International Feminist Journal of Politics
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Russia’s push for “traditional values” urges us to think about visibility and invisibility in more complex ways

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Emil Edenborg

When Chechnya’s president Ramzan Kadyrov, in response to reports in 2017 about a wave of anti-LGBT persecution, publically denied the existence of gay people in the republic – echoing the claims made by Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University in 2007 that “in Iran we do not have homosexuals” – such efforts by state leaders to erase queers from the national narrative ironically draw global attention to precisely the category of people whose existence is denied. In the last decade, the Russian state has increasingly turned to “traditional values” – stressing the need to revive heteronormative family relations and essentialist notions of gender – as an ideology of regime legitimation, national unification and foreign policy identity. The most known manifestation of this conservative project is the 2013 law banning “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” directed at minors. The law aims to delimit the public visibility of non-heterosexual identities by introducing fines on the dissemination of material portraying homosexuality positively. However, like Kadyrov’s denial of gay existence, the law, much debated within Russia and an issue of international controversy before the 2014 Sochi Olympics, has contributed to making LGBT issues and the precarious situation of Russian queers more visible than ever. 

Credit: Coming Out

Credit: Coming Out

The political implications of visibility and invisibility have – explicitly or implicitly – been at the heart of much feminist and queer discussion. In the words of Donna Haraway: “In a world replete with images and representations, whom can we not see or grasp, and what are the consequences of such selective blindness?” Western LGBT politics has placed high value in public visibility, expressed in discourses of “coming out” and the organization of Pride marches. However, queer researchers have pointed at the ambivalences of visibility, showing that when marginalized groups become more visible they may also become increasingly vulnerable. Some argue that the forms of visibility promoted by many LGBT movements contain biases of race, class, gender, gender identity and functionality, privileging certain queers at the expense of others, and may be ill-suited for many contexts outside Western liberal democracies. Some would say that Russia confirms such warnings. Growing visibility of non-heterosexual identities and LGBT discourses in the 1990s and early 2000s has not been accompanied by inclusion or recognition; on the contrary, there has been a marked rise in political homophobia (and according to some studies anti-LGBT violence) during the 2010s. 

My article “Russia’s spectacle of ‘traditional values’: rethinking the politics of visibility” discusses how to understand the role of visibility (and invisibility) in relation to current constructions of gender, sexuality and nationalism. Drawing on a case study of the “traditional values” project promoted by the Kremlin, I show that visibility politics, i.e. practices which aim to create and manage public visibility, is not only something that marginalized groups engage in, but central to efforts to (re)define what the community is and whom it includes, including those pursued by states. In dominant Russian media discourse in the 2010s, the imaginary of Russia as a heteropatriarchal community where “traditional” family and gender relations persist, and which defends gender conservatism internationally, is reproduced though a state-promoted spectacle which determines what kinds of (gendered and sexualized) bodies can appear in the public sphere, and how their visibility is regulated. First, queer people are made invisible as political subjects, while at the same time hypervisible as an imagined threat to the nation. Second, the public sphere is saturated with images of certain masculinities, notably heroic soldier patriotism and Vladimir Putin as macho strongman. In this way, the collective, national body – in this case Russia as a nation of “traditional values” – appears through the orchestration of what individual gendered and sexualized bodies appear in public, and how they appear. 

Credit: Pskovskaya Guberniya

Credit: Pskovskaya Guberniya

I also discuss visibility as site of resistance. Drawing on Judith Butler’s 2015 book on the performativity of public assemblies, I discuss how the Kremlin traditionalist project is challenged through embodied forms of protest, when subjects that are erased from dominant national narratives suddenly (re-)appear in the public sphere. Spectacular public actions by LGBT advocates (for example highly contested Pride marches in Moscow) as well as by feminist performance artists – the most known being Pussy Riot’s 2012 “punk prayer” in a Moscow cathedral – have made visible gendered and sexualized subjects that are excluded from the heteropatriarchal idea of the nation. However, I argue that the Kremlin is successful in appropriating and distorting those alternative visibilities, incorporating them into a narrative about West-sponsored provocateurs attacking the “traditional values” of ordinary Russians. At worst, acts of spectacular resistance may reinforce rather than challenge dominant discourses. 

A less spectacular form of embodied reappearance was when Kremlin-critical media in 2014 published stories about Russian soldiers who had died in Ukraine and who were being secretly buried in graveyards throughout Russia. The secrecy was prompted by the fact that officially, Russia was not partaking in the war and there were no Russian forces in Ukraine, therefore, the soldiers’ deaths could not be publically mourned and integrated into the dominant traditionalist discourse celebrating soldier sacrifices as heroic. Studying narratives of soldiers’ mothers and wives, I argue that the exposure of the secret funerals tapped into the traditionalist gender norms that are normally celebrated by the Russian state, but in this case in order to criticize that same state for sending boys to their deaths and refusing to recognize their sacrifices. In this way, it was a less clearly oppositional form of resistance than the spectacular forms of protest mentioned before, but more difficult for the state to accommodate and fit into the dominant traditionalist narrative. 

Looking both at spectacular and less spectacular forms of protest, I suggest we pay more attention to the ambivalence of visibility as a form of resistance, with contradictory effects for various people. In addition, by looking at the spectacles that are produced or disseminated by states, such as the erasure or demonization of homosexuals, and the celebration of soldier masculinities, we can learn something about how nations themselves are gendered and sexualized.

Read the full article here: Russia’s spectacle of ‘traditional values’: rethinking the politics of visibility