A photo of a drag performance in Russia.
By Greg Shook

Professor Julie Cassiday’s new book explores the rise of heteronormativity and homophobia in Putin’s Russia—and the counterculture that has emerged in response.

 

From its anti-gay propaganda laws to images of Vladimir Putin flexing his biceps in the Kremlin gym, Russia, under his presidency, seems to have an obsession with gender and sexuality. Understanding why is the premise of Russian professor Julie Cassiday’s latest book, which was named a finalist for the Pushkin House Book Prize.

In Russian Style: Performing Gender, Power and Putinism, published by the University of Wisconsin Press in the fall, Cassiday explores the ways national identity has been shaped by heteronormativity and homophobia under Putin’s regime—and the counterculture that has emerged in response. Instead of quashing queer culture, she argues, the president’s laws and pronouncements have served to strengthen it.

Putin’s rise to power took root during “a time of immense political, economic and social change in the Russian Federation,” Cassiday says. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was perceived by most as “a crisis, a tragedy and total chaos. Putin was very much—and has been defining himself—in juxtaposition to that chaos of the 1990s as a strong man. And he’s been very successful.”

With birthrates falling and Russia attempting to reassert its global power, Putin has tried to capitalize on stereotypes that Russian men are manlier and women more feminine than those in the West, says Cassiday, the Willcox B. and Harriet M. Adsit Professor of Russian. The president has famously appeared shirtless in photo ops, posing on horseback, hunting or fishing. Idealized women are depicted as young, sexy, sexually available Putin cheerleaders. All are performing sexuality through what Cassiday calls “cisgender drag.”

Homophobia and transphobia, meanwhile, have become a “state-sanctioned duty,” Cassiday says. Yet the irony is that legislation such as Article 6.21, a ban on so-called gay propaganda that was enacted in 2013 and strengthened in 2022, “posits that a simple slogan like ‘Gay is OK’ has the power to turn anyone who hears it into a homosexual,” she said during a Faculty Lecture Series presentation of her book in the spring of 2023.

And Putin’s public efforts to crack down on groups such as Children 404, an online support group for LGBTQ teens, or a video of cadets twerking in sexually suggestive clothing and poses, Cassiday says, have only served to make the counterculture more visible and give rise to a new generation of activists.

Called “an important book” and “well conceived, researched and executed,” Russian Style has also been hailed by reviewers as “a lot of fun.”

Some of the content, Cassiday says, came from classroom discussions that yielded fresh insights and perspectives. Students’ knack for searching the internet and following pop culture provided “whole new avenues of thought,” she says. “A student from China taking this course told me that the Russian media we were studying contained messaging about appropriate femininity almost identical to that in the Chinese media she encountered on a daily basis back home. It made me realize the global reach of what I originally thought was a specifically post-Soviet brand of post-feminism.”

At Williams since 1994, Cassiday’s research interests include performance studies and gender and sexuality studies in Russian culture. She teaches courses on Russian language, Russian and Soviet culture, and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. She has published extensively on topics ranging from Putin’s love of expensive kitsch to pop culture critiques of contemporary Russian gender roles. She is the author of The Enemy on Trial: Early Soviet Courts on Stage and Screen (2017) and co-editor of Russian Performances: Word, Object, Action (2018).

As an undergraduate at Grinnell College, Cassiday spent three weeks and then a semester in the Soviet Union, sparking a lifelong interest. Her most recent trip was in 2019, for research, a presentation at the European University of St. Petersburg and to accompany a Williams alumni trip to the Baltic Sea.

While Cassiday, who identifies as queer, would like to return, she acknowledges that the time likely won’t come soon. “I have many colleagues who, for very good reasons, feel the same way, simply because of what we study or how we feel about the war in Ukraine,” she says, adding that she hopes “actual democracy can someday flourish in Russia.”

Read coverage of Cassiday’s book in The Moscow Times

Photo at top: Gleb, as Skinny Jenny, in a November 2022 drag performance in Moscow. Photograph by Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images