Tradition, gender and authoritarianism: did women have a place in the Russian presidential campaign?

From December 2023 to mid-March 2024, a research team from various Finnish universities monitored the Russian presidential campaign in collaboration with the independent domestic election monitor Golos. How were women depicted during the weekly news issues covering the presidential campaign?

First, let us introduce ourselves: we are Giulia Bongioni and Giulia Panfilo, two first year Master Students in Russian, Eurasian, and Eastern European Studies. We delved into the ebbs and flows of Russia's propaganda effort during the previous months of the electoral campaign. The inevitable outcome was Putin’s win, with 88% of the votes, and  elections can be considered the most illegitimate since the 1990s. If we compare them to the 2018 presidential elections, it is easy to notice how the regime has furtherly tightened its screws. Against the seven candidates, one of them a woman, being allowed to run alongside Putin six years ago, this time, only three have made it to the ballot paper with him: Nikolay Kharitonov, the nominee of Russia’s Communist Party, Leonid Slutsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and Vladislav Davankov, representative of the New People party.

Together with a brave team of Russian speakers and experts in Russian politics, we have contributed to weekly reports on Golos website based on our project which aimed at watching all weekly news issues on six main Russian channels and coding all the plots, mentions and speeches of Vladimir Putin and other candidates. During these three nerve-wracking months, many plots and events attracted our attention, but what especially gave us food for thought was the depiction of women (or, as we will see, lack thereof) during the electoral campaign. Out of more than 30 hopeful candidates, only a handful were women; as mentioned,  even fewer managed to make it past the starting line. In our monitoring data, only three made it to media coverage: Ekaterina Duntsova, Russian journalist and politician with an anti-war stance; Irina Sviridova, economist and candidate for the Russian Liberal Party; and Rada Russkikh, Russian blogger and activist. At the same time, the channels we monitored heavily covered the public outings and speeches of Putin’s official representatives, among which two of them were notable women, chief doctor and co-chair of Vladimir Putin’s electoral staff Mariana Lysenko and head of the Russian rhythmic gymnastics federation Irina Viner. Duntsova, Sviridova and Russkikh were ignored or ridiculed the few times they were on the news, also about their gender, while the women who acted as Putin’s representatives were endlessly praised for their work, but not once was their gender referred to. In this blog post, we will dig deep into this apparent contradiction. We will try to elucidate how the representation or non-representation of gender affects women in Russian politics and deploys pre-existing strategies of exclusion, invisibility, mockery, or unmentioning used elsewhere to downplay the role womanhood could play in the political landscape.

Gender and politics in Russia’s 2024 elections

In Russia, like in many other countries, gender stereotypes still loom large in politics (Nurutdinova et al., 2018). Despite claims of equality on paper, women often get the short end of the stick regarding media coverage and public perception. In past elections, there were instances where women challenged Putin's dominance. As early as 2004, Irina Khakamada emerged as the second woman to officially register as a candidate in a Russian presidential election, following Ella Pamfilova, who is now the chairwoman of the Central Election Commission (TsIK) and the mastermind behind the upgraded system of vote rigging in Russia. Another noteworthy female opponent of Putin was Ksenia Sobchak, a well-known journalist who ran in the 2018 presidential elections and is currently between a rock and a hard place as a loyal figure with a noticeable liberal reputation.

What set these women apart is that, unlike in the 2024 elections, they managed to advance in the race. However, this time, female candidates failed to make it to the election dates. Duntsova's candidacy was rejected on December 23rd, three days after submitting the required documents. Russkikh faced rejection on February 8th, while Sviridova, on February 2nd, eventually chose to withdraw from the race and endorse Putin. This pattern underscores women's persistent challenges in Russian politics. Despite occasional breakthroughs, there was disproportionately low time coverage compared to male candidates.

What stood out this time was how these women were either disregarded or portrayed in a negative light, making it increasingly difficult for them to make headway in the political sphere from the start. Female candidates were often relegated to supporting roles within nationalistic narratives (a particularly evident trend in Sobchak's case). In late 2017, when Sobchak announced her bid for the presidency, public discourse often reduced her credentials to being the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak. Hence her power was inherited by her father. Some less charitable viewpoints even dismissed her as merely a cook, a stereotypical societal role for women, implying she should steer clear of politics (Ruiz & Boguslavskaya, 2022). Throughout these elections, the limited media coverage was accompanied by predominantly negative portrayals, a phenomenon categorized under the term "tonal’nost’” or tone.

