Neither harmless nor distant How Russian state conservatism combines emancipation and tradition to undermine women’s rights and suppress sexual awareness
Many in Russia are inclined to dismiss the bluster of state conservatism as a largely meaningless sideshow. After all, the nation’s laws protecting women’s rights remain relatively liberal, and even the loudest speeches by right-wing politicians have virtually no effect on the everyday lives of the denizens inhabiting Russia’s big cities, where women are part of the workforce, where they get proper healthcare, and where the state apparently doesn’t interfere in their lives. In an article for Meduza, European University at St. Petersburg Sociology Professor of Public Health and Gender Anna Temkina explains how Russia’s “conservative turn” is in fact quite real for many women.
An introduction by Maxim Trudolyubov
I had always believed that Russian state conservatism is something the authorities need for commercial projects and foreign policy aims — something incapable of any significant effect on society at home. After all, how do you “restore” patriarchal customs and traditional gender roles in a country where Soviet traditions are all anyone knows? The 1917 revolution and the 20th century’s other upheavals disrupted the transmission of traditional values between generations.
Anna Temkina — a leading expert in gender studies, feminist theory, and public health in Russia — has convinced me that Russia’s conservative turn actually develops and builds on Soviet gender policy in a way that directly affects families and especially the lives of women and children. It’s a pragmatic policy, moreover, with a decidedly tangible socio-economic dimension.
For a deeper understanding of this subject, beyond what’s covered below, consider reading “12 Lectures in Gender Sociology” (in Russian), which Temkina co-authored with Elena Zdravomyslova in 2015.
The Russian state has effectively refused any active support for the idea of gender equality. Paradoxically, the authorities even associate the term “gender” exclusively with the idea of defending LGBTQ rights. As a result, Russia has developed its own hybrid gender policy to suit the state’s interests: a combination of the Soviet emancipatory approach (which required women to combine careers and motherhood) and the West’s pre-feminist model (where men served as breadwinners and women were mothers and housewives).
Western housewives and Soviet teachers
According to middle-class gender roles established in the West by the 1960s and 1970s, men were the breadwinners; they had careers. A prosperous middle-class couple with children lived in a comfortable suburban home, and women became housewives forever or for a very long time, despite being educated and having worked until either marriage or motherhood. Not everyone could attain or wished to pursue this model, but the ideal and the norm existed.
In the Soviet Union, there was neither the ideal nor the practice of housewives: Soviet citizens — both men and women — worked. That was the Soviet state’s ideology and it was the USSR’s economic necessity: families needed two working people.
At the same time, the state expected women to combine careers in production with motherhood. From childhood, the Soviet system prodded girls to pursue higher educations in philology and medicine, for example, not mathematics or physics. Room was made for women in pedagogy, medicine, and even the military-industrial complex (albeit at the lowest ranks) because these professions were considered more “feminine,” or they were simply occupations that permitted the combination of work and motherhood.
Duty to the Motherland
The USSR’s policies on women had some emancipatory traits: Soviet Russia became the first country in the world to permit abortion (legalized in 1920 and then banned again from 1936 to 1954). Russia also established the emancipatory institution of divorce, which remains firmly entrenched today. When it came to protecting rights, however, the Soviet state never advocated feminism. Concerned about the nation’s birth rate, the authorities didn’t defend individual rights (especially reproductive rights) and instead pressed Soviet women to fulfill their “duty.”
Women were responsible for their careers and for their families and children, and they often shouldered these burdens alone. A father’s institutional support was nominal because men could always choose to detach themselves from a child’s upbringing, which women could not. Women had to rely on themselves and older generations in their families. The notion that motherhood and caring for the family were a woman’s natural destiny was strengthened and reaffirmed “until it was no more.”
“I did my duty to the state. I birthed it two children.” It’s hard to imagine anyone saying something like that today, but I’ve heard exactly these words from the women of Soviet generations in interviews I have recorded during my research.
Sex life as a 1990s project
In the 1990s, Russians were engulfed in new information, including new information about sexuality. The return of capitalism established a market for contraceptives, which expanded people’s capacity to control their sex lives privately. Amid these changes, sex life in Russia was also reconstructed rapidly at an institutional level.
To a much greater extent, sexual behavior became a personal choice, not something “unselfconscious” or “owed” to the state. Different patterns of such behavior emerged, along with reflections about the conscious construction of one’s own sex life. Femininity also acquired new resources, and women could now exist differently: they didn’t need to be “working mothers” or decked out in heels and makeup.
Educated young women in post-Soviet Russia perceived sex as pleasure for both partners (not just for men) and viewed childrearing as the responsibility of both parents. A new consensus took shape: “My professional life and my sex life are a project. I’m not obeying gender patterns so much as creating my own patterns.” The shift was tectonic, though it wasn’t always immediately noticeable.
Revenge of the conservatives
The conservative turn now underway in Russia is a response to these changes. In places like Italy, Germany, and France, movements to restore traditional gender roles are largely grassroots initiatives. In Russia, however, the right-wing turn has been orchestrated from the top.
