Illustration Ragni Svensson

Illustration Ragni Svensson

Essays Recovering traditions? Women, gender, and the authoritarianism of “traditional values” in Russia

In recent years, “traditional values,” increasingly articulated in accordance with the Christian Orthodox canon, has moved to the center of Russian official discourse. The author argues that the ideology of “traditional values” corresponds mainly to the interests of the Russian state in union with the Orthodox Church and reflects Russian imperial and authoritarian traditions rather than popular customs and beliefs.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2021:1 pp 31-36
Published on on May 24, 2020

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What do “traditional values” really stand for in Russia today? How did respect for “tradition” come to acquire such an important role in the country where, only a few decades ago, in the early 1990s, values of freedom, individualism, and consumerism seemed so strong? The ideas of “traditional values” and “traditional family” are not new phenomena in the Russian media and public discourse, and after the fall of the Soviet Union expectations of “going back” to traditions in order to fill the vacuum left after the end of Communism, to create a new identity, to increase birthrates, and to guarantee economic stability were widespread. Some socially conservative politicians expected that women would “return home” and dedicate more time to children and housework. However, a number of factors — including the economic instability that made women’s incomes important for family budgets, as well as women’s high qualifications and many women’s interest in keeping their work outside of home — meant that these expectations remained unfulfilled.

In recent years, “traditional values,” increasingly articulated in accordance with the Christian Orthodox canon, has moved to the center of Russian official discourse. Indeed, in his speech at the Congress of the Orthodox Church in December 2017 President Vladimir Putin warned that the disappearance of traditional values would risk leading to the degradation of society and the alienation of people. In his inaugural speech on May 7, 2018, Putin also stated the importance of “traditional family values”. Thus, the call for a return to “traditional values” changed from being a way to reclaim Russian identity to becoming a tool of social control, and I argue that today such a call is more predominantly intertwined with political authoritarianism and less so with Russian tradition or religion.

The post-1991 discourse on equality

The move towards “traditional values” as a dominant discourse of Russian politics did not happen suddenly. Rather, such a movement existed for much of the post-1991 period but remained a rather marginal phenomenon. Indeed, during the beginning of the democratic reforms, when Russia opened up the possibilities for a public discussion on citizens’ and minorities’ rights, such a discussion took place in the context of the vivid memory of the Soviet gender contract, according to which work in the state economy was demanded from both men and women and from all ethnic groups. Under the Yeltsin presidency, the “West” was an important source of inspiration for democracy, individual freedoms, and human rights. The period was marked by the formation of many women’s groups and LGBT organizations, as well as by Russia’s cooperation with transnational organizations. It was also a period when many Russian citizens for the first time could travel to the “West” and when many consumer goods, cultural products (like talk-shows and TV series), and words became popular in the country.

Indeed, already at the end of the 1990s, Russia had a well-developed network of women’s crisis centers and NGOs dealing with women’s rights, education, and political participation. Courses on women’s and gender history, sociology, and psychology were taught in most of the universities. The first organizations defending LGBT rights started to appear already during the perestroika period. In 1993, the law decriminalizing homosexuality was adopted by the Russian Parliament, and “Treugolnik” (Triangle, the national organization of lesbians, gays and bisexuals) was created in Moscow.

The programs for democracy assistance in Russia frequently included programs aimed to promote gender equality. For example, representatives of the Russian government and several NGOs took part in the Beijing International Women’s Conference (1995), which intensified public discussions on the need to create a national machinery for the protection of women’s rights in Russia. In 1996, a statement on legal priorities for guaranteeing equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women that had been formulated in collaboration with the American Bar Association (ABA) was proposed by the Parliamentary Committee for Women’s, Family and Youth Affairs and was adopted by the Russian Parliament in 1997. The statement declared the importance of creating national legislation on equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women and of creating a state system guaranteeing gender equality on different levels. The democracy assistance to Russia from the side of many national and transnational organizations in Europe, the US, and Canada usually included support for gender equality and reproductive rights. It opened many opportunities for women’s NGOs, but was also frequently criticized for different problems regarding its practical realization.

The research on cooperation between the Nordic countries and Northwestern Russia with respect to gender equality shows, for example, that in spite of the Nordic partners usually showing a genuine interest in promoting gender equality in Russia, the cooperation often ignored the complicated Soviet experience of equality between men and women, as well as the new challenges for women’s rights connected to the shrinking welfare state. One associated problem was that the commonly used categories of social or gender “equality” were strongly associated with the rhetoric of the pre-1991 period, while at the same time unequal access to health care and childcare facilities remained central obstacles for women’s participation in society.

