Staunton, November 23 – The resurgence of conservative attitudes about gender roles is occurring in many countries, but there is a fundamental difference between what is happening in Western countries and what is happening in the Russian Federation, sociologist Anna Tyomkina says.
In the West, this rejection of the liberalization of the last two generations has come from below, from various social groups that reject these changes, while in Russia, it is coming from above, from a state that is reimposing the conservative values of Soviet times – and more than that, on the cheap, the professor at the European University in St. Petersburg says.
And thus what is happening, Tyomkina continues, represents a hybrid return to Soviet attitudes and practices but in a way that shifts the burden from the state to individuals (meduza.io/feature/2020/11/23/mozhet-pokazatsya-chto-konservatizm-rossiyskih-vlastey-malo-vliyaet-na-realnuyu-zhizn-no-on-kazhdyy-den-uhudshaet-zhizn-mnogih-zhenschin).
“In the Soviet Union, there was no ideal or practice of the homemaker,” she recalls. “Soviet citizens, men and women, worked. That was the ideology of the Soviet state and an economic necessity: families needed two working parents” to manage. At the same time, the Soviet authorities “expected that the woman would combine work with maternity.”
The state provided some support for women with free medical care, but “in its concern with the birthrate, it did not defend the individual rights [of Soviet women] but rather sought that the Soviet woman would fulfill her ‘duty.’” Something similar is returning, with less support, now, the sociologist continues.
In Soviet times, “the woman was held to be responsible for work and for the family and children and often bore this responsibility on her own.” The state did not allow for alternatives and incomes were not high enough to allow women to choose to work or not when they had children.
The end of the Soviet system changed all of this. Sex became a source of satisfaction, and having children became “a personal choice” rather than a duty to the state, Tyomkina says. But that threatened the state, and it rather than civil society as in the West, has become in the last two decades “the main conservator,” the chief agent of turning back the clock.
There have been three attempts to adopt a law on gender equality – in 2003, 2008, and 2018 – and all have been defeated, with the government arguing that “Russia is a special country, and gender equality ha been brought in from the West and is alien to the national culture. Besides, [it says,] the equality of men and women is written in the Constitution.”
When the last such bill was rejected, Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said that “deputies later will develop a new law in which the stress will be laid on the labor and social rights of women.” With such language, “the state is again viewing women only or in the first instance as a mother.”
Most Russian conservatives view gender equality as being about the promotion of LGBT rights, something they oppose. “Any use of the word ‘gender’ is viewed as dangerous for ‘traditional values’” in their understanding. Moreover, having a homogenous population with only one kind of marital relations makes it easier for the state to rule.
This conservative offensive became especially strong after the events surrounding Pussy Riot in 2012, Tyomkina says. That act alone ensured that for the government, “gender equality finally ceased to be a priority and ideas about women’s rights were reduced to support for maternity and children.”
To a great extent, she continues, this represents “a continuation of the Soviet hybrid policy, at one and the same time emancipatory and traditionalist,” with the state providing women with benefits because of her role in producing more citizens. But there is a key difference: “the state now is minimizing its spending” to those ends.
Now, in the imagery of Russian society, “the successful woman is the wife of a rich man. She doesn’t need to work, but she, besides giving birth to children, can be ‘a freelancer,’” who also brings in income. That is a centerpiece of conservative discourse and suggests the state doesn’t need to support her having children.
But of course, for the vast majority of women in Russia, there are no such possibilities and so if state support declines, the status of women does as well. Moreover, Tyomkina points out, the new conservatism has managed to keep sex education limited or out of the schools altogether.
Many in the regime fear that sex education will increase the number of LGBT people in Russia and so should be opposed. But it also means that the rising generation learns less about contraceptives, that abortions remain high, and that traditionalist messages about the proper role of women are not challenged.
Commenting on Tyomkina’s observations, Maksim Trydolyubov of the Meduza news agency observes that “the powers are in a paradoxical way equating the idea of ‘gender’ with that of the defense of the rights of sexual minorities,” something that is leading in Russia to “a unique hybrid gender policy.”
That policy combines, he says, emancipation when it benefits the state by making women responsible both for working and breeding children and a return to a pre-feminist ideal in which “the man is the breadwinner and the woman in the mother and homemaker.”