Liberal commentators of Russian aggression against Ukraine rightly trace its source back to Russia’s imperialist politics. They are wrong, however, in assuming that the realness of this war renders insignificant all ‘unreal’ disputes, in particular those revolving around issues of culture and social mores, i.e. gender and sexuality. The same commentators are surprised at the scale of support for Putin in Russia and note with disbelief that the Vatican has still not clearly condemned Russia. From this perspective, Patriarch Kirill’s words about needing to defend the Donbas from gay pride parades or Putin’s quip about cancel culture and J.K. Rowling are mere blips unworthy of consideration. Yet both statements came after armed combat began, and they were not accidental blunders. The liberal (and far-left) insistence on the insignificance of cultural disputes is making us incapable of understanding the mechanisms that have made this war not only possible, but also – in the eyes of a considerable proportion of Russians – inevitable and legitimate. The global culture war, waged for over a decade now, has played a major part in legitimizing the actual war.
Anti-gender ideology as soft power
Gender and sexuality occupy a central place in the Russian campaign against the European Union and the West. One could even say that by opposing the supposed moral dissolution and degeneration of the West as betokened by the English word ‘gender,’ Russia is exerting a soft power all its own. In Russian media, the West is portrayed not only as a political adversary, but also as an ‘upside-down world’ that is heading for self-annihilation and defying common sense. The countries of the EU are described with horror as places where children are taken from normal families in order to be given to gays and paedophiles, where marriages are torn asunder amid disingenuous arguments about protecting women from violence, and finally, where teenagers are subjected to compulsory sex changes in the name of some sick ‘gender ideology.’ According to Kremlin propaganda parroted by the Russian Orthodox Church, this madness is being insidiously exported to the East: gays rule Europe (or rather ‘Gayropa’) and the EU institutions terrorised by them are forcing gay pride parades on countries drawn into the West’s orbit. When Putin spoke of J.K. Rowling being ‘canceled’ for transphobia, he was really talking about Russia’s victimization by the West: the writer’s tribulations are meant to be ‘proof that the West likes to “invalidate” people, and now Russia is facing the same treatment.’ In the global war of good versus evil, Ukraine – pushing for an alliance with the West and applying for admission to the EU – is cast as a source of danger and at the same time a colonized country that Russia must save. Throughout this narrative, the issue of gender and sexuality plays not a marginal role but a crucial one.
In the face of colonial aggression by the West and its allies in the region, self-defense is necessary. This was the vision clearly voiced by Patriarch Kirill on 6 March 2022 when he explained the necessity of the Putinist ‘special operation.’ His statement is worth quoting in extenso, as its tone and rhetoric say a great deal about how the rulers of contemporary Russia think: “For eight years there have been attempts to destroy what exists in Donbas. Donbas has fundamentally refused to accept the so-called values that are being offered by those aspiring for worldwide power. There is a specific test of loyalty to these powers, a requirement for being permitted into the happy world of excessive consuming and apparent freedom. This test is very straightforward and at the same time horrifying—the gay parade. The demand to organize a gay-parade is a test of loyalty to this powerful world. And we know that if a people or a country refuses this test, they are not considered part of that world, they are considered as aliens to it.”
Let us take a closer look at this narrative. In it, the values offered by the West are shown to be empty, false, consumerist. Yet the West remains a mighty power, while its victims are ordinary people who have evil foisted upon them. Russia has a great civilisational mission to fulfill: her task is to protect local communities from sinister Western colonization and, in the longer view, to bring moral renewal to the Christian world – to save the West from itself. Russia is purported to be the repository of values which once constituted the axis of the Western world but which the West has since abandoned. The real values – the ones the Donbass is trying to defend, with Russia’s help of course – are tradition (including the so-called traditional family), natural sexual order, clear social hierarchy, and the dominant role of religion which enables vice to be sifted from virtue. The West has forgotten all of this, beguiled by a false vision of freedom propagated by Marx and Freud, and later by countercultural, feminist, and LGBT movements. Opposition to ‘gender ideology’ is an integral part of imperialist discourse propagated by Russia’s so-called new traditionalists inspired by Aleksandr Dugin, among others.
