sex and the war

Putin's big...'missiles'

by Panagiotis Antoniadis, Ph.D. (c)

Does the war have a gender? A sexuality, maybe? Can a war be masculine? Or even straight? If we take gender and sexuality to be two of the major principles that organize social life and mediate all of its aspects by and large, then the obvious answer is a big fat yes. But let’s dig a bit deeper by taking as an example the ongoing Ukraine war. In what follows I am trying to shed some light on these gendered and sexualized aspects of international politics and the war itself. As such, an exploration of the circumstances that have led to this war is out of the scope of this article, even though I hope the reader will get some helpful insights as to the inner workings of any war as such.

A bit of context first. On 24 February 2022, Russia has invaded Ukraine. 8 years ago, the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity took place in the context of which Russia annexed Crimea and separatists with the support of Russia seized part of south-east Ukraine. According to the International Humanitarian Law, the invasion of Ukraine is considered to be a war of aggression or of conquest, that is ‘a military conflict waged without the justification of self-defense, usually for territorial gain and subjugation’, marking this attack as the biggest on a European state since World War II. 

As of today, 29th of March, approximately 10 million Ukrainians have fled their home country, at least 23.000 Ukrainians and Russians have been killed and 1.900 have been non-fatally injured, and at least 1.700 buildings and infrastructures have been destroyed raising the property damage up to 565 billion US dollars, according to the latest estimation of human and material losses by Reuters. At the same time, the war has been transported to the global mediasphere and cyberspace where a war of propaganda and misinformation is raging over the last few weeks. In this context, I would like to draw your attention to a series of events usually dismissed as of minor importance in the face of the more ‘serious’ geopolitical developments in the area, or at the best discussed in a sensational -clickbaiting- way rather via a sustained analysis.

Scene from Pride Parade in Russia

As reported by prominent news agencies around the world, in the last few days human traffickers are preying -as I am writing this blog article- on desperate refugees, especially women and children, on the Ukrainian borders in their attempt to seek refuge in eastern Europe. According to Sky News, the police forces in Romania and Poland have already arrested suspects who were trying to 'sell' these vulnerable women and children to gangs in Europe as slaves and prostitutes. In addition, Ukraine MP claims that women over 60, who were unable to flee the warzone, were ‘raped and hanged’ by Russian troops. This reminds us once again that mass rapes and other forms of sexual violence in situations of armed conflict go back a long way as a systematic and widespread weapon of war, either as a means of psychological warfare directed against the civilian population or a way of destruction of an entire ethnic group by forced impregnation.

According to the feminist historian Gerda Lerner, the author of The Creation of Patriarchy (1987: 80), ‘the practice of raping the women of a conquered group has remained a feature of warfare and conquest from the second millennium B.C. to the present. It is a social practice which, like the torture of prisoners, has been resistant to "progress," to humanitarian reforms, and to sophisticated moral and ethical considerations. I suggest this is the case because it is a practice built into and essential to the structure of patriarchal institutions and inseparable from them.’ Let me also note the 2008 U.N. Security Council resolution 1820 which states that ‘rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.’ Will Russia be held accountable for these crimes by the international community? 

Scene from Pride Parade in Russia

On the other hand, many LGBTIQA+ Ukrainians have reportedly fled their country in search of safety to countries, such as Hungary and Poland, hostile to their rights and to their very existence due to the anti-LGBTIQA+ laws and LGBTIQA+ free zones that are in place in those states despite being members of the European Union. According to New York Times, those of the Ukrainian queer activists, who chose to stay behind, have joined the nation’s fight against the Russian invasion in order to protect -among others- their limited civil rights they have as LGBTIQA+ citizens from their devastation in case of Russian occupation. 

To be sure, Ukraine itself is far from queer heaven despite the small steps the country has taken towards a more liberal direction regarding LGBTIQA+ rights after the fall of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s Independence in 1991. Same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples are still illegal, the national hate crime laws do not explicitly ban gender- or sexuality-based discrimination, and transsexuality is still classified as a psychiatric disorder, among others. The fact remains that the prevailing social attitudes towards queer persons continue to be highly queerphobic. This way it should not come as a surprise that trans and non-binary persons are trapped in war-torn Ukraine and they are not allowed for evacuation because of the lack of corresponding identification documents and the military law in place that bans Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country. I cannot help but wonder: what does it mean and how does it feel to be forced to fight for a country that does not grant you the same rights as the rest of its citizens, that does not even recognize your very existence?

In the meantime, a set of implicit assumptions about gender and sexuality are mobilized by the Russian side in order either to justify the invasion or pre-emptively threaten any allies to Ukraine. On the one hand, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, appeared to blame Gay Pride Parades for the Ukraine war stating that this war is about ‘which side of God humanity will be on’. Following his queerphobic logic, ‘gayness’ is a western product that has invaded the pure, Christian, and -of course- heterosexual culture of Ukraine, a sin that calls for a just punishment by God, or his earthy representative, Vladimir Putin. In this justificatory narrative, the father, Russia, is here to cleanse its child, Ukraine, of its homosexual sins. 

On the other hand, a few days ago we witnessed a cockfight (pun intended) between the tech tycoon and richest person in the world, Elon Musk, and the head of Chechen Republic and notorious homophobe, Ramzan Kadyrov. In their exchange on the occasion of the support Musk lends to Ukraine’s drone unit, Kadyrov tries to emasculate Musk by feminizing the latter’s first name as Elona, while he warns him that he is not muscular/masculine enough to even stand a chance against the alpha male Putin. These seemingly irrelevant remarks speak volumes as to the extent to which this war, like every other war, is a gendered one, where militarism is presented as the natural extension of masculinism, and aggression is naturalized as an innate trait of masculinity. Under the omnipresent threat of a nuclear escalation of the war, the toxic part of ‘toxic masculinity’ seems to acquire a whole new meaning. 

