proponent of creating Eurasian superpower that would uniteRussia as a ruling entity with a number of post-Soviet states (which entails his non-acceptance of Ukrainian sovereignty and aggressive position towards Georgia). In terms of religion he strongly supports ROC, which pre-establishes his views on a number of human rights issues.
He is not as explicit with hate speech as some of other notable figures and, when it comes to women’s rights, veils his position with the “sacred” role of womanhood – a traditional rhetorical tool used by ultraconservatives. Dugin shares the fear of Western values undermining Russian way of life: according to him,
Demasculinization is under way, in Russia there is erosion of patriarchate. And, at the same time, erosion of matriarchal attitude towards a woman as an ideal.
In one of his many writings, “The Problem of Posthuman and Posthumanity”, Dugin further lays out his perception of the current situation:
In political postanthropology everything has switched places: work and rest, …knowledge and ignorance,…public and private,…male and female (dramatic rise of women’s and homosexuals’ role in politics).
While Dugin’s influence should not be overstated, it should not be underestimated either. He remains an advisor to Sergey Naryshkin, a Director of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). He is also close to Sergey Glazyev, an advisor to the President focusing on the Eurasian integration. While Dugin might not have Putin’s ear himself, he still is to be reckoned with as one of the country’s key modern philosophers, and his views fit something that unites, enables and empowers all of the abovementioned actors as well as many more – predominant Zeitgeist in Russia itself.
Its roots, however, date back and include another Russian philosopher, Ivan Ilyin, who promoted the same ideas of Russia’s messianic destiny, criticized the West – and was a supporter of fascism. According to him,
Fascism came to be as a response to bolshevism, as a concentration of state-safeguarding forces on the right [side of political spectrum]. In times of left chaos and left totalitarianism, it was a healthy, necessary and unavoidable phenomenon.
Ironically, the top Russian politician to frequently quote Ilyin is the same person who builds Russia’s new political mythology on countering anything Kremlin calls fascism – Vladimir Putin himself.
Political Environment Set
Altogether, this creates a rather toxic political environment in Russia. Relevant perception hostile to human rights has been reaffirmed by politicians of the different caliber all over the federation, from regional to highest authorities. The full list would be impossible to compile, but it includes, for example, anti-LGBT lawmaker Vitaly Milonov (a member of State Duma Committee on Development of Civil Society, Public and Religious Organizations) infamous for his hate speech. It is also supported by Elena Mizulina, a Senator who is vocally against “gay propaganda” and insisted that
women are weak creatures …and do not take offence when, you see, a man hits his wife – this is not an offense similar to the one if a man is offended, humiliated. A man must not be humiliated.
MP Leonid Slutsky, Chairman of the International Affairs Committee at State Duma and a member of Russian delegation to PACE, was at the center of a scandal, where several journalists and an MP Oksana Pushkina accused him of sexual harassment. Duma Ethics Committee did not see any violations on behalf of Slutsky; he was supported by Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin.
Leader of LDPR party Vladimir Zhyrinosvky, similarly, has made so many anti-egalitarian claims that it is difficult to pick one – among the most well-known cases is his insistence that the female journalist he hit enjoyed it and that
such women dream of being raped, but no one wants them.
Zhyrinovsky is often dismissed as someone not to be taken seriously and playing a part of opposition – a trick that Kremlin has mastered well, when, as Peter Pomerantsev puts it,
the opposition, with its almost comical leaders, is designed and funded in such a way to actually strengthen the Kremlin… the viewer is left with the feeling that, compared with this lot, the President is the only sane candidate.
And yet, in a world without alternative he is the alternative for some – in 2019 he was second after Vladimir Putin in electoral ranking. While the gap between them is large, Zhyrinovsky enjoyed slow but steady growth in rankings – which he will probably never utilize, remaining loyal to Kremlin.
These cases, as well as many others, come as no surprise considering that the sentiment is sanctioned from the very top. As Vladimir Putin himself insists in one of the justifications for Russia’s crusade against its own perception of Western values,
Moral basics and any traditional identity are rejected: national, religious, cultural and even sexual. Policy applied equates multi-child family and same-sex partnership, belief in God and belief in Devil. Political correctness excesses go so far as to seriously discuss registration of parties that aim to propagate pedophilia.
The relentless propaganda on the dangers of “Western values”, increasing role of ROC and stance of many key figures in the regime set disregard for human rights as a norm. It is not only reflected in wide-spread discrimination, culminating in domestic violence and hate crimes. It also takes a form of organized social movements – perhaps, the only type of movements Kremlin can tolerate – that denounce human rights.
