The reshaping of Russian masculinity in wartime: a vicious cycle of violence11 min read

 In Analysis, Civil Society, Russia, War in Ukraine

Since 24 February 2022, wartime Russia has seen a reshaping of the hierarchy of masculinities. Bankers and service workers are out, soldiers and criminals are in. The rehabilitation of marginalised and violent masculinities as newly central to the state’s survival has consequences for the Russian army’s behaviour — particularly its systematic use of sexual violence — on the frontlines, in occupied Ukraine, and in Russian society. 

War deeply impacts gender hierarchies and gender roles. Women are reduced to their supposedly inherent vulnerability, and men to their duty of protection. In the existential climate of war, the masculine duty to defend the state (on which first-class citizenship often hinges) becomes even more acute, and militarised masculinities benefit from a positive re-evaluation compared to other masculinities.

In the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Putin’s propaganda has employed itself to this re-evaluation, to recalibrate what is hailed as ideal, hegemonic Russian masculinity.

Bankers out

A video circulated on Telegram in the aftermath of the partial mobilisation in September 2022 encapsulates the shift by which some masculinities are recognised as more valuable and noble in wartime.

Two young men in sweatshirts, sitting on a bench and chatting, do not appear to be contributing much to the economy or the labour force. But they are the ones highlighted as ‘real men’, as opposed to mere ‘boys’ — whereas the successful, wealthy banker is dismissed as selfish.

The banker’s failed masculinity is shown by his inability to carry out his duty to protect vulnerable women. Instead, his expensive car crushes the oranges which the elderly woman no doubt bought with what little money she has. She is ‘middle Russia,’ at risk of alienation by a ruthless, unscrupulous banker in a suit, fleeing to a foreign land ‘for good.’ Not only does he fail to act as the protector, but he is actively harming the more vulnerable in society. 

The two young boys, by contrast, are Russia’s future. They have stayed loyal to the state, ready to fight for Russia on the field or in the street.

The advert seeks to elicit pride in those who identify with the young men, and shame those who have fled like the banker. It reflects not only the popular resentment against those often upper-middle-class, well-educated Russians who left in the first months of the war, but also a recalibrating of who is hailed as a true Russian man.

Soldiers in

Exemplifying this redefinition is the outsized symbolic role that the late Evgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group came to play in the first 18 months of war in Ukraine. The Wagner Group epitomises raw, aggressive, unfiltered, shirtless ‘muzhiki’ masculinity. It symbolises the new dignity given to formerly shunned hillbillies and ‘simple’ men, which the notion of ‘muzhik’ also evokes. This is in vivid contrast to the sleek, often deviant, cosmopolitan masculinity associated with corporate elites in expensive suits, especially popular during the economic turmoil of the 1990s.

Prigozhin recruited many of his troops directly from Russia’s prisons, which greatly contributed to the re-evaluation of some of the more obscure, excluded individuals in society as war heroes. This is part of what political scientist Ivan Krastev called an attempt to “redefine the Russian nation” amid the new wartime atmosphere. 

“Prisoners are welcomed in the nation, while all those anti-war cosmopolitan elites, including some of Putin’s oligarchs, are not,” Krastev says. “Prigozhin frequently released statements attacking supposed traitors in the elite who holiday abroad and dream of Russia losing the war. There are many in Putin’s administration who want to ‘fall on their knees before Uncle Sam,’ Prigozhin claimed.” 

Here, the once-revered elite is cast aside and undermined through association with treachery and perhaps even homosexuality — ‘falling on their knees’ before the anthropomorphised male United States — while the ‘hard guys,’ the prisoners and tough criminals, are granted renewed respect. Bureaucrats with power and money are deemed morally corrupt and ‘sold’ to foreign interests, whereas Prigozhin’s mercenaries are those truly loyal to the Russian state. 

In an unofficial 2024 calendar, the Federal Security Service veterans’ charity further exalts this type of masculinity. Here again, the harnessing of ready-made gendered tropes is not exactly subtle. The Russian soldier — a faceless, nameless man, heavily clad in head-to-toe combat gear — is validated in his masculinity by a series of feminised figures reduced only to their shared vulnerability.

The only recognisable faces are that of Putin, portrayed in a tight Z-branded t-shirt that lets him flaunt very muscular arms; Peter the Great; and Alexandr Nevski. This places the modern soldier in a continuous and ethnicised line of historical warring figures, who carry nostalgia of Russia’s past greatness. 

Other communication materials to encourage conscription emphasise even more explicitly the inflated value of military service, in terms of both one’s masculinity and general societal purpose, compared to other occupations. In one video advert, men in various service jobs are shown fleetingly in military uniform, then back to their normal work clothes, with messages encouraging them to put their skills to better use by becoming soldiers. At the end, text on the screen reads, “Aren’t you a real man? Be one” (Ty zhe muzhik. Bud’ im). The use of the word ‘muzhik’ encapsulates wartime hegemonic masculinity: the raw, virile protector, defender of the Fatherland, ready to sacrifice himself for it.

This messaging plays on the promise that through military service, working-class men can now aspire to the wealth and status previously available only to urban elites. In Russia (as in many countries), military service is tied to success — not only symbolically as it conveys ‘hero’ status, but also materially.

In a first-hand account of life in his parents’ village, historian Sergei Chernyshov describes the appeal that a soldier’s wages and honour has for men from poor and remote areas in Russia’s provinces, where social and economic deprivation is all too often the only reality. Enlisting can mean death, of course, but it can also mean coming back with more cash than most can ever imagine making in their day-to-day jobs. 

