The dust has settled on Russia’s latest legislative elections, held Sept. 18. United Russia, the party of President Vladimir Putin, won big, securing three-fourths of the seats. That’s its highest share since the party was created in the early 2000s — and it’s more than enough to change Russia’s constitution. No seats went to any of the real opposition. Lots of Russia observers have been speculating on how this happened and what it means for Russia.
But few have paid much attention to how gender affected the elections. More women ran for office — and that brought in more sexism. Over the last decade, Putin’s Russia has simultaneously promoted women into politics while becoming more misogynist, as research shows. Here’s what that means.
Why has the Putin regime been recruiting women?
In the months leading up to the 2007 elections, all major political parties increased the proportion of women on their party lists, with United Russia having almost 1 out of 5 for the 2011 elections. (In the 2007 and 2011 elections, all deputies were elected through proportional representation, where voters choose parties, not candidates, with the parties selecting the politicians to put in office.)
This emphasis quickly produced results. Russia’s Duma had its highest proportion of women to date with 14 percent female participation in 2007, dropping only slightly in the 2011 elections. In the upper house, the unelected Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko was made chair in 2011. Over the next few years, the proportion of women in the council more than tripled. The influx of women into the legislatures was matched by other increases, with prominent women in the executive branch, a woman at the head of Russia’s central bank, and increasing numbers of female governors.
This is not to say that the regime is feminist, by any means. Russia has not passed even the weak gender-equality legislation that has been under consideration for more than a decade. This summer, activists barely averted the decriminalization of battery, which domestic-violence victims use because there is no specific domestic-violence legislation.
Rather, women are being recruited into Russian politics to suit the needs of the regime. In the past two elections, some women have been used as “showgirls,” including a ballerina, a rhythmic gymnast and a former Playboy model, to attract voters. Other elite women have been recruited as “political cleaners,” a role especially for governors, to clean up the appearance of corruption. As one commentator told me, “There is the perception that women are less corrupt.”
In these apparently plum posts, women’s power is quite limited. Once elected, the showgirls are portrayed at the Duma — their workplace — as being kissed on the hand by their male counterparts, putting on makeup or acting beautiful and silly.
Most women in the Russian legislature strive to be “ultimate loyalists” who advocate nondemocratic (and often sexist or homophobic) legislation to protect the regime, overcompensating to try to save their hides. For example, Irina Yarovaya co-authored the law calling for NGOs with foreign funding to be labeled as “foreign agents.” After advocating for women in the Duma during the 2000s, Yelena Mizulina has been championing restrictions on abortion, bans on “gay propaganda” and decriminalization of domestic violence.
New roles for women in 2016?
The importance of women for the 2016 elections was first highlighted in March, when Putin appointed Ella Pamfilova as head of the Central Electoral Commission. With a history of human rights advocacy, Pamfilova established new mechanisms for overseeing the elections and promised to resign if the elections weren’t fair. Pamfilova, like other women, was used as a political cleaner, to create the appearance of cleaner elections, even as the Kremlin engineered a stronger grip on the Duma.
Women were especially important, it seems, because the electoral rules changed for these elections. Half of the Duma was elected through proportional representation and half in single mandates that resemble legislative elections in the United States, with one candidate per district. This meant a lot more campaigning. As one of my insider informants explained, women are considered well-suited to winning such elections, being “reliable, talkative and attractive” while “men tend to appear to loathe their constituents.”
The most prominent showgirl was Natalia Poklonskaya. Poklonaksaya, once a Ukrainian citizen, changed sides when Crimea was annexed in 2014. Putin appointed her the general prosecutor of Crimea for Russia, a job where she gained attention as a Russian nationalist and sex symbol.
Meanwhile, Putin’s regime used explicit sexism against the opposition. LifeNews, a tabloid with links to the Kremlin, published nude pictures of a Moscow member of the opposition and her (female) chief of staff. Such compromising materials (or kompromat, as the Russians call it) are used against men as well, but are sexist in different ways, often alleging abuse of office, disloyalty or incompetence while questioning the candidate’s sexual behavior, orientation or masculinity. This is, of course, is the flip side of the frequent masculinity stunts by Putin — earning him commendation by U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and punk protests by Pussy Riot.
In all this, Russia is like other authoritarian-leaning regimes where there have been marked increases in women in politics in the last decade, such as Algeria, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, and like the Soviet regime before it: It has learned how to subvert the connection between the increase of women in politics and gender equality.