Updated: Oct 20, 2022
LGBT-Demonstration against the war in Ukraine and Russia in Saint-Petersburg. Photo by InkBoB. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
On 21 April 2022, a St Petersburg district court issued a decision to shut down Sphere Foundation, a Russian human rights organisation which has worked since 2009 to improve the situation for LGBTIQ+ people in the country. The Russian Ministry of Justice claimed that the foundation’s work went against state policy because its activities were aimed at changing “legislation and moral foundations”, including the Russian Constitution. Less than a week later, the Magistrate Court of the Taganka district in Moscow fined Meta (formerly Facebook) 4 million roubles (€53,000) for failing to take down material “propagating the LGBT community”. Meanwhile, another court in Moscow cited a failure to comply with the media regulator’s request to remove content “propagating homosexual relations” when it issued TikTok with a 2 million rouble (€26,500) fine.
On the one hand these developments are nothing new. Russia has long pursued a strategy of discrimination against and stigmatisation of LGBTIQ+ people, and the process of dismantling nascent LGBTIQ+ rights in the country is well documented. ILGA-Europe’s 2022 Rainbow Europe Map, which monitors the human rights situation of LGBTIQ+ people, ranks Russia 46th out of 49 countries in Europe and Central Asia. Perhaps the best known among Russia’s oppressive measures is the infamous ‘gay propaganda’ law introduced in 2013, which made it illegal to equate “traditional and non-traditional sexual relations” and criminalised the distribution of material on LGBTIQ+ rights and relationships.
Against this background, the termination of Sphere Foundation can be seen as merely another step in a succession of repressive anti-LGBTIQ+ measures implemented by the Russian government in recent years. However, the wider context of Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine calls for a re-examination of the political factors which drive and sustain the Kremlin’s strategy of state-sanctioned homophobia. This article traces the links between the rise of masculinity politics and the development of political homophobia in Russia, and President Putin's pursuit of an aggressively anti-Western foreign policy. It then examines how these parallel phenomena have combined to legitimise the invasion of Ukraine in the views of some domestic Russian audiences. Ultimately, it explores how the Kremlin has weaponised both gender norms (to weaken the legitimacy of the West and of Ukraine) and the issue of LGBTIQ+ rights (in framing homosexuality as an existential threat to provide a justification for its war in Ukraine).
The Russian domestic sphere: masculinity politics and political homophobia
Masculinity politics in the new Russia
Understanding how homophobia drives Russian politics and foreign policy today first involves recognising the role that gender has played in the country’s recent development. The fall of the Soviet Union is widely considered to have led to a crisis of masculinity in Russian society: the disintegration of the country following the collapse of communism resulted in “a deep feeling of de-masculinisation and loss of identity” as gender roles – previously stable under communism – were undermined by economic and political turmoil. This phenomenon also manifested itself at the state level as Russia’s international position weakened, and the country became dependent on Western foreign aid in the 1990s. This economic subordination was evaluated internally as evidence of the country’s powerlessness, lack of self-determination and hence supposed non-masculinity.
When Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, he changed the national discourse to meet the demand for a new gender order and pursued a politics of identity designed to restore both male and national pride in Russian society. By using gender discourse and imagery in public addresses and other official communications and promoting a hypermasculine system of values, Putin kickstarted the process to ‘re-masculinise’ Russian domestic politics and national identity. This strategy of re-masculinisation has been underpinned by a reliance on a particular understanding of gender, according to which power is aligned with the traditional attributes of masculinity (such as strength, reason and independence) while submission correlates with those attributes traditionally associated with femininity (such as weakness, emotionality and passivity). This reliance on a traditional masculine-feminine binary attributes distinct roles to each gender and privileges heterosexuality, while rejecting any form of identity or expression which fall outside of this rigid framework.
