Russians Told to Man Up: The Meat Grinder of War Awaits
Last December, a brief controversy flared up around a Russian military recruitment ad featuring a sad-eyed, destitute grandpa about to sell his Lada before he is rescued by his grandson signing a contract for army service. The clip was so appalling that pro-war Russian bloggers tried to blame it on Ukrainian psy-ops. In fact, it was real and part of a series of social media ads in which military service was portrayed as the answer to various poverty-related problems (from being threatened by loan sharks to being stuck living with obnoxious in-laws). But that was, at least, a campaign from an obscure advertising agency that was quickly shut down once it drew a backlash. Russia’s latest appalling ad urging men to volunteer—and, it’s unsubtly implied, to serve on the frontlines in Ukraine—comes from the Russian Ministry of Defense itself.
The slickly produced ad shows men in military outfits morphing into their boring civilian personas of a supermarket security guard (“Is this the kind of defender you wanted to be?”), a fitness trainer (“Is this all there is to your strength?”), and a taxi driver (“Is this really the road you wanted to take?”) and contrasts them to romantic images of a soldier putting on his helmet and loading his rifle. The tag line: “You’re a man. [Or, to be exact, a muzhik, something like “a guy” but with much more brutish and macho connotations.] Come on, be one.”
There’s a lot that could be said about this ad, such as its grotesque and blatant deceptiveness. There’s nothing new or uniquely Russian, of course, about military recruitment ads putting a romantic gloss on the much less romantic realities of service. But in this case, the gap between the action-movie shots of the super-macho warrior and the grim reality—from the horrific brutality Russian occupation forces inflict on the Ukrainian population to the fact that the war is a meat grinder for Russian soldiers themselves—is simply off the charts. As Russian expatriate blogger Michael Nacke put it in a scathing commentary:
“To be a real man” in the concept of the Russian state apparently means to croak. That’s exactly what awaits quite a few of the men who will sign this contract. . . . If you choose between work as a cabdriver and the grave, a cabdriver’s job is unquestionably better. And in every other moral parameter, to be a Russian soldier today is to be a murderer, to be an accomplice to this criminal war and to war crimes.
But, of course, this deception is a standard feature of Russian propaganda today; it’s the explicit and brazenly manipulative appeal to traditional masculinity that makes the new ad stand out. As Nacke points out, it is of a piece with the pseudo-traditionalist Russian propaganda of recent years: “the homophobia, the talk of patriarchy, the labeling of feminism as some sort of radical anti-Russian ideology.” Homophobic rhetoric in particular has spiked since the start of the war, with Russian propaganda often portraying the “special operation” in Ukraine as a battle against the menace of Pride parades and other LGBT influences. (Just recently, top Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov recorded an appeal to Ukrainian soldiers in which he told them not only that they were being used by Americans for nefarious anti-Russian purposes but that their culture was being defiled by, among other things, “homosexuals dancing on the Khreshchatyk,” Kyiv’s main avenue.)
One may be skeptical of the feminist or progressive critiques of “toxic masculinity”; for what it’s worth, I have often shared this skepticism. One may even agree with conservative commentators such as David French who have argued that such discourse is often used both to demonize men and to disparage traditionally masculine qualities—competitive drive, leadership, fortitude, etc.—that play an important and positive role in society, at least when not taken to extremes. (Whether such qualities should be seen as “masculine” or simply human is another matter.) But the Russian army ad, which starkly illustrates the role of machismo—the cult of the muzhik—in Putin-era Russian nationalist propaganda, actually makes a pretty strong case that the concept of “toxic masculinity” is valid. In this case, it’s being used in a shameless attempt to shame men into volunteering for a pointless and evil war, to convince them that it’s their duty to kill and maim, and very possibly get maimed and killed, for Vladimir Putin’s insane imperialistic fantasies. It’s a vision of “masculinity” that, just a few days after the “Be a man” army ad, birthed a video clip by the “patriotic” pop singer known as Shaman which so closely replicated the Nazi aesthetic that even some Kremlin propagandists were freaked out.
Of course, it is also worth noting that Russian macho discourse also appeals to a large portion of the American right where manhood is a popular topic (note the title of Sen. Josh Hawley’s forthcoming book). Remember when, in May 2021, Sen. Ted Cruz was gushing over the tough masculinity on display in Russian army recruitment ads, and how those Russian ads put to shame the namby-pamby wokeness in a U.S. army ad featuring a young woman with two moms instead of a ferocious muscular guy?
Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea…. https://t.co/8aVFMW98NM
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) May 20, 2021
That tweet earned Cruz some sarcastic blowback a year later when it was already clear that the macho Russian army wasn’t exactly covering itself in glory in Ukraine. (Meanwhile, the woman with two moms featured in the U.S. ad Cruz was mocking is a real person who happens to operate a Patriot missile complex, a part of the American hardware currently helping Ukraine thwart Russia’s aggression.) Right now, for all the pro-Kremlin sympathies in the Trumpian wing of the GOP, I doubt that even Sen. Hawley—who has manfully flip-flopped from strong support for arming Ukraine to gibes at Republicans who want to be “the party of Ukraine”—would have words of praise for the Russian ad exhorting real men to go to war.
This despicable episode in Russia’s war in Ukraine has a fascinating postscript. Shortly after the new Russian recruitment ad first aired, some brilliant Ukrainian came up with a fantastic comeback: redoing the clip with a different text and a radically different message in which the men in peaceful jobs are the good guys.
Ukraine subverts Russia's mobilization advert: "I don't want to kill kids. I don't want to cut heads off. I don't want to be responsible for Putin's war crimes. You're a human. So be one."
Once again, they're so, so good at this. pic.twitter.com/QToMcAtwBN
— Dr. Ian Garner (@irgarner) April 20, 2023
The new tag line—“You’re a human being. Come on, be one”—replaces the heavy-handed male-coded language of the original with gender-neutral human values.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that: Ukraine’s war effort is not exactly gender-neutral. While some women face conscription, the general draft applies only to men, and the view that it is a man’s duty to protect his home and family is far from extinct in Ukrainian culture. Nonetheless, it is telling that Ukrainian media and public relations efforts frequently underscore the presence of women in the armed forces and even on the front lines; notably, since the word “defender” has specific male and female versions in Ukrainian, President Volodymyr Zelensky always uses both, “zakhisniki i zakhistnitsy,” when speaking of Ukraine’s defenders. What’s more, Ukrainian imagery of male soldiers often focuses on their gentle and nurturing qualities, showing them with their children or with pets.
In a sense, the juxtaposition of the two ads—“Be a muzhik” and “Be a human being”—can be seen as a clash between an archaic and toxic version of masculinity and a modern humanism more than capable of incorporating traditional masculine virtues. And the humanist vision is proving to be not just better but stronger.