By Leandra Bias

This essay was originally published in German on 6 June 2022 in the Swiss magazine Republik. I thank the LSE Engenderings collective for accepting to publish an English translation and for their editor Oksana Potapova’s support in editing it.

Vladimir Putin said it all himself, we just have to listen carefully. When the Russian president tried to legitimize the war against Ukraine, he said: “The West is trying to destroy our traditional values and impose its pseudo-values on us, which are supposed to eat us, our people, from the inside; all these ideas that it is already aggressively imposing in its own realm and that lead directly to decay and degeneration, because they contradict human nature. It will not come to that; nobody has ever succeeded in that. Nor will they succeed now.” (Link to the original speech in Russian).

“Traditional values” that get destroyed by Western “pseudo-values”: Open antifeminism has been an important part of the Russian political system for many years. The degradation and deprivation of the rights of women and LGBTIQ+ people do not happen accidentally but are inherent to Putinism. As a tool, antifeminism fulfils several functions: internally, it justifies authoritarianism and repression, externally, it legitimises aggression, and creates common terrain with right-wing movements.

If we really want to defend democracies, this insight is important. Otherwise, we risk drawing the wrong conclusions from this war against Ukraine. Military means alone will not suffice if we want to overcome this confrontation. Serious investment in human rights and gender justice is needed.

Imperialism and “foreign values”

In Russia, the idea of protecting “traditional values” has gained particular traction since Putin’s second term in 2004 OR (2004-2008). In his now infamous speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin referred to the danger of one country wanting to impose its economic, political and cultural policies on others – meaning the United States at the time. He thus officially equated imperialism and “foreign values.”. Since then, the claim that supposedly Western values are incompatible with Russian “traditional values” has become state policy.

Especially “gender ideology” is portrayed as a particularly cunning Western ruse, aimed to make Russia implode via an internal “fifth column” – that is with the help of Russian feminists. A few months before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin said at the Valdai Club – the most important foreign policy forum in Russia – that the West had lost the basics for progress because it now even questioned such basic “things as mom and dad”. Russia must counter this with a healthy conservatism, he said.

Asked what exactly that entailed, he left no doubt: “Life is of absolute value. In my opinion, the same applies to family as a value, because what can be more important than procreation? […]You see, adoption is also a good and important thing, but to adopt a child someone has to give birth to that child. This is the second universal value that cannot be contested.” So the pillars of healthy conservatism are: the nuclear family, the childbearing women and hence restriction to reproductive rights. He could as well have defined patriarchy.

That’s why, feminists in the country are accused of planning an ambush under instructions from the West. Putin alluded to this when he listed the internal enemies in his speech shortly after the invasion. He called those who insisted on their “gender freedoms” traitors and scum that would be spat out “like a midge”. LGBTIQ+ equality and same-sex marriage play a special role in this enemy imaginary. The term “Gayropa” became popular instead of “Evropa” when Putin came to power for the third time in 2012. At that time, the legalization of same sex marriage in France was imminent. The media propagated the idea that Russian children would soon be adopted by gay couples – sweepingly disparaged as paedophiles – in Europe.

At the same time, the term “homocracy” caught on among Russian Internet users and became emblematic of the West’s real desire not to promote democracy but to impose its perverted values. Even the Russian Security Council, the highest official body, seriously discussed the need for a strategy of moral defence in the face of “Western homosexual aggression”[1].

Public bashing of “gender ideology” serves several purposes at once. It serves to justify authoritarianism and repression inside the country; it legitimises aggression as part of foreign policy; and, finally, it creates common terrain with right-wing movements.

Co-opting neo-imperialism to justify authoritarianism  

First, it serves as an anti-democratic shortcut. In the Kremlin’s logic, if “gender ideology” is just an instrument of Western domination over Russia, then the same is true for the whole idea of democratization. In fact, Putin himself repeatedly makes that link between the “imposition” of “gender ideology” and the “neocolonial” nature of the liberal democratic project. Thus, by devaluing feminism, he sweeps away democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in one stroke, as they now stand for Western neo-imperialism, which Russia heroically opposes. In this way, the regime presents itself as the authority that exposes the West as imperialist and hypocritical.