Despite the many problems connected to the organizations working for women’s rights, family planning, and LGBT rights as well as issues regarding international cooperation, the ideas that these organizations promoted had support in many parts of the population. Therefore, I argue that the new official agenda on “traditional values” could not have developed without strengthening the authoritarian pressure over these actors.

The growth of traditionalism in the 2000s

In the 2000s, the Russian government increasingly began to define the political and social developments of the 1990s in terms of “chaos” as a way to present the then current situation in Russia in a new and more optimistic way. At the same time, the political situation in Russia was developing towards granting less freedom for independent civic and women’s organizations. Already in 2003, the law on gender equality that was proposed in the Parliament failed to pass. Some discussions on the draft law from 2003 were brought up again in the late 2000s and then once more in 2012, but they did not result in a second proposal. In July 2018, the law was finally rejected by the Parliament. The law against violence against women was not adopted in Russia, and furthermore, the general law on battery was changed in 2017 in Russia so that non-aggravated battery (where no severe injury occurs) by close relatives was decriminalized. Furthermore, in 2004, after the beginning of the reforms of the state administration, the State Commission for Improvement of the Situation of Women ceased to exist, and its functions were divided between several parliamentary commissions and committees. The new legislation on NGOs (2006) seriously limited the ability of civic organizations to obtain financial support from abroad and made registration more difficult. The latter process influenced the level of independence and in many cases the very existence of independent women’s organizations. These changes also coincided with a decrease in available international funding for women’s groups and associations.

It was this period of time when the idea of “traditional values” and the “traditional family” started to be seen as particularly useful for solving the problem of falling birth rates. The state’s preoccupation with falling birth rates led to the endorsement of an explicitly pronatalist policy in the late 2000s. In spite of some success of this program, the 2008 economic crisis led to a fall in the standard of living, including for families with children. Thus, the Russian state continued to be preoccupied with the birth rate problem. All of this contributed to the emergence of a closer alliance between the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church, after which the ideology of “traditional values” became increasingly visible in the state’s political repertoire. While “traditional values” are rarely clearly defined, since the late 2000s they have come to represent values and cultural norms that are the opposite to “Western”, “liberal”, or “communist” values and as such are attributed to positive values such as the solidarity of traditional communities and families with many children based on genuine love and Orthodox spirituality.

The campaigning for “traditional values” could, however, not be realized without certain changes in legislation in order to take stronger control over sexual, reproductive, and social behavior. The first laws against the so-called “propaganda of homosexuality” were adopted on the regional level (for example, in Riazan Oblast already in 2006). In August 2013 the Russian Parliament adopted the infamous law against “homosexual propaganda” that seriously limited the rights of LGBTQ people and particularly endangered homosexual families and the lives of LGBTQ teenagers. Homosexual relationships are presented in official discourse as endangering the traditional family and leading to depopulation. The number of hate crimes during the same period doubled between 2013 and 2018 according to Reuters, and some parts of Russia are particularly dangerous for those who are considered to have a “non-traditional sexual orientation”.

Furthermore, the draft of a law completely banning abortion had already been discussed several times in the Russian Parliament (most recently in September 2016), while in 2011 a law imposing a “waiting time” before abortion was accepted by the Lower Chamber, the State Duma. Finally, the law on “foreign agents”, a law putting restrictions on organizations receiving foreign financial support, adopted in 2012, was applied to many NGOs and research centers dealing with gender research and the protection of women’s and LGBTQ rights.

The change in the legislative base was accompanied by broader changes in educational politics. While voluntary courses on religion and celebrations of religious holidays in kindergartens were promoted already from the early 2000s, in 2012 the subject “Foundations of the Christian Orthodox Culture” was introduced in the 4th and 5th year of school as part of a course on ethics. The state also insisted on more patriotic education in schools, a policy that was particularly connected to the commemorative events dedicated to the Second World War. The strategy of education in the Russian Federation to 2025, which was adopted in 2015, states that developing a “highly moral personality sharing Russian traditional values” is an important priority of education. Finally, since 2008 the day of Family, Love, and Faithfulness — July 8 — has been an official public celebration in Russia. This celebration is expected to contribute to strengthening families, decreasing divorce rates, and increasing birth rates.

