Petr Kratochvíl on Russia’s targeting of sexual diversity and gender in its war rhetoric

Petr Kratochvíl

Russia’s war on Ukraine is novel in that it is also a fight against gender and sexual equalities. That is the central thesis of a recent paper by Petr Kratochvíl and Míla O’Sullivan from Prague’s Institute of International Relations, who say that Russia is presenting itself, at home and abroad, as a defender of “traditional values” against the "decadent" West. I discussed this whole area, including the rhetoric Moscow is targeting at Czechia, with Kratochvíl at our Prague studio.

What role are ideas about gender playing in the way that Russia is conducting, or presenting, its war on Ukraine?

“That was in fact the starting point of our research. We were puzzled and amazed by the insistence of Russian leaders, policy makers, even spokespersons of ministries, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on mentioning gender very often, and especially when speaking about the difference between Russia and the West in general.

Patriarch Kirill with Vladimir Putin | Photo: ČT24

“That started long before the war. But then just after the invasion it became a flood. So obviously that seemed to be one of the central justifications for the war.

“Perhaps you remember when [Russian Orthodox Church head] Patriarch Kirill started talking about the invasion he said that that the litmus test by which we can tell on which side each any country stands, good or evil, is whether it allows Gay Prides.

“Questions around sexuality, gender relations, gender fluidity seem central for Russia, in terms of justification of the war.”

“It’s not only gender – men and women – but the whole cluster of surrounding questions around sexuality, gender relations, gender fluidity – all these questions seem absolutely central for Russia, in terms of justification of the war.”

Some listeners or readers may immediately be thinking, But Ukraine was not known as some bastion of liberty and rights for sexual minorities.

“That’s true – and that makes it even more fascinating. You might argue that this argument is as nonsensical as arguing that there is a Nazi junta ruling in Kyiv. But still it works. In the Russian space it works.

“What is interesting is that doesn’t only work internally. So you can see that President Putin or Foreign Minister Lavrov do not only employ this language when speaking to the domestic audience, but also internationally.

“There is a strategy of garnering support from countries around the world which somehow are unhappy with the liberal hegemony.”

“And our argument in our study is that this is also intentional. That there is a strategy of garnering support from some, or quite a few, countries around the world which somehow are unhappy with the liberal hegemony.

“And speaking negatively or critically about gender equality and LGBT rights is a strategy of getting that support.”

Is the fact that Russia presents itself as a defender of “traditional values” and “natural gender identities” possibly a reason why Russia evidently has support in, for example, some right-wing circles in America?

“Absolutely, and not only there. It’s obviously in the United States, but it’s also in many radical far-right or populist parties across Europe.

“But importantly that is only one part of the strategy. What we see is that it’s also financial connections. Many have been uncovered, such as the relations to the National Front in France, previously.

“Interestingly, even in countries that are, you might say, anti-Russian or anti-Putin, such as Poland, you see some connections there between these types of organisations.

“So obviously there is a well-thought out strategy. There is not only rhetoric – there are also financial and political connections beneath that.”

So it’s basically part of their overall information war against the West, against us?

Lady soldier | Illustrative photo: ČT24

“Exactly. But I would even argue that it’s even more than that, because it’s really the central element in the war. And again, you can see it in all the phases, even the way that female soldiers are treated, or how the news is presented on Russian TV: Female refugees from Ukraine become ‘women’ again only after coming to Russia, so they can go to a hairdresser and then there is a report about the women saying how happy they are, that they feel ‘womanly’ again.

“Then you have the comparison with the captured Ukrainian female soldiers, whose hair is cut off, or cut short.

“So you have this kind of strategy that permeates the whole not only justification but whole practice of war.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zakharova speaks a lot about trans people and what she calls “confused gender order” in the West. She says the West is perverse, and so on. Is this the aim of the Kremlin, to target trans rights and trans issues in particular? Because obviously that’s a very divisive and explosive issue – if not the most explosive issue – in the West at present.

“Exactly. I think that is also part of the strategy. I don’t want to overplay the strategy, because there are some elements that are random and that are chosen randomly.

“But still I think it’s a strategy that domestically, when speaking to the Russian audience, it’s more about gay rights, because that is a visible issue that everybody understands in Russia.

“In many Western countries attacking gays doesn’t really work that well any more, so the focus then shifts to trans people and their rights.”

“Whereas in many Western countries attacking gays doesn’t really work that well any more, so the focus then shifts to trans people and their rights.

“But also what is quite interesting is that traditionally, if you look at other wars… because traditionally this gender dimension has been present in all wars – in Yugoslavia, in civil wars in Africa – and typically you present yourself as the ‘manly’ side, and the other one is weak, emotional, crying: ‘womanly’.

“But here they changed the strategy, saying that both ‘natural’ women and men are on the Russian side, and the West is none of that. It’s somewhere in-between, it’s decadent – you cannot even tell who people are any more.”

And you say in the paper that Putin himself doesn’t speak about, for example, LGBT people. Instead he talks more broadly about defending traditional values that we have had for a millennium, or whatever.