One of them is “Male State” (MS) – a community with close to 140 groups (the main one having ~178,000 members) in the largest Russian social network VK, which is known for active calls for physical violence against women, clearing all the areas of social life from them as men are allegedly “smarter, can think critically and are not guided by emotions”. MS stands for patriarchy and nationalism, which are intertwined. Movement does not only support the idea that Russian women should be in relationship with Russian men only. It also often uses a derogatory term “rusachki” – for people from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (a sign of imperial mindset, where three nations are, actually, one Ukraine as well as Belarus are considered part of Russia) who do not try to fight the current system. This fight often crosses the border of legality: MS shares personal details of women they consider have “low social responsibility”, and their leader Vladislav Pozdnyakov has been arrested for inciting hatred towards women – but the case was closed.
“Male Movement” (MM) has close to 35,000 members in VK and is notably focused on “reproductive rights” of men, suggesting to cancel child support and juvenile justice. MM criticizes development of gynecology and even the fact that majority of medical workers are women, which allegedly is discriminatory against men who feel uncomfortable coming to the hospitals and, therefore, their health deteriorates. The movement has certain political ambitions – for some time, they considered partnering up with LDPR party and one of their representatives Sergey Matveev ran as a candidate for Moscow State Duma in 2019.
Another similar movement is “Male Path”, which states that “Russia needs patriarchate” and has 22,000+ members in VK. They are preoccupied with demographic crisis in Russia, which, in their opinion, can be dealt with via returning to “traditional” values – and they feel supported by the President whose words
Russia’s destiny depends on how many of us there will be
is on their web-site’s banner. “Male Path” is against “degradation of the institute of family” divorces and abortions – and it was one of the strong opponents of the law against domestic violence, seeing how its implementation will allegedly take Russia the same way as “decaying West”.
While the abovementioned movements are evidently right-wing, “Antifeminist Leftist Front” (ALF) tries to tie hatred towards women to struggle against capitalism, perceiving sex as a resource that is controlled by women who discriminate against men. Unlike Male State and Male Path, representatives of AFL do not want to “strengthen” the institute of marriage, on the contrary – they consider it should be abolished and sex should be universally available. Moreover, criminal charges for rape should abolished while “enforcing abstention” should, on the contrary, be criminalized; the movement promotes cancelation of the age of consent and prohibit women to make decisions on marriage or divorce, allowing polygamy for men but capital punishment for infidelity for women. These ideas could be dismissed as fringe, but the world already knows cases of actual physical violence against women incited by initiatives similar to ALF.
These movements may sometimes even be at odds with Kremlin, but there is little doubt that political environment created by Kremlin’s anti-democratic policies enables them. They do not have to be overwhelming to be a sign that gender equality – and not only – is under creeping attack in Russia, which comes from different fronts.
Main Narratives for Export
These political developments, as disturbing as they are, might seem Russia’s internal issue. However, Kremlin has long been busy with exporting its anti-democratic, anti human rights agenda abroad. Its support of the European far-right is well known, and Moscow is far from being idle on the information front. There are several major narratives on issue state-controlled media and agents of influence abroad promote, mostly targeting Russian-speakers as predominant consumers, – but they are also mutually amplified by local ultraconservatives. The non-exclusive list of these narratives is as follows:
- There is a powerful LGBT+ lobby that influences international politics
- Tolerance to LGBT+ entails legalizing incest and pedophilia
- The West has artificially created up to 58 genders
- Children are forcefully taken from parents and given to LGBT+ families
- Including LGBT+ people undermines capacity of American and European military
- Promoting gender equality is a “witch hunt” against men
- Increasing female leadership is a sign the West is on a verge of collapse
- The West imposes its values to destroy other countries from within
It should be noted that these narratives – and hostile messages constituting them – are not always directly planted in target societies by Kremlin. More effective and more secure approach lies in supporting the grievances that already exist, lending support to actors that share Moscow’s perception of the issue and use them as the advocates and support group for Kremlin’s policies.
From the ever more restrictive legislation to the growing influence of ROC, from offensive statements by top politicians to the criminal offenses by the groups that would be less bold if they did not feel encouraged – reality for human rights in Russia is grim. With ongoing offensive against the West, including its values, it does not look like Kremlin has any interest in improving it. On the contrary, the ambition is to sell this perspective to as many states as possible. This trade is likely to have an effect not only destructive, but also long-lasting, as it undeniably affects the younger generation, undermining hope for Russia’s liberalization.