Russia has always had a thing for hyper-masculinity
In the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ruthless push into Ukraine is often understood in the simple terms of reductionist history: just another Russian strongman dreaming of expanding empire.
But the images of thousands of peaceful protesters across Russia, and indeed the rest of Eastern and Central Europe, should surely put an end to the damaging myth of the autocratic-loving Slav.
To better understand Putin’s campaign, one must come to grips with his (and, yes, to a large extent, Russia’s) idea of manhood, his consistent camera-ready masculinity, and its connection to gendered narratives. of Russia on the past.
The pattern of aggressive, masculine and autocratic Russian rulers dates back to the rise of the Romanov dynasty in 1613, at the very beginning of the Russian imperial era of the tsars.
In the early 19th century, Tsar Nicholas I created an autocratic, administrative notion of manhood through his public educational institutions that echoed ideals also held in the West – from strength to courage to might. But there was a crucial difference: the Russian state instilled and enforced these values.
Although much changed in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the state enforcement of masculinity remained constant. Some argue that Putin’s hypermasculinity may well be linked to pre-Soviet notions of powerful masculinity, as well as his obvious embrace of World War II imagery that more than nods to the Stalinist, as Russian and Soviet flags share space on the streets of Moscow. Putin’s hyper-masculine persona is also undoubtedly – and perhaps more toxic – a reaction to everyday Soviet realities, where men rarely lived up to official expectations, leading to a common theme of “failure”. manhood” in the 1950s and 1960s.
These Soviet, post-war, state-generated discussions of gender emphasized fatherhood – a fatherhood that few men experienced, as historian Amy Randall has argued. This failure to create state-mandated gender personalities has led generations of men to bear the burden of their own failed manhood. They were emasculated by women, who eventually did it all.
Thus, Putin seems to be both a product of his hyper-adherence to Stalinist World War II imagery and power and a reaction to failed and emasculated post-war narratives. It’s a deadly combination because, by that logic, he now has to prove himself and feels justified by history to do so.
The infamous images from 2009 of Putin shirtless on horseback in Siberia or holding a Kalashnikov for the camera or his legendary KGB days are both familiar and alien when we think of his recent assault. And again in 2017, the Washington Post published an article with updated images of the ultra-masculine Putin.
Putin’s hyper-masculinity could wane as Ukrainians resist, Europeans send in weapons and resources, and Russians are dragged to jail for their defiance at home. You could say that Putin’s entire campaign is a last-ditch effort to affirm a declining hyper-masculinity that has been cut to the knees, year after year, protest after protest – Pussy Riots, which continue to speak out – beyond . Founded in 2011, Pussy Riot began antagonizing Putin and the Orthodox Church in 2012, when they appeared in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior to perform a punk prayer full of obscenities.
Today, as Putin’s hyper-masculinity is thwarted and exposed, that of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is touted and celebrated around the world. Putin now faces the court of public opinion against Zelenskyy, the 44-year-old family man who has been dubbed “the hero we need”. Images permeate his beautiful, happy young family or his national pride and manly determination to stay. They inspired not only the citizens of Ukraine to fight back heroically – as when the citizens of Leningrad held off the Nazis for almost 900 days – but also the peoples of Russia and the European Union, the United States, Mexico and by the way.
Zelenskyy, addressing his Russian audience in his native language, urged them to lay down their arms and think about who they were fighting. When the United States offered the evacuation, Zelenskyy reportedly replied, “I need ammunition, not a round.”
It is, in one sense, a battle between two competing masculinities: the mighty, shirtless Putin, whose hyper-masculine strength is challenged, and the kind, gentle yet still strong protector, Zelenskyy. Putin’s hyper-masculine impulses continue to drive him; therefore, he is notoriously indignant that he will be cornered.
By examining the long history of masculinity among Russian leaders, we can be warned of Putin’s relentless determination to push this war forward. It’s kind of a fragile masculinity.
Rebecca Friedman is founding director of the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab and associate professor of history at Florida International University. She is an expert in the cultural and gender history of modern Russia and the Soviet Union and is the author of the first monograph in English on Russian masculinity. His latest book, “Modernity, domesticity and temporality: time at home”, explores life at home in 20th century Russia.