Russia has its own right-wing populist movement: the Parental Movement. While the US equivalent is protesting stricter gun control, the Russians are raging against the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“Western lifestyle is considered a major threat to Russian traditions and normal family life”, says social anthropologist Tova Höjdestrand. She sees patterns that might explain other right-wing populist movements as well.
Russian policy started gradually to swing towards the right in the mid-2000s. Tova Höjdestrand noticed this as she had just finished writing her thesis on the homeless in St. Petersburg. Old criticism from the Soviet era against the morally decadent West became increasingly common. But where did these impulses come from – the Kremlin or from grassroots organisations? Tova Höjdestrand began to look for the source, but not until a few years later would she fall right into the lion’s den, as she puts it – online, in the media, but also on location in St. Petersburg.
She discovered small right-wing populist grassroots organisations all over Russia that were linked together under a collective name: The Parental Movement. Although it is difficult to estimate how many followers they actually have, they have become increasingly adept at taking advantage of the media and the internet. In 2012, the movement made a major impact on the public debate, backed by Russian ultranationalists and the church. The Kremlin picked up the rhetoric as well, and that same year introduced a ban on “homosexual propaganda” and stopped all adoptions of Russian children to countries that allow same-sex marriage.
“Putin flirts with the most right-wing populist tendencies”, says Tova Höjdestrand. “At the same time, he supports the social reforms that are currently the main pet peeve of the Parental Movement and what they refer to as ‘Juvenile Justice’ – laws that highlight the rights of children and young people.”
The background to the reform consists of major societal problems: domestic violence, alcoholism, juvenile delinquency and child neglect.
“During the Soviet era there was no holistic approach to preventive work. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state, but family life was largely a private matter – not sending your children to young pioneer camps was considered a worse offence than beating them…. The situation would therefore have to become really bad before the authorities would intervene and the children taken into custody. Social policy in Russia has not changed a lot since then, resulting in many overcrowded orphanages.”
The orphanages are Russia’s largest social policy headache, argues Tova Höjdestrand. The children become stuck at these institutions and are rarely reunited with their families. However, reforms to break the trend and to work more preventively are underway. Juvenile delinquency has also been addressed through various initiatives and proposed new legislation, inspired by the UN Child Convention, is currently being processed.
So why are these reforms a red rag to the Parental Movement?
There are several reasons, argues Tova Höjdestrand. It is about a distrust of the authorities which are given more power to intervene in people’s lives, the fear that children will be taken into custody arbitrarily, and that the rights of the parents to raise their own children will be undermined by statutory rights for children. It is also about the new social legislation inspired by the West. Children’s rights are therefore associated with the invasion of neoliberal economic values since 1990. They are all tied together in a conspiracy theory that the West has an ongoing moral war to eradicate Russian tradition.
Although the Parental Movement is disseminating false information, its supporters are not misinformed about everything they see, continues Tova Höjdestrand. The social laws in Russia are applied with the help of non-profit organisations that started in the 90s and that were initially financed by the West.
“These organisations are often competent. They have developed a social expertise and they work parallel to the authorities. But they lack popular support and the Parental Movement sees them as the extended arm of the West. Furthermore, the legislative proposals on children’s rights were made according to a Western liberal model, and they often include outsourcing and creating a market for social services. As for the UN Child Convention, the Parental Movement has a point when saying that it is difficult to apply directly in a poor country.”
What notions and values are behind the conspiracy theory? As an anthropologist, Tova Höjdestrand is interested in finding out how various ideas are formed.
“What is this Russian tradition they keep referring to? What is their ideological core?”
Her analysis shows that the supporters of the Parental Movement assumes that a functioning society is hierarchical, which is contrary to equality and democracy. Everyone should know there place, children, parents, women, etc. Being a ruled by a czar is fine, and they like Putin, but are sceptical of the apparatus that surrounds him.
“Another fundamental notion is that freedom can never be used constructively – there must be rules and a power that keeps people in check. Children need to be corrected. They cannot develop morally in freedom.”
However, Tova Höjdestrand adds, then comes the paradox. In its own working methods and organisations the Parental Movement is quite egalitarian. It is transparent, does not accept grants and is afraid of corruption.
“Perhaps their core values are rooted in the ways of the old Russia? When the Czar was on top and the farmers were organised into councils that had some discretionary power in internal affairs.”
So on whose side is the Parental Movement on? The alcoholics and the drug addicts? Or the children at the orphanages? No, their focus is on the people who now feel deprived of their rights, i.e. the parents, rather than the children. They are against “coddling” and demand a strict approach to juvenile offenders, among others.
“The Parental Movement wants to be the voice of the middle class in the debate and to represent the ‘normal family’ – and in Russian, ‘normal’ stands for so much more than in Swedish. ‘Kith and kin’ is another concept that is widely used, and includes both family and close friends. Everything outside this immediate network is perceived as dangerous and deceptive, not least the state apparatus. This is how many Russians feel, not only those who are part of the Parental Movement. However, most ordinary Russians are pragmatics and do not fall for all of the alarmist rhetoric of the Parental Movement. And they are not that concerned, as long as they have food on the table”, says Tova Höjdestrand.
How does the Parental Movement relate to other right-wing populist movements, such as the American Tea Party movement?
“The thing they have in common is their scepticism of central power – in the case of the Parental Movement, they oppose the political mechanism of power, not Putin himself. The Tea Party is actually not the best comparison since they are unified in their opposition against taxes and federal power rather than immorality. In the value-conservative Parental Movement, defending morality is key. The movement’s economic visions – if any – are more similar to classical social democracy.”
Text: Britta Collberg
Sweden – the dictatorship of gender equal nursery schools
- The black picture painted by the Parental Movement of the moral war of the West against Russia is all over the media. Sweden is presented as a worst-case-scenario.
- “Why should we pay taxes so that western infiltrators can make money of taking our children away from us? They want us to change our morals, love gays, and not raise our children! This will be the end of normal Russian families!” This is what it sounds like, says Tova Höjdestrand.
- A lot of her research is conducted online, but she has also interviewed some 20 people in St. Petersburg, the majority of whom are supporters of the Parental Movement.
- According to a few movement representatives she met, Sweden has abolished the words for mom and dad:
- “Even when I objected to this statement, they maintained that this was in fact true. The resistance to facts is complete.”
- Tova Höjdestrand was told that Sweden is the dictatorship of gender equal nursery schools:
- “Children are raised gender-neutrally until the age of 12 and must then choose between five different genders: straight, gay, bi, transgender or lesbian!”