This understanding of gender means that masculinity is treated as a “vehicle for power” in which political leaders may deploy gender discourse and norms to consolidate their position and/or delegitimise their political adversaries. Indeed, the Russian project of ‘masculinity politics’ has cohered around Putin himself, with analysts arguing that the ‘re-masculinisation of Russia’ has served as a strategy which is central to the president’s political legitimacy. Putin’s image continues to be explicitly masculinised, including by official state sources and mass media which portray him as a ‘machismo’ figure. Whether posing shirtless on a horse, hunting wild animals or engaged in extreme sports, Putin’s strongman persona has led to him being proclaimed as Russia’s answer to James Bond. At the same time, Putin’s masculinity has been seen to contribute to the legitimacy of the Russian political system, with Putin himself perceived as symbolic of revived Russian power.
The project of re-masculinising Russia’s image according to strict gender binaries has been accompanied by what some researchers identify as a state-sanctioned strategy of ‘political homophobia’. This discourse was visible already in the Soviet era as 'homosexual activity' was criminalised in the 1930s and carried a prison term of up to five years of hard labour for men; meanwhile, Stalin used homophobia to attack his political opponents and consolidate power. Following a period of relative abatement during the 1990s (during which time homosexuality was decriminalised and Russia partially ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, as part of lukewarm efforts to regain respect on the international scene), discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people in Russia continued in the 2000s. A series of LGBTIQ+-focused human rights projects and organisations sprung up in response, including Moscow-based Gayrussia.ru, Russian LGBT Network and Moscow Pride. These initiatives faced consistent discrimination, suppression and – in the case of events and marches taking place in public spaces – violent crackdowns and arrests. Moscow Pride, prohibited from its inception in 2006 and definitively banned by city and district courts for a hundred years in 2012, is a prime example of this state-sponsored repression of LGBTIQ+ visibility.
The present-day Russian iteration of political homophobia crystallised in the introduction of the ‘gay propaganda’ law in 2013. This legislation outlawed “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” and introduced fines of up to 100,000 roubles (€1470) for individuals using the media or internet to promote so-called ‘non-traditional relations’. The first law of this kind was passed in May 2006 by the Duma of Ryazan Oblast, but legislation against so-called ‘homopropaganda’ became national in scope in 2012 when the St. Petersburg Duma passed a law prohibiting “[p]ublic acts aimed at the propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism and transgenderism amongst minors”. In June 2022, draft legislation submitted to the State Duma proposed amendments to the 2013 law which would increase fines up to 500,000 roubles (€8250) for individuals and up to 10 million roubles (€165,000) for legal entities judged to be “promoting non-traditional sexual behaviour”. If passed, the legislation would also extend the punishment to cover information disseminated to citizens of all ages (not just minors), authorise the blocking of Internet resources that cover LGBTIQ+ topics, and place such resources legally on a par with pornography and the promotion of violence. These amendments are likely to be adopted when the State Duma reconvenes in autumn 2022.
The passage of the federal ‘homopropaganda’ bill in 2013 marked a turning point in the fight for LGBTIQ+ rights and for the situation for LGBTIQ+ people in the country, triggering an uptick in homophobic violence and shaping public opinion. By the end of 2014, Human Rights Watch had already identified a ratcheting up of homophobic rhetoric in state media and an increase in homophobic violence around the country. Though the Russian authorities do not collect data on the number of incidents of homophobic violence committed against LGBTIQ+ people, unofficial statistics gathered by the Russian LGBT Network (an NGO working for the social acceptance of and protection of rights of LGBT people in Russia) in 2013 indicate that more than 15% of over 2000 respondents to an anonymous survey reported experiencing physical violence, and 50% said they had experienced psychological abuse for being LGBTIQ+. A 2021 study on discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people carried out by the same NGO found that an overwhelming 78.4% of almost 4000 of respondents had experienced violence and discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
This escalation of hatred has been mirrored in public opinion. A poll conducted by the independent Levada Center in October 2021 showed an increase in the number of people in Russia who rejected the right of adults to enter into same-sex relationships by mutual consent, from 60% in 2013 to 69% in 2021. There was also a noticeable increase in the number of people opposing equal rights, from 47% in 2013 to 59% in 2021. These parallel trends demonstrate that the progressive condemnation of LGBTIQ+ people in Russian law has been accompanied by heightened discrimination, violence and societal opposition, resulting in an increasingly dangerous situation for LGBTIQ+ people in the country.