Putin turned to this brand of conservatism in the years 2011–13 in response to the mass protests against instances of electoral fraud that led to his third term as president. This pivot proved an extraordinary success, above all because the ground for it had been laid long beforehand: the Russian academic and intellectual elite had been promoting a vision of new conservatism based on a combination of anti-Western nationalism, opposition to socialism, and appeals to so-called traditional values. Within this vision, the post-1989 transformation of our region is the result of domination by the liberal West and a series of humiliations for the East. We in Poland know this rhetoric well – that of ‘rising from our knees,’ of defending sovereignty, of resisting globalism, and of refusing to be imitators. In Russia’s case, it is also streaked with imperial nostalgia and megalomania.
The traditional East is defending itself from the decadent West
For years, these views have been spewing forth not only from Russian media but also–in a somewhat modified form–from ultraconservative publications criticizing ‘gender ideology’ all over Europe, as well as from speakers at events such as the World Congress of Families, which, incidentally, Russians helped to launch in the late 1990s alongside representatives of the American religious right. Russia’s special mission in the anti-gender crusade has been spoken of, for example, by German sociologist Gabriele Kuby, a standard-bearer in the European movement warring against ‘gender ideology.’ In one interview, she plainly stated that ‘Russia is the only country today where it is possible for the Church and the state to rebuild the foundations of the family.’ There are also versions of the “decadent West” narrative localized to the needs of particular countries, wherein Croatia or Poland, for instance, are the saviors. According to E. Michael Jones, an American Catholic ultraconservative known for his anti-Semitic publications, it is the Poles who have been chosen to defend the West: in the time of King John III Sobieski, against the threat of Islam; and today, against the madness of atheism and gender ideology. Drawing the border across this new moral–political geography is a distinct rift between the atheist West and the decadence-resisting Christian East.
In Russia, this message gets translated directly into legislation. For a good ten years now, narratives about the decadent, and simultaneously aggressive, West have formed the basis for eroding civil society, cracking down on sexual minorities, and restricting women’s rights. In 2012 the Duma passed a bill branding NGOs ‘organizations performing the functions of foreign agents,’ and in 2017 the law’s scope was broadened to apply the label ‘foreign agent’ to all media that directly or indirectly receive financing from abroad. In 2013, a ban on ‘homosexual propaganda’ was enacted; in practice, this means a ban on providing information about the situation of LGBTQ people, on displaying rainbow emblems, and on public displays of affection by same-sex couples, to say nothing of street demonstrations. Entering into force that same year was a ban on the adoption of Russian children by people from countries where same-sex marriage has been legalised. Russia never ratified the Istanbul Convention, which protects victims of domestic violence; furthermore, in 2017 Putin signed into law a bill decriminalizing one-off instances of intra-family violence in cases that do not result in death or grievous bodily harm.
These changes have generally been implemented without any societal opposition, which points not so much to Russian moral conservatism but rather to the effectiveness of rhetoric demonizing gender equality as a manifestation of Western expansionism and as a threat to ordinary people. The broad acceptance for laws legitimising violence against women and sexual minorities indicates that Putin’s propagandists have managed to inculcate society with a fear of Western norms, values and lifestyles–a fear that is borne along within depictions of gender and sexuality. The current public acceptance of the invasion of Ukraine–or rather a high degree of apathy towards it–is a natural consequence of this. In both cases, the positions of perpetrator and victim have been deftly inverted, presenting Russia as a victim of cultural colonization, economic exploitation, and military aggression. If we listen closely to Kirill’s words, we realize that the line between culture war and actual war is in fact paper thin.
