Arianna Nowakowski is a PhD candidate and adjunct professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies; she also serves as editor of the Human Rights and Human Welfare journal. In this piece, Nowakowski, provides us with a glimpse of her dissertation on the construction of masculine subjectivity in post-Soviet Russia.
The downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991 confirmed the unthinkable: the seemingly indestructible fatherland-- which had persevered through war, famine, and brutal dictatorships-- had become fractured, impotent, and dependent upon the West for basic necessities. As the once powerful empire crumbled and faltered, it also revealed a gaping lack of masculine subjectivity.
Men, who had long been touted as family breadwinners, gallant soldiers, and heroic Stakhanovites, lost their abilities to fulfill traditional "masculine" roles and turned, instead, to alcoholism, drug use, and even suicide as ways of freeing themselves from the unattainable Ideal that society so stringently demanded. Considering the collective acrimony that had developed by the mid-1990s toward Soviet ideology, towards the West, and towards most of non-Russian Eastern Europe, where was Russia to turn for an identity, or "Idea" that was uniquely its own, and how would masculine subjectivity come to be defined within its inceptive national narrative?
As the dust of the early 1990s began to settle, a compendium of heterogeneous, yet interrelated, discourses emerged to fulfill Russia's lack of a national idea. Although discourses of the Russian Orthodox Church, the state under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, nationalist youth groups, and popular culture differ in significant ways, each of them has endeavored to restore hope for a stable and glorious future by evoking mythologized teachings and practices of Russia's long past. These teachings and practices have not only revived a unified Idea of what it means to be Russian; they have also engendered a very particular conceptualization of masculine subjectivity that has proven consequential for men and women alike.
According to increasingly powerful Russian Orthodox Church, the suppression of Orthodox teachings and practices during the Soviet and immediate post-Soviet periods resulted in a host of physical and existential maladies. The church has specifically disparaged the disintegration of the traditional family, as well as homosexuality and so-called "illicit" sex practices, and has predicated both national and individual salvation upon a return to traditional spiritual and moral Orthodox teachings. These teachings, by stipulating what a "normal" family should look like, and by defining gender identities within this rigid context, have produced a conceptualization of masculinity in which the body is rendered subservient to the soul, and in which an almost monastic heterosexual masculinity is privileged over all other possibilities.
The church's initiatives do not stand alone. Emerging on the national scene in December of 1999 as a young and confident leader, first President, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has come to embody for many what an Ideal Russian man should be. Putin's strong-handed political and social policies, combined with now notorious images of the leader practicing judo, tagging Siberian tigers, co-piloting a fighter jet, and fly fishing bare-chested in all his muscular might, have made him somewhat of a national hero. Putin is a hero that represents the promise of strength and stability regained; her personifies not only the Ideal Russian man, but also the powerful nation-- the formidable body politic-- that Russia could once again become.
Supported by nationalist youth groups and glorified in certain pop culture productions, the escalating power of the church and state represent for many a re-masculinization of the fatherland. As Russia regains its virility, the boundaries that define Ideal masculine subjectivity are redefined in particular and consequential ways. Gay men, as well as men who opt for fatherhood or other "sensitive" careers over more "manly" options, are denigrated as scapegoats for society's problems. Although alternative voices exist, they are oftentimes stifled by the increasingly authoritarian state apparatus. As the narrative of Russia's future continues to be written, it is apparent that national unity and prestige-- and Idea that defines the essence of Russianness-- can be achieved only at the expense of masculinity regained.