The role of ‘traditional values’
The Kremlin’s strategy of masculinity politics and political homophobia has taken root against a backdrop of growing anxieties in Russian society. Analysts identify a marked shift in the narrative around 2012 at the start of Putin's third presidential term where, faced with mass protests and declining popularity, his government embraced the idea of ‘traditional values’ as official Kremlin ideology. Putin’s campaign speeches and articles invoked the preservation and reinvigoration of Russia’s collective identity and tapped into the population’s wider fears about the future in the face of perceived demographic decline and lower standards of living. In this context the Putin regime deployed ‘traditional values’, seen as encompassing "patriotism, spirituality, rootedness in history, respect for authority, and adherence to heteronormative and patriarchal ideals of family and gender”. This domestic strategy tallied with an existing campaign Russia had begun waging in international fora in 2009, which aimed to gain recognition of ‘traditional values’ as a legitimate consideration in the implementation of human rights norms. Russia pursued this notably in the United Nations Human Rights Council where it sponsored resolutions under the headline “promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms though a better understanding of traditional values of humankind”.
With the introduction of explicitly anti-LGBTIQ+ laws, the Russian authorities operationalised the promotion of traditional imaginings of masculinity, femininity and the heterosexual family unit. Narratives in political rhetoric and mass-media discourse have framed homosexuality as a source of societal corruption and turned homophobia into a convenient proxy for the explicit endorsement of ‘traditional values’. The explanatory note accompanying the June 2022 draft legislation which seeks to increase the scope of and punishment attached to the dissemination of ‘gay propaganda’, asserts that “Family, motherhood and childhood in their traditional understanding, taken from the ancestors, are the values that ensure the continuous change of generations; they preserve and develop the multiethnic population of the Russian Federation, and therefore require special protection from the state”. This demonstrates the existential significance that the Russian authorities have assigned to ‘traditional values’, deeming their protection essential for the survival of the domestic population and – by extension – the continuation of the nation state.
Russia and the international sphere: nation-building and exclusion
Russian nationalism and nation-building
A driving force behind the effectiveness of Russia’s masculinity politics and the entrenchment of political homophobia has been the country’s foreign policy and particularly its relationship with the West. It is no coincidence that the project of re-masculinising Russia was consolidated in the context of a gradual deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West in the mid-2000s and early 2010s – this heightened geopolitical confrontation required a change in Russian domestic discourse to legitimise the contemporary political regime at home. The Kremlin harnessed political homophobia to unify the nation around a supposed shared sense of Russian nationalism characterised by “stable gender norms, traditional family values, the aggressive rejection of non-normative sexuality, and opposition to the West”. This ideology, which some scholars have described as ‘conservative heteronationalism’, attempted to create a sense of national identity based on traditional values and heteronormativity.
Russia’s ‘Others’, at home and abroad
In this process of national identity construction, the West also presented a convenient foil to the new sense of Russian collective identity. The project of Russian post-Soviet nationhood has continued to rely on the West as an ‘Other’ which is used to define what it is to be Russian and to conceptualise Russia as alternative to Western liberal democracy. Accordingly, the process of re-masculinising Russia has been accompanied by a parallel process of de-masculinising ‘Others’, both internal and external, in political rhetoric and mass-media discourse.
When it comes to the West, this de-masculinisation is encapsulated in the Russian neologism ‘Gayropa’ which has been used to characterise the European gender order by establishing homosexuality as a supposedly core element of the Western European lifestyle. As Oleg Riabov and Tatiana Riabova put it, “[t]he hegemonic discourse of Russian nationalism depicts Europe as a degenerate civilization best manifested in the collapse of the traditional gender order: the triumph of homosexuals and feminists, the legalization of same-sex marriages, and the destruction of the family”. In this vision the West is portrayed as a “decaying power […] that has become a bastion of material decadence and moral deviance” precipitated by its privileging of values such as tolerance, secularism and democracy, which have together contributed to an inevitable degradation. This use of such sexuality and gender-based narratives is designed to weaken the legitimacy of the West in the eyes of both Russian domestic audiences and foreign audiences that similarly believe in a return to a ‘traditional’ family order and gender roles.