“Yes. What is also interesting, and what we did in the study, because it’s not only about the language, rhetoric, but also the images that you can see on TV – and that I think is the strategy.

Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova | Photo: Presidential Executive Office of Russia,  CC BY 4.0 DEED

“Typically Putin is surrounded by young, beautiful women and then speaks as the leader of the nation. So this gender hierarchy doesn’t even have to be mentioned, because we can see it – that the leader always of course, naturally, has to be male, and then women listen.”

Some of the details in the paper are fascinating. For example you say that in Russia’s Victory Parade every year the male soldiers look stern and very masculine, while the female soldiers, of whom there are a lot fewer, are seen smiling. It seems extremely stage-managed?

“Yes, absolutely. They remind me sometimes of I think it’s Terminator 4, the movie, where you have this female robot with this plastered-on smile.

“And even when they are described by the parade announcer there is a clear distinction. They always say, And these battalions, because they are female battalions, will not be fighting, they will be in support – psychological support or translators, something like that – so even the battlefield itself is seen as only for males.”

What about gender in Ukraine? Has the war impacted the rights of women or the position of women and sexual minorities in Ukraine itself?

“Absolutely. Which is quite fascinating, because as you rightly pointed out, if we had looked at the sociological data before the war, you would see that the Ukrainian and Russian societies were not that different in terms of attitude to gender emancipation or LGBT rights. That would be almost the same; slightly more progressive in Ukraine, but only a slight difference.

“But as a consequence of the war – and again let’s be reminded that we already talking about the war since 2014, so it has been quite some time already – the society has been shifting, quite dramatically.

“The Istanbul Convention, which the Czech Republic is still struggling with politically, has been ratified by Ukraine.”

“I already mentioned the Gay Pride. The Istanbul Convention, which the Czech Republic is still struggling with politically, has been ratified by Ukraine.

“Women serve in the army much more frequently than before, and much more frequently than in Russia.

“So there are a number of changes. But obviously what happens after the war is the big question, because typically wars have rather a negative effect on women’s rights.”

You also say in your paper that Ukraine has introduced, or had already introduced, some sexual and gender equalities as part of its Association Agreement with the EU – and to Russia that simply proved that Ukraine was manipulated by the West.

“Yes. I cannot add to anything to that. Because anything Ukraine does in line with what the European Union, or the West in general, sees as progressive will be interpreted in this way.

“And the Association Agreements, not only with Ukraine but also with other countries, such as Armenia, contain such anti-discrimination clauses. So that is happening not only in Ukraine, it’s happening everywhere where the Association Agreements exist.

“But you are right – this is very much used by Russian propaganda.”

Sadly it seems to me that the Russians are very good at this stuff. For many years this kind of information war in all kinds of ways, and all kinds of areas, is working.

Source: Jernej Furman,  Flickr,  CC BY 2.0

“It is to some extent working. At the same time it is kind of a weak strategy, or substitute strategy.

“Because obviously what Russia would want people in the West to believe is that their way of modernization, what some scholars call authoritarian modernization, is a more attractive model than the Western one.

“And obviously if you ask people what they consider attractive they will start with the economy, and how well people live somewhere. There Russia has failed utterly. Nobody really in the West would want to move to Russia.

“So this is a kind of substitute strategy that, you are right, works well. But in terms of convincing people that Russia, or the Russian model of social development, is something that we should emulate in the West, I think on that account they are not successful.”

No, but they are, I would say, successfully undermining us. If you look at for example Brexit, Trump – this is broader now than what we began speaking about – they are achieving things from their perspective.

“That’s true. Even though I would rather say that, again, this agenda has been politically used by Russia, or by Orban in Hungary, but it was not invented by Russia.

“So again I would say it’s more pragmatic, looking at what the points of contention in Western societies are, such as transgender rights, and then using that in the official rhetoric.

“So you are right in the sense of Russia having this negative influence, but I think the real problem is the what you might call resilience of Western societies themselves.

“And Russia plays a negative role, obviously, but I don’t think it’s the root cause of these problems.”

How much do you think Russia is negatively affecting Czechia, in terms of the society and societal views?

“I would say that it’s a bit more difficult for Russia than elsewhere, because typically the channels lead through conservative religious organisations, and obviously in Czechia that’s more difficult. But there are connections.

“The strategy is somewhat different, because you have to translate, or secularise, the language, so not to speak about the Bible or traditional Christian values, just traditional values.

“So it’s more difficult. But it works, and it works surprisingly well. There are some unholy alliances, you might call them, with some religious actors, or conservative actors, in Czech society who would vehemently reject that claim.

“But if you look at the language they use, the arguments they use – and again you can even find the financial connections – it’s working here as well.”

Also the last president of this country said he was physically disgusted by trans people, and it was very noticeable that he chose trans people specifically to attack.

“Exactly. I think in that sense Czech society kind of belongs to the Western societies, where the focus moves away from gay people to trans people, obviously for these reasons – because they are an easier target and that’s the crux of the culture wars at the moment.”

Author: Ian Willoughby
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