how russia's entrenched notion of masculinity is shifting, thanks to fashion
We meet three figures working in Moscow's fashion industry who continue to fight for acceptance in a culture reluctant to embrace gender diversity.
It's been 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union; but in Russia, ingrained ideas around gender, and masculinity in particular, have been slow to change. In a culture that's held tight to the traditional notion of the dominant, macho, heterosexual male. Life hasn't been easy for those whose appearance, beliefs, and lifestyles fall outside what is considered the 'norm.' In a society where history and politics celebrates structures of unified masculinity, it's understandable that repression will occur. That said, like in cities everywhere, the fashion industry is providing Russian youth an opportunity to express themselves in different ways and helping to redefine a new, more progressive cultural identity.
To gain an insight into the changing face of acceptance towards gender and sexuality in Russia, we spoke to some of the central figures who are helping to ignite this important dialogue by presenting alternative accounts of masculinity through their work.
Angel Ulyanov, 29, Model and Photographer
What did becoming a model in Russia mean for you?
In the beginning I did not understand why I was modeling. I did not consider myself beautiful: I'm skinny, I don't have hair. I imagined that a model is a guy with a beautiful body, muscles, and hair. You know, like Armani models.
After a time, when photographers began asking me to shoot, I started to enjoy myself as I am. Modeling allowed me to understand my body and my possibilities. I realized that I could be different; I could be the guy from another planet, I could be a girl, or anyone else. Each time I do something new, I try to look for a new hero.
Do you feel there are many different types of masculinity in Russia?
Well, the most common image of a Russian male is a drunk man in a hat with ear flaps and felt boots [laughs]. He is physically strong and impudent. Lesser regarded are bearded guys on skateboards or hipsters. We still have Gopniks, though — they are young men who dress in sportswear and seem to have come straight from prison. They are my favorite. I have often been compared to this, because I am bald and skinny. Then there are the men who work in the office, trendy young guys who like to dress all in black, guys who love sports. But there are always exceptions!
Have you found it difficult not falling into a 'mainstream' category of masculinity in Russia?
Of course! I walked a long way to ensure that I could be noticed, thanks to the people who I work with. For people like me, there are always fewer fashion shows and less shoots. I'm not invited to shoot for Russian magazines, because I'm not like the others. I am a very arty boy, very skinny.
If you're not a typical man in Russia, life is difficult. As a child, you are beaten. When you're young, girls don't pay attention. And in the end you have to prove that you are also a human being just because you're not a big sports guy like the others — or because you like the way you are.
Is it taboo to challenge the paradigm like you do?
Definitely. I was born in Siberia, and it was hard. I wanted to get away from this life. But in Moscow, I find it easier. Here people mostly do not care what you look like and how you talk, what you wear, and where you work. Challenging masculinity means to challenge society. And to succeed we, unfortunately, must be prepared for repercussions that are not always pleasant — and sometimes even dangerous.
Outlaw Moscow, fashion label founded by Maxim Bashkaev and Dilyara Minrakhmanova, Moscow
In your opinion, as a label, what does it mean to be a 'man' in modern Russia?
The concept of 'man' is very strong in Russia as a conservative country and culture. Russia is one of the few northern countries left which is not subject to liberal transformations, where minorities are still oppressed and where everything runs from the perspective of dominance. However, there are cultures and social groups that are starting to reconsider it now. Women have received more power and there is more equality now.
What are the standards of 'male beauty' in Russia?
There is no fixed standard for male beauty. The man is considered to be a warrior or a protector. From our point of view, Communism did a lot of harm in fighting individuality and the way people could express themselves. The same for masculinity; it was considered too provocative, liberal, and unpatriotic to stand out in terms of personal style. Male beauty was always spiritual, not visual.
Is the Russian fashion industry doing anything to change things?
Well, while there are few brands that explore male beauty, it is still largely undiscovered in Russian fashion. From Gosha Rubchinsky's point of view, man's beauty is reflected in an image of the weak, too realistic, young skater from a Russian industrial city. This is his vision. Outlaw Moscow's vision on male beauty comes from the power of the creative man who is beautiful in his actions and charisma. We always put the personality first.
Lumpen, modeling agency founded by Avdotja Alexandrova, Moscow
As an agency representing such diverse models, have you noticed certain types of men being cast for jobs over others?
Yes, that type is self-confident and sexy. When you look at them, you can't tell their sexuality — they can walk with high heels on, they treat modeling like an acting role that needs adaptation, and they aren't scared to put makeup on. Those who look like Russian criminals are booked less often nowadays — the stereotype of an aggressive thug is too strong in Russia. So as an agency, we are helping to destroy this masculine stereotype that has formed over the years.
So models who challenge the traditional Russian notion of masculinity, strength, and power are becoming more popular?
They are celebrated in the fashion world but they aren't celebrated in Russian society. They are constantly criticized by other men in Russia.
Do you think your agency can really help change things in Russia?
Well, girls and guys in Moscow have really fallen for Lumpen types: guys shave their heads on purpose and send us pictures. It's a bit weird but my taste has now become a guideline for many people here.
What are your hopes for the future of masculinity and gender in Russia?
I would like all genders to be present. I would also like heterosexual men to be more calm towards men dressing up in roles. For me, male models are stronger, cooler, and sexier if they are able to walk in high heels. I like the idea of the day this doesn't make them feel ashamed in the face of other men.
Text Alexandra Manatakis