The idea of ‘Gayropa’ has also helped to define Russia’s place in the modern world. The country has positioned itself as the antithesis to progressivism and an international leader in the defense of ‘traditional values’, offering a political and cultural alternative to Western liberalism. According to Kremlin rhetoric, in the context of perceived Western decline and deviance Russia remains a bastion of ‘moral principles’ and normalcy which only the current political regime is capable of guaranteeing. Further, Russia has proclaimed itself as the ‘one true Europe’, claiming to be the authentic inheritor of European values. This is reflected in comments made by Dmitry Rogozin, former Chairman of the Motherland Party and Deputy Prime Minister under Putin, who claimed in 2004 that “Russia is the authentic Europe, without the domination of gays, without pederast marriages, […]. We are true Europeans”. Scholar Jennifer Suchland identifies an ethnocultural aspect to this narrative, arguing that the Kremlin-manufactured Russian identity is centred on the idea of defining and protecting a specific, distinctly Russian national population that is both heteronormative and ethnically white.
While the West has been the primary ‘Other’ against which the new Russian identity has been opposed, constructing a national identity around ‘traditional values’ and gender norms ensured that sexual and gender minorities at home also came to be excluded from the project of Russian nationalism. By troubling the family unit and associated patriarchal structures, or diverging from a traditional masculine-feminine binary, these groups are seen as incompatible with the new national identity. The Kremlin has made this wholly apparent in its depiction of sexual and gender minorities as foreign elements which supposedly constitute a direct effect of Western cultural imperialism. In this reading, Western values (such as inclusiveness, feminism and multiculturalism) are encroaching onto Russian society, and represent existential threats to the Russian nation. By extension, LGBTIQ+ people in Russia have been cast as threats to national security designed to weaken Russia from within. Indeed, in a 2013 article Russian daily newspaper Izvestiya warned that Western-sponsored LGBTIQ+ activism in Russia could lead to a “sexual gay-revolution” and risk the country falling into a disorder comparable to the societal chaos of the 1990s.
This way of thinking is particularly apparent in the accusations levelled at advocacy groups and organisations supporting LGBTIQ+ rights in Russia. Since Putin's return to the presidency in the 2012 election, a law has required NGOs, media organisations and individuals that receive donations or funding from outside Russia to register themselves as ‘foreign agents’. The scope of this law has increased over time to include – by October 2021 – Russian citizens critical of the country’s military, space agency and security services. In March 2016 the Russian Ministry of Justice designated Sphere Foundation, the LGBTIQ+ human rights organisation later shut down in April 2022, as a ‘foreign agent’, both accusing it of carrying out “political activities using foreign property” and claiming that the charity did not comply with “basic traditional family values established in the Constitution”. The Russian LGBT Network and its founder Igor Kochetkov were also listed as foreign agents in November 2021.
Political homophobia and de-masculinisation: Russia’s war in Ukraine
Ukraine in Russia’s foreign policy and political imaginary
The context of an entrenched, state-sanctioned politics of masculinity and a domestic strategy of political homophobia provides a useful framework to interpret the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Along with other states formerly under control of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Ukraine occupies a complex role in the post-Soviet Russian political imaginary. As the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1922 until 1991, the region was a cornerstone of the former Soviet Union, home to much of its agricultural production, defence industry and military presence. When Ukraine declared independence in August 1991, Russia experienced this as a yielding of territory and ultimately an existential crisis. Many Russian politicians also perceived this permanent loss of jurisdiction over Ukraine as a blow to Russia’s international prestige and power, marking the beginning of a decline.
Today, the Kremlin’s dissatisfaction with this state of affairs has persisted. Notably it has manifested in the form of historical revisionist attitudes which feature a lingering narrative of brotherhood, driven by the false notion that Ukraine is actually a part of Russia and that the peoples of the two nations are one and the same. In a televised address to the nation just before he ordered troops into Ukraine in February 2022, Putin claimed that Ukraine was an integral part of Russia’s “own history, culture, spiritual space.” This denial of Ukrainian statehood is a key symptom of Russian neo-imperialism which seeks to re-establish a Soviet-era ‘sphere of interests’ and exert political influence on a number of former vassal states.
