POlitics
"Traditional values" and the limits of civic unity
November 21, 2022
  • Ben Noble
    Associate Professor of Russian Politics, University College London
    Associate Fellow, Chatham House
Ben Noble looks at the State Duma’s activities aimed at managing the appearance of national consensus, and finds difficulties facing the authorities as a result of elite disagreements regarding the war on Ukraine.
Anti-LGBT demonstration in Moscow, 2012. The percentage of Russians who have highly negative attitudes toward gay people has risen sharply in recent years. Source: Wiki Commons
Russia is under attack. A destructive ideology propagated by the United States of America, other unfriendly states, and terrorist organisations threatens the sovereignty and civic unity of the Federation. This profoundly damaging ideology includes the cultivation of egoism, denial of the ideals of patriotism, and the destruction of the traditional family through the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.

This is the language of a decree signed by Vladimir Putin on 9 November: “Fundamentals of State Policy to Preserve and Strengthen Traditional Russian Spiritual and Moral Values”.

Draft legislation banning “LGBT propaganda” currently under consideration in the State Duma is a potent, high-profile example of this broader “traditional values” project – something that is being portrayed by the Russian authorities as part of a civilisational clash with the West currently taking military form with Russia’s war on Ukraine.

But there are cracks in this façade of unity and the “Donbas consensus”. And the Duma – so often dismissed as an irrelevant body – is proving to be a stage on which the competing scripts of consensus and conflict are playing out, with some surprising effects.

How many “traditional values”?

Point 5 of the above-mentioned Decree No. 809 enumerates 17 values: life; dignity; human rights and freedoms; patriotism; civic consciousness; service to the Fatherland and responsibility for its fate; high moral ideals; a strong family; creative work; the priority of the spiritual over the material; humanism; mercy; justice; collectivism; mutual assistance and mutual respect; historical memory and intergenerational continuity; and unity of the peoples of Russia.

One flippant response might be to ask why they left off motherhood and apple pie – that is, that the existing values are very broad and most are not specifically Russian.

A righteous response would be to note the rank hollowness of these stated values at the same time as Russian military aggression against Ukraine flies in the face of so many of them.

But the specific values listed are less important than the broader framing of the decree. Protecting “traditional values” is presented as no less than an urgent matter of national security. Indeed, the list of specific state bodies tasked with implementing this state policy is telling: federal organisations in charge of defence, state security, internal affairs, and public security. Values have, in other words, been securitised.

The goal is clear: to cement the idea of a corrupted, liberal, “collective West” trying to interfere in Russian sovereign affairs in a way that poses an existential threat – and to foster a sense of unity in response to this threat.

In some sense, this is an attempt to create a legitimising ideology for the regime formed around the protection of “traditional values”. And this might be particularly needed, given the erosion of the promise and provision of stability as a legitimating pillar of Putinism, especially since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.

But the ideology is inchoate, as exemplified by the wishy-washy values, which can serve as empty signifiers. It is the notion of protecting “authentic Russianness” (whatever that is) from an external threat that is key.

And yet, there is one topic that provides a focus for this nebulous values crusade, with draft legislation relating to it currently under consideration in the State Duma.

“LGBT propaganda” and Satanism

Two bills currently under consideration in the Duma – one proposing changes to the Code of Administrative Offences, the other to a range of existing pieces of legislation – call to widen to all of society the existing ban on the “propaganda” of “non-traditional sexual relations or preferences” amongst minors. The draft legislation also includes bans on the “propaganda of paedophilia” and the spread of information amongst minors “capable of causing the desire to change genders”.
"The LGBTQ+ community has long been stigmatised by the state as a 'foreign import', with members not being 'truly Russian'. And that fits perfectly with Decree No. 809’s language of threats to civic unity from foreign influences."
It also allows the authorities to carry on a narrative evident especially since the conservative turn in social policy seen with Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012: a societal minority presented as “fifth columnists” can be contrasted with an assumed “moral majority” of “patriotic Russians”, the interests of which the state claims to defend.

And this attempt to demonise the LGBTQ+ community might well resonate with a significant number of Russian people. According to polling by the Levada Center, the percentage of Russians who relate with “disgust and fear” towards members of this community has risen from 24 percent in March 2015 to 38 percent in September 2021.
Dzhambulat Umarov and Ramzan Kadyrov, 2018. Source: Wiki Commons
In line with this demonisation, the language used by officials regarding the draft “LGBT propaganda” legislation is markedly religious – and ties together the military and the moral. At a 17 October parliamentary hearing on the legislation, one participant – President of the Chechen Academy of Sciences, Dzhambulat Umarov – directly linked the bills to the war on Ukraine, stating that “sodomy is the core of Satanism, against which our brothers and sons are now dying on Ukrainian soil.” So, the push to ban “LGBT propaganda” is, apparently, a case of fighting Satanism at home, whereas the Russian military is fighting Satanism in Ukraine.

The State Duma is often used as the platform on which to perform set pieces of political theatre. And the choreography around the “LGBT propaganda” bills is no exception. Both bills were sponsored by nearly 400 Duma deputies (of 450 overall), including the speaker, Vyacheslav Volodin, and all parliamentary party faction heads. And both bills were adopted unanimously by the State Duma in first reading on 27 October; no deputies voted against the initiatives or abstained. The message being sent is one of societal unity behind the bills and the “traditional values” project, more broadly.

But not everything is so straightforward.

Pulling a curtain in front of the “rubber stamp”

On 17 October – that is, the same day as the “LGBT propaganda” Duma hearing – a decision was made by the Council of the State Duma (the lower chamber’s steering body) to stop the live-streaming of plenary sessions online. In addition, the Duma announced a number of closed sessions, including with Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin on 18 October.

Why were these decisions taken?

