What is threatening ‘traditional family values’ in Russia today?


Russia’s elite has played the cultural conservative card for several years now, and events in Ukraine mean that Russia’s reactionary bent is likely to continue.


Anna Shadrina
5 May 2015

In 2012-2013, Russia’s internal political discourse was dominated by a single theme: a ‘return to traditional family values.’ In the space of a few years, a series of ideological shifts took shape as Vladimir Putin made his return to the presidency. Today, one of those values deemed in need of reinstallation and fierce protection is the institution of marriage between a man and a woman, which is being presented as necessary for the protection of children.

According to Russia’s leading ideologues, the traditional family – the foundation of the Russian state – is threatened by discourses imported from the West – feminism, LGBT liberation – which herald the destruction of public morality and marriage.

However, the events that began unfolding in Ukraine at the end of 2013 also caused the political landscape to shift. EuroMaidan and Crimea were not just geopolitical events, they caused a surge in patriotic feeling in many sections of Russian society and, fuelled by Russian state media, helped establish a new Russian enemy – Ukraine and its Western backers.

In the aftermath of Crimea, is the call for a return to traditional family values still an important instrument of social regulation in Russia today? And what does it mean for Russian society?

Protecting conservative principles in 2015

Throughout 2015, various measures have been proposed.


Western discourses of feminism and LGBT liberation are perceived as threats. Photo CC: Kasya Shahovskaya

In January, the Russian Orthodox Church's Patriarchal Commission for Family, Protection of Motherhood and Childhood continued its public debate on domestic violence. It is important to remember that one year before, the commission had opposed a bill that recommended amending Russia's Criminal Code to increase responsibility for the intentional infliction of bodily harm. At the time, the Church stated that: 'reasonable and moderate use of physical punishment in child rearing in the context of normal family relations does not cause them (children) any significant harm', and parents should not be legally limited in their methods of raising children.

This year, the Patriarchal Commission criticised the use of the term 'domestic violence' in the draft Federal Law 'On the basis of social services for citizens in the Russian Federation.' Representatives of the Church argued that the definition failed to meet the priorities of state family policy, which sought to improve the prestige of the family and increase its social status. Representatives also maintained that the concept of 'domestic violence' was discredited due to its 'connections with the ideas of radical feminism', where men are always seen as potential 'aggressors' against women and where adults are seen as a source of threat to children, especially within marriage and the family, which are presented as institutions of 'suppression' and 'violence.'

But official figures from 2008 show that violence in one form or another takes place in one in four families in Russia; two thirds of homicides are committed due to family or domestic reasons; each year, approximately 14,000 women are killed by their husbands or other relatives; and up to 40% of all violent crimes are committed within the family.

Official figures from 2008 show that violence in one form or another takes place in one in four families in Russia.

On 6 January 2015, a list of driving restrictions, approved by the Russian government, came into force. According to this document, driving licences can be denied to transgender people, bisexuals, transvestites, crossdressers, people who require gender reassignment, people prone to fetishism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, paedophilia, and sodomy.

Later, however, the Ministry of Health denied that individuals with so-called sexual anomalies would be denied driving licences. Ministry spokesperson, Oleg Salagayev, explained to journalists that in accordance with the International Classification for Diseases, sexual orientation is not a mental disorder and therefore cannot serve as grounds to restrict the issue of driving licences.

In February, State Duma deputies introduced another initiative designed to promote the traditional family. Two issues were put to the Legislative Assembly for discussion: should women under the age of 40 be banned from buying cigarettes, and should women, regardless of their age, be banned from buying cigarettes in the presence of their young children? The bill was decried as a mere publicity stunt and the Committee of Health was advised to reject it.

In March, Russia’s family values campaign made the leap from the domestic to international sphere, when Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, attempted to intervene in the UN’s decision to recognise the gay marriages of all its staffers, including those who come from countries where gay marriage is illegal. However, the Russian draft resolution to repeal this decision was rejected. Today, the UN extends benefits to all its employees, including same-sex couples.

In the same month, a court in Nizhny Tagil reversed a previous decision, which had found Yelena Klimova, creator of ‘Children 404’, guilty of spreading homosexual propaganda among minors. In January, the journalist was fined 50,000 roubles according to Part 2 of Article 6.21 of the Administrative Code. Two years ago, Klimova created the ‘Children 404’ group online, giving Russian children a space to talk about problems with sexual identity; and where they could receive psychological help and support from their peers. At the beginning of last year, the project was criticised by Vitaly Milonov, a prominent anti-gay politician. Russia’s communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, later duly discovered signs of ‘gay propaganda’. And at the end of March, the October District Court of St Petersburg decided decision to block the group from the Russian social-networking site VKontakte. The site, however, continues to operate. 

