Russian Imperialism has created many myths about Ukrainians and cannot be understood without a gender lense. Ukrainians are today persistently striving to uphold their national identity and advance gender emancipation, drawing parallels with the women’s movement in Ukraine a century ago.
The colonial expansion of the Russian Empire and its direct successors – the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation – has long been widely ignored by Western intellectuals and politicians and almost completely excluded from critical analysis in the framework of postcolonial studies. This lack of political and academic will to properly address relations between the empire and the countries occupied and colonised by Moscow has created a blind spot right in the heart of Europe. Thus, from the Western perspective, the neo-colonial war started by the Russian Federation against Ukraine in 2014 mostly had to do with what Freud labels “the narcissism of minor differences”. After the full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022, Ukraine was predicted to fall within two weeks and Kyiv be taken in two or three days, according to official Russian propaganda lines, which used to frame Ukrainians as backward, less developed and passive objects of Russian imperial appetites. Those notions are embodied in the colonial ideology of russkii mir, or “Russian world”. Russkii mir is characterised by the idea of Russian national and cultural supremacy as well as the aggressive expansion of Russian “traditional” values that are heavily loaded with misogyny, homophobia as well as the state-sanctioned and supported fight against feminist values and achievements. Although anti-feminism as a well-founded and organised anti-democratic political project can be found in many societies around the globe, it constitutes a quintessential and integral part of the Russian imperialistic project. This essay aims to investigate the level to which anti-feminism is incorporated into the ideology of russkii mir and to show that Ukraine’s anti-colonial struggle includes opposition to the anti-feminist and anti-gender movements.
Matryoshka – the perfect metaphor for russkii mir
The perfect metaphor of what russkii mir truly is would be the Russian matryoshka – a set of dolls of decreasing size placed one inside of another, each with beautiful female faces painted on them. Bright and charming on the outside, on the inside they remind one of the medieval torture device known as the iron maiden, with its deadly spikes targeting those trapped in the matryoshka’s interior. The Soviet Union’s purportedly anti-capitalist and anti-colonial façade had effectively masked the darker reality of Russian colonial and genocidal practices towards indigenous populations residing within occupied territories. The deliberate concealment of this reality has obscured a history fraught with systematic racist mass killings, ethnic cleansing, and forced expulsions of Circassians throughout the century-long Russian colonial wars in the Caucasus from 1763 to 1864. Additionally, the tragic episodes of forced deportation and extermination of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 further exemplify the implementation of such policies. Ukraine was no exception and has suffered repeated Holodomors1 (human-made famine imposed to eliminate native Ukrainians and Kazakhs) and Rozstriliane vidrozhennia (political purges of the Ukrainian national elite in 1937–38), as well as complete and total Russification of Ukrainians in the attempt to turn them into mankurts,2 which would be compliant subjects for the Soviet regime. All of these events were an integral part of the colonial presence in Ukraine. Overall, the Ukrainian language was banned 134 times (!) during 400 years of Russian occupation. The linguicide of the Ukrainian language has always been one of the most powerful and pervasive instruments of Russian colonial strategy aimed at diminishing Ukrainian identity. These practices were rooted in the understanding that the Ukrainian language has become a primarily distinguishing characteristic that highlighted national, historical and cultural differences between Ukrainians and Russians, who though sharing the same phenotype have stood on different sides of the colonial paradigm.
Ukrainian women activists advocating for women’s emancipation alongside national liberation.
To cover up these colonial practices, the Soviet regime invented the “friendship of peoples” myth, which denied any prejudice based on national or ethnic background within its borders. In its modern modified version, “the friendship of peoples” constitutes the foundation of another imperial construction of three “brother nations” – Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians who together comprise a “Slavic Trinity”, the one “All-Russian” nation united under the rule of the predominant colonial ideology.
Ukraine as “singing and dancing Little Russia”
If the nation is an imagined community, as claimed by Benedict Anderson, the Ukrainian nation was re-imagined by Russian imperialism as an orientalised, exotic “singing and dancing Little Russia” – an ambivalent geopolitical construct in which “everything that is good […] comes from the common Russian legacy. Everything that is bad comes from evil, alien influences: Polish, Catholic, Jesuit, Uniate, or Tatar, Jewish, German, and so on”,3 but corruption was, of course, mainly a menace coming from the West. Such a paradigm has created a liminal space in which Russian colonialism could simultaneously claim “brotherhood” with “Little Russians”4 and label Ukrainians as “far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis”5 without causing any disruptions in the colonial logic.