Since gaining independence, Ukraine has largely sought to align itself more closely with Western institutions and values, though a mostly Russian-speaking minority community in the east has continued to favour closer ties with Russia. The 2004 Ukrainian presidential election pitted incumbent Russian-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych against opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who called for Ukraine to turn its attention towards the West and aim to eventually join the European Union. After the pro-Russian Yanukovych won by a narrow margin, massive pro-democracy street protests – known as the ‘Orange Revolution’ – erupted in Kyiv and other cities amid accusations of vote rigging and corruption. A second runoff ultimately found the opposition’s Viktor Yushchenko the winner. This episode had far-reaching implications for Russian foreign policy: in response, the Kremlin ramped up domestic nationalist discourses to counteract the risk that the outbreak of democratic sentiment in Ukraine would spread to other former Soviet states, while also becoming increasingly confrontational on the global stage.
When he ultimately came to power in 2010, Viktor Yanukovych predictably pursued closer ties with Russia. In 2013 he refused to sign an agreement with the European Union which would commit Ukraine to pursuing economic, judicial and financial reforms to converge its policies and legislation to those of the EU. Against a wider backdrop of mounting discontent and rejection of the post-Soviet politics of corruption and nepotism, this move sparked a wave of demonstrations and civil unrest. Before long the situation turned deadly, as the government violently cracked down on the protests and introduced a series of repressive laws severely restricting civil society and the right to protest. This led to the Euro-Maidan Revolution of Dignity in February 2014, which saw the President Yanukovych ousted and a new pro-reform coalition government installed later that year. The revolution presented a modern expression of Ukrainian nationalism oriented to Europe and democratic values, rather than Russia’s political and cultural legacy.
Gender and sexuality politics in Russia-Ukraine relations
The centring of ‘traditional values’ and sexuality politics in Russia’s national discourse also extends to its foreign policy and to the status of Ukraine and other post-Soviet states. Following the ‘colour revolutions’ in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan from 2003-2005 – which overturned pro-Russian regimes, enabling a wave of pro-democracy and pro-reform movements to sweep through the former Soviet Union – analysts have drawn parallels between President Putin’s paranoia about a possible ‘colour revolution’ at home and the Kremlin’s fear of a so-called ‘gay revolution’ taking root in Russia. Ukraine’s orientation towards the West has led to it being designated as both ‘foreign’ within the post-Soviet Russian imperial project and as a threat to Russia’s maintenance of its ‘sphere of interests’. Beginning from the premise in the Kremlin’s discourse that Ukraine is part of Russia, it follows that nationalist and anti-Russia Ukrainians themselves have taken on the role of ‘foreign elements within’ who pose a threat to Russia’s integrity and national security alongside foreign-linked NGOs, media organisations and individuals. In this sense, Ukraine and its counterparts can be said to function as alternative ‘Others’, in addition to the West.
The project of re-masculinising Russia, then, has been accompanied by the symbolic de-masculinisation of these former Soviet states. This has been particularly apparent in Ukraine where the Kremlin’s denial of the country’s sovereignty, and therefore independence, depends on and reproduces an inherent de-masculinisation. Ukraine’s openness to the West and aspirations to join the EU and NATO have exacerbated this perception. In particular, Russian authorities have cast any evidence of foreign influence in Ukraine as proof of weakness and wanting sovereignty, and therefore a supposed absence of masculinity. For example, during the 2005-2006 gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine, state-affiliated Russian television programme Postscriptum described Ukraine as a “flighty mistress”. Meanwhile protestors at a demonstration near the US Embassy in Moscow called for the US pay off Ukraine’s debts to Russia, illustrated by a poster with the slogan “A Gentleman Always Pays for His Girlfriend”.
