Russian Information War Does Not Have a Woman’s Face: Sexism and Misogyny in Russian Propaganda

In February 2022, on the eve of the large-scale invasion, during the news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian President Vladimir Putin commented on Ukraine’s duty to adhere to Minsk agreements despite the threat of Russian military escalation: “Like it or don’t like it, it’s your duty, my beauty” (Нравится – не нравится – терпи, моя красавица) using a reference to a song about the raped sleeping beauty lying in a coffin by Krasnaya Plesen, founded by a Russian band residing in occupied Crimea. That statement was an illustrative example of how Russia exploits sexism and misogyny even on the level of international politics.   

As the public image of Putin as the leader is built on the standards of toxic masculinity, sexism, and misogyny have become common tools of propaganda in Russian state-sponsored media.

The qualitative analysis of news articles, TV shows, social media posts, and public statements of Russian politicians and propagandists demonstrates the systematic use of gender-based stereotypes, sexism, and misogyny in an attempt to ridicule and humiliate the actual or symbolic enemy (either Ukraine or the collective West).

Patriarchal systems of values have become incorporated in the contemporary Russian identity – and that is why Russian political discourse resorts to gender stereotypes, promotion of traditional gender roles, and undermining of women’s rights.

Demonizing Gender Equality

The dichotomy of “patriarchal values” vs “values of gender equality” is used by Russian propaganda to sow fear before the Western “otherness”, and maintain the status quo for traditional values in Russia, marking gender equality and the feminist movement as the manifestation of weakness.

From the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the use of sexist and misogynistic language has been traditionally used to denigrate Ukraine and its Western partners, reinforce traditional gender roles, and undermine women’s rights as something “ridiculous” and “pathetic”, which is “unnecessary” for the Russian people. 

Thus, Russian propaganda tries to strengthen the stereotypical idea of femininity as passiveness and submission, while promoting masculinity as activeness and domination. Therefore, gender inequality becomes incorporated into the official rhetoric and supports patriarchal power structures. In such structures, women who challenge traditional gender roles are perceived as a threat to “security” and “stability”.

Together with sexualization and objectification, while portraying men as powerful and in control, this reinforces gender stereotypes and serves to marginalize women from the political sphere.

Weaponizing Misogyny

Since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014, the public image of Ukraine in Russia has been shaped as an image of stereotypically “weak” women in a patriarchal system of values. Together with slutshaming and references to rape culture, this tactic was aimed to strengthen the propaganda narrative about the “external governance” of Ukraine as a “failed state” and its “dependence on the Western curators”.

This is often followed by the use of the derogative “baba” (Russian for “female peasants”) and a comparison with women as the synonym of weakness and a secondary role in society’s hierarchy. Describing Ukraine and the Ukrainian president as “cheap baba” and comparing the state with a “prostitute” is also used as a metaphor for Ukrainian “venality” and corruption. Such comparisons may be found both in Telegram channels promoting Russian propaganda for the internal audience and Russian mouthpieces in Ukraine:

With the Putin regime employing techniques and cliches of toxic masculinity to prove its capability to stay in power, the heroization of stereotypically masculine traits is used on a state level to sell the war against Ukraine to the Russian population. Thus, the state-sponsored campaign for mobilization is built on the glorification of toxic masculinity and humiliation of non-military professions as “pathetic” and “boring”.

The only canonical way for a “true Russian man” is to stand up and fight a genocidal war. In this paradigm, there is no function for women except for being the resource to restore the population for new predatory wars according to the classic Russian principles “Babas [Russian derogatory for women – ed.] will give birth to new [soldiers]”.

Opposing Feminism

The establishment of male supremacy over women is also a part of Russian neo-colonialism, which can be seen on various levels, from the recordings of intercepted conversations between Russian soldiers in Ukraine and their relatives back home (for example, the one where the wife of the Russian soldier calls him to “rape Ukrainian women”), where rape serves as the instrument of colonial oppression and assertion of control, to the public statements of Margarita Simonyan, one of the top Russian propagandists:

“There will come a day when we will come again to hospitable, cheerful, bright, and well-fed Kyiv. Our husbands will again turn their necks, looking at the black-browed Oksanas [common Ukrainian female name – ed.]. We will all again sing together in a tavern, we will sing What a Moonlight Night, a Ukrainian song that every Russian knows, a song from a great Soviet film about our common war, common grief, and common pride. We will once again eat local cherries and grow weary from ‘how full of voluptuousness and bliss is the Little Russian summer [quote from Mykola Hohol, Ukrainian writer whom Russia systematically tries to appropriate]’. In Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, the Mother of Russian cities, we will read Little Russian stories of the glory of Russian literature, the great Gogol, who wrote about himself: ‘I don’t know what kind of soul I have – the soul of khokhol [derogative for “Ukrainian” – ed.] or the Russian one’. And nothing in this proposal will cause any ridiculous disputes.”

