A POLITICAL STRATEGY OF PEOPLE WHO WERE DEEMED CONTAGIOUS BY THE SHIRTLESS PUTIN by Alexander Kondakov

The following article, written by a Russian scholar in sociology, makes no references to Orthodoxy in general or to the Russian Church in particular. Its relevance for Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s readers lies in the vaunted revival of “Byzantine symphonia” between church and state in post-Soviet, 21st-century Russia: arguably this “symphonia” makes the Moscow Patriarchate complicit—whether overtly or covertly—in the multiple levels of violence perpetrated against Russia’s sexual minorities.

This article analyzes conditions in which contagious populations have found themselves in Russia and reviews theories of queer/crip kinship from two perspectives: the theories developed in academic literature, and the conceptualization of queer/crip kinship that may be derived from everyday accounts of people. The latter position is shaped through an analysis of life history interviews with disabled people who identify on the LGBTIQ spectrum in Russia. The Russian context is different from many other geographical locations, but also relates to the more common condition of precarity shared under contemporary neoliberal capitalism. Crip kinship is understood as a prominent political strategy that brings new perspectives on our futurities outside of assemblages of oppression and exploitation that able-bodiedness, heterosexism, and misogyny provoke, sustain, and enforce.

putinshirtlessIn 2013, the Russian state passed an Administrative Code statute declaring “non-traditional sexual relations” such as “male homosexual relations, bisexuality, and transgenderism” as contagious and prohibited any form of “dissemination” or “propaganda” about such “non-traditional relations.” The law implies that sexual relations of this sort can be transmitted from one body to another and are dangerous for children because they can plant “non-traditional sexual attitudes” in their psyche, “provoke interest into such relationship,” and make children queer, enlarging the “diseased” population of the Russian Federation (Federal Law 2013). Within this contagious framing, the law seeks to prevent Russian children from becoming queer, and, in doing so, positions queer life as disposable (Evans and Giroux 2015). 

Recent episodes of NBC’s Saturday Night Live (2017) depict Russian President Vladimir Putin as shirtless (played by Beck Bennett), congratulating US citizens on electing Donald Trump. The image of a shirtless Putin suggests that “compulsory able-bodiedness” (McRuer 2006, 2) is an integral part of the exclusionary ideology promoted by the current Russian government and—as suggested in the show—transmitted to the United States as a kind of infection. The president’s body is imagined as a normative reminder of how a real man is supposed to look, enabling an assemblage of oppressive ideologies (Puar 2007) such as heterosexism, ableism, and misogyny. In referencing Putin’s exposure of his body to the public in myriad scenes of fishing, riding a horse, and swimming—all assumed to confirm his masculinity and potency—the media reassures his authority and reinforces traditional power relations by reproducing those images in various contexts, including in humor (Sperling 2015Novitskaya 2017). Though Saturday Night Live establishes that Putin is openly broadcasting oppressive ideologies through the exposure of his own body, the point is to look at not the form, but the content of these utterances. All societies are informed by heterosexism, ableism, and misogyny. Thus, I offer to regard the Shirtless Putin as a metaphor marking conditions of oppression beyond national borders of Russia.

This is especially so in the context of globalized and totalizing effects of neoliberalism. After the fall of the USSR, neoliberal policies have been implemented rigorously, limiting people’s access to welfare while also privatizing care. Neoliberalism in the Russian context has been promoted in reference to privatized and traditionalized filiations: family values, idyllic national sentiments, and through the scapegoating of presumably contagious populations. Families are regarded as receptacles of care without state budgeting and, hence, require nothing but rhetorical support. The hoarded funds are, in turn, used for warfare, masculinist geopolitical games, or simply personal enrichment (Stephenson 2015).

In his work on the relationship between the state, capitalism, sexuality, and disability, Robert McRuer describes the way in which disability serves as a site for state administration to establish systems of welfare redistribution while at the same time reinforcing hierarchies that sustain current inequalities in a neoliberal context (2011, 110–11). Ultimately, disability enjoys a marginal status in this system, despite its glorification in policies (108). Because of this relationship, McRuer concludes that disability justice requires “other sensations” and “other connections” (114), such as networking and imagining other futures. In this sense, relations of interdependence are crucial sites of collective experience beyond individualism. In this article, then, my aim is to amplify these networks and relations of interdependence at both the everyday and theoretical registers via the practice of queer/crip kinship. It is within the condition of the Shirtless Putin—a comical image that I use as a metaphor that stands in for the assemblage of oppressive ideologies—that the Russian people conduct our complex and complicated lives, assemblages of a different sort. As we are being legally or politically selected as not worthy of support, and as contagious, we create our own networks of care to sustain our communities despite constraints. In this regard, I offer a queer/crip kinship that is grounded in the life experiences of people living at the intersection of queerness and disability as a way to contest the assemblage of oppressions.