Furthermore, scholar Maryna Romanets has pointed out that Russian propaganda has relied on tropes linked to homosexuality to relegate Ukrainians to the status of “deviant abnormality and mental deficiency”, thus attempting to turn Russian popular attitudes against the country using political homophobia. In parallel, homosexuality has been weaponised in Russian propaganda which aims to influence Ukrainian audiences in order to delegitimise the country’s Western aspirations and persuade Ukrainian public opinion towards pro-Russian attitudes. This perspective is likely to resonate particularly among groups with religious and/or conservative views or who are otherwise inclined to support the ‘traditional values’ offered by Russia.
This propaganda has been used strategically to influence public opinion at critical moments. Leading up to and during Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russian state-sponsored propaganda “constructed a relationship of sexual and political dominance between Russia and Ukraine in order to make the adversary come across as weak or incapable”, while simultaneously bolstering public opinion of Russian foreign policy in Ukraine. This was notably seen in accusations of homosexuality levelled at Ukrainian politicians, or images or rhetoric which drew on representations of femininity or homosexuality as degenerate. For example, a common theme in the propaganda targeting Ukraine was the portrayal of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in women’s clothing or engaged in ‘homosexual activity’. This also created a contrast between Putin’s hypermasculine, strongman image and a weak, effeminate or otherwise dominated Poroshenko. The de-masculinisation of Ukraine has therefore been deployed in a way that made it an integral part of the re-masculinisation of Russia.
Weaponisation of LGBTIQ+ rights and equality
In parallel to Russia’s de-masculinisation of Ukraine in geopolitical rhetoric, the concrete issue of LGBTIQ+ rights has played a significant role in Russia-Ukraine relations. Russia has perceived Ukraine’s rapprochement with the European Union as bearing a risk of the country embracing Western ideals, including democracy, multiculturalism and equality, in particular LGBTIQ+ equality and rights. This has featured in political and media rhetoric, perhaps most explicitly in the context of the Euromaidan protests of late 2013 where Russian media framed a potential opposition victory as leading directly to the acceptance of gay pride marches and the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Ukraine. Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s largest newspaper, claimed that the protests were co-organised by “nationalists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and homosexuals”, suggesting that the key actors in the protests were members of Ukraine’s LGBTIQ+ community. In November 2013, Russian politician and then-Deputy of the State Duma Aleksey Pushkov wrote on Twitter that the release from prison of Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime Minister of Ukraine and co-leader of the Orange Revolution, would “provoke EU demands that Ukraine should broaden the reach of gay culture”. He further claimed that Kyiv would be holding LGBTIQ+ pride marches instead of victory parades if the protests achieved their aims.
It is worth mentioning that despite what the Kremlin may suggest, the situation for LGBTIQ+ people in Ukraine is far from ideal. Same-sex marriage is banned by Ukraine’s constitution which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and the country is ranked 39th out of 49 countries on ILGA-Europe’s 2022 Rainbow Europe Map. The powerful and influential Eastern Orthodox Church has strongly opposed LGBTIQ+ events and groups, often in the name of ‘combatting immorality’. In 2012 the Ukrainian Parliament passed a draft version of a Russian-inspired ‘homopropaganda’ law, which would have made it illegal to discuss homosexuality in public and in the media – the bill was widely condemned by human rights groups and eventually dropped in 2015. This opposition has been reflected in public opinion: in a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center only 14% of respondents said society should accept homosexuality, while 69% of respondents said it should not. Human Rights Watch reported “a sharp increase in attacks against LGBT, anti-corruption, and women’s rights activists” as recently as the first half of 2021.
Despite this, some progress in equality and recognition is apparent. In 2015, the Ukrainian Parliament passed an employment anti-discrimination law covering sexual orientation and gender identity as part of a package of laws that the country was required to approve for the European Union to consider visa-free travel for Ukrainians. Pride marches have also been held regularly in Ukraine since 2015, though many of these have been marked by minor clashes and aggressive behaviour from far-right homophobic counter-protesters. More recently, a survey conducted in May 2022 by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that acceptance of LGBTIQ+ people in Ukraine has ‘dramatically improved’ compared to results from a similar survey in 2016, with 63.7% of respondents agreeing that LGBTIQ+ people should have equal rights and only 25.9% disagreeing.
