The Frightening and Sad Reasons Russians Love Trump
“The connection lags,” my parents told me over Skype from Ryazan, my native city 100 miles southwest of Moscow. It was Friday afternoon in New Jersey, and I was trying to keep my toddler from touching the screen when my dad said, “It’s because everyone’s watching the inauguration.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. After Russian Parliament applauded the election results in November and Russian celebrities flaunted their brief acquaintance with Trump on Instagram, signs of Russians’ affection for Trump poured down: a dessert named after him in Vladivostok; a BBQ coal brand in Novosibirsk; exclusive souvenir coins from Chelyabinsk Oblast featuring his profile; and matryoshkas with his portrait available in Moscow gift shops. Polls prove his striking popularity (70% of Russians expect “good things” from Trump, vs. an approval rating of 42% in the U.S.), and he topped the list of the most-searched male celebrities in Russia’s largest search engine in 2016.
A week after the ceremony, after the cheering had died down, the lower house of Russian Parliament agreed to decriminalize domestic violence. The bill, now approved by the Council of Federation, allows an attacker to get away with battering a family member for a fine of up to 30,000 rubles (approximately $500)â€Š—â€Šwhich according to Mari Davtyan, a lawyer and co-founder of Nasiliu.net (“No To Violence”), will probably be paid from a couple’s mutual budget.
“It’s about beating that doesn’t cause serious injuries; those are internal family arguments with small consequences,” the bill’s author, Yelena Mizulina, stated. She said she expects the new law to protect families from the interference of social services; meanwhile, Russian women are likely to become casualties in the war for traditional values.
Politicians disregard inconvenient statistics, such as 14,000 women dying from domestic violence each year, for the sake of the idea that patriarchal values can constitute Russia’s new morality. Drawing from centuries of human history, to the dreadful statistics of today, we know this system involves the constant violation of women’s rightsâ€Š—â€Šand that there’s no high morality in it.
And yet, as Russians, we have been asked to buy into this alternate version of reality that equates the stripping of human rights with necessary protectionism.
In the wake of last year’s DNC leaks and National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn’s resignation yesterday—after lying about his relationship with Russia—there have been, rightfully, many questions asked about the Trump administration’s unrevealed ties to Russia. But we should be asking another question as well: Why is Russia obsessed with Trump?
It seems like working and middle-class Russians have been harboring a need for someone like Trump in the years since the Kremlin began taking a turn toward traditionalism in 2012.
For two decades after the collapse of the USSR, with its faux equality and rigid ideology that served as justification for atrocious repressions, Russians lived through the chaos of the transitional stageâ€Š—â€Šwhich included, for example, a soaring wave of organized crime in the ’90s. But this time was also marked by hope for democracy, healthy capitalism, and freedom.
It’s safe to say that for 20 years, there was no central, guiding ideology, either government-established or public-initiated. Until Putin decided there should be one.
In his famous speech at the Valdai Forum in 2013, Putin used careful wording to outline the identity he expected Russia to take on: a mighty country with a great past that opts for Christianity and the conventional image of a family, as opposed to modern multiculturalism and expansion of LGBT rights. The same year, he signed two bills that marked the beginning of the shift: one, a Pussy Riot-inspired law, allows people to be imprisoned for up to one year for what’s called “offending religious feelings”; the second, dubbed the “gay-propaganda” law, puts a ban on any content that presents homosexual relationships as a possible norm.
The Russian state soon became a bulwark of traditionalism, and its propaganda channels breathed new life into the old ideological clichÃ© about the “decaying West” that fails to protect its time-honored morals and moves rapidly toward self-destruction. New slurs, such as calling Europe “Gayrope” for supporting LGBT rights, were invented as Moscow sought to establish itself as a neo-traditional capital of the world.
In this light, each time Trump lashes out at liberal ideals, such as political correctness, equality, or respect for women, it is seen as an approval of the traditional wayâ€Š—â€Šthe Russian way. It’d be like Eisenhower or Reagan confessing that they are communists in their heart of heartsâ€Š—â€ŠSoviet people would cheer, of course.
Today, Russians love Trump because he reinforces a patriarchal framework, promotes conventional gender roles, and aggressively ignores LGBT rightsâ€Š—â€Šall the things Russia has been doing over the last five years. More importantly, having a U.S. president among our spiritual allies makes it easier for Russians to disregard the real, dark results of the Putin’s new “traditional” ideology.
But the impact of Russia’s Trump-like patriarchal legislation should not be ignored—in part because to do so is to implicitly validate the violation of human rights, and in part because these results provide chilling insight into what may lie ahead for America.
The recent legislation on domestic abuse is just one example of how Russia’s new value system engenders the everyday violation of human rights, especially for those who are already marginalized.
Take, for another instance, sexual assault. If Trump and Summer Zervosâ€Š—â€Šthe former Apprentice contestant who has accused the president of sexual abuseâ€Š—â€Šwere Russians, she barely would be able to speak up about the incident, because, as Mari Davtyan says, there are no laws against sexual harassment. “Rape victims have to deal with stereotypes, humiliation, and stigmatization,” the lawyer adds. When it comes to assigning culpability for rape, Russian society is a medieval-like patriarchy.
