Understanding Men, Masculinity and Identity in Post-Soviet Russia

Leverhulme Trust Project Grant F/00179/I


The main aim of this research was to study the ways in which social, cultural and economic upheavals affect the lives and identities of Russian men. In looking at men's responses to change, the project sought to interrogate the ways in which contemporary understandings of male identity, 'what it means to be a man', impacted on men's choices and strategies. The research also considered the implications for men's health, family relations and employment strategies of pressures brought about by both the practical realities of the contemporary socio-economic environment and cultural expectations defining acceptable male roles, identities and behaviours.

Fieldwork and methodology
This was a qualitative study the findings of which were drawn primarily from data collected during fieldwork in Russia and from a detailed study of the ways in which male roles and identities are portrayed in the Russian media and in popular attitudes and understandings. Ethnographic research was undertaken in two provincial case study areas. Repeated visits were made to a small district centre town in Kaluga Region, where ethnographic interviews were conducted with local men aged between 18 and 73 from a wide range of professional and educational backgrounds, living both in the town itself and in two of its surrounding villages. Extensive participant observation of daily life in the district was also undertaken and expert interviews conducted with representatives of local administrative bodies. The second case study focused on the work of the Altai Regional Crisis Centre for Men, a unique facility based in Barnaul in Western Siberia. Here ethnographic interviews were conducted with clients of the centre as well as expert interviews with both staff at the centre and representatives of other social services, administrative and academic bodies. Beyond these two case studies expert interviews were also conducted in Moscow with representatives of the national media, government ministries and the military.

Key Objectives
The research had a number of key objectives including the following:

  • To study the ways in which ongoing social and economic upheavals affect the daily lives and experiences of Russian men;
  • To analyse the sources and content of contemporary Russian discourses of masculinity, their impact on Russian men, their self-esteem, their relationships with other men and with women, and the construction of individual and group identities;
  • To explore male responses to discourses of masculinity and to the effects of social and economic change, paying close attention to the ways in which socio-cultural factors influence men's responses and the intricate linkages between attitudes, actions and processes of decision-making;
  • To investigate the implications of male responses at a personal level, including implications for men's health, family relations and quality of life.

Findings and Conclusions
This research represents the first full-scale project specifically focusing on the lives and experiences of men in provincial areas of post-Soviet Russia. As such it is an original contribution to existing knowledge about the impacts of social and economic change on contemporary Russian society. Moreover, many of the themes which have become central to this research clearly resonate with both academic studies of and broader social concerns regarding the position of men in societies beyond Russia. Issues such as the impact of structural change on existing patterns of male employment, male roles within the family and questions regarding access to and custody of children following divorce were particularly strongly highlighted by respondents in the course of this research.

In each of these areas it has been clear that men's choices are constrained both by the realities of life in post-Soviet and by expectations of acceptable male behaviour which are strongly supported in media and cultural representations and which men frequently internalise. Moreover, in many areas of their lives the expectations placed on men, the realities of the post-Soviet environment, and the ideals and goals which men themselves prioritise push in divergent, not to say contradictory, directions. For some men this can result in an experience of crisis which may spill over into forms of behaviour which are damaging both to individual men and for their families, friends and broader communities. The development of innovative forms of social support, based on an explicit analysis of men's experiences and needs, which has occurred at the Altai Regional Crisis Centre for Men is an impressive attempt to tackle problems which are certainly not exclusive to the post-Soviet Russian context.

Principle publications arising from the project:

  • Kay, R. (2006) Men in Contemporary Russia. The Fallen Heroes of Post-Soviet Change?, London, Ashgate, ISBN 0 7546 4485 5, pp x + 236. [book]
  • Kay, R. (2007) "Men's Experiences of Fatherhood and Fathers' Rights in Contemporary Russia", in R. Kay, (ed.) Equal or Different? Gender, Equality and Ideology under State Socialism and After, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007, ISBN 0230524842, pp. 125-45.
  • Kay, R. (2007) 'Caring for men in contemporary Russia: Gendered constructions of need and hybrid forms of social security', Focaal - European Journal of Anthropology, No. 50, ISSN 0920 1297.
  • Kay, R. and Kostenko, M. (2006) 'Men in Crisis or in Critical Need of Support: Experiences from the Altai Regional Crisis Centre for Men', Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, Special Issue, Transnational Issues, Local Concerns: Insights from Russia, Central and East Europe and the UK, Vol 22, No. 1, ISSN 13523279, pp 90-114.
  • Kay, R. (2004) 'Working with single fathers in Western Siberia: a new departure in Russian social provision', Europe-Asia Studies, Vol 56, No. 7, ISSN 09668136, pp 941-962.
  • Kay, R. 'Russia's Fallen Heroes: Men's Experiences of Post-Soviet Change', Royal Society of Edinburgh BP Prize Lecture, 5 September 2005