Certainly, concepts such as queercrip, or even neoliberalism are widespread and understood in Russia, although they do not originate from local epistemological and intellectual backgrounds. In analyzing the results of empirical interviews I conducted in 2016 on the experience of disabled queers in Russia, I show how it is that the Russian context enables new interpretations of queer and crip as queer/crip kinship. I use the stories collected from the interviews to track networks of queer/crip kinship that I present as crucial to the process of escaping neoliberal assemblages of oppression. The ways in which disabled and queer people are deemed contagious populations conditions the ways they reimagine their networks of kinship beyond their biological affiliation or blood relations. I juxtapose institutionalized forms of support and care to the everyday notions of kinship in order to provide a blueprint for generating better futures than those delivered by the existing assemblage of oppression and neoliberalism.

At the same time, I also question the potential of queer/crip kinship to undermine inequalities. In doing so, my article expands feminist, queer, and crip literature on kinship and offers a critical examination of rigid structures of institutionalized and/or traditionalist care.

From Identity to Assemblages

Contemporary Russia is in many ways a successor to its previous state, the Soviet Union, especially in respect to its stance on homosexuality and disability. In the USSR, male homosexuality was a criminal offence, whereas female homosexuality was a disease (Essig 1999, 45). Even though homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993 and demedicalized in 1999 (Healey 2001, 259–60), it remained enmeshed in discourses of contagion as legislators continued to propose attempts to criminalize it, law courts pursued discriminatory decisions, and politicians kept blaming homosexuals for a variety of “social diseases” (Kondakov 2013, 424). Yet, vivid and diverse queer life continues to flourish, especially in big cities, where political activism and advocacy, and queer culture and community are a part of everyday life (Essig 1999Sozayev 2010Stella 2015Amico 2014). However, in 2013 with the introduction of the law banning the circulation of “propaganda” relating to “non-traditional sexual relations,” queer communities around the country have reacted in various ways, from active resistance to retreat back into the closet (Soboleva and Bakhmet’ev 2014).

Disabled people have benefited from formal positive recognition in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia in law and culture, especially World War II veterans (Iarskaia-Smirnova and Romanov 2014). Yet, on the everyday level, the state has also marked them as a contagious population, quarantining disabled people outside of public view in institutions or other private environments. As in the case of homosexuality, disabled people have been marked by contagion through legal apparatuses. Since the USSR, welfare ministries and agencies have developed complicated grids of categories of disability, whereby benefits and rights distribution depends upon the particular category one occupies, and this categorization is a mechanism of control. This system is divided into three groups of disabled people. “Group I” is categorized as having the most severe forms of impairment, while “Group III” has the mildest. Groups are also subdivided by age, cause of disability (work, military conflict, birth, etc.), with each sub-category providing different sets of benefits and rights (Phillips 2010, 50–52). The category one occupies within this system determines possible labor occupations (Kurlenkova 2017), availability and amount of pension, and benefits in the form of free resort tours, free public transport passes, and so on (Madison 1989, 176–77, 211). This system allows for an easy administration of disability so far as the state can always determine who falls under which legal category and exactly what set of benefits, labor rights, or monetary remuneration this entails. At the same time, this logic of categorization has been used to restrict the access of disabled people to public spaces such as workplaces. A good illustration of the government’s attempts to contain and isolate disabled populations is provided by Cassandra Hartblay, who neatly documents the authority’s efforts to construct “accessible cities” (20152017). While formally equipping cities with ramps, the authorities fail to make urban infrastructure accessible to anyone who would want to use it. So long as these facilities are designed for disposable people, they are useless because they lack the details to make them accessible, or they lead to a wall instead of a door, or they are equipped with a call button that does not function. A general notion of disposability informs the logic of legislators and officials when they design or implement corresponding programs: they simply do not care if programs work.

Continue reading on Project MUSE.

This article appeared in Feminist Formations 30.1, Spring 2018. 

Alexander Kondakov holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of St. Petersburg, Russia. He is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at the European University at St. Petersburg, a researcher at the Centre for Independent Social Research in St. Petersburg, a Wisconsin Russia Project Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the deputy editor-in-chief at the Journal of Social Policy Studies published by the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. In March 2017 he authored “Putting Russia’s Homophobic Violence on the Map” for openDemocracy.

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