Could a woman become the president of Russia?

The latest rumor has it that Governor Valentina Matviyenko of St. Petersburg might become President Putin’s designated successor. Opinion polls indicate that a woman could win a presidential election. The problem is that the ruling elite wouldn’t accept a female successor.

A certain political expert, often quoted of late as a well-informed source, has divulged another Kremlin secret to a respectable Moscow publication: apparently, work on Project Valentina the Great is well underway behind the Kremlin’s walls.

It goes like this: Valentina Matviyenko, governor of St. Petersburg, is being considered as a potential successor to President Vladimir Putin. Her St. Petersburg team is lobbying very hard. According to some reports, Governor Matviyenko herself has approached President Putin with this proposal. She guarantees a comeback for Putin in 2012 – promising to assume the presidency temporarily, hold the place for him, and give it back.

All this is quite typical of the analytical standards of our time: it might be a rumor masquerading as a leak from the top, or a leak from the top, indistinguishable from common rumors.

Can’t you just see it? People from “Matviyenko’s St. Petersburg team” (and who are they – members of the St. Petersburg city government?) bursting into Putin’s office, thumping their fists on the desk, “lobbying hard,” urging Putin to vacate the president’s seat. And then in walks Matviyenko herself, to “guarantee Putin a comeback.”

The source of this sensational report also pointed out that Russian voters would never vote for a lady-candidate anyway (the men, due to a natural distrust of the fair sex; the women, because “a woman never votes for a woman”). Nevertheless, the report has indeed caused a stir – so much so, that within the St. Petersburg city government it’s best not to speak the words “Valentina the Great” aloud.

Aside from the fuss, however, it’s not an empty question at all. Is it possible, in Russia, for a woman to become the head of state?

The common assumption is that our next head of state will be nominated by our present head of state, and this choice will then be confirmed in a national election. It’s also assumed that the people’s opinion can be disregarded, because voters will support whichever candidate is indicated by the Kremlin and the propaganda machine. If that were the case, the official candidate’s sex wouldn’t matter at all.

In reality, the Kremlin is the first to doubt the omnipotence of propaganda. If the Kremlin really believed in that, it wouldn’t have abolished direct elections in the regions. In the next presidential campaign, the people will indeed be a real player, if not the main player.

In practically all elections over the past 17 years, regional and federal alike, one rule has held true: if those at the top are united and confident, their candidate will win. If they are divided, propaganda will be flawed and outcomes will often be unexpected. Is it certain that our leaders will remain united? Since this isn’t entirely certain, neither is it an idle exercise to consider how the masses would respond to any particular candidate, male or female.

The abovementioned sensational interview with the informed expert was accompanied by selected figures from a few opinion polls. The main source, clearly, was a poll done by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) two-and-a-half years ago, just before the last presidential election. If the informed expert had read the poll results completely, he might have refrained from making a few psychologically sophisticated but mistaken commments.

The FOM commentary accompanying its figures was titled “A woman as president? Entirely possible.” Admittedly, the poll results corresponded to that conclusion.

Most respondents (57%) agreed that in principle, they themselves might vote for a female candidate in a presidential election; 26% ruled out this possibility. Among women (who allegedly “never vote for women”), the proportion of those accepting the possibility was 63%, higher than the average; but half of the male respondents also indicated that they would be prepared to base their choice on a candidate’s abilities, not gender.

This nationwide poll wasn’t all that different from polls done in St. Petersburg long before Matvieyenko was elected governor.

Those polls found that a substantial proportion (though not a majority) of St. Petersburg men would not vote for a female candidate under any circumstances. However, a similar proportion of St. Petersburg women said they would prefer to vote for a woman. These two groups balanced out each other. If the official candidate for governor of St. Petersburg in 2003 had been a man, his gender wouldn’t have won him any additional support.

So the answer to the question of whether today’s Russian voters could elect a woman as president is unambiguous: yes, they could. It would be strange if it were otherwise. A woman as head of state: that’s a reality in various parts of the world, from Liberia to Chile and from the Philippines to Latvia.

Another question is far more difficult: what’s the chance of a woman being chosen by those who nominate our presidential candidates? Russia may have its own special path, but the experiences of other countries help to clarify a few aspects here.

There are two paths by which women can achieve political power.

First: through ordinary, routine political participation, alongside men. This is a smooth path in countries where emancipation is a reality, especially in Europe. It first happened in northern Europe (Margaret Thatcher and the female leaders of Scandinavian nations), then in central Europe (Angela Merkel), and now it’s happening in the Latin part of the continent (socialist Segolene Royal

is among the favorites in the French presidential race).

Second: the path taken by female politicians in the Third World, in countries that aren’t emancipated, where patriarchal mores seem as if they should block a woman’s path to the top – but turn out to open it up.

No women in other Third World countries (or in Europe, actually) have held power as long as the female leaders of the Philippines and Sri Lanka. But history also remembers Indira Gandhi, an outstanding Indian prime minister – daughter of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. There was also Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister of Pakistan and twice deposed; daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a prime minister executed by his political opponents.

In the East, with its clan-based social order and frequent violent deaths of male leaders, those leaders (if they have no sons, or ineffectual sons) are often succeeded by widows or daughters. The elites close ranks around a politically-experienced clan, even if it’s headed by a woman, while the people vote for the clan’s glorious name. This is the Eastern path, which has proven its reliability and is by no means obsolete.

Russia’s third path is, as usual, bumpy and circuitous – lying somewhere between the smooth European path and the well-trodden Eastern path.

As in the East, it’s clans that call the tune in every arena here. As in the West, public opinion in Russia isn’t too enthusiastic about political (or any other form of) authority being inherited. True, the children of leaders do ofen try their luck in politics; this isn’t coincidental, but neither is it very promising.

Our clans are nowhere near as stable as those in the East. Loyalty to a patron, let alone to a patron’s family, has never been a virtue in the Soviet or Russian nomenklatura.

While simulating loyalty, each nomenklatura member is constantly considering the need to “make the right choice” – in other words, to switch clans at the right moment. Unlike an Eastern clan member, tied unshakably to his patron and his team, Russian nomenklatura members select their own patrons, to some extent, and sometimes change patrons. In doing so they are guided not only by mercenary motives, but also by their impressions of what is proper and what is not: that is, by their convictions.

And among the most firmly-held convictions of our ruling elite are their extremely reactionary, patriarchal (Domostroi) beliefs about the role of women.

With regard to the popular topic of Putin’s successors, this means that Valentina Matviyenko – the sole woman among the potential candidates – could win an election as easily as any of the men, but it’s still hard to imagine that the nomenklatura elite would choose her.

She doesn’t have (perhaps, at this stage, cannot have) a clan of her own, personally loyal and powerful enough to push her upward as strongly as the support groups of the favorites are pushing their candidates. On the other hand, this very circumstance might even be an advantage if the chief selection criterion for Putin’s successor turns out to be a lack of complete power.

In any case, is there any point in trying to guess what behind-the-scenes maneuvering will be like, this far in advance? Russia’s decision-makers hold some peculiar views on gender, of course – but these are no more peculiar than any of their other views.