In recent years, across most of the European Union, the state has adopted framework laws on gender equality, defending sexual and reproductive rights, and promoting what is now mainstream Western thinking about gender. Through these laws, states signal to their citizens that they are interested in gender equality. The laws create the institutional framework on which states establish various committees and develop different programs that defend rights and help combat, for example, domestic violence and harassment. While these efforts fall well short of solving all problems, such laws at least demonstrate that the state takes a definite position on these issues.
The main force behind conservatism in Russia is the state, not civil society. Over the past two decades, lawmakers have failed on three occasions — in 2003, 2008, and again in 2018 — to pass legislation on gender equality. Opponents embrace a form of cultural exceptionalism, rejecting gender equality as a Western import, despite the fact that equality between women and men is enshrined in Russia’s Constitution.
When he dismissed the latest draft of the gender-equality bill, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said deputies would rewrite the legislation to emphasize women’s labor and social rights, meaning that the law will again focus on motherhood and aim to reconcile it with paid employment. Once again, the Russian state understands women only or at least primarily as mothers.
The rejection of this legislation is tied to the fact that conservative forces among Russia’s authorities conflate gender equality with the promotion of LGBTQ rights. Viewed from this prism, even the word “gender” threatens “traditional values” by offering greater diversity. For conservatives, it’s easier and more effective to manage a homogenous population that adheres to a single model where sexual and reproductive behavior are strictly associated with monogamous heterosexual marriage.
Conservatism as a means to economize
State traditionalism in Russia became acute after 2012, amid events like the Pussy Riot trial. As a result, gender equality ceased to be a priority and the concept of women’s rights was reduced to support for motherhood and early childhood.
This largely perpetuates the USSR’s hybrid policy that was at once emancipatory and traditionalist, when the state extended special social benefits to women as mothers and expected them to respond by carrying out Soviet demographic policy. The critical difference between then and now is that today’s Russian state is cutting costs. To preserve the conservative “gender contract” amid declining government support, women need to be reminded constantly that their supposed role and social function is to provide care. The state thereby invests less money in social spending and shifts the burden of caring for the young and elderly to the shoulders of women, who are encouraged to want to do this “by nature.”
Additionally, the market promotes certain patterns of consumer behavior. In the “post-glamor” gender model, for example, a successful woman is a wealthy man’s wife. A mother who doesn’t need to work, she most likely “freelances” in something like design, staging exhibitions, or volunteering, but she does it for self-actualization, not for money. This fits very well within conservative discourse, where the family, not the state, is expected to play the caregiver’s role. For most people, however, these traditionalist ideals are hardly attainable in practice.
Sex education: Russia’s number-one taboo
You might think it’s possible to ignore Russia’s top-down traditionalism, given how diminished it is relative to Soviet ideology, but conservatism’s detachment from reality is an illusion. The lack of an ideology of gender equality in Russia deprives society of a clear benchmark. The Constitution still enshrines various rights and freedoms, including some tied directly to gender, but the state’s actions prove that Russia’s conservative “Big Brother” might come for you, for example, if your actions supposedly violate laws “guarding children against information that could harm their health and development” or prohibitions against “promoting non-traditional sexual relations in the presence of minors.” The grounds for these charges and allegations include appearing at a public event, writing something on social media, publishing a work of art, and even releasing a film.
Another catastrophic consequence of Russia’s top-down conservatism is the absence of sex education in the schools. Children are considered too “innocent” to process information about sex, which conservative discourse regards as a threat to parenting, traditional gender roles, and the family.
Sex ed is the number-one taboo in contemporary Russia. In a sense, it’s even more controversial than everything associated with same-sex relationships, insofar as the latter is considered a consequence of the former. Conservatives’ objections to sex education and teaching reproductive health have less to do with the supposed “corruption” of the youth (the idea that minors will rush to try everything in practice, as soon as they learn about contraceptives) than concerns about informing children and teenagers about the diversity of sexual norms, which can include same-sex relationships. Based on this calculus, Russia has settled on the following institutional policy: “We’re not going to talk about sex.”
This approach cultivates a lack of awareness about family planning and a weak reproductive (contraceptive) culture, which had led to a relatively high abortion rate. Admittedly, the number of terminated pregnancies in Russia has been declining steadily, but it remains significantly higher than in most Western countries.
Russia’s authorities have responded to the high number of abortions by tightening restrictions on the procedure, though it remains legal. This approach disproportionately affects women in more vulnerable groups. Middle-class women, meanwhile, are better informed and more able to practice safe sex; they know that they need to consult with a doctor about this; they can afford more expensive and effective contraceptives; and they can turn to a private clinic if contraception fails. Gender conservatism poses the greatest danger to disadvantaged women who lack many of these opportunities. For example, when trying to utilize publicly-funded abortion services, these women might encounter gynecologists who oppose abortion and effectively deny them an independent choice in their reproductive health. Russia’s fight against abortion is waged at the expense of such women.
Russia’s conservative discourse is neither harmless nor distant. The state’s agenda here has a very real impact on people’s lives, particularly when it aggravates social inequality in reproductive rights.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock