Russia’s Negative Family Values

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This week’s Russia! Magazine column, “Family Values and Putin’s Fourth Pillar,”

Last month, the Russian journalist Oleg Kashin called the 23 year old man brutally murdered in Volgograd for being gay a “sacrificial victim.” Kashin argued that the anti-gay rhetoric coming from the Duma would “quiet down” because the murder revealed “state homophobia” which was until then still “virtual” had become “perhaps more convincing than the state itself wished, and has now started materializing into reality.” Kashin was wrong. But I can’t blame him for suffering from a lapse of naïve hope. Crimes like the one in Volgograd, after all, should have caused national pause. It should have at least tempered the actions of the State Duma. This man’s humanity should have overshadowed his otherness. But it didn’t. Kashin underestimated the conservative cultural politics defining Putin’s third term.

Since December 2011 the Russian government has retrenched itself on a myriad of fronts: political, cultural, economic and social. Several theories come to mind to explain this siege mentality. It’s the state striking back against the liberal thaw of the Medvedev years. The culture war is part of Putin’s efforts to erect a new populist majority. It’s a new anti-cosmopolitianism seeking to purge Russian society of its Western infections. Putinist conservativism serves as a retrograde substitute for a proactive social ideology to rebind the nation. All of these are plausible. They could even exist concurrently as they complement more than contradict. But still, one or even all of these interpretations appear too superficial. It’s important to remember Putinism is characterized by a series of reconstructions: the reestablishment of the power vertical; the rebuilding of the Russian economy; and the reinstitution of the social structure. Viewed in this light, the recent efforts to assert Russian Orthodox family values are an attempt to re-erect the last pillar: the cultural sphere.

A society’s character is constructed on the margins. Meaning, a society gets its identity not from the inclusion of the normal, but from the identification, isolation, and expulsion of the abnormal. For it is the aberrant that defines the border between what is acceptable and unacceptable. The reassertion of Russian Orthodox values is no different. Its increasing presence as a pillar in Russian cultural life is not established by what it is, but by what it’s not: Western, liberal, feminist, and homosexual. Today’s Russian conservativism is not proactively constituted. It is reactively defined by negation.