“The friendship of peoples”, although very prominent, was not the only imperial narrative used to whitewash the Soviet regime. Another one was a myth about women’s emancipation initiated and perpetuated by the Soviet government. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks proclaimed women’s emancipation and abolishment of gender inequality, which was later anchored in in Article 122 of the 1936 Constitution of the Soviet Union.6 The Soviet state declared the creation of socialist modernity free of women’s oppression as one of its main and most progressive achievements. In reality, however, this decision was driven by the Soviets’ need to increase their labour force, which could be used to develop the growing economy of the communist state. In the framework of the formal gender equality proclaimed by the Soviet Union, domestic violence – just like sex itself7 – became an issue that was so marginalised and ignored by the state, it eventually ceased to exist in public discourse. In the meantime, women were not relieved from doing all the domestic work and taking care of children, and were thus being overburdened by “the second shift” – a load of domestic chores after their exhausting work in factories or collective farms. In addition to that, they were largely excluded from political decision-making, which had remained deeply rooted in patriarchal power hierarchies. Later, a few years before the collapse of the colonial monstrosity named the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev in his 1987 book Perestroika – New Thinking for Our Country and the World encapsulated the feminine mystique surrounding Soviet women with the idea that women should leave the public space and eventually “return to their purely womanly mission” (Gorbachev 1987, 117) – this idea still remains prevalent in Russian society today.
Ukraine’s feminist movement is anti-colonial
For the majority of Ukrainian women the Soviet dominance meant double colonisation of both their national and gender identities. The Ukrainian feminist movement was deeply rooted in the idea of national emancipation and independence – such a position being quite common for all countries experiencing colonial occupation of their territories (in the early 20th century Ukraine was occupied by the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Poland). Ukrainian women activists were active both in political and cultural spheres advocating for women’s emancipation alongside national liberation. When the Bolsheviks proclaimed the so-called emancipation of women, the names of those who were at the vanguard of the Ukrainian feminist movement were erased together with their decades of activism. Women were instead expected to be forever grateful to the Soviet regime for setting them free from the patriarchal yoke and prove their loyalty to the government through their hard work.
Collapse of the Soviet Union and the need for “remasculinisation”
The collapse of the USSR was not only “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”, as Putin described it,8 but has also led to the decline of patriarchal masculinity, which was directly associated with the decline of Russian colonial hegemony, creating a need for “remasculinisation”9 as a direct response to the fall of Soviet imperialism. The Russian Federation, as was its predecessor the Soviet Union, is a society built upon a patriarchal system of values in which “the legitimation of power often demands demonstration of the qualities of a “real man”.10 The “real man” in this case is defined not by what he is but rather by what he is not: he is not effeminate (and thus not homosexual), not non-white and not non-Orthodox.11 This societal demand was fulfilled by Putin who came to be prime minister and then president at the turn of the last century and who has become an embodiment of the new Russian neo-colonial masculinity “necessarily bound up with the enabling of violence – violence sufficient to overcome the considerable military capabilities of colonised societies” (Connell 2016, 306). Putin’s masculinity, with its visual imagery of the Russian Marlboro Man, its verbal aggressive domination of the political sphere and “a series of crude, macho aphorisms which have been collected as ‘Putinisms’” (Wood 2016, 2) has been used “to project the idea that he was capable of restoring Russia’s global stature” (Orlova 2018, 61). Soon Putin’s hypermasculinity as a scenario of power became central to the project of nation building and branding. In this project, gendered discourses have been widely used to create and perpetuate “the border between gendered Us and Others” (Voronova 2017, 219) – the discursive strategy that has proved to be especially successful since the Russian Federation’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. When the Kremlin launched a full-scale war against Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Putin stated:
“The West is trying to destroy our traditional values [my emphasis] and impose its pseudo-values on us, which are supposed to consume us, our people, from the inside; all these ideas that it is already aggressively imposing in its own realm and that lead directly to decay and degeneration, because they contradict human nature.”