For criminals, moreover, it can mean rehabilitation and newfound social approval. “On my parents’ street,” Chernyshov writes, “there is another ‘war hero’ — a former Wagner soldier and before that a hardened criminal — living at his parents’. As long as I can remember, he was always in prison, either for petty theft or hooliganism. […] Now he has a medal and a brand-new car. He took his parents on holiday to the seaside. They supposedly cried with pride for their son.”

 Clare McCallum documented a shift in ‘heroic masculinity’ from the soldier to the worker during the post-war Soviet ‘peace movement’ in the 1950s and 60s. One could argue that Russia is now experiencing the opposite shift, with the soldier hailed once again as the quintessential manifestation of the essence of Russian manhood.

Coercive conscription and sexual violence

What are the consequences of this ‘Wagnerisation’ of Russia? How does this matter to the way Russia conducts its war in Ukraine, and the way soldiers behave upon returning from the front?

Since February 2022, the Russian regime’s repression and intimidation of its people has rapidly worsened. LGBTQ+ rights have been further trampled upon, and queer people are securitised with unprecedented intensity. Dissenting voices both within the liberal opposition and in Putin’s own camp have been silenced through murder or lengthy prison sentences — testimony to Putin’s ability to crush anyone opposing him, on all sides. Masculinised violence has come to define not just the Russian army’s gender posturing, but the regime’s actions at home and abroad.

In the army’s practical waging of war, aggressive masculinities brutally manifest in the acute prevalence of sexual violence. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine has produced alarming reports of sexual violence committed “at gunpoint, with extreme brutality,” on victims as young as four years old. One prosecutor in the Kherson region called it a “systematic approach.” In occupied Ukrainian territories, this violence largely targets women and girls, whereas victims in detention are mostly male POWs — against whom violence is often perpetrated with the goal of dehumanising and humiliating them by symbolically stripping them of their masculinity. 

Kateryna Busol, a human rights lawyer, argues that by pardoning murderers and rapists in return for military service, failing to hold soldiers accountable for atrocities in previous conflicts, and encouraging the brutal hazing of new recruits, authorities have created a “permissive environment for sexual violence.” But conscription is also to blame. Political scientist Dara Kay Cohen showed in 2013 that an army’s approach to conscription is the main explanatory variable for the variation in wartime sexual violence. She found that armed groups which used forcible recruitment methods and/or recruited from violent environments like prisons used rape as a method of socialisation. Recruitment through abduction and press-ganging causes high levels of distress and anxiety among often young conscripts who are suddenly thrown into unfamiliar environments. Rape acts as a bonding mechanism to create unit cohesion. This also explains the higher relative prevalence of gang rape.

Cohen’s research helps make sense of many of the stories that have come out of over 27 months of war. Numerous testimonies from survivors describe soldiers raping women together, while others watch and even cheer. One man who was held in a Russian detention facility recalls hearing soldiers jointly rape another detainee with a baton, stating, “they enjoyed it; they were having fun.”

It is easy to see how the emphasis on aggressive masculinity outlined here could be contributing to these behaviours. Soldiers are being told that the only correct masculinity they can exhibit is violent, ‘tough,’ and ‘muzhiki.’ They are shown that the most praiseworthy men in society are now criminals and those wielding weapons. In group contexts, this is conducive to participating in rape to ‘prove’ one’s belonging to the correct category of masculinity. 

But this interacts with and is reinforced by the Ministry of Defence’s ruthless approach to conscription. Thousands of newly naturalised migrants, especially Central Asian men, are being forced into military service through passport-seizing and abusive court cases over minor debts. Men recruited from prisons are already routinely exposed and desensitised to sexual violence as a disciplining method on the part of police and security forces. On the battlefield, this creates volatile and emotionally challenging environments like those Cohen describes. 

After the front: a vicious cycle of violence

Further from the front lines, when soldiers return from the war, the normalisation of violence continues to have dire consequences. Soldiers return home traumatised and emboldened by the legitimation of violence they are exposed to. This often materialises as domestic abuse. In 73 percent of cases where military men were charged with battery, the victims were women, mostly close relatives of the perpetrator. Alexander Mamaev got drunk and killed his wife in front of his children, shortly after returning from Ukraine. A former convict returned from the front, was pardoned by Putin, and stabbed his girlfriend to death with a hunting knife. 

In these stories, and many others, the perpetrators are often former PMC Wagner fighters, which seems to confirm the link between an emphasis on aggressive masculinity and actual aggressive behaviour.

Soldiers’ heroic status means they also mostly get away with violence. Instead of being offered adequate support to prevent them committing crimes, or being given more than negligible fines when they do, they are pardoned, glorified, and invited to speak at schools. Such impunity further legitimises violence against women as something normal and inevitable — perpetuating a vicious cycle of structural oppression.

Even when soldiers are offered some psychological help, this is mostly gender-blind and feeds into the same systemic issue. One Russian psychologist told Deutsche Welle that some psychologists treating soldiers with PTSD emphasise the heroic nature of their experience of war. “On an emotional level,” he said, “it can be supportive therapy — but on a moral level it also normalises violence and aggression.”

The wartime reshaping of Russian masculinity is therefore both a cause and a consequence of the violence wielded in this war. Embedded in structural mechanisms that shape Russian society, it then creates further ripples of violence away from the front lines. 

Decrypting these patterns can help us understand not just the behaviour of Russian soldiers, but that of militaries more broadly. However, in the Russian case, they are part of a wider gendered picture. Putin has built the legitimacy of his invasion on the protection of an idealised traditional gender order, and on the marginalisation and securitisation of LGBTQ+ people. It is hence crucial to remain attuned to the variety of complex roles gender plays in this war.

Feature Image: Mélina Magdelénat / Canva
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