Since “gender ideology” is a hostile strategy, by implication, all those within Russia who advocate for gender justice – and thus democracy – become part of the fifth column that seeks to bring about the country’s demise. As such, anti-feminism provides the necessary pretext to repress undesirable elements within the country.

In fact, after years of anti-feminist policies, it was almost impossible to pursue feminism in any way, scientific or activist, in Russia already before February 2022. “Gay propaganda” has been prohibited by law in Russia since 2012 and has just recently been extended via amendments to several existing laws to not only forbid the promotion of “non-traditional sexual values among minors” but everywhere, including in the media, film and advertising. In 2017, anti-feminism was used to attack the Centre for Gender Studies at the independent European University in St. Petersburg because it forced students to study “disgusting” topics. Subsequently, the university lost its teaching license for over two years.

The oldest centre for gender studies in Moscow also fell victim to the law against “foreign agents.” Adopted in 2012, the law forced all organizations that were “politically active” and received financial support from abroad to register as “foreign agents.” The Moscow Centre had an association with the Russian Academy of Sciences since its inception in late Soviet times. But no one wanted to be associated with a potential “foreign agent” anymore, and so it closed its doors.

In 2017, a first small advance in the fight against domestic violence was reversed. Russia is next to Belarus the only post-Soviet country without a domestic violence law. Two attempts at legislation failed in 2012 and 2014. In July 2016, a new law distinguished violence “between persons close to each other” from other violent offenses for the first time in Russia’s history. Domestic violence was thus at least recognized as a separate offense and regulated in the Criminal Code, while other first-time cases of simple assault continued to be considered mere administrative offenses.

The success, based on almost thirty years of feminist campaigning, did not last long. Derided as a “slap bill” sponsored by the Western feminist lobby that contradicted “Russian values,” it was scrapped in early 2017, after a mere six months. What circulated in the West under the headline “decriminalization of domestic violence” was tragically nothing new. The old law came back. According to it, hitting a partner is punished in the same way as infringing parking rules.

In addition, there are constant efforts to make access to abortion more difficult. Even the smallest initiative, such as a Youtube video informing about the right to abortion, can end with an interrogation by the counter-extremism unit of the intelligence service on the grounds that it amounts to a call for mass murder.

The scapegoat image of Western “gender ideology” serves to invalidate the moral superiority of Western democracies – and thus simultaneously legitimize the regime and internal repression. At the same time, it also serves to reinterpret an aggressive foreign policy as a purely defensive strike.

Protest sign reading "Stop Putin"

Image credit: photo by ev on Unsplash

“We are the real victims”: justifying aggressive foreign policy

 When “traditional values” are under attack, all means to defend them are sacred. Not only the persecution of feminism in the country, but also an invasion of a neighbouring country. Thus, Russia portrays Ukraine not only as a nation permeated by Nazis and lacking independence, but also, as a pawn of the degenerated West. And the spill over of these perverted values becomes tantamount to NATO expansion.

Anti-feminism thus helps to assert Russia’s victim status and supports the whitewashing of its aggressive foreign policy. Putin used this strategy not only on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine, but again on Victory Day,  May 9, 2022. The war of aggression was declared to be pre-emptive, triggered by a “morally degraded” West intent on “cancelling millennia-old values.” That is why the assault was the only right thing to do for a sovereign country like Russia, which will never give up its own “traditional values” and “ancestral customs.”

Anyone who listened closely before knows that this argument had been used against Ukraine since the Maidan. When protests erupted in the fall of 2013 because the corrupt and increasingly authoritarian President Yanukovych, under pressure from Russia, withdrew from signing the association agreement with the EU at the last minute, Russian television warned of an impending “homodictatorship”[2]. Ten days before Russia annexed Crimea, none other than Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said that the “society was a living being” that needed to be protected from Europe’s hedonistic “refusal of traditional values.”