When we look at Putin’s speech on  March 8th , women are described and most importantly praised only by traditional and conservative values – mothers, wives, filial daughters – or, nowadays, in connection to the war effort. It is unsurprising, then, that these values came to dictate women’s representation in Russia’s state-controlled media. The absolute certainty of Putin winning contributed to their shadowing in the first place. Irina Svidirova received barely any mention of her candidacy anywhere outside of disqualification notices. And Rada Russkikh, a beauty blogger turned candidate, was mostly subjected to mockery rather than serious consideration. Let alone Sviridova and Russkikh, most certainly “dummy” candidates, Duntsova was the only potential Putin’s opponent, with an agenda focused on anti-war activism and fighting against corruption. However,  the media largely sidelined her campaign, with little attention paid to her platform. Eventually, she was rejected from the election before Christmas. This biased media coverage not only reflects societal attitudes towards women in politics but also reinforces outdated gender roles. Instead of being judged on their qualifications and policies, female candidates are often reduced to their personal lives and appearances. Or, even worse, we had the impression that they were fast-tracked into politics to fill “representation quotas” - take Sviridova from the Democratic Party -  or to give the impression of a gender diverse landscape - take Russkikh, a self-nominated candidate. In a world where representation matters, it's crucial to recognize the tactics used to label them all, especially Duntsova, which, in our analysis,  is the only potential “danger” to Putin’s Russia.

Invisibility and ridicule: the cases of Sviridova and Russkikh

Irina Sviridova faced near-total invisibility in media coverage. Despite being labeled as "the female face of the Russian campaign" and a "young mother" from the Democratic Party of Russia, she received minimal attention beyond disqualification notices. She was mentioned in one of our plots just once shaking hands, and in other plots (very few) speaking to withdraw from the election and support Putin – we had a specific category, “direct speech” or “pryamaya rech”. Sviridova’s case unites both invisibility in media coverage and  leadership position: in one of the few articles devoted to her, she is deemed as a face of the Democratic party, not as the main hero.

Similarly, Rada Russkikh, a beauty blogger turned candidate, was subjected to caricature and mockery, with her professional background dismissed and her physical appearance becoming the focal point of ridicule. The treatment of these female candidates in the media reflects broader biases and stereotypes in electoral politics, highlighting women’s challenges in gaining visibility and being taken seriously as political contenders. The beauty blogger was an unusual candidate; however, her professional background was translated into negative depiction tones as a “charlatan” and an “attention seeker.” What was not displayed in any way was her devotion to business and activism for dog shelters. The main underestimation of  Rada Russkikh swirls around her physical appearance and her offbeat character, not conventional for a woman in politics. We must admit, however, that this campaign was not truly competitive, regardless of gender differences. Sviridova and Russkikh did not advance a real political programme (as other male candidates), which contributed to their political harmlessness and low coverage. 


Duntsova’s exclusion and misrepresentation

On the contrary, Duntsova emerged as a significant female contender in the election fray, maybe the only ideological Putin’s opponent. A former TV journalist with a strong anti-war stance, she received minimal coverage, with only one channel, OTR, mentioning her candidacy twice. Despite her efforts, the majority of federal TV channels ignored her nomination. Although formally on par with other candidates like Vladimir Putin, Duntsova's candidacy faced hurdles, including an alleged violation in the signature collection, leading to its rejection. Unfortunately, rather than focusing on her anti-war platform and political ideals, media coverage predominantly portrayed her as a "single mother of three with no prior political experience who also has a Law degree" downplaying her qualifications using underestimating word combinations – single, mother, also a degree. However, she did have political experience, having worked for the city duma of Rzhev from 2019 to 2022.

The stereotypical view of Russian female candidates hindered Duntsova's genuine agenda, to promote peace and democracy in Russia. Despite limited media coverage, some aspects of her party-led program, titled "12 steps for a normal future," are available on her Telegram channel. This program includes initiatives such as free elections, real federalization, combating corruption, promoting free journalism, opposing the foreign agents’ law, tax reform, and advocating for a peaceful foreign policy. 

Forgetting womanhood: exploitation of female testimonials in Putin’s campaign

Whenever the news issues we monitored featured other candidates before March 15th, they were depicted while traveling and campaigning throughout Russia. On the other hand, Putin  barely ever presented himself to the public as a candidate per se, sticking instead to his presidential role and heavily relying on major addresses to the nation. As it used to be displayed on the website, which has now been taken down, the campaign was entirely conducted by many different testimonials. Unsurprisingly, most of the names displayed on the website were men, but some female figures were featured during the media coverage.

