While she’s in St. Petersburg, a young female journalist tells States of Undress host Hailey Gates that Russians are currently living in “a propaganda machine from hell.” People will believe anything they are told – that all Americans are liars or that all Europeans are gay. As the mysterious deaths of multiple journalists aligned to the critical newspaper Novaya Gazeta have shown, it’s a dangerous time to question majority rule. Under President Vladimir Putin, patriotic passions are hot – Russians have been summoned to do their part for the Fatherland and restore it to greatness, by either echoing or embodying his worldviews.
While not all young Russians are enthralled to their often-shirtless leader, episode 4 of States Of Undress reveals the tight grip Putin has on the hearts and minds of most. America’s economic sanctions have seen the ruble collapse and anti-Western sentiment rise. As Gates discovers in St. Petersburg, in what many think of as Russia’s most progressive city, even fashion has adopted nationalist tendencies. A so-called ‘celebrity activist’ takes to the market square to destroy evil Western products. Russian furs remain big business (some sable coats selling for close to $500,000), and a young designer even uses fashion to express adoration of Putin, reproducing his ‘best’ lines on her prints.
Yet it’s a complex state of affairs. Russia’s fashion industry is only starting to find its feet. No such entity existed prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and money remains the main obstacle to making any sort of international mark. While St. Petersburg’s fashion week features homegrown talent, it’s showcasing clothes that Gates notes look curiously familiar, including dresses directly referencing Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic 1965 Mondrian Collection.
Gates abandons a pure focus on fashion to delve deep into how this patriotism is shaping the culture. And who can blame her, when as she says, off the catwalks, Putin seems to be most Russians ‘brand of choice’. It’s a craze worth investigating, and it takes Gates to some fascinating and challenging places.
While a rise in national pride can be a force for good, history has shown us too often just how quickly this fervour can tip into something dark and deadly. A process of defining and redefining what it means to be Russian also involves drawing lines between who is and who isn’t Russian, and therefore afforded the full rights and protections of citizenship. Gates attends a meeting of one of the many pro-Putin youth groups that have sprung from this new patriotism. Unlike some of their more thuggish ilk, Gates describes them as nice. They don’t promote violence and are very hospitable. But she struggles to reconcile this with their rampant homophobia and defiant anti- same-sex marriage stance.
Russia’s patriotic urge is manifesting primarily in the push to create perfect families and perfect women. The discourse around this is both explicitly anti-feminist and anti-gay. Gates has an uncomfortable meeting outside and inside a church with the ultra-conservative politician Vitaly Milonov, the holder of a medal for ‘Services to the Fatherland.’ Milonov has been instrumental in the passing of several laws that have effectively rendered homosexuality a crime in Russia, even for tourists.
Even more discomfiting is how these extreme ideas have filtered down into every aspect of Russian life. A ‘Mrs Russia’ pageant (where mothers compete alongside their children) glorifies traditional families, despite Russia having the highest divorce rate in the world, and many of the pageant’s participants being divorced.
Marriage agencies, not dating agencies, are also big business. In a country with a real man shortage – 86 men for every 100 women – the pressure to marry is immense. Women are encouraged to smile more, to be conventionally feminine in their appearance and behaviour, to do whatever it takes to secure a man, who they should then treat like both “a God and a giant baby.” It all begs the question: in St. Petersburg, is this truly the face of progress?
States of Undress airs on SBS VICELAND every Sunday night at 8:30pm. Catch up on previous episodes on SBS On Demand: