Last month, the Russian Ministry of Culture proposed a law to promote strong families and counter any activities — including those of the U.S. and its allies — that threaten the country’s traditional values.
Does this mean that President Vladimir Putin has aligned himself with Russia’s ultraconservative elites? Not necessarily, contends political science professor Valerie Sperling, in an analysis published in The Washington Post.
Sperling, whose research focuses on the intersection of Russian politics and gender studies, co-authored “Is Putin lining up with ultraconservatives? We’re not so sure,” which reveals that the Russian president’s policies and language about gender and sexuality tell a more complex story: that leaders use norms about gender and sexuality to legitimize their regimes, and gender has played a particularly important role in Russian political ideologies.
In speeches in the early 2000s, Putin included progressive remarks about gender and the role of women in Russian society — and even about the country embracing human rights and women’s emancipation. But after a controversial return to the presidency in 2011, his speeches echoed old Soviet approaches to gender, including a program that rewarded women for having more than one child. More recently, Putin has conflated homosexuality with pedophilia, supported the repeal of a law criminalizing domestic violence, and expressed blatantly transphobic views, according to the authors.
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But Putin could just be showing that he knows how to manage the different groups of elites in his country, not that he has decided to favor one over the others. “Two decades of evidence suggests that Putin knows his strength lies in his appeal to the broad middle and his ability to manage elites across the spectrum,” the authors write. “However pointedly he may signal to conservatives, he still has to manage many different elites and mobilize the appearance of mass support to retain his power.”
Sperling’s co-authors are Janet Elise Johnson, professor of political science at CUNY Brooklyn College; Alexandra Novitskaya, a Ph.D. candidate in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Stony Brook University; and Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom, professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.
Sperling’s 2014 book, “Sex, Politics, and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia,” won the Davis Center Book Prize in Political and Social Studies for the “outstanding monograph on Russia, Eurasia, or Eastern Europe in anthropology, political science, sociology or geography,” as well as the Heldt Prize for the “Best Book in Slavic/Eastern European/Eurasian Women’s Studies.”