“Traditional values”as “natural” gender order

“Traditional values” usually refer to a complex and contradictory set of ideas that bring together the nationalist and imperial discourse on Russia’s glorious past with ideas of patriotism, solidarity, and morality. With respect to education and family life, “traditional values” presuppose gender complementarity (not gender equality) and unconditional love, and heterosexual procreation is seen as the very foundation of the family. All kinds of intimacies outside of the heterosexual family or non-reproductive sexuality (like pre-marital and extra-marital sex, voluntarily childless families, and homosexual and transsexual intimacies) are seen as “non-traditional” and immoral.

The politicians and intellectuals supporting the ideas of “traditional values” in contemporary Russia belong to different groups and orientations. First of all, support for “traditional values” is a part of the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church. For example, the head of the Church, the Patriarch Kirill, in his speech aimed for members of both chambers of the Russian Parliament in January 2018 urged them to do everything possible for the defense of “traditional values”. In his speech, “traditional values” were associated with ideas of social protection of the most vulnerable members of the population (mainly those with a low income), as well as to the moral principles of humanity. However, even if “traditional values” are usually described using a Christian rhetoric, the discourse around such values also tends to idealize the patriarchal pre-1917 society. In some cases, the supporters of “traditional values” succeed in presenting Soviet politics as a kind of specific politics that, in spite of the communist rhetoric, were inspired by Christian ideas and values. Thus, the development of Soviet history in some cases has come to be presented as contributing to the greatness of Russia  and as such has been used to legitimize traditional culture and spirituality. The building of the strong Soviet great power and the cooperation of so many nations during the Second World War served as some examples for these ideas. Finally, it must be noted that the contemporary Communist Party in Russia and its leader, Gennadii Zyuganov, have also come to the defense of “traditional values”. At the same time, Russia has become a more and more important worldwide advocate for the discourse on “traditional values” in the global format by supporting parties and organizations defending the “natural” gender order from the “anti-scientific” gender ideologies.

Despite the dominant rhetoric of “traditional values” in the public space, official statistical data indicate that many social practices have continued to follow previous patterns of development. On the base of the analysis of World Values Survey, it can be concluded that in the 2000s family was one of the most trustworthy institutions in Russia — people trusted their family more than the government or the police. However, Russia also showed quite a positive attitude toward working mothers and an older age for first-time marriage. Divorce rates have continually been high in Russia, and according to the official statistics in 2016 there were 6.7 marriages and 4.1 divorces per 1,000 persons in the population. In 2017, Russia was 4th in the world according to divorce rate — after Luxemburg, Spain, and France. Also, most women have continued to be employed outside the home. Indeed, in 2015 60.1% of all women between 15 and 72 years of age were employed compared to 71.1% of men (according to the official data, the unemployment rate was about 3% for women and 4% for men). Also, only 6.2% of women were officially classified as housewives. As for births outside of registered marriages, even though they have decreased since 2003 (when it was the highest with 29.7% of children being born by women who were not married), they still constituted 21.1% of births in 2016. Furthermore, when discussing sexual morals and practices in Russia, it is important to note that Russia is in the midst of an HIV epidemic with 50% of those infected living in heterosexual relationships. In Russia, married life is often seen as a way of avoiding AIDS, and a long and faithful marriage is extolled over sexual education as an HIV prophylactic.

Finally, it is worth noting that the authoritarian management of “traditional values” has in some cases led to open political protests. The most well-known case is probably the punk-prayer performed by Pussy Riot activists in the Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow in 2012. While several young women participating in the performance openly declared themselves to be Christian Orthodox believers, their performance — addressed to “Mother of God” — demanded an end to authoritarianism. Recently, this group performed again in which several people dressed in police uniforms ran onto the pitch during the World Cup in Moscow in July 2018 to protest against authoritarianism and political repressions in Russia and to demand political freedoms. This small episode once more emphasizes the problems with the acceptance of the authoritarian version of “traditional values” in Russia.


“Traditional values” functions as quite an ambiguous ideology that is often used by politicians in order to indicate Russia’s specificity in relation to, and difference from, the “West”. At the same time, however, it us used to promote social cohesion and solidarity. Declarations on the importance of “traditional values” for family life in particular are often connected to the hope of overcoming negative trends in terms of low birth rates and high divorce rates in Russia. Therefore, the politics of reinforcing “traditional values” seems to correspond to the aspirations of some parts of Russian society who are experiencing a high level of social insecurity and growing dissatisfaction with the rhetoric of individual success. Nevertheless, such politics seems to be in conflict with prevailing practices of sexual behavior and family life in Russia.

