- Sex, Politics, and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia by Valerie Sperling
Valerie Sperling’s compelling new study on gender norms, sexism, and homophobia addresses one of the most important topics in contemporary Russia—the use of gender norms and sexualization as a form of political legitimacy and opportunity in Russian politics. Her book, Sex, Politics and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia, argues that “gender norms are invoked as tools of authority-building to take advantage of widespread misogyny and homophobia.”1 Offering the most comprehensive book on gender politics in post-soviet Russia, Sperling skillfully frames the political and emotional values shaping the current presidency’s quest for political legitimation, while tracking its deleterious effect on the rights of women in Russia.
Sperling inquires: What is it about Putin’s Russia that has allowed the use of gender norms to “flourish so dramatically”? Putin’s rise to power was framed by a public relations strategy that sought to distance the president from certain soviet legacies. The new government needed to be seductive, sexy, and alluring. It also needed to be somewhat capitalist. Sperling argues that “Putin became the major sex symbol of a new political regime resting on a new economic order.” The “sexualization of economic products starting in Russia in the 1990s helped lay the groundwork for the sexualization of political products, such as candidates and their supporters.”2 The new government [End Page 805] quickly dispensed with the image of an intoxicated Boris Yeltsin, conducting the Berlin Police Orchestra, a symbol that had grown to mirror the decline of the Russian state. This visual memory was replaced with the energetic physique of Vladimir Putin. As Sperling argues, the “Kremlin deployed a legitimation strategy that included stressing Putin’s machismo—a strategy that bled over into popular cultural productions of the same ilk.”3 The new president was routinely featured in the press as an active sportsman; flying a firefighting helicopter, riding shirtless and bareback through the Siberian forest, shooting a tiger, and diving underwater on the Taman Peninsula in search of archeological treasure.
Sperling proposes an analytical model she titles the “multiple opportunity structure” to explain the origins and evolution of this new phenomenon.4 The five part structure includes: 1) “Political Opportunity” in which she explores the political environment that has enabled this “strategy to emerge unhindered, without significant contestation,”5 2) “Economic Opportunity” embodied in the new commercial capitalism of the late 1990s that subjects women to advertising messages that promote materialism and false images of beauty and sex,6 3) “Political History” depicts how legacies of soviet ideology continue to shape the current presidency,7 4) “Culture” examines the role of family, the workplace, and the easy transition of sexism in politics to popular culture,8 and 5) the international arena constitutes the last piece of the multiple opportunity structure.9 Sperling contends that “[t]ying into the political-historical and cultural opportunity structures, Russia’s international context at the close of the Cold War created an opening for masculine contestation in foreign affairs.”10
The three key issues I wish to raise in this review relate to Sperling’s examination of political groups and organizations, the role of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the state’s response to the feminist movement. Sperling provides a multitude of excellent case studies for examination, but these selected themes are among the core tenets of her argument regarding political legitimation in Russia.
Sperling argues that political parties and youth organizations on all sides of the political spectrum use gender stereotypes to denigrate their opponents, sexualize their campaigns, and promote traditional family values. These techniques are not unique to President Putin, but are reflections of Russian politics in general. For example, Sperling shows how Nashi (Ours), the pro-Putin youth organization, frame “their messages using culturally familiar concepts” that promote sexual stereotyping. While promoting a nationalist discourse, Nashi links gender norms to notions of masculinity in the military service, and pro-natalism serving the discourse of the state. Yet it is not unique in...