What Putin did not mention in his speech is that these “traditional values” are heavily loaded with anti-feminist rhetoric and homophobia. Russian colonialism has recreated a Manichean world of the Cold War, one in which “traditional values” stand in opposition to “gender ideology”, a concept framed as an exclusively Western invention. Open anti-feminism has been an important part of the Russian political and social system for years. While the Russian Constitution continues the Soviet tradition of proclaiming gender equality de jure (Article 19), the de facto Russian popular culture persists in marginalising feminism as an abnormal and perverted ideology since “normal” women should prefer family and children over the struggle for rights and equality. Anti-feminist and anti-gender discourses perfectly match the anti-Western, anti-democratic and anti-human rights narratives so widespread among Russian society and generously exported to those territories physically or ideologically occupied by Russian neo-colonial politics.
National innocence menaced by Western sexual perversion
Quite symbolically, after Putin became president for the third time in 2012, the term “Gayropa” began to be used widely in Russia as a slur referring to European civilisation (as a part of a wider Western civilisation) as opposed to the ultraconservative Russian civilisation, in order to stress the decay and degradation of an LGBTQI+-friendly Europe compared to the “traditional values” of the Russian Federation. Such a framing has marked the beginning of the sexualisation of Russian politics, which uses sexual anxiety to create a myth of national innocence that is constantly menaced by Western “sexual perversion”. In other words, anti-gender and anti-feminist movements have become the Kremlin’s tool for establishing russkii mir as the Russian version of the “politics of eternity”,12 which has imagined Russian nation as a “virginal organism troubled only by the threat of foreign penetration” (Snyder 2018, 57), thus requiring it to be protected against external monstrosities. As pointed out by Leandra Bias, the “[p]ublic bashing of ‘gender ideology’ serves several purposes at once. It serves to justify authoritarianism and repression inside the country; it legitimises aggression as part of foreign policy; and, finally, it creates common terrain with right-wing movements”.
Contemporary Ukrainian women and LGBTQI+ individuals play a significant role in the military. They exemplify a shift towards progressive ideals.
If Russia sees the collective West as its ultimate enemy and directly opposes it, Ukraine is regarded as corrupted by the West and being under so-called “external control”, as it has been put by Russian state propaganda. Such a framing presents Ukraine as a perverted and effeminate entity juxtaposed to the Russian ultramasculine patriarchy. It can be traced back to the gas dispute of 2006, when a Russian television program described Ukraine as a Mammonish kept woman, a “flighty Ukrainian mistress”.13 The same colonial rhetoric was used against Ukraine just a few weeks before the full-scale invasion when Putin referenced an obscene song lyric to demonstrate his vision of the relations between Ukraine and Russia. His words “Like it, or dislike it, bear with it, my beauty” clearly refer to the lyrics of the song by the Soviet-era punk rock group Red Mold: “Sleeping beauty in a coffin, I crept up and fucked her. Like it, or dislike it, sleep my beauty”. These lines, which directly imply rape and necrophilia, are symptomatic of Russian internal national misogyny and explicitly anti-feminist narratives, both of which constitute an inseparable part of Russian neo-imperial discourses and politics.
Gender or anti-gender: who is attacking democracy in Ukraine?
The Russian colonial presence in Ukraine has left deep marks on the cultural, social and political fabric of its society. Even after Ukraine officially proclaimed its independence in 1991, the coloniality of power14 continued to shape the Ukrainian socio-political landscape in social and religious practices, identities, beliefs, representations and other aspects of everyday life. Although anti-feminism was a part of this power matrix, the anti-gender movement has become its core: gender roles, norms and relations mainly defined by woman’s submissiveness, passiveness and domesticity as well as by explicitly homophobic rhetoric were transmitted through Russian-supported media and TV channels in Ukraine and through the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which largely dominated Ukrainian religious life. Symbolically enough, in his sermon on Forgiveness Friday (the last Friday before Lent), the head of the Russian Orthodox Church named gay prides in Ukraine as the reason for Russia’s invasion of the country,15 thus confirming once again the relation between anti-gender discourses prevailing in the spaces dominated by Russian neo-colonial ideology, an ideology that resulted in the unjustified and unprovoked full-scale military violence against Ukraine in 2022.