In contrast to the 1990s when ideas about “reestablishing the traditional family” were promoted in the public discourse alongside other ideas (including gender equality and LGBTQ rights), the present time shows a drastic reduction in the possibilities of expressing discontent or disbelief in “traditional values”. This is connected to the strengthening of the authoritarian regime and the elimination of independent political actors and media freedom. Indeed, the ideology of “traditional values” corresponds mainly to the interests of the Russian state in union with the Orthodox Church and reflects Russian imperial and authoritarian traditions rather than popular customs and beliefs.



  1. Yulia Gradskova, Novaia ideologiia semii i ee osobennosti v Rossii [New family ideology and its Russian specifics], Obshchestvennye nauki I sovremennost, (1997) no 2, 181—185.
  2. “Putin zayavil o razmyvanii traditsionnykh tsennostei v mire” [Putin spoke about the disappearance of traditional values in the world ], RIA novosti, December 1, 2017. Available at:
  3. V. Putin. Vystuplenie na tseremonii vstupleniia v dolzhnost presidenta Rossii [Speech at the inauguration ceremony], Available at: Accessed May 7 2018.
  4. Aino Saarinen, Kirsti Ekonen & Valentina Uspenskaia, Women and Transformation in Russia. (London: Routledge, 2014).
  5. Lisa MacIntosh Sundstrom, Funding Civil Society. Foreign Assistance and NGO Development in Russia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).
  6. Olga Voronina, “Politika gendernogo ravenstva v sovremennoi Rossii: problemy i protivorechiia” [Politics of Gender Equality in Contemporary Russia: problems and contradictions], In Zhenshchina v rossiiskom obshchestve 3 (2013): 12—20.
  7. Kontseptsiia zakonotvorcheskoi deiatelnosti po obespecheniyu ravnykh prav I ravnykh vozmozhnostei muzhchin I zhenshchin v Rossiskoi Federatsii [Concept of lawmaking for guaranteeing equal right and equal opportunities for men and women in the Russian Federation] (1996) Available at: Accessed October 8, 2015.
  8. McIntosh Sundstrom, op.cit, 2006; Julie Hemment, Empowering Women in Russia. Activism, Aid and NGOs (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).
  9. Yulia Gradskova, “Russia — A ‘Difficult Case’ for Gender Equality? The Transnational Politics of Women’s Rights and Northwest Russia: The Example of Nordic-Russian Cooperation,” in Eva Blomberg, Yulia Gradskova, Ylva Waldemarson & Alina Zvinkline, Gender Equality on a Grand Tour: Politics and Institutions in the Northern Europe and in the Baltic Region under the last three decennia, (Brill, 2017).
  10. Yulia Gradskova and Ildiko Asztalos Morell, eds., Gendering Postsocialism. Old Legacies and New Hierarchies Routledge, 2018.
  11. In 1998–2002 the author of this article was a volunteer for one of the new hotlines for women in Moscow — “Yaroslavna” — and can state that the telephone was busy all the time; women were calling in order to ask advice with respect to problems ranging from divorce and unemployment to domestic violence. See also Yulia Gradskova, Analiz obrashchenii zhenshchin na telefon doveriia tsentra “Yaroslavna” [Analysis of women’s calls to the hotline of the “Yaroslavna” center]. Krisisnyi tsentr dlia zhenshchin: opyt sozdaniia i raboty. [Crisis center for women: experience of creation and work] (Moskva, 1998).
  12. Federalnyi zakon o gosudarstvennykh garantiiakh ravnykh prav I svobod I ravnykh vozmozhnostei muzhchin I zhenshchin v Rossiskoi Federatsii (Proiekt) [Project of the federal law on the state guarantee of equal rights and freedoms and equal opportunities in the Russian Federation] (2003). Available at: Accessed October 8, 2015.
  13. “Gosduma otklonila proekt zakona o gendernom ravenstve” [State Duma declined the project of the law on gender equality], Radio Svoboda, July 11,2018, Available at:
  14. “Vo vse tiazhkie: chto izmenilos posle dekriminalizatsii domashnego nasiliia v Rossii” [What has changed in Russia after the decriminalization of domestic violence], December 21,2017, NTV. Available at:
  15. Alternativnyi doklad. Vypolnenie Konventsii OON o likvidatsii vsekh form diskriminatsii v otnoshenii zhenschin v Rossiskoi Federatsii [Alternative report. Realization of the UN CEDAW in the Russian Federation], Kontsortsiumom zhenskikh nepravitelstvennykh obedinenii, 2010, Accessed February 2, 2013.
  16. Janet E. Johnson Gender Violence in Russia. The Politics of Feminist Intervention. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009, 60.
