The Sunday Times: Chest-beating Putin aims his vilest weapon at the West — misogyny
I am not a professional Dr Angry. I don’t go round collecting grievances. Nor do I have a brain that categorises everything in terms of “isms”.
So when I say Vladimir Putin’s Russia is one of the most loathsomely misogynistic countries in the world, I am speaking from the heart. I don’t just mean misogyny in a crass, vodka-swilling, male loser way; I mean in a big threat to world peace way.
I have visited a fair number of countries this year in the course of filming a documentary series on the history of women. Some could hardly be described as bastions of tolerance and equality. But only in Russia did I witness sexism bolstered by state-sanctioned menace and contempt. It’s a truly repellent culture that can’t see anything wrong in a poster for vodka showing an alluring woman with bruised knees.
But simply being brutish and boorish is not in itself a national catastrophe. The poison in the well comes from the skilful way in which Putin has encouraged a cultural war— one that equates patriotism and nationalism with hard-fisted chauvinism — in order to bolster his political war with Europe.
Western audiences didn’t get the chance to watch the documentary The Furies of Maidan: Sex, Psychosis and Politics, on the Kremlin-backed channel NTV, about the link between “unnatural” women and political liberalism. This vile piece of anti-Ukrainian propaganda portrayed the Maidan uprising as the work of sex-crazed feminists whose morals and ideas come from America. Using faux-experts, the programme declared that the protests were manipulated by female deviants “who like it rough” and “are aroused by fear”.
Never mind that the out-of-control lesbians “exposed” by the documentary included a US assistant secretary of state, Victoria Nuland, who is married to the historian Robert Kagan. Or that there is a welter of physical evidence to disprove the programme’s claim that the Ukrainian journalist Tetyana Chornovol deliberately crashed her car and then mutilated herself in a bid for attention. These were just the high notes in a chorus of sexist hate and defamation aimed at discrediting western-style democracy.
While in Russia last week, I had the opportunity to meet Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the Pussy Riot members who spent almost two years in prison for singing an anti-Putin song in an Orthodox cathedral. They told me many Russian men admire Putin precisely because he was an unreconstructed chauvinist.
The allegations that he was a serial philanderer and a wife-beater, which he has never commented on, are perceived as positives in the weird psychology of the Russian electorate. They believe that Putin — he of the swagger and much flaunted man boobs — will bring back traditional Russia, with its subservient women and supplicant client states, and a servile West meekly accepting whatever he dishes out.
“Caress my virile Russia” was the subtext to Putin’s crude verbal attack on Hillary Clinton in June. In response to her remarks comparing Russia’s annexation strategy to Hitler’s, Putin said: “It’s better not to argue with women. But Mrs Clinton has never been too graceful in her statements.”
In other words, she’s one of those mannish types, boys, and we know what they need. Putin went on to talk about boundaries, which he is keen to ignore and crush whenever possible: “When people push boundaries too far, it’s not because they are strong but because they are weak. But maybe weakness is not the worst quality for a woman.”
In America, the Democrats accuse the Republicans of waging a “war on women”. Frankly, they need to get out more. The real nightmare is happening back at Putinstein’s house.
Russia has never embraced the concept of individual rights, let alone the rights of women. The Bolsheviks denounced feminism as a bourgeois conceit. Theoretically, communism made women equal with men, but in reality their status hardly changed. Crucially, neither did their actual (rather than their putative) ability to obtain a divorce, an abortion, reliable contraception or protection from domestic violence.
The end result is that many Russians have grown up with a warped understanding of what feminism or women’s rights mean. Russia looks “normal” or “modern” on the outside. Boys and girls receive the same education and the same access to healthcare. There are no legal barriers to women owning property, having bank accounts or participating in the economy.
But it’s a fake equality. In the latest global gender inequality study, Russia ranked 75th out of 142 world economies. Tellingly, it was 125th for political empowerment.
Added to this toxic historical and cultural mix is a resurgent Orthodox church that wants “traditional” values reimposed, two decades of decline in the male population, helped along by alcoholism, and a one-trick economy that will collapse unless it can parasitically feed off the economies of its neighbours.
Putin is institutionalising Russian misogyny because it’s a useful catch-all for keeping potential troublemakers on side — the church, the hard right, the disaffected male working class. He may also believe the creepy woman-hating stuff he says, but that’s beside the point. He has made it open season on women who speak up or speak out by portraying actions that we take for granted in the West as social aberrations that are deviant and anti-Russian.
Putin’s great success this year has been in taking his gynophobic platform to a new global level. His flunkeys in politics and the media are peddling a Russified version of the virtuous circle: the West is a threat to Russia, independent-minded women are also a threat to Russia, therefore beating down one will disable the other. At the same time, the failure to contain one will help the rise of the other. It’s hardly a circle, it’s not virtuous and only a tyrannical nutter would think in these terms anyway.
I don’t know what the solution is. But at least let’s not be blind to what’s going on. Russia has a woman problem, a man problem, a peace problem.