Sex, Politics, and Putin

5 January 2015

If you’d like to know one of the reasons for Vladimir Putin’s phenomenal popularity in Russia, pick up Clark University Professor Valerie Sperling’s excellent new book, Sex, Politics, and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia.

Putin’s actual accomplishments are few. He dismantled democracy and muzzled the media. He constructed a fascistoid regime and perverted the very notion of truth. He marginalized the democratic opposition and, at least until recently, crushed the North Caucasus independence movements. He annexed the Crimea and doesn’t know what to do with it. He started a war in eastern Ukraine and, once again, doesn’t know what to do next. The bottom line is that Russia remains a Belgium with a bomb and a profoundly corrupt petro-state incapable of technological innovation and sustained economic growth, while having become, under Putin, a rogue state.

These are the accomplishments of a profoundly mediocre leader, one whose popularity ratings should be around 20 percent at most—and not the breathtaking 85-plus that he routinely garners. As Sperling explains in her well-written and well-researched book, an important reason for Putin’s popularity is his careful manipulation of gender and sex as a means of sustaining his political legitimacy: “his variant of masculinity (including strength, sobriety, decisiveness, and attractiveness to women) was met with popular approval, reinforcing his position of power and authority.”

There are several complex reasons, or what Sperling calls “multiple opportunity structures,” for the success of Putin’s strategy, and I shall list only their sound-bite versions:

  • The “weakness of the Russian women’s movement” meant that there were few people “to draw critical attention to public sexism.”
  • “As commercial capitalism was introduced to Russia in the 1990s,” it “commodified and objectified women’s bodies.” In turn, “the sexualization of economic products lay the groundwork for the sexualization of political products.”
  • “The ‘Russia needs a strong leader’ myth has never been dissolved.”
  • Russian culture is characterized by “sex-based discrimination and misogyny.”
  • “Putin’s macho image accompanied a broader strategy to ‘remasculinize’ the country domestically and internationally,” in the aftermath of the USSR’s humiliating collapse.

In sum, Putin has imposed his retrograde views on Russians, but Russians have also been highly receptive to his message.

Sperling’s analysis has important implications for the stability of the regime.

First, the older Putin gets—and he is already 62 years old—the more difficult will it be for him to project a macho image. Look at today’s Putin and compare him to the Putin of 2000. Then, he resembled a sleek killing machine. Today, his face is puffy, his features are distended, and he looks like he’s been a one long binge. Several years ago, it was plausible for two sexy Russian ladies to sing, “I want a man just like Putin.” Today, that sentiment would sound bizarre coming from anyone but the septuagenarian crowd.

The inability to project machismo matters precisely because, as Sperling underlines, it is central to Putin’s political legitimacy. Worse for Putin, machismo has become so large a part of his supremacist ideology and anti-Western bluster that it would be hard for him to abandon hyper-masculinity and focus only on ideology and chest-beating. Inasmuch as Putin is central to the Putin regime, the inevitable decline in his legitimacy automatically translates into the decline of the regime.

Second, Sperling’s analysis suggests that the 20-plus point increase in Putin’s popularity in the aftermath of the Crimea’s annexation—from the low 60s to the high 80s—may be due less to the Russian public’s endorsement of imperialist landgrabs and more to its enthusiasm for the tough-guy posturing the landgrab permitted Putin to engage in. The war in eastern Ukraine can’t have the same effect, partly because Putin denies that Russian troops are involved and mostly because the fighting has produced significant numbers of Russian casualties (possibly as many as several thousand). Victorious Russian troops in the streets of Sevastopol enhance Putin’s macho image. Body bags from the Donbas do not. If so, a wider war with Ukraine will not enhance Putin’s machismo. Incessant saber-rattling throughout the world will.

Third, Russia will remain a retrograde society when it comes to gender relations for many years to come. If the problem were just Putin, Russia could become a nice place as soon as Putin departs the scene. But since, as Sperling implies, the problem is also Russia, then Putin’s departure won’t change things. Expect disillusioned Russian liberals to head for the West and for comparatively more tolerant places such as Ukraine. Inasmuch as this cohort is likely to be best educated, their departure will also condemn Russia to decades of economic backwardness.

Poor Russia: thanks to its leader’s 19th-century machismo, it may soon be catapulted back to the 1850s.

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