We in the West do not expect much from Russia. In our diplomatic dealings since the Cold War, we have gotten used to Russia’s grudging compliance, at best, and gleeful defiance, at worst. Most of us do not pay much attention to its domestic affairs, besides shaking our heads every time Vladimir Putin fudges an election victory or takes another absurd photo. For that reason, our collective shock and indignation about his new antigay law stands out; witness the movement to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian resort town of Sochi.
The new law starkly contrasts with developments in the United States, where attitudes towards sexual minorities have liberalized tremendously and restrictions on marriage equality are rapidly crumbling. Perhaps because of that contrast, Russia’s homophobic turn appears particularly arbitrary and sudden. But this law did not come out of the blue. Rather, it is the direct consequence of a broader trend in Russian society that Putin’s regime has vigorously exploited for political gain.
This new national law rode a wave of homophobia in Russia’s regional legislatures. Since 2006, twelve regional governments across Russia have instituted laws banning “gay propaganda,” under threat of fines of up to $1,500 for individuals and $15,000 for organizations. Although none of these laws criminalizes homosexuality per se, they all penalize its defenders. Ostensibly, the new federal law forbids the distribution of “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relations” to minors. Such “propaganda” includes any materials that aim to create “nontraditional sexual attitudes,” or enhance the appeal of “nontraditional sexual relations.”
Obviously, such vague wording opens the law up to broad interpretation. Its sweeping definition of propaganda encompasses all activism on behalf of sexual minorities, whether for equal rights or mere social acceptance. Just as troubling is the focus on “minors.” Would-be censors have long thrived off of such rhetoric; they can easily argue that protecting children means purging the public sphere of offending material. Thus they drive their target underground, reinforcing its taboo status.
The new law makes this intent clear by mandating warning labels on news articles pertaining to LGBT issues, which must read, “this material is not suitable for readers younger than 18.” By treating mere discussion of “nontraditional sexual relations” like smut, the Russian government has made it perfectly clear that it fully intends to drive LGBT activism and advocacy underground.
Authorities have cited the new law in recent efforts to crack down on pro-LGBT demonstrations. Such behavior is just the latest manifestation of a broader trend. In the past decade, municipal authorities across Russia have prevented or shut down dozens of major pride parades (Moscow recently placed a 100 year ban on them), and, in cases where they have allowed them to go forward, permitted hostile bystanders to physically assault the demonstrators. These and other forms of public demonstration frequently result in LGBT activists being rounded up by police on trumped up charges. But why is homophobia so strong in Russia to begin with? Furthermore, why has Vladimir Putin’s regime suddenly embraced it as national policy?
Addressing the first question, homophobia was par for the course in both Czarist and Communist Russia. The Christian morality that justified it in the former lived on as unquestioned convention in the latter. But the militant homophobia of recent years represents a significant departure. Its roots lie in the ashes of the USSR. The great collapse of 1991 robbed Russians of the ideology that governed their entire world. Capitalism and democracy acquitted themselves terribly during Russia’s chaotic 90’s, when oligarchs plundered the nation’s wealth and the people were disenfranchised by corruption. Stranded in an ideological no-man’s land, many Russians turned to the past.
Whereas Lenin once hoped to unite the world under the banner of Communism and throw off the shackles of history, now his countrymen embrace ancient ethnic pride and religion. In the past two decades, nationalist politicians have sought to portray themselves as defenders of Slavs, the dominant ethnic group, and the Russian Orthodox Church, the main Christian sect. They, and their legions of supporters, conceive of Russia as a Slavic and Orthodox nation, despite the fact that Russia is one of the most diverse nations on earth (as one might expect of a nation stretching from Finland to China). In their eyes, it is increasingly under attack from a flood of ethnic minorities from Russia’s Muslim regions and ex-Soviet nations, Western interference in Russia’s sphere of influence and its internal politics, and treasonous, pro-Western dissenters at home. It is this mood that spawned Russia’s new homophobia and the politicians who have whipped it into frenzy.
To understand this toxic dynamic, one need only look to the role of the Russian Orthodox Church. Since emerging from seven decades of Communist repression, the Church has lurched to the heart of public life. It aggressively denounces homosexuality, public blasphemy, inappropriate dress and other newfangled behaviors.
While a significant majority of Russian citizens call themselves adherents, this has little to do with piety. A recent opinion poll found only 16% said their Orthodox faith was primarily about communion with God. Rather, respondents overwhelmingly supported it for the integral role it plays in their heritage and identity.
This explains the marriage of religion and nationalism. The feminist punk band Pussy Riot knew exactly what it was doing when it chose to protest Putin’s regime by interrupting Mass in Moscow’s flagship church. The state condemned them to two years hard labor for their audacity. LGBT Russians face the same unholy alliance. By defining themselves in opposition to the moral dictates of the Church, they fly in the face of Russia’s desperate new nationalism.
So why has Putin decided to embrace this nationalism, and the homophobia that comes with it? Simply put, the President can no longer stake his legitimacy on economic prosperity, and needs a new way to marshal public support. During his first two terms as president and one term stint as Prime Minister, the economy rode high on the back of a booming oil and gas industry. Yet amidst the global financial turmoil of the past several years, growth has stagnated.
Russia’s slowed growth refocused public attention on underlying structural problems, a common side-effect of economic issues. Government corruption, deteriorating social services, and abysmal infrastructure all contributed to the boiling over of discontent that culminated in a fleeting but serious protest movement in 2012. Although the protesters failed to overturn the suspicious election results that returned Putin to the Presidency, they did shake him out of his complacency. His new strategy is to rally the conservative majority around his leadership, while crushing the weak and divided political opposition movements. Accordingly, he has rebranded himself as the resolute defender of a nation under siege by traitors, foreign spies, and moral corruption.
In the name of national security and public morals, his government has launched a sweeping crackdown on free expression. Street protesters face steep new fines if they incite any “disorder,” especially if they march without a permit. Media outlets can be fined up to $153,000 just for quoting libelous remarks. Treason has been redefined from a series of specific offenses, to any action that threatens “constitutional order, sovereignty, and territorial and state integrity.” Non-governmental organizations that receive any foreign funding must now register as “foreign agents”; this includes the international election monitoring agencies that play a vital role in disputing Russia’s ubiquitous electoral irregularities. Meanwhile, the government is flirting with the idea of rerouting all Russian Internet traffic to a “whitelist” of government-approved websites.
Viewed against this backdrop of oppression, the stifling of the LGBT-rights movement is hardly surprising. Protests and pride parades publicly challenge the State’s crusade against dissent and free expression, the Church’s conservative morality, and the predominant nationalist ideology that embraces both. With Putin calling homosexuality the best “indication of a moral crisis in human society,” and the Patriarch of the Church calling it a “very dangerous apocalyptic symptom,” Russia seems destined to defy, for the foreseeable future, both Western liberalism and the very tide of history.