The default is for Duma plenary sessions to be open – that is, on the record and transparent to external observers. According to Article 100, point 2 of the 1993 Constitution, “[m]eetings of the Federation Council and the State Duma are open” – and, according to Article 37, point 1 of the Duma’s standing orders, plenary sessions “are held openly, publicly and covered in the media”.

This formalised transparency marks out the legislature in comparison to other state bodies. And yet, the very visibility of State Duma plenary sessions is one reason why they are dismissed by many – as set pieces of political theatre, run according to a script signed off on by the Presidential Administration. United Russia's dominance allows the Kremlin to control the legislative agenda – and it also limits the access of authentic critics to a national, public platform.

There are certainly formal grounds and procedures for holding closed plenary sessions. But the task, then, is to work out whether the formal reasons given match up with the real motivations.

The official reason given for the Duma’s decisions to end live-streaming and to close certain sessions relates to the war on Ukraine. The head of the Duma’s United Russia faction, Vladimir Vasilyev, said that “[t]hose questions that require sensitive discussion in a narrow professional circle should not be the property of our enemy”. In other words, blocking the flow of information from the legislature would prevent sensitive information regarding Russia’s war effort from ending up in the hands of the country’s adversaries.

That is certainly plausible. And it is consistent, for example, with the closed sessions that are held when Duma deputies discuss the classified portions of annual state budget bills. But it is likely that something else was going on.

According to reporting by Vedomosti, sources within the Duma point elsewhere – to critical statements from deputies directed at the Ministry of Defence, particularly following the start of the “partial mobilisation” announced by Vladimir Putin on 21 September. For example, Colonel General Andrei Kartapolov – a United Russia deputy and Chairman of the Defence Committee – criticised the Ministry of Defence for “lying” about the war when appearing on the channel “Solovyov Live” on 5 October.
"Such criticism jars with the push for displays of unity – of cultivating the 'Donbas consensus'."
And a desire to reduce the likelihood that such statements be made during open plenary sessions broadcast live on the internet may well explain the State Duma leadership’s decision to reduce the publicity of legislative activities.

But how can we square all of this with conventional depictions of the State Duma as a “rubber stamp” – a body entirely subservient to the executive?

Divisions at the top

The Stata Duma clearly has the capacity to wave through draft laws with unanimous support and no criticism. This is something most often seen with bills introduced by the executive.

But what happens when the executive – and the elite, more broadly – is divided on policy issues?

In that case, the Duma stage of law-making can look very different, with elite disagreements spilling over into the legislature. Much of this happens behind the scenes, rather than directly on the Duma floor or even in the legislature itself. But this can result in outcomes that don’t fit “rubber stamp” expectations – things like long delays in the progress of bills, significant amendments being made to the texts of draft laws, and, occasionally, the failure of bills to become laws.

There clearly have been disagreements at the top following Russian military setbacks in Ukraine. Criticism from Ramzan Kadyrov and Evgeny Prigozhin directed at the Ministry of Defence serve as the highest-profile cases of broader disquiet regarding the handling of the war, with other examples including the comments by Andrei Kartapolov on 5 October.

There have been attempts to prevent such criticism cascading – and spreading from the Ministry of Defence to figures higher up. For instance, Dmitry Peskov – Vladimir Putin’s press secretary – intervened, saying “the line is very, very thin” between legal and illegal criticism of the “special military operation”. This, of course, was in the context of the 4 March “law on fakes” legislation meant to drastically narrow the scope of permissible commentary in line with Russian state propaganda.

The decision to partially block off the State Duma’s activities may well be another attempt to limit the frequency – and visibility – of such criticism.

Within the context of high-level criticism, another factor becomes important: Duma deputies’ desire for attention. One prominent example concerns the Chairwoman of the State Duma's Family Committee, Nina Ostanina. The Communist Party deputy has been reprimanded for leaking and, apparently, distorting information about decisions made by the Ministry of Defence. One interpretation is that Ostanina was trying to make herself appear more central to decision-making than she actually was.

The irony is that Vladimir Putin included in his 15 January 2020 Address to the Federal Assembly a promise to “increase the role and importance of the State Duma” as part of his constitutional amendment programme. In practice, the 2020 changes did nothing of the sort, with deputies remaining bit players in policy-making processes.

Unity and criticism

The State Duma is a largely peripheral body without a meaningful, independent ability to influence the policy agenda. And yet, given that elite conflicts can spill onto the legislative stage, and given that Russia’s political leadership uses the legislature to promote important policy projects, the Duma cannot be ignored entirely.

On the one hand, Russia’s political leadership wants to loudly and publicly perform the politics of unity. And the State Duma provides a key platform on which to portray political forces – and the nation, more broadly – as being wholeheartedly behind President Putin, whether it be regarding the war on Ukraine or the “traditional values” crusade.

On the other hand, there are limits to the leadership’s capacity to do this, including because of policy differences between members of the elite on certain issues. And this has been the case with Russia’s war on Ukraine.
"The awkward result is swift shifts between shining a spotlight on the State Duma’s activities and pulling a curtain over its activities."
In addition, the language of "Traditional values" and the limits of civic unity may convey a sense of bottom-up authenticity. But this belies the nature of what is actually going on.

The authorities have, it seems, been somewhat successful in nurturing anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in Russian society. Although the dynamic is far from a case of Russians responding unthinkingly to elite cues, this stigmatisation serves as the focus – the hook – for a broader, much fuzzier values campaign manufactured by a regime looking for rallying cries around which to bolster its support.

Overall, the recent activities of the Duma underscore the top-down, behind-the-scenes efforts required to manage the appearance of consensus, including in relation to the war on Ukraine. But this suggests the shallow, fragile nature of any resulting sense of unity in society more broadly.
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