On March 5, 2012, in Moscow some twenty-five thousand Russian citizens protested the falsified presidential elections. For Putin himself, these months, between December 2011 and March 2012, were a time of choice. He might have listened to criticisms of the parliamentary vote. He might have accepted the outcome of the presidential ballot and won in the second round of voting rather than in the first. To win on the first ballot was a point of pride, nothing more. He might have understood that many of the protestors were concerned about the rule of law and the principle of succession in their country. Instead, he seemed to take personal offense.
Putin chose to regard the transient illusion of winning on the first ballot as more important than law, and his own hurt feelings as more important than the convictions of his fellow citizens. Putin casually accepted that there had been fraud; Medvedev helpfully added that all Russian elections had been fraudulent. By dismissing the principle of “one person, one vote” while insisting that elections would continue, Putin was disregarding the choices of citizens while expecting them to take part in future rituals of support. He thereby accepted Ilyin’s attitude to democracy, rejecting what Ilyin had called “blind faith in the number of votes and its political significance,” not only in deed but in word. A claim to power was staked: he who fakes wins.
If Putin came to the office of president in 2000 as a mysterious hero from the realm of fiction, he returned in 2012 as the vengeful destroyer of the rule of law. Putin’s decision to steal the election under his own spotlight placed Russian statehood in limbo. His accession to the office of president in 2012 was therefore the beginning of a succession crisis. Since the man in power was also the man who had eliminated the future, the present had to be eternal.
In 1999 and 2000, the Kremlin had used Chechens as the necessary enemy. Chechnya had now been defeated, and the Chechen warlord Kadyrov became an important member of Putin’s regime. After the fakery of 2011 and 2012, the domestic political emergency was permanent, and so the enemy had to be as well. Some intractable foreign foe had to be linked to protestors, so that they, rather than Putin himself, could be portrayed as the danger to Russian statehood. Protestors’ actions had to be uncoupled from the very real domestic problem that Putin had created, and associated instead with a fake foreign threat to Russian sovereignty. The politics of eternity requires and produces problems that are insoluble because they are fictional. For Russia in 2012, the fictional problem became the designs of the European Union and the United States to destroy Russia.
Leonid Brezhnev’s permanent enemy, the decadent West, had returned: but this time the decadence would be of a more explicitly sexual variety. Ilyin had described opposition to his views as “sexual perversion,” by which he meant homosexuality. A century later, this was also the Kremlin’s first reaction to democratic opposition. Those who wished to have votes counted in 2011 and 2012 were not Russian citizens who wanted to see the law followed, their wishes respected, their state endure. They were mindless agents of global sexual decadence whose actions threatened the innocent national organism.
On December 6, 2011, the day after the first protest in Moscow, the president of the Russian Federation, then still Dmitry Medvedev, retweeted a message to the effect that a leading protestor was a “stupid cocksucking sheep.” Vladimir Putin, still prime minister but about to become president again, said on Russian television that the white ribbons worn by protestors made him think of condoms. Then he compared protestors to monkeys and did a monkey imitation. Visiting Germany, Putin told a surprised Angela Merkel that the Russian opposition was “sexually deformed.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov began to claim that the Russian government had to take a stand against homosexuality to defend the innocence of Russian society.
A confidant of Putin, Vladimir Yakunin, developed the sheep image into a theory of geopolitics. In Yakunin’s opinion, published in a long article in November 2012, Russia was eternally confronted with a conspiracy of enemies, which has controlled the course of history since time began. This global group had released homosexual propaganda around the world in order to reduce birth rates in Russia and thereby preserve the power of the West. The spread of gay rights was a deliberate policy intended to turn Russians into a “herd” easily manipulable by the global masters of capitalism.
In September 2013, a Russian diplomat repeated this argument at a conference on human rights in China. Gay rights were nothing more than the chosen weapon of a global neoliberal conspiracy, meant to prepare virtuous traditional societies such as Russia and China for exploitation. President Putin took the next step at his personal global summit at Valdai a few days later, comparing same-sex partnerships to Satanism. He associated gay rights with a Western model that “opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.” The Russian parliament had by then passed a law “For the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values.”
Human sexuality is an inexhaustible raw material for the manufacture of anxiety. The attempt to place heterosexuality within Russia and homosexuality beyond was factually ludicrous, but the facts were beside the point. The purpose of the anti-gay campaign was to transform demands for democracy into a nebulous threat to Russian innocence: voting = West = sodomy. Russia had to be innocent, and all problems had to be the responsibility of others.
The campaign did not depend on a factual demonstration of the heterosexuality of the Russian elite. In the previous four years, when Putin had been prime minister, Surkov had placed him in a series of fur-and-feathers photo shoots. Putin and Medvedev’s attempt to present themselves as manly friends by posing in matching whites after badminton matches was similarly unconvincing. Putin divorced his wife just as his anti-gay campaign began, leaving the champion of family values without a traditional family. The question of gender identity clung to the Russian president. In 2016, Putin asserted that he was not a woman who has bad days. In 2017, he denied that he was Donald Trump’s groom. That year it became a criminal offense to portray Putin as a gay clown. An attentive female scholar summarized his position: “Putin’s kisses are reserved for children and animals.”
Putin was offering masculinity as an argument against democracy. As the German sociologist Max Weber argued, charisma can initiate a political system, but it cannot guarantee its continuity. It is normal, Weber observed, to form a political and commercial clan around a charismatic leader. But if that man wishes to go beyond redistributing the booty and planning the next raid, he must find a way to transfer his authority to someone else, ideally by a means that will allow power to be transferred again. Solving this problem of succession is the precondition of establishing a modern state.
Weber defined two mechanisms that would allow a burst of charisma to become durable institutions: (1) through custom, as for example in a monarchy where the eldest son succeeded the father; or (2) through law, as for example in a democracy where regular voting allows parliaments and rulers to be replaced. Putin did not seem to be planning a monarchical succession. He has kept his daughters at a distance from public politics (although the family did benefit from crony capitalism). The logical possibility that remains is thus law, which in the modern world usually means democracy. Putin himself dismissed this alternative. And so the display of masculinity provided a semblance of power at the expense of Russia’s integrity as a state.