Role of LGBTIQ+ rights in Russia’s war in Ukraine
Opposition to LGBTIQ+ rights has been explicitly mobilised in the context of Russia’s ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine, launched on 24 February 2022 and referred to by the Kremlin as a ‘special military operation’. In a speech on 24 February which announced the launch of the assault on Ukraine, President Putin dedicated a whole paragraph to what he perceives as the undermining of ‘traditional values’ by the West. He claimed that the West “sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within”, and identified Western “attitudes” as “directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature”. This placed the question of values and a supposed need to defend against a corrupting Western influence as a central justification for the war.
This idea was later echoed by other supporters of the war known to be close to the Kremlin. In a sermon at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow on 6 March 2022, Patriarch Kirill – the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and a key ally of the regime – invoked the supposed international obligation to hold LGBTIQ+ pride parades as a reason for the war against Ukraine. He claimed that the holding of pride parades functions a “test of loyalty” to the Western world, which he described as a world of “excessive consumption” and “illusory freedom”. As a “requirement for membership in the club of powerful countries”, he went on to say, this amounts to “forcible imposition of a sin condemned by divine law”. In this framing, the war in Ukraine becomes an existential or “metaphysical struggle” against corrupting foreign influences, which is essential for the continued existence of Russia as a country with ‘traditional Christian values’.
By invoking traditional values and the supposed ‘threat’ of homosexuality as justification for the war, these assertions followed a familiar script established in the Russian political imaginary. Specifically, they drew simultaneously on both state-sanctioned political homophobia – the deployment of homophobia in rhetoric and policy – and on the idea of Ukraine as a de-masculinised, subservient vassal state, lacking in agency and therefore vulnerable to aggressive Western influence which must be thwarted lest it encroach further on Russia’s perceived sphere of influence – or on even the motherland itself. In the process, political homophobia is elevated from a supporting pillar of Russian nationalism to encompass explicit justification for a brutal war of aggression against a sovereign country.
The privileging of masculinity politics, the endorsement of a hypermasculine system of national values since the early 2000s and the promotion of ‘traditional values’ have laid the ideological groundwork required for this rhetoric to gain traction among Russian domestic audiences today. Indeed, tropes which draw on the privileging of traits established by masculinity politics have been used to drum up public support for Russian military action against Ukraine since 2014. The apparent espousal of Russian society when it comes to masculine supremacy and the denigration of homosexuality has functioned as a positive feedback loop, furthering support for behaviour and rhetoric that compounds these traits in Russian political leaders. Military aggression itself also feeds into the hyper-masculine strongman rhetoric espoused by Putin, which enabled the Kremlin to guarantee a measure of public approval within Russia for the full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.
In 2022 the Russian media has tapped into this doctrine with the use of propaganda which plays on masculine supremacy and the denigration of homosexuality, notably the symbolic de-masculinisation of Ukraine. Scholar Emil Edenborg highlights the use of sexual and gendered metaphors deployed by various actors on social media and online commentary in the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and depicting Russia-West relations more widely. These have included comparisons between Ukraine and a prostitute selling herself to Western leaders, or images depicting President Putin sexually dominating NATO or a male Western leader. Both scenarios draw on feminising tropes work to strip Ukraine of agency and the capacity of self-determination, demonstrating the ideological underpinnings which sustain Russia’s war of aggression.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has framed the defence of Ukraine as a fight for democracy, human rights, freedom and other liberal Western values. This is evident not least in the numerous impassioned speeches he made in the first few months of the war, carefully tailored for delivery to parliaments of various Western countries and designed to muster international support for Ukraine’s response to Russia’s war. Many commentators have similarly presented the war as a contest between democratic values and authoritarian systems of governance, or an opportunity to revitalise democracy on an international level. Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk has described how the war has accelerated Ukraine’s progress as a democracy, highlighting its differences from Russia and becoming “more democratic, more decentralized, [and] more liberal” in response to Putin’s invasion. Ukraine’s status as a candidate for European Union membership is also likely to set it on a path towards increased tolerance and more protections for minority groups.