We are dealing with two parallel processes here. On the one hand, the ‘war against gender’ is resorting to ever more radical means, while its promoters incline towards justifying violence, presenting aggression as a necessary defense of the common people. On the other hand, militaristic and authoritarian discourses are increasingly steeped in the rhetoric of gender and family. This applies not only to Russia but also to the populist right all across Europe. Patriarch Kirill’s words or Putin’s countless statements about the threat posed by ‘Gayropa’ are an extreme example of what can happen when these two tendencies come together.
The notion that Russia is defending the traditional family by murdering civilians in Ukraine may appear utterly absurd to someone who has been following this war in Western media and who has seen, say, photos of children raped in Bucha. Yet this is more than a metaphor. For a consumer of Russian media, this line of reasoning remains persuasive: in the face of many years of Western expansion, ‘intervention’ in Ukraine becomes an act of self-defense. It is not just about Russia’s territorial integrity in the face of a potential extension of NATO; it is also a struggle of good versus evil, reason versus madness, spiritual heritage versus moral degeneration. In any case, photos from Bucha will never be seen or considered true by the average Russian.
Russia, a beacon of hope for Europe?
Opposition to ‘gender ideology’ – equated with abortion, homosexuality, trans rights, sexual education, and gender studies – has become, in recent years, the cement that binds ultraconservative organisations (often rooted in religion) to radical right-wing and populist movements throughout Europe. Researchers Weronika Grzebalska, Eszter Kováts, and Andrea Peto, have called gender issues a ‘symbolic glue’ capable of gluing together even extreme nationalists from different countries.
In the spring of 2019, Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, memorably said that “the LGBT movement and gender ideology are a threat to our identity, a threat to our nation, and a threat to the Polish state.” Arguments similar to those used by Kaczyński can be found in statements by politicians belonging to right-wing parties such as Fidesz in Hungary, Lega Nord in Italy, Vox in Spain, or AfD in Germany; though they are not equally effective everywhere. The rhetoric changes according to the context: whereas Polish anti-gender campaigns, persisting with varying intensity since 2012, are openly homophobic, the political right in Germany or Sweden prefers to take aim at gender studies programs and queer feminism whilst simultaneously demonizing refugees and migrants from Muslim countries as a threat to white women and ‘our gays.’ In Western countries, right-wingers do not defend men’s right to beat their wives, nor do they propose (as in Poland) a total ban on abortion, but they do eagerly revile ‘perversions’ of feminism, which is purported to have ‘gone too far’ in pursuit of egalitarian policies.
What binds far-right parties and ultraconservative movements together is not only their common outlook regarding gender. As shown by Neil Datta’s report from the European Parliamentary Forum, in the years 2009–19 the anti-gender movement in Europe received funding to the tune of at least $188 million from the Russian Federation. Although this money flows through NGOs as well as various ‘money laundromats,’ it springs mainly from the pockets of Russian oligarchs (the key figures being Vladimir Yakunin and Konstantin Malofeev). This does not mean that Russia is the sole or even the main sponsor of campaigns fighting against ‘queer ideology’ in Europe: during the same period, $437 million in funding was drummed up within the EU itself and $81 million came from the US, mainly from conservative think tanks. Financial flows do show, however, who in Europe is linked to Putin by shared views and money.
The fight against ‘gender’ is not merely a dispute over differing world views that can be brushed aside in the face of actual war. It is imagined as a war of good versus evil in which the enemy must be destroyed–not just symbolically, but also literally. At the 2019 World Congress of Families in Verona–which brought together the crème de la crème of European and global ultraconservative organizations, far-right parties, and the various branches of Christianity–one of the organizers, Jacopo Coghe, proclaimed that the movement opposing ‘gender ideology’ was actually fighting against “the ideologies of death that destroy man and human reality. If the mother is no longer the one who gives birth and the father is no longer the one who begets, children can be bought and gender is decided within the mind, and if every desire becomes a right, this means that at stake is not only a new model of society but a new paradigm of humanity.” Anti-gender rhetoric is constructed in such a way as to justify preemptive violence as a necessary self-defense. This, as we already know, is what Putin is currently trying to exploit. But where do European opponents of ‘gender’ stand in all this?