According to this narrative, we were not dealing with a legitimate democratic movement on Ukraine’s Maidan, nor with illegal Russian troops in annexed Crimea. Rather, Ukraine was portrayed as the victim of Western perversion. Moreover, if this threat would not be pre-emptively nipped in the bud, Russia too would soon face penetration and disintegration. A year after the annexation of Crimea, the biker gang Night Wolves, which functions as both a paramilitary and propaganda arm of the Putin regime, proudly declared: “In Crimea we resisted for the first time: against global Satanism, the growing barbarism of Western Europe, against the destruction of traditional values, against American democracy.”

Democracy is mentioned in the same breath as gender ideology. This turns the annexation of Crimea, the camouflaged invasion in eastern Ukraine, or, as today, a full-on war of aggression into virtuous, even innocent, defence against the proclaimed gender ideology. That’s why Joanne K. Rowling experienced a rude awakening when Putin suddenly mentioned her in a post-invasion speech as a blatant example of a “victim” of Western cancel culture. The author of the Harry Potter books takes an openly transphobic stance on sex and gender issues. Putin deliberately uses right-wing rhetoric which inverts power relations and portrays the advocacy of equality as oppressive supremacy. This is exactly what the Russian embassy in France did when it posted a cartoon on Twitter shortly after the invasion of Ukraine with the headline “Europe 2022”: in it cancel culture was portrayed as an equal danger along with NATO expansion.

Aggression is therefore a strategy of self-protection in Russia’s culture war against the West, where Ukraine happens to be the battlefield. With its rhetoric against the allegedly perverted, effeminate West, Putinism is not only asserting its own immediate interests. It is also dog whistling to the international right, which fantasises about Russia as a space where natural order still prevails.

That is why it is not enough to take military action against Russia. To strengthen democracies, we must also confront anti-feminist movements everywhere.

The last true man standing: The Kremlin as the beacon of Christian civilization

What’s true on the playground also goes for world politics: States are still imagined as male entities in competition with each other where the strongest prevails. With its anti-feminism, Russia is staging itself as the last “real man” standing. The Kremlin sees itself as the last bulwark of Western Christian civilization in its crusade against gender ideology; a mission the degenerate West, and especially its effeminate male citizens, can no longer fulfil.

This strikes a chord. Especially in times of war, when the re-traditionalization of gender roles is virulent. The spectrum of resonance is broad. Putin’s narrative echoes with the average commentator who thinks that feminism has gone too far and ripped men of the necessary toughness for this world or with the regular debates about gender-inclusive language and toilets. It speaks to a large population that somehow adheres to the idea of wokeness having gone too far, ripping them of their freedom of speech. But it also resonates with right-wing circles which immediately feated Putin’s idea of a self-purge from cancel culture. This is why the anti-feminist trope is not a benign accessory in Russian official rhetoric, but a strategic and dangerous tool.

Moreover, the Russian regime is not the only one to use anti-feminism to justify anti-democratic policies. Poland, for example, has virtually eradicated the right to abortion but it is Poland that has become Ukraine’s protective power, being one of its most vocal allies in the EU. In the US, too, one of the most important democracies, the right to abortion was reversed when the Roe vs Wade was overturned in June 2022.

Poland, along with Turkey, is also at the forefront of the fight against the Istanbul Convention. This Council of Europe convention “on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence” is a feminist milestone because it obliges the signatories for the first time to take comprehensive measures for the prevention of violence and links prevention with the promotion of gender equality. However, both countries take issue with the convention’s definion of gender roles as socially constructed rather than naturally given.

Other examples would be Hungary with its ban on gender studies, but also France, where gender studies as well as postcolonial studies are increasingly condemned as ideologies that have no place in universities. None of this is happening by accident. Political science has long recognized that gender equality and democracy go hand in hand. It is now also slowly realizing that gender equality is a precondition for democratisation processes.