Within this context, Ukraine’s nationwide struggle to preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity has given a renewed impetus to the domestic struggle for LGBTIQ+ rights. LGBTIQ+ people serving in the military lack protections afforded to cisgender and heterosexual recruits, such as the automatic right to visit a hospitalised partner or to claim the body of a partner killed in war – both highly tangible realities currently faced by same-sex couples. The prospect of Ukraine being annexed by Russia, where LGBTIQ+ people would see their situation deteriorate even further, has added to the sense of urgency. At the same time, the war has united Ukrainians from all sectors of society, generating unlikely alliances for the LGBTIQ+ community and fostering greater acceptance of LGBTIQ+ soldiers and volunteers risking their lives for Ukraine.
In mid-July 2022, a petition calling for same-sex marriage to be legalised in Ukraine gained 28,000 signatures, enough for the President to consider the proposal. In response, Zelensky suggested civil partnerships as a potential stop-gap solution, given that changes to the Ukrainian constitution are impossible during wartime (and require a two-thirds vote by Parliament). Zelensky acknowledged that “in the modern world, the level of democracy in a society is measured, among other things, by the state policy aimed at ensuring equal rights for all citizens.” Indeed, LGBTIQ+ rights advocates have expressed optimism that the war will create opportunities to build broader support among Ukrainians for equal rights in a more inclusive democracy. However, the war is unlikely to be a panacea for the fulfilment of LGBTIQ+ rights, not least due to continued resistance from far-right groups and the Orthodox Church. The increased societal acceptance of LGBTIQ+ people precipitated under the ‘state of exception’ installed in the context of Russia’s war may also turn out to be ephemeral. Ultimately, the inclusive democracy to which Ukraine aspires will require far-reaching transformations in laws, institutions and social norms to guarantee the full inclusion of LGBTIQ+ people in Ukraine.
This article has explored the rise of masculinity politics and the deployment of political homophobia as key trends in post-Soviet Russian domestic and foreign policy, and examined how LGBTIQ+ rights have been contested and securitised in the context of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. In doing so, it has highlighted the value of applying a gender and sexuality lens to Russia-Ukraine relations. As we have seen, such a perspective is relevant both as a geopolitical framework for understanding the asymmetric power relations between the two countries and as a concrete object of values-based conflict. This analysis points to how issues of gender and sexuality are often at the heart of national security and nation-building.
The construction of a national identity founded on masculine supremacy, political homophobia and ‘traditional values’ has ensured that LGBTIQ+ Russians have been both excluded from the project of Russian nationalism and designated as foreign threats within the nation. This discourse has also been consolidated against an external dimension, in opposition to the so-called deviant Western ‘Other’. These two dynamics come together in the case of Ukraine, whose position in the post-Soviet Russian political imaginary and orientation towards the West have led to it being designated as both ‘foreign’ within the post-Soviet Russian imperial project and as posing a threat to the integrity of Russia’s perceived ‘sphere of interests’. In response, Russia has subjected Ukraine to a process of de-masculinisation and constructed a relationship of sexual and political dominance using state discourse, media and propaganda. Russia’s war in Ukraine, then – particularly when considering that the preservation of ‘traditional values’ and a radical rejection of tolerance and diversity have been explicitly offered by Russian authority figures as justification for the war – represents a critical escalation in Russia’s struggle to preserve its cultural and political sway and retain its self-designated position as the custodian of ‘traditional Christian values’ on the international scene.
This comes in the context of rising homophobia and transphobia in Russia, measured in both public opinion and the incidence of violence against member of the country’s LGBTIQ+ community. In contrast, despite (or perhaps because of) the war, Ukraine is seeing a tentative shift towards greater acceptance of LGBTIQ+ rights and potentially even marriage equality. The path towards EU membership is synonymous with the embrace of democratic values, human rights and freedom – although the extent to which Ukraine is able to achieve these goals hangs in the balance as Russia’s brutal war of aggression enters its eighth month. For the LGBTIQ+ people caught in the literal and metaphorical crossfire of the war, it is clear that only a Ukrainian victory and an absolute Russian defeat is capable of offering hope for true queer emancipation.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are personal to the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organisation, or employer.