Capitalism, autocracy and political masculinities in Russia

18 May 2016
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The conflict over YUKOS, between Russia's two most powerful men at the time, became a turning point in post-Soviet Russian history, writes Tatiana Zhurzhenko. The expropriation of YUKOS opened the way to the annexation of Crimea a decade later; meanwhile, a new Russian masculinity was born.

Recently Russia’s deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted a picture of Russian president Vladimir Putin petting a leopard alongside an image of US president Barack Obama holding a white poodle with the caption “We have different values and allies”. Mocking the masculinity of Putin’s geopolitical rival speaks volumes about gender and political power in Russia. Since the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine the West has been confronted with the aggressive politics of Vladimir Putin, whose public image as an embodiment of machismo symbolizes a new powerful Russia seeking its place in the sun. His carefully orchestrated image as an alpha male seems to fit to the notion of hegemonic masculinity (as coined by R.W. Connell).1 An unattainable ideal for most ordinary men, hegemonic masculinity involves courage, toughness, emotional restraint, aggression, adventure-seeking and success. Indeed, the whole country knows the list of the Russian president’s heroic hobbies. It includes judo, horseback riding, diving, driving a Harley Davidson, flying a jet fighter, rescuing wild animals… And Putin is successful, at least according to his own criteria. Having tamed the oligarchs and pacified Chechnya he not only survived the mass protests of winter 2011 but also attained the peak of his popular support after the annexation of Crimea. Is Putin a political ruler in the traditional Russian style, the successor of Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Joseph Stalin? What does the rise of Putin as a supermacho figure in Russian politics say about the country’s transition from Communism? And can alternative masculinities in Russia point to political alternatives to Putin?

In the late Soviet era journalists and sociologists began to complain about the “crisis of masculinity”. Soviet men seemed infantile, incapable of taking responsibility for the family and seeking refuge in heavy drinking. Conservative critics ascribed the problem to the Soviet ideology of women’s emancipation, which had distorted traditional gender roles. In the perestroika years the “deficit of masculinity” was often explained by the abolition of private property and the eradication of an independent peasantry and entrepreneurship under Communist rule. In a reverse Marxist logic, market reforms and privatization were supposed to solve the problem by providing men with economic resources for their empowerment. However, the capitalism of the 1990s exacerbated rather than resolved Russia’s crisis of masculinity. The neo-liberal shock therapy of the Yeltsin administration brought about unemployment, insecurity and social anomy which led to a falling life expectancy for Russian men. The disparity in the average lifespan between genders in Russia is the largest in the world, a fact which is attributed to mass alcoholism, unhealthy lifestyles and self-destructive behaviour. In a society where money suddenly became the ultimate value and marker of success, masculinity acquired a market value measured in hard currency against the weak and unstable ruble. Partly in opposition to icons of Western-style masculinity borrowed from Western mass culture, the Soviet man was replaced by a new gender model most commonly described by the Russian word muzhyk. Initially meaning “peasant”, muzhyk, according to the Russian gender researcher Olga Shaburova, has come to signify a “true Russian man” – independent, strong and hardworking but also impossible to out-drink, misogynist, despising weakness but capable of true friendship, and a patriot of his country.

In terms of public politics, the gerontocracy of the late Soviet era, which had presided over stagnation and the growing weakness of the superpower, was dismissed by Mikhail Gorbachev, who was in turn swept away by the collapse of the Soviet empire. Boris Yeltsin, the first post-Soviet president, seemed to fit the collective archetype of the Russian muzhyk. However, with his growing alcoholism and loss of control over the oligarchs he became a symbol of political impotence, and the country’s humiliation in the eyes of many Russians. Post-Soviet Russian masculinity, as well as Russia itself, was in desperate need of modernization – and Vladimir Putin came to meet this need.

Those who remember the start of Putin’s political career will concur that there was little appealing about this small mousy man with thin blond hair. “How has a stolid bureaucrat metamorphosed into an international macho icon?” asked Helena Goscilo in her essay “Putin’s Performance of Masculinity”.2 The answer is not simply that in Russia, like in other modern societies, political power is associated with sex appeal. Putin’s masculinity was carefully staged and mediated, turned into an everyday public spectacle. Moreover, Putin’s rocketing popularity was connected to the perceived “crisis of masculinity” in Russian society – as a counter-example of fitness and health, he represented what Russian men were allegedly lacking. This element of male sexuality had never been part of a Russian leader’s public image before. Putin’s abstinence from alcohol, in striking opposition to traditional Russian masculinity and against the backdrop of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, was appealing to women as well as to the younger generation of Russian men.

While in the beginning Putin, with his fluent German and his rational, self-controlled style of communication, was perceived as a “Westerner”, soon his “James Bond” features became a part of the new Russian code of masculinity. As he has evolved into an authoritarian leader, Putin’s perfect physical shape, virility and mental alertness have come to signify Russia’s resurgence as a nation. “I want someone like Putin. Someone like Putin, full of strength, someone like Putin, who does not drink. Someone like Putin, who does not hurt me, someone like Putin, who won’t run away,” a female pop band sang in the early 2000s. As a product of mass culture, Putin has become a sex symbol, an object of female desire, while at the same time he has as a politician kept safe distance from women – unlike his macho friend Berlusconi. Putin’s enigmatic divorce from his wife, who had almost never been seen with him in public and disappeared soon after her last carefully staged interview, along with the quickly supressed rumours about his subsequent secret marriage to former sports star Alina Kabaeva, prove the persistence of the Russian pattern of political leadership that only Gorbachev was able to break: that a ruler must have no private life because the presence of a woman would corrupt the sacred bond between him and his nation. Putin is married to Russia, and “his kisses are reserved for children and animals” (Helena Goscilo). A glimpse into his private life, allowed from time to time, usually shows Putin in the company of the former president and now prime minister Dmitry Medvedev – they go out for a drink, exercise together at the gym and drink tea afterwards. The ironic paradox of Putin’s supermachismo is that while he mocks decadent “Gayropa” he does not realize how queer the public appearance of the Putin-Medvedev couple is.