Autocrats are not just misogynists by chance. They have a strategic interest in anti-feminist politics: it is an effective way to undermine democracy. That’s why there is an anti-gender network that uses international donations to undo or prevent further gender equality rights. Since 2008 alone, more than $700 million has been invested in Europe, in part to provide financial support to doctors who refuse abortions on grounds of conscience during trials. $180 millions can be traced back to Russia, and it is – as a report of the EU Parliament stated – very likely only the tip of the iceberg.

This makes Russia the second most important donor of the so-called anti-gender campaigns, after the US. Russia embarked on this track relatively suddenly in 2013 and soon overtook the US Christian fundamentalists in terms of money. The report notes that two oligarchs, Vladimir Yakunin and Konstantin Malofeyev, are among the main financial sources. Underneath the iceberg is an increasingly international network. And even if the lion’s share of the money is pumped into Europe, Europe is by no means simply a passive victim, but now has its own anti-gender actors.

The entire international network comes together selectively, for example at the World Congress of Families, and is very effective because it creates broad alliances from religious fundamentalists to right-wing extremists and strategically uses the money across borders[3].

Fashioning itself as the last fortress of Christian Western values helps creating broad resonance in democratic countries. This is strategically clever for autocrats like Putin because hindering gender equality is the best guarantee to prevent democratisation. But it also means that the issue of anti-feminism is not exclusively Russian.

“Democracy without women is not democracy”: a case for gender equality

 Anti-feminist rhetoric and policies are at the heart of Putinism and the right-wing movements that seek a Russian-style regime in their countries, as well as their transnational network. That is why it is clear that this conflict cannot be won with militarization alone. It equally needs serious investments in strengthening human rights and gender justice. Precisely the things for which resources will be even more lacking due to militarization. Barely 1 percent of funding from institutional donors reaches feminist organizations. Over 500 billions of profits in the arms industry (and the trend has been rising for years) are set against small budgets for peacebuilding. We have to keep these proportions in mind if we want to tackle the problem at its roots.

Shortly before the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the first independent feminist conference in the Soviet Union took place in Dubna. From it, women drew up a position paper entitled: “Democracy without women is no democracy!”

They were right already then.

Leandra Bias is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Bern and research affiliate with ZOiS – Centre for East European and international Studies in Berlin. At the nexus of political science and gender studies, she studies authoritarianism, anti-gender politics, foreign policy and feminist resistance. Her current three-year research project looks at the rise and use of the narrative of defending “traditional values” to justify aggression in Russian foreign policy and how feminist foreign policy can respond to this strategy. Leandra Bias holds a DPhil in Politics and MPhil in Russia and East European Studies from the University of Oxford. Her work was awarded by the Swiss Association for Gender Studies with an honorable mention for best thesis 2019-2021 and she holds the Young Scholar 2022 Award by the Walter Benjamin Kolleg.

My handles are:
– Twitter @Openly_Biased
– Instagram @actual.dr.bias
– Facebook and LinkedIn my full name Leandra Bias

[1] NEWSRU. 2013 (13. September). Российский МИД Попенял Западу на ‘Агрессивное’ Продвижение Гомосексуализма по Миру [The Russian Foreign Ministry alleges the West of “aggressive” promotion of Homosexuality around the World]. (last accessed 18.09.20).

RYABOVA, Tatyana & RYABOV, O. 2013 “Гейропа»: Гендерное Измерение Образа Европы в Практиках Политической Мобилизации [‘Gayropa’: The Gender Dimension of Imagining Europe in the Practices of Political Mobilization]”. Zhenshchina v rossiyskom obshchestve, (3), 31-39.

RADIO ECHO MOSCOW. 2013 (6. February). Британская Палата общин подавляющим Большинством Поддержала во втором Чтении Правительственный Законопроект о Введении Института Однополых Браков для Англии и Уэльса [The British House of Commons Overwhelmingly Supported the Second Reading of the Government Bill on the Introduction of Samesex Marriage for England and Wales]. – comments (last accessed 18.09.20).

[2] Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom, p.132 or “‘Ya ne gei!’: Khakery vzlomali sotsseti Klichko posle ego prizyva vyiti na Maidan”, NTV, Nov. 22, 2013.