Another logical outcome of the traditional rhetoric is a backlash against abortions, induced by the Russian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Kirill, Bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, insists that abortions should be banned from the mandatory health insurance program, which currently allows women to have a procedure for free in a government clinic. Given the country’s pricey contraceptives and lack of sexual education, and that most households are low-income, the initiative would hurt working-class mothers, who are most likely to need an abortion.
At the same time, authorities turn a blind eye to what’s been dubbed “punitive gynecology”â€Š—â€Šthe inhumane treatment of pregnant women in hospitals across the country. There have been gestures toward improving care, but little has actually changed. In 2016, horrifying stories of deliveries in Russian clinics flooded social media: Women spoke up about neglectful and rude practitioners, poor hospital environments, and facing humiliation and slut-shaming (even though you might think a labor ward is the last place where it makes sense to embarrass women for having a sex life). This careless approach leaves mothers with physical and emotional traumas; moreover, it can endanger the lives of infantsâ€Š—â€Ša bitter fact for a country that struggles with a low birth rate.
That a government ostensibly devoted to family values would put infants’ lives at risk is indicative of the hypocrisy at the heart of many Russian laws. Another example of this is the infamous “gay propaganda law,” which has brutalized LGBT youth under the auspices of caring for Russian children: Putin claimed its objective was to protect youth from the negative influence of the LGBT community. “Though there always had been homophobia in Russian society, people didn’t think about gay propaganda, because it didn’t exist,” says feminist writer Bella Rapoport. “Now we have homophobia at the government level.”
President Putin insists the law is “far from violating someone’s rights,” but facts reveal the opposite. Every now and then, schools around the country fire gay and queer teachers who have had their orientation accidentally revealed, while ultra-conservative politicians use the law in their ongoing attempts to shut down “Children-404,” an online-community that supports queer teenagers and literally saves lives.
Xenophobia is another facet of Russia’s found-again identity, and it has resulted in the poor integration of immigrants from the former Soviet bloc, who, despite being viewed as a source of crime and unemployment, constitute a critical part of the workforce. In 2016, Russia’s Investigative Committee closed the murky case of Umarali Nazarov, a Tajikistan infant who died while in St. Petersburg police custody from a disease his family claimed he didn’t have. His parents, both undocumented immigrants, were hastily deported; no answers were given.
I recalled this story when I was reading about a preschooler who flew back home to the U.S. with his Iranian relatives and was detained at Dulles Airport near Washington, DC, for hours. Unlike Umarali’s story, this one ended happily, but both cases are examples of dehumanization and xenophobia creating situations one might describe as “kafkaesque.” Russian journalists often use this word to chronicle the reality of Putin’s era, in which the law that’s supposed to protect kids kills them, struggles against depopulation are juxtaposed next to systematic neglect of new mothers in hospitals, and so-called family values encroach on the safety of women and children.
And here’s where Trump comes in handy. Nothing could reassure Russians more of the rightness of the traditional way than a president of the United States who supports the same paradigm, and challenges the “decaying West” and its multicultural values. Add a long history of Russian anti-Americanism that has never faded completely among the massesâ€Š—â€Ševen during an “ideology-free” decadeâ€Š—â€Šand you’ll understand why, for the first time in history, Russians adore the American president.
Trump is “our guy” who proves that Russia’s patriarchal morality, which brings only suffering and death, is probably a normal thingâ€Š—â€Šbecause, look, even Americans are endorsing the same!
By Russian standards, Trump is totally normal as a politician. He’s something between a tough guyâ€Š—â€Ša character Putin embodies during his shirtless performancesâ€Š—â€Šand an unsophisticated alpha-male, like Vitaly Milonov (an ultra-conservative deputy) and Vladimir Zhirinovsky (the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party), both known for misogyny, machismo, and kooky ideas that defy rational thinking. Even Alexey Navalny, the protest leader, is often compared to Trump, as his liberalism falls short when it comes to minorities and women. As my grandpa summed it up, “Trump’s a muzhik,” which here means “a boor” with an emphasis on masculinityâ€Š—â€Šand yes, it’s quite a compliment. And though Russians mistake Trump’s ignorance of his own privilege for the toughness of a person who acquired an armor against life’s blows, he definitely is a muzhik.
With the beginning of Trump’s presidency, it has become easier for Russians to justify the gap between the shiny concept of “spiritual ties” and the sad reality of citizens becoming victims of their own government’s ideology. How could this ideology be wrong when the advocate of it, a real muzhik, has taken over the Oval Office?
Trump’s victory means the victory of values he stands for, and since these seem pretty close to Putin’s ideological course, Russians can further deny the injustice and hypocrisy that bloom as a result of supporting “traditional” values. It operates like a mental defense mechanism that protects one’s psyche from the horrors of reality.
Whenever Russians think something is wrong, they can now look westward to the muzhik who’ll reassure them, “It’s okay, you’re not alone. Hate might be not that bad, really.”
Except, of course, it is. And I feel sadness and compassion for all Russian people who need Trump as confirmation that the traditional way is the proper one.
At the same time, the desperation of the need for affirmation is so strong that it may reveal lingering uncertainty about the new Russian way. I have hope that one day doubts will prevail, and two countries that mean so much to me will embrace dreams of equality again.