The rhetoric of protecting traditional family values

The discourse of 'protecting traditional family values' and 'fighting against the enemies of morality in the face of feminism, LGBT liberation, and other agents of Western influence' clearly remains relevant in post-Crimea Russian politics. Despite the carnival-like nature of most initiatives aimed at 'reviving spirituality', and some minor concessions in the field of gender rights and sexual self-determination, the maintaining of the patriarchal gender order remains an important element of nation building in modern Russia.

The maintaining of the patriarchal gender order remains an important element of nation building in modern Russia.

The current bias towards conservatism is built into a wide range of domestic and foreign policy processes. In particular, the promotion of traditional values played a crucial role in Vladimir Putin's campaign to return to the presidency in 2012. The contemporary project of Russian nation building is reflected in the image of the country's leader. Pictures have flooded the internet showing Putin shirtless, sitting behind the wheel of a fighter jet, and in a wet suit. Similarly, erotic photoshoots have made their way into the public sphere, in which female students proudly show their support for their leader. Such images, along with aggressive rhetoric about 'seizing Crimea', invite citizens to link their president's courage with their country's return to the world stage as a super power.


Since regaining the presidency, Vladimir Putin has used the language of traditional values to cement his position.

The image of Putin as a superman who is able to bring Russia back to its former glory is placed in direct opposition to the non-traditional values emanating from the West, which are depicted as alien and hostile to the Russian state and its identity. Many researchers posit that the category of gender is the primary tool with which to analyse the socio-political transformations characteristic of Putin's Russia.

Traditional values and neo-liberalism

In 2012, in his address to the Federal Assembly, Putin first mentioned the need to support institutions that promote traditional values. By 2013, the concept of 'non-traditional sexual relations' and the idea of designing measures to combat them had been introduced into legislative language.

Sociologists who research transformations in the field of private life show that a conservative mobilisation was similarly a trend in many Western countries in the 1990s, and that this in fact paved the way for modernisation. On the one hand, the institute of marriage has lost its monopoly over economic survival, emotional support, sexual relations, and procreation. On the other hand, states are increasingly looking to transfer the cost and responsibility of supporting citizens’ lives to the family.

In a practical sense, this means that caring for dependents (unpaid labour) is taken on by families rather than by the state. In an increasingly competitive labour market it is becoming increasingly difficult to combine family duties with a professional career.

This is where the discourse of 'traditional family values' comes in. It invites citizens to remember that for generations the success of the family relied upon a division of labour, wherein women were charged with maintaining the household and men were the bread-winners.

The discourse, which emphasises a mother's responsibility for her child's psychological health, is intimately tied to this traditionalist mobilisation, as well as with the neo-liberal project, which seeks to reduce state dependency. Mothers who pursue careers are criticised for failing to fulfil their 'natural female function' – caring for their children.

The problem with this discourse is that an arcadian pre-revolutionary rural life, to which the proponents of 'traditional family values' seek to return, is not possible in contemporary urban conditions. In other words, not every family can survive on the salary of one worker, and not every family is structured around a heterosexual couple, given the high rates of divorce in Russia and the significant gender difference in life expectancy. As a result, one section of society – namely, women – is consistently denied access to public goods.

The feminist reply

The hyper-masculinity enshrined in Vladimir Putin's concept of reviving Russia as a superpower has encouraged various forms of protest, including the now infamous protest performance by punk group Pussy Riot.

Many argue that this political gesture by Pussy Riot was a welcome incident for the powers that be in Moscow. It allowed leading conservative ideologues to take advantage of growing 'orthodox sentiments' within society to construct the perfect image of the enemy – a Western-imported feminism, which has unleashed 'non-traditional' sexuality upon society; a sexuality which is dangerous and anti-Russian by nature. Thus, the aggressive rhetoric of 'defending traditional family values', which incites memories of a better imagined past, is the foundation of a new national idea, which separates Russia from the rest of the world and, in parallel, provides effective anti-Ukrainian propaganda.

At the same time, this new reactionary wave gives rise to new types of protest. In the media, discussions have arisen on the links between the rhetoric of 'traditional values' and the worsening situation for women in society. Not all Russian women today, however, go along with the prescribed decorative functions imposed upon them. This is evident in the generation of post-Soviet feminists, which has emerged over the past decade, and which defends the equal right to access to public resources.

One of the most recognisable contemporary Russian feminists, Bella Rapoport, believes that social media is playing an important role in the resistance against the patriarchal gender order.

'Against the backdrop of the increased influence of 'traditional values' propaganda and general increase in violence, it has suddenly been possible to discuss women's right aloud,' says Rappaport. 'These themes have long incited heated debates on social media networks. The debate in the media is a more recent phenomenon. It was obviously no longer possible to ignore something which people were passionate about.'

Seen in this light, does the threat to 'traditional values' come from the very traditions the traditionalists are trying so loudly to protect?

Standfrist image: CC: VitVit

Second image: CC: Jedimentat44 via Flicker

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