Another promising direction of anti-female Russian propaganda is the stigmatization of feminism. Thus, in April 2023, the draft law with the proposal to recognize feminism as an extremist ideology was presented in Gosduma, based on the conclusions that “feminists in the West are all against Putin, against Russia, and for the war. Feminists in Ukraine have generally said that real feminism is for women to fight alongside men against the Russians. Russian feminists are simply agents of the West. [] They are engaged in the destruction of traditional values, their activities contradict the presidential decree to support traditional values. They advocate for divorce, for childlessness, for abortions.” 

Demonizing feminists as the symbols of the USA, blaming them for “Western propaganda” and labeling them “projects of the US State Department” is a common strategy of Russian propaganda aimed to depreciate and dehumanize feminists and sow mistrust and skepticism towards feminism as a movement.

The anti-feminist propaganda goes hand in hand with the anti-Western one. Thus, the feminists themselves are systematically blamed for the “genocide of Donbas”, (whatever that means) and all feminist protests are typically marked as “bunches” and ridiculed as the “puppets of the West”, led by their “Western curators” and “protesting against the very existence of men”.

In this paradigm, feminism is seen as a threat to Russian traditional values and therefore needs to be opposed as the product of the abstract “neoliberal agenda” (which means advocating LGBTQ+ rights and women’s rights).

Weaponizing Slurs

The legitimization of sexism and slutshaming in the official Russian discourse leads to promoting the image of Ukraine as a “cheap dock whore”, which is always in a position of weakness, “serving” her “Western masters”.

Such a comparison is used by Russian propaganda to describe not only Ukraine as a state but also the Ukrainian president, which has an extra humiliating connotation in the patriarchal optics. This is how this strategy was realized by Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov

“Ukraine is becoming more and more toxic in the international arena; she fulfills her image of a woman country more and more. This is an overripe port girl with too much makeup, hysterically tearful, demanding that everyone pity her for her Difficult Fate while being immoral and unprincipled. The participation of Zelensky [on the event] means that there will be whining, begging for money, and all this is mixed with rural impudence and rudeness”. 

Here are other examples:

And they let me down that they[Ukrainian government] turned the country [Ukraine] into… sorry for the expression, whore.”

“Puppets of George Soros have come to power in the Office of the President of Ukraine and are now using Zelensky as the last whore.”

Also, such metaphors are used by Russian officials regarding not only Ukraine but also Europe:

“So how can you rely on the rich patrons after that? It is just a moment, and they stop supporting Europe. Treated like a street girl. You can, of course, decisively break up with unfaithful and dishonest sexual (sorry, economic) partners and proudly start a new free personal life, building it independently. But it is unlikely that the European countries will have enough decisiveness for this. And they do not have enough testosterone.”

The same pattern is also commonly used by the mouthpieces of Russian propaganda in Ukraine, especially in Telegram segment:

“Everyone is tired of Ukraine (which is a toxic case for the Western establishment). There are several reasons. First of all, the Ukrainian politicians realize that and start to blackmail, which is very annoying and angering for Western politicians (on the sidelines, they compare it with the “chick” whom you have taken out, then left, and now she shakes her license, although you have already given her a couple of bucks).”

The propagandistic formulations, such as “everyone f*cked Ukraine”  do not offer anything new except for the stereotypical vision of sex as an act of domination and humiliation, where the “other” (Ukraine, the collective West etc.) always ends up in the position of submission and humiliation. 

All these tactics and techniques show how gendered the Russian propaganda is and how much the image of contemporary Russia relies on the values of hyper-masculinity. While women in politics (such as Ursula von der Leyen, Jen Psaki, Samantha Power, Liz Truss) are traditionally depreciated and ridiculed by both official discourse and on the media and labeled as “incompetent”, “foolish”, “hysterical” or “weak”, the traditional vision of woman in Russian society as passive and submissive and the vision of man as dominative 

is being strengthened. As Russian identity is deeply rooted in the traditional values supplemented by the image of a strong hyper-masculine leader, whom Putin tries to be, the patriarchal models and values are used both as instruments of showing the neglect to the symbolic “other” (both Ukraine and is Western allies) and increase the support of the Russian-Ukrainian war in the Russian society. 

In Russian discourse, the concept of power and sovereignty is still associated with masculinity, and that is why sexist hierarchy of values is used as a weapon in the Russian information war.

Together with misogyny, sexist rhetoric is used to emphasize the role of traditional values, which much correspond to the fundamental values set by the Russian Orthodox Church (and remain patriarchal) and increase the anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western sentiment. As a result, in the Russian neo-colonial paradigm, both sexual and political dominance are associated with hegemonic masculinity, while femininity is represented as subordinated.