  17. From 2007, mothers of second and further children received a special certificate that could be used for the children’s education, family housing, or the mother’s pension. Olga Isupova & Irina Kosterina. (2010), “Materinskii kapital i rossiskie semi” [Maternity capital and Russian families], Demoskop Weekly, November 15-28, available at:
  18. In the context of the Russian Federation, however, the importance of the “traditional values” of other religions, first of all Islam, are also recognized. This opens space for more potential conflicts in interpretation.
  19. Marianna Muravieva, “Traditional Values and Modern Families: Legal Understanding of Tradition and Modernity in contemporary Russia,” Jurnal issledovanii sotsialnoi politiki, 2014, 12(4) 625—638, p.233.
  20. Muravieva, op.cit., 2012, 234.
  21. The law prohibited the dissemination of public information about the sexuality of homosexuals, transgender people, and queers. Information about LGBTQ people was also totally prohibited for those under age.
  22. Karlson-Rixon Annica, In the Time of the Third Reading. Stockholm: Art and Nature 2016; Aleksandr Kondakov,. Pravovye rany. Znachenie prav cheloveka dlia geev i lesbiianok v Rossii[Legal Wounds. Meaning of Human Rights for Lesbians and Gays in Russia], Laboratorium, 2012 (4:3), 84—104; see also Emil Edenborg, Politics of visibility and belonging: from Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” laws to the Ukraine war (Routledge, 2017).
  23. These crimes are not defined as “hate crimes” in Russian official statistics. Daria Litvinova, “LGBT hate crimes doubled in Russia after ban of ‘gay propaganda’” (Reuters 2017).
  24. Kondakov, op.cit, 2012.
  25. The law “On protection of citizens’ health in Russia” states that women having fewer than eleven weeks of pregnancy have to attend medical and psychological consultations in a clinic for seven days before being granted permission for abortion.
  26. Yulia Gradskova, “Managing the “Country’s Future- Changing Ideas, Constraints and Perceptions of Preschools in Contemporary Russia Compared with the Soviet Past,” Europe-Asia Studies 67(10), 2015: 1587-1605; V. Semibratova, “Tsennosti pravoslavnoi kultury Sankt-Peterburga v dukhovno-nravstvennom vospitanii doshkolnikov” [Values of the Orthodox culture of Sankt-Petersburg for the spiritual and moral education of preschool children], Doshkolnoe vospitanie, 3 (2004).
  27. Strategiia razvitiia vospitaniia v Rossiiskoi Federatsii do 2025 goda [Strategies of development of education in Russia up to 2025].
  28. “Patriarch: vazhno sdelat vse vozmozhnoe dlia zashchity traditsionnykh tsennostei” [The Patriarch: it is important to do everything possible for the defense of traditional values], 25.01.2018
  29. See, for example, Vitalii Tretiakov, Pokhiscshenie sovetskoi identichnosti [Robbery of the Soviet identity], in Plakha, 1917-2017. Sbornik statei o russkoi identichnosti [Scaffold. Collection of articles on Russian identity], ed. Aleksandr Shchipkov, 40—75 (Moskva: Probell, 2000): 61.
  30. In 2014 the Patriarch Kirill decorated Zyuganov with a special medal for his work in the defense of traditional values. “Patriarkh nagradil lidera KPRF Zyuganova ordenom “Slavy i checti” [The Patriarch decorated the Communist Party leader Zyuganov with the “Fame and Honesty” medal], June 262014.
  31. Sabine Hark, “Gender merely a “social fact”? The contruction of authoritarian us/them dichotomies,” Baltic Worlds, 2017,
  32. Yulia Gradskova, “Family and Social Change in Russia,” in Family and Social Change in Socialist and Post-Socialist Societies. Change and Continuity in Eastern Europe and East Asia, ed. Zsombor Rajkai, Brill, (36—82), 74.
  34. Muzhchiny i zhenshchiny Rossii [Men and women of Russia], 2016 p.87
  35. Braki i razvody v Rossiiskoi Federatsii [Marriage and divorce in the Russian Federation].
  36. Maria Borisova October 26, 2017. “Doidet do togo, chto budem boiatsia sexa” [It could go so far that we will be afraid of having sex], Gazeta ru
  37. Yulia Gradskova, Irina Sandomirskaja & Nadezda Petrusenko, “Pussy Riot: Reflection on Receptions,” Baltic Worlds, 2012 (electronic version
  38. Pussy Riot invade pitch during the World Cup final, Euronews, July 15,2018
  • by Yulia Gradskova

    Associate professor at the Institute of Contemporary History, Södertörn University. Research interest: decolonial approach, gender studies, particularly “women of the East”, postsocialist culture studies.

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