However, this kind of ideological anti-queer and heterosexist propaganda to justify the war is part and parcel of what has become known as the dogma of Putin-ism which is no stranger to queerphobia and sexism itself. This political system in Russia has been inspired and embodied by Vladimir Putin who has been ruling Russia -one way or another- since 2000. He has managed to concentrate immense political and financial powers in his hands with the help of a close group of friends or associates known as Russian oligarchs by taking control over the economy, the media, the state, and the army and imposing severe restrictions on democratic freedoms and human rights.   

Andrey Piontkovsky who coined the term in 2000 summarizes eloquently Putin-ism as ‘the highest and final stage of bandit capitalism in Russia, the stage where, as one half-forgotten classic said, the bourgeoisie throws the flag of the democratic freedoms and the human rights overboard; and also as a war, "consolidation" of the nation on the ground of hatred against some ethnic group, attack on freedom of speech and information brainwashing, isolation from the outside world and further economic degradation.’

According to the professor of political science, M. Steven Fish, Putin-ism describes a way of governing that is conservative, populist, and personalistic. Bear with me and it will become immediately clear what is at stake. The conservatism stems from a view of the Russian state as semi-religious state, where Orthodox Christianity safeguards the core values of the nation, most notably the traditional value of the nuclear family. This rhetoric on family reproduces a series of implicit assumptions, such as the heterosexuality of its members, the complementarity of two distinct and strictly defined genders, and the patriotic demand to bear children. In order words, if the archetypical Russian family is the miniature version of the Russian nation-state, this family cannot be but one with a dad, a mum, and kids, each perfectly aligned to their prescribed gender roles

This is also a populist politics since it rests on the queerphobic reflexes of a part of its citizens, one that puts forward the figure of the queer as an enemy to the Russian-hood itself, to distract the attention of these ‘ordinary Russians’ away from their real financial and political concerns. Furthermore, this populism expressed in crowd-pleasing rallies against gay rights and feminism requires the personalist attitude of one-man rule that demands Putin himself to personify, literally embody, this ideal citizenship. To put it simply, Russia is Putin, and Putin is Russia. This brings me to my next topic of discussion, that is, how Putin and his associates perform their gender and sexuality as a form of political and moral capital in their public appearances

In this political climate, where Putin-ism constructs the national identity of Russians around the three axes of anti-western nationhood, family, and religion, it should not come as a surprise the deeply gendered and sexualized character of this ‘pure and proud’ national identity that is in constant need of strawmen against whom it solidifies its coherence and establishes its political and moral superiority. On the one hand, Putin presents himself as the epitome of Russian manhood, the paradigmatic masculine citizen and leader who enjoys martial arts and hunts semi-naked in the freezing-cold Russian woods. In other words, he marketizes himself as an alpha male, a former KGB spy, a family man, a ladies' man, a warrior, a true hero, a politician to be feared because of his very big…nuclear 'missiles' at his disposal. On the other hand, in 2013 he signed the infamous Russian federal law ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, also known as the Russian gay propaganda law, in his alleged attempt to protect children from being exposed to homosexuality since the latter is a western import that threatens to erode the tissue of the Russian society, that is the heterosexual family. In this way, queers have been presented explicitly as anti-Russian, implanted by the West to undermine the Russian national identity as implicitly heterosexual and male.  

Not only Putin himself, but also a series of politicians from neighboring countries and federal districts of Russia have adopted a similar -highly gendered and sexualized- political agenda. Even in pre-war Ukraine, there had been voices that argued for a gay propaganda law in an attempt to suppress the freedom of speech and of assembly of queer Ukrainians. However, this disgraced political strategy articulated in the language of nationhood finds its apogee in the case of Putin’s war dog, Kadyrov, who has recently joined the Russian forces against Ukraine. Since at least 2017, Kadyrov has taken the anti-LGBTIQA+ politics to its extreme in the Chechen Republic via anti-gay purges that have included forced ‘disappearances’, abductions, imprisonment, torture, and murder of queer persons, primarily gay men, while Kadyrov appears to be hunting crocodiles barehanded on his social media.

 These hideous crimes -tolerated by Putin’s administration- made the headlines around the globe, but it was a quote by Kadyrov that I believe perfectly illustrates the point I am trying to make in this blog article: ‘We don't have those kinds of people here. We don't have any gays. If there are any, take them to Canada. Praise be to God. Take them far from us so we don't have them at home. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.’ Russians, or in this case Chechens, cannot be gay by definition or by nature, but if there are any, we will drive them to extinction in order to keep our blood pure, to keep our Russian-hood virile, masculine, straight. Gayness contaminates like a virus the social body of the nation; it makes it diseased and weak because of its contagious femininity and perversion. It is this diseased and weak West, that condones perverts, from which we must protect Ukraine.

To conclude, not only some, like Patriarch Kirill and Kadyrov, have used this anti-LGBTIQA+ propaganda as a means to politically justify the invasion of the morally corrupted as LGBTIQA+ friendly Ukraine, but the war itself has been colored by gendered and sexualized practices and rhetoric, as it has become obvious from the above. In a way, the Russian invasion is a type of cultural imperialism that aims at spreading this misogyny and queerphobia beyond the Russian borders, both as a moral justification of the invasion itself and as a very means of invading by strategically emasculating the enemy and its allies. Ukrainians have had it coming since their pseudo-progressive embrace of women’s and LGBTIQA+ rights has westernized them to the point of presenting a danger to themselves in need of saving from themselves by their Russian brothers. Once again, politics, even at the geopolitical level, proves to be a straight boys’ club where hetero-masculinity is the most insidious and dangerous weapon of all. Guns for dicks, as always.