Up until February 2022, the fascination that Putinist Russia held for these milieux was no particular secret. Today, however, it is a shameful burden: Marine Le Pen had to pulp over a million election leaflets that showed her posing with Putin, and Matteo Salvini would gladly erase all memory of photos where he appears in a T-shirt emblazoned with the Russian president’s likeness. Leaders of the Spanish party Vox, known Putin sympathizers, initially refused to condemn the Russian attack on Ukraine, only to change tack the next moment and compare themselves to Zelensky.
But will these about-turns stick? Do they mean a policy change for these parties in matters concerning the moral geography of Europe and their attitude towards the European Union? Of course not. We should expect the populist right to continue defending the ‘traditional family’ and children and to continue attacking Brussels, while simply doing a slightly better job of hiding their pro-Russian sympathies.
Global ultraconservative movements and right-wing populist parties are bound together by an ‘opportunistic synergy’: the former gain political and financial support for their projects, while the latter gain rhetorical tools enabling them to stoke up social fears. A perfect example of this is the alliance between Ordo Iuris and the political right governing Poland. The Ordo Iuris Institute has acquired enormous political influence and numerous government posts; the politicians, meanwhile, find themselves better able to channel voters’ fears and frustrations against “degenerate elites who want to put boys in dresses.” Narratives about needing to combat the madness of ‘gender ideology’ provide a useful cover for authoritarian and fascist-leaning attitudes, cloaking them under concern for children’s well-being. In Russia’s case, they also help present killing civilians as the necessary price for the future of Christian civilization.
The Pope’s silence
Where does the Vatican stand on all this? Why does the Pope stay silent? Indeed, this is difficult to comprehend if one does not treat the cultural divisions seriously. The Vatican is one of the main instigators of the ‘gender’ culture war and it remains one of the main belligerents within it. Since the 1990s, the Catholic Church has fought against the ‘gender agenda’ – i.e. women’s rights, minority rights, and sexual liberalism – as dangerous fabrications of the Western ‘civilisation of death.’ In the early 2010s, both the then Pope and successive episcopacies – including Poland’s – condemned ‘gender ideology,’ seeing within it a threat to civilisation. In February 2016, a historic meeting took place between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Cuba; on that occasion, they issued a joint declaration condemning marriage equality. In fairness, Francis did not attend the 2019 World Congress of Families in Verona, and he keeps coolly aloof from the Brazilian ultraconservative organization TFP (Tradition, Family, Property), which is hostile towards him. From time to time, he also publicly distances himself from overt homophobia. Yet he has not chosen open confrontation with the Church’s ultraconservative wing, nor has he disciplined Catholic bishops who, like Cracow’s Marek Jędraszewski, speak publicly of a ‘rainbow plague’ and support homophobic violence. Quite the opposite – he himself has repeatedly warned against ‘colonization by gender.’
The head of the Catholic Church is therefore keeping quiet about Russia’s barbarity not only because of a long tradition of neutrality and a desire to step into the role of a mediator. The Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church are bound together by a shared conviction that the conservative East constitutes a counterweight to the liberal West. But what, you say, about Russia’s opinion that the defense of ‘real values’ requires civilian deaths? The Pope undoubtedly deplores this necessity, but nothing indicates he is about to switch sides any time soon.
Agnieszka Graff is associate professor at the American Studies Center, University of Warsaw. She is a cultural studies scholar with research interests in gender studies, feminist history, nationalism, and public discourse on gender. Her articles have appeared in Signs, East European Politics and Societies, Public Culture, European Journal of Women’s Studies as well as a number of collected volumes.
Elżbieta Korolczuk is Associate Professor of Sociology, works at Södertörn University in Stockholm and at the American Studies Center, Warsaw University. Her research interests involve: gender, social movements and civil society. Korolczuk is also a commentator and women’s and human rights activist.
Translation from Polish by Luke Evans, based on the article first published online in Polish by Gazeta Wyborcza on 20 April 2022.