Ukrainian feminists have played a crucial role in responding to and challenging anti-gender narratives in their society. They have been at the forefront of deconstructing these narratives by advocating for gender equality, promoting women’s rights, and working to dismantle harmful gender stereotypes and prejudices. The study “Gender or anti-gender: who is attacking democracy in Ukraine”,16 conducted by Ukrainian feminist and human rights organisations La-Strada Ukraine, Women in the Media and Ukrainian Women’s Fund in 2020, reaches the conclusion that the rise of anti-gender ideology was a part of Russia’s information war against Ukraine after the start of the invasion in 2014. The authors of the study analysed the development of Ukrainian social discourses as well as societal initiatives and changes between 2013 and 2020, and pointed out that anti-gender discriminatory rhetoric was presented under the Russian Federation’s typical narrative of “protecting family values”, which claimed they were being threatened by feminists and LGBTQI+ people. Such a consolidation of anti-gender and anti-feminist movements can be defined as a Russian counter-reaction to the Revolution of Dignity, which took place in Ukraine in 2014.
A new Ukrainian femininity: emancipation as an anti-colonial struggle
Among other socio-political transformations, the Revolution of Dignity has produced a new kind of Ukrainian femininity – an active female agent who managed to find her place in the male militarism of the protests (Phillips 2014; Martsenyuk 2014). Starting from this period, the coloniality of gender17 in Ukraine started to be challenged by the process of what Ukrainian philosopher Tamara Zlobina has called “gender decay”18 – the rejection of old gender models and the conception of a new emancipatory social rhetoric, which has allowed high social mobility and visibility of women in spheres traditionally associated with men: politics, military services, business and volunteering. Moreover, the role of women in nation- and state-building processes was officially recognised at the highest level and secured by the law: in 2015, the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) adopted the “Law on Amending Certain Legislative Acts of Ukraine”, which was formulated to prevent discrimination in the labour market based on gender, gender identity or sexual orientation, and in 2017, the Ukrainian Health Ministry abolished a decree dating back to Soviet times that prohibited women from being employed in 450 professions considered dangerous to women’s reproductive health. Another significant change was Decree No. 292,19 issued by the Ukrainian Defence Ministry in June 2016, which opened up staff positions for privates, sergeants and sergeant-majors to women undergoing military service under contract. The importance of this decree can hardly be overestimated. Before 2016, women who took part in military operations as snipers or gunners were formally registered as cooks, nurses or other non-combat positions, thus limiting their career advancement in the military as well as denying them social benefits that their male peers enjoyed at the time. As of November 2022, there are almost 60,000 women serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, with approximately 19,000 holding civilian positions and approximately 41,000 serving in a military capacity. Some 5,000 of the latter group are directly engaged in combat operations.20
While the Russian Federation officially decriminalised domestic violence in February 2017 and passed a law banning “LGBT propaganda” among adults in November 2022 (which followed the 2013 “gay propaganda” law that prohibited the dissemination of information about “non-traditional” sexual relationships to minors and that was misused to suppress LGBTQI+ rights and activism), Ukraine’s parliament has ratified the Istanbul Convention and unanimously passed a bill banning hate speech in the media against LGBTQI+ people. These two changes to Ukraine’s legislation were adopted after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine (in July 2022 and December 2022 respectively) and demonstrate that Ukraine has chosen to build a democratic and just society based on human rights and the rule of law.
Instead of conclusions
The logic of Russian neo-colonialism turns the Cartesian ego cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) into the imperial ego conquiro, ergo sum (I conquer, therefore I am).21 This assertion involves not only the colonisation of territories, but also the colonisation of minds and identities. Anti-feminism and anti-gender discourses constitute a central pillar of the ideology of russkii mir and have proved to be an efficient tool of Russian colonial expansion. Conveniently framing gender equality, feminism and women’s rights as well as the support of LGBTQI+ people as a cunning strategy employed by the collective West to destroy the Russian nation, the Kremlin sweeps away democracy, human rights and the rule of law in order to establish its rule based on the “traditional values” of misogyny and homophobia. Ukrainians are today persistently striving to uphold their national identity and advance gender emancipation, drawing parallels with the women’s movement in Ukraine a century ago. Contemporary Ukrainian women and LGBTQI+ individuals play a significant role in the military, combating the influence of a conservative ruskii mir and thus exemplifying a shift towards inclusivity and progressive ideals.