Traditional heroic masculinity is usually associated with war, and Putin’s military decisions in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine and most recently in Syria prove his reputation as a “tough guy” who has supposedly restored Russia’s respect in the world. Charlotte Hooper has suggested that the US defeat in the Vietnam War, seen as a humiliation and emasculation of the superpower, pushed US political elites to develop a hyper-masculinized and aggressive breed of foreign policy. Even if Obama’s foreign policy has become almost vegetarian in comparison, Putin still feels challenged by the geopolitical hegemony of the USA and imitates former president Bush’s militarized machismo. What is even more important, however, is the growing influence of the “siloviki” (representatives of the security services, military and police) in his close environment, who push him to demonstrate his toughness and self-confidence inside the country and internationally. The transformation of Putin’s masculinity thus reflects the evolution of Russia’s political regime and its foreign policy.

In this context, the public representations of Mikhail Khodorkovsky as an icon of the political opposition offer a counter-image to Putin’s authoritarian machismo. Rivals for more than a decade, both Putin and Khodorkovsky seem to represent new Russian masculinities as a response to the quest for political and social modernization. They both started their careers in the Soviet era – Putin as a KGB agent in East Germany and Khodorkovsky as a promising student and Komsomol leader. It is easy to imagine them continuing their lives along these lines: Khodorkovsky once confessed he wanted to become the director of a big state company as a child while loyal, smart and nondrinking Putin would certainly have made a career in the KGB. But the Soviet regime collapsed, and their paths into politics and business could not have been more different. Putin worked for the prominent St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak in the 1990s and rose quickly through the ranks to be finally chosen as a “successor” by the Yeltsin Family. Khodorkovsky, having started his own business, fearlessly entered the stormy waters of Russia’s wild capitalism and became one of the richest men in the post-Soviet space. Putin, a product and man of the system, and the free-rider Khodorkovsky embodied different understandings of success, loyalty and male honour. The conflict over YUKOS, the clash of the two most powerful men in the country, has become the turning point in post-Soviet Russian history – the expropriation of YUKOS opened the way to the annexation of Crimea one decade later.

Vladimir Putin with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, CEO of “Yukos Oil Company”, Moscow, 31 May 2001. Photo: www.kremlin.ru, Presidential Press and Information Office. Source: Wikimedia

But the lesson to be learnt is not that in the man’s world of business and politics the one who breaks the rules and turns the chessboard upside down always wins. The story only begins with Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment. This is a very Russian story about prison opening the way to moral evolution, about suffering and repentance giving a new sort of strength, about human dignity under inhuman conditions – a story going back to Soviet dissidents and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. While Russian society was divided on the issue of Khodorkovsky’s guilt at the time of his arrest and first trial, the years spent in prison, the senseless brutality of the system, and his unyieldingness made Khodorkovsky a moral authority and an icon of the rising opposition movement. Lyudmila Ulitskaya and Boris Akunin, two prominent writers critical of Putin’s regime, exchanged letters with Russia’s most famous prisoner. Khodorkovsky kept writing, and apart from articles and interviews he also published a book entitled Prison and Freedom co-authored with the Russian journalist Natalia Gevorkyan.3 The personal confession of a businessman who lost his fortune and freedom but not his dignity, the book addresses the flaws of privatization in Russia, the issue of the social responsibility of big business and its relation to politics. Khodorkovsky’s latest book My Fellow Prisoners, published after he had already been released from prison, tells the stories of ordinary people who struggle to survive in an inhuman system.4

Having spent ten years in prison and been pardoned by the president half a year before the end of his sentence, Khodorkovsky neither speaks about revenge, nor does he present himself as a victim. In his interviews and during public appearances he gives the impression of an unbroken, mentally sharp and forward-looking man. Unlike Putin, he is also a family man, and he frequently acknowledges the support he got over the years from his parents, his wife and children and even from his first wife and adult son. Khodorkovsky helps political prisoners in Russia and denounces the war in Ukraine and Russia’s confrontation with the West. Even if he calls his activities public rather than political, he embodies a different Russia and an alternative to Putin.

The story of Khodorkovsky can be read as the story of a new Russian masculinity born from the wild capitalism of the 1990s, which is associated with greed, violence and brutality, but also creativity and freedom. While the cult of power was internalized by Putin’s regime, and greed remains the driving force of his corrupt court, it is the spirit of freedom, risk and innovation which makes many feel nostalgic for the 1990s. The personal metamorphosis of Mikhail Khodorkovsky reflects the evolution of Russian society and the quest for an alternative to Putin’s militarized authoritarian machismo.

The English version of this text was first published as a commentary accompanying the libretto of Chodorkowski: Ein Königsdrama, an opera by Periklis Liakakis and Kristine Tornquist, which premiered on 20 November 2015 at the Atelierhaus, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, in a production by sirene Operntheater.

  1. Cf. Raewyn Connell, Masculinities, 2nd ed., Allen & Unwin, 2005
  2. Helena Goscilo, "Putin's performance of masculinity; The action hero and macho sex-object", in: Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon, Routledge, 2013, 182
  3. Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Natalia Gevorkyan, Turma i Volya, Howard Roark, 2012
  4. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, My Fellow Prisoners, Penguin, 2014

Published 18 May 2016

Original in English
First published in Wespennest 170 (2016) (German version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Wespennest
© Tatiana Zhurzhenko / Wespennest / Eurozine

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