De-personalization for the sake of national progress: the case of Mariana Lysenko

First, there is Mariana Lysenko. On the website, she used to be described as the Doctor-in-Chief of the Moscow Clinic N.52. That, in short, is all she ever was for the media: a doctor. She was, by far, the most prominent woman among Putin’s representatives, also due to her being the co-chair of his electoral staff during the campaign, and got media coverage almost weekly. Despite that, what quickly became evident was that she was never presented as a woman alongside her profession. She was frequently depicted giving public speeches urging Russians to vote or visiting technological healthcare centers throughout the country as part of the electoral campaign. What happened with Mariana Lysenko is, de facto, an almost complete de-personalization: she became her job by being addressed constantly and solely as a Chief Doctor and was exploited to symbolize the progress Russia saw and allegedly continues to see under Putin’s rule in healthcare and technological advancement.

Looking back at how Putin himself officially celebrated and recognized women in his  March 8 speech, it is unsurprising that Lysenko was never recognized in this sense, either outside or alongside her job. Lysenko, both a woman and a doctor, was never both things at once: her role was to represent her profession and carry out Putin’s campaign alongside other main and male testimonials, “war hero” Artyom Zhoga and “charismatic actor” and member of United Russia Vladimir Mashkov.

Reinforcing the stereotype: Irina Viner, tradition and anti-Western narratives

Lysenko was the most recurring female name during Putin’s campaign, at least on the channels we monitored, but she was not the only notable woman to act as a testimonial. One could argue that a personality such as Irina Viner, head of the Russian Rhythmic Gymnastics Federation, is easily renowned throughout Russia. A longtime supporter of the Kremlin’s policies and Putin himself, she less frequently carried out pre-organized visits as a testimonial in the campaign. However, her “loyalty” to Putin nonetheless got covered. Lysenko’s personality can be argued to have been significantly toned down. The same cannot be said for Viner, whose role as an honored coach of the Russian Federation has been praised constantly for the past 20 years and whose presence at every domestic rhythmic gymnastics competition is a given. She was promptly shown by the media while participating in celebratory events for Putin’s record-breaking number of collected signatures. She publicly expressed her commitment as a testimonial, and was present as a guest speaker in one of the latest pro-government forums that preceded the elections, Znanie.

If Lysenko’s role was to emphasize Russia’s progress, Viner’s, due to her position in Russian sports, was to “represent” the anti-Western narrative that the Kremlin continuously reinforced in the past two years: after having been banned and sanctioned internationally alongside her gymnasts, she has often been vocal about the injustice Russian athletes are facing and how “offensive” participating under a neutral flag is. Thanks to Viner's prominence, her voice resonates quite loudly among Russians, and her example once again highlights Russia’s ambivalence towards women during this electoral campaign. Irina Viner is always depicted as one of the most decorated sports figures, but never more than that. Barely has she ever been presented as a woman, first and foremost, paradoxically, while engaging in an almost female-only sport. On the contrary, she often acted as a spokesperson for the traditional values Putin and the Kremlin promote. 

What did the presidential elections tell us about women in Russian politics?

The question we posed in the title of this blog post is not easy to answer: was there, indeed, a place for women in the Russian electoral campaign? At first glance, we could say that Putin’s female testimonials did have their place in the media coverage, but the more one delves into it, the more apparent it becomes that the opposite is true. Mariana Lysenko, Irina Viner, and other women in Putin’s electoral staff certainly received coverage, but, simply put, their gender did not. In the cases of all three candidates, federal TV discourse in Russia not only broadcasted but translated what society and authorities think of women in politics. They were ridiculed, not taken seriously, and quickly boxed out of the male-dominated game of Russian politics. Women were described through the prism of their personal lives (mother, single mother, number of children) which is unusual for male candidates, and reduced to inexperienced politicians. Despite women and men having, at least legally, the same opportunities to run for the presidency, we conclude that, in these elections, they were treated as mere decorations, as a reason for entertainment (and when they stopped being entertaining, well, it was time to wipe them out, like Duntsova). 

While in Putin's Russia the number of women involved in politics seems to have increased, they are never allowed to be the actual owners of power. How traditional gender values and exploitation of women will (or will not) end up playing an even more significant role when the Russian parliamentary elections of 2026 roll around, only time (or the Kremlin) will tell.