If we really want to defeat neo-colonial forms of oppression and violence, it is important to confront anti-gender movements and support women’s rights and gender equality worldwide, since without them true democracy, peace, security and stability cannot be achieved. Let us never forget that.
Bias, Leandra (2023), “The International of Antifeminists”, available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/gender/2023/02/24/4808/.
Connell, Raewyn (2016), “Masculinities in global perspective: Hegemony, contestation, and changing structures of power”, Theory and Society, 45: 303–318, available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/44981834.
Freud, Sigmund (1930), Civilisation and Its Discontents (London: Hogarth Press).
Gorbachev, Mikhail (1987), Perestroika – New Thinking for Our Country and the World (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside Ltd).
Martsenyuk, Tamara (2014), Гендерна соціологія Майдану: роль жінок в протестах. Постсоціалістичні суспільства: різноманіття соціальних змін: матеріали Міжнар. соціологічних читань пам’яті Н.В. Паніної та Т.І. Заславської, available at: http://ekmair.ukma.edu.ua/handle/123456789/3511.
Orlova, Alexandra (2018), “Russian Politics of Masculinity and the Decay of Feminism: The Role of Dissent in Creating New ‘Local Norms’”, William and Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice, 25/1: 59–86, available at: https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/wmjowl/vol25/iss1/4.
Phillips, Sarah D. (2014). “The Women’s Squad in Ukraine’s Protests: Feminism, Nationalism, and Militarism on the Maidan”, American Ethnologist, 41/3: 414–426, available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24027362.
Restrepo, Eduardo (2018), “Coloniality of Power”, in Hillary Callan (ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd), available at: http://www.ram-wan.net/restrepo/documentos/coloniality.pdf.
Riabov, Oleg and Riabova, Tatiana (2014), “The Remasculinization of Russia? Gender, Nationalism, and the Legitimation of Power Under Vladimir Putin”, Problems of Post-Communism, 61/2: 23–35, available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.2753/PPC1075-8216610202.
Riabczuk, Mykola (2010), “The Ukrainian ‘Friday’ and the Russian ‘Robinson’: the Uneasy Advent of Postcoloniality”, Canadian–American Slavic Studies, 44: 7–24, available at: https://brill.com/view/journals/css/44/1-2/article-p7_2.xml.
Snyder, Timothy (2018), The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (New York: Crown).
Voronova, Liudmila (2017), “Gender politics of the ‘war of narratives’: Russian TV-news in the times of conflict in Ukraine”, Catalan Journal of Communication & Cultural Studies, 9/2: 217–235, available at: https://doi.org/10.1386/cjcs.9.2.217_1.
Wood, Elizabeth A. (2016), “Hypermasculinity as a Scenario of Power”, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 18/3, available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/14616742.2015.1125649.
1 Holodomor is recognised internationally as a genocide of the Ukrainian people by 28 countries: Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Estonia, France, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Moldova, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, United Kingdom, United States.
2 Mankurt is the term for the unthinking docile slave stripped of his or her memories and identity, which was popularised by Chinghiz Aitmatov in his novel The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years.
3 Mykola Riabczuk (2010), p. 14.
4 “Little Russians” is a common way to refer to Ukrainians in Russian colonial vocabulary.
5 Vladimir Putin’s speech on 24 February 2022, before the start of the invasion, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-02-24/full-transcript-vladimir-putin-s-televised-address-to-russia-on-ukraine-feb-24.
7 I am referring to the popular catchphrase “There is no sex in the USSR”, which has been used to describe the stigma and shame surrounding sex-related topics as well as the taboo of publicly discussing them.
9 Riabov and Riabova (2014).
10 Ibid., p. 26.
11 Orthodox in the sense of belonging only to the Russian Orthodox Church, since it does not recognise any other branch of Orthodoxy as equal with itself.
12 See Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom (2018).
13 Riabov and Riabova (2014), p. 28.
14 The concept was coined by Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano. See https://edisciplinas.usp.br/pluginfile.php/347342/mod_resource/content/… (2000) Colinality of power.pdf.
17 The concept was developed by Argentinian feminist philosopher María Lugones. See https://globalstudies.trinity.duke.edu/sites/globalstudies.trinity.duke….