At the end of June, Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, signed into law a bill banning the spreading of ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’. Richard Mole argues that the law is targeted at LGBT activists, who are some of the Kremlin’s most public and vocal critics, and plays on existing intolerance towards homosexuality which dates back to the Soviet era. By banning ‘homosexual propaganda’, legally protecting ‘religious feeling’ and reining in ‘foreign agents’, Putin is seeking to entrench Russian traditional values in his on-going fight against Western liberalism.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to tighten his political grip at the expense of the country’s nascent civil society is continuing apace. Following the introduction last summer of the bill requiring NGOs which receive foreign funding and engage in ‘political activity’ to register as ‘foreign agents’, on 30 June Putin signed into law a bill banning the spreading of ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’. The bill, which was passed in the Russian Duma by 436 votes to 0 (with one abstention), levies fines of 5,000 roubles (£100) for individuals who disseminate information about ‘non-traditional sexual orientations’ among minors or promote ‘the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional relationships’. The fine is increased to 100,000 roubles (£2,000) if individuals discuss gay-related issues in a positive or neutral manner in the media or on the Internet, rising to one million roubles (£20,000) for organisations. The inclusion of the phrase ‘among minors’ ensures that practically any public LGBT event will violate the law; just in case, anti-gay protestors at last month’s Gay Pride in St Petersburg were encouraged to bring their children with them to ensure that the law did indeed apply.
Activists have argued that the ‘homosexual propaganda’ law legitimises discrimination and violence against LGBT individuals in Russia, citing the cases of two gay men murdered in separate incidents in May. While critics have sought to establish a causal link between the new anti-gay law and anti-gay feeling in Russia, this overestimates Putin’s ability to mould public opinion (his anti-Westernism has, after all, failed to dent Russians’ generally positive feelings towards the EU) and underestimates the pre-existing intolerance towards lesbians and gay men left over from the Soviet period.
In the early years of the USSR the initially laissez-faire approach towards homosexuality became increasingly intolerant due to the changing nature of Communist Party elites, with the replacement of intellectuals and urban Marxists by peasants resulting in increased anti-intellectualism. As all communist citizens were expected to adhere to the psychology of the collective, homosexuality was therefore seen as a dangerous sign of individualism. In any case, the regime was hostile to sexuality in general because it sought, in the words of Russian sexologist Igor Kon, to ensure absolute control over the personality by seeking to de-individualise it and destroy its independence. State-sanctioned homophobia, which was never publicly challenged, therefore shaped the opinions of generations of Soviet citizens.
Though consensual sexual acts between adult men were decriminalised in Russia in 1993 (as a condition of joining the Council of Europe), it was done so on the understanding that homosexuality would remain out of sight. However, LGBT activists turned out to be some of the Kremlin’s most public and vocal critics. Tapping into pre-existing antipathy towards homosexuality, Putin has thus been able to use gay rights as a lightening rod to divert attention from political corruption and a weakening economy, while at the same time curtailing the civil rights of some of his most strident political opponents.
The ban on ‘homosexual propaganda’ is part of Putin’s on-going attempt to entrench traditional Russian values in the face of the spread of Western liberal ideas, which he blames for corrupting the nation’s youth and fomenting dissent against his rule. The ban offers further evidence of the socially conservative ideology Putin has espoused since returning to the Russian presidency in 2012 as well as the close relationship between the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church, the political support of which was instrumental in Putin’s re-election. Under Putin, the role of the Orthodox Church as the nation’s highest moral authority is unquestioned – and indeed may not be questioned – and a bill outlawing the ‘offending of religious feeling’ (with possible jail sentences of up to three years) was passed by the Duma immediately after the ‘homosexual propaganda’ law, cementing the legal and moral hierarchy between religion and civil rights in contemporary Russia.
Given that the imposition of higher fines for organisations will curtail Russian activists’ ability to challenge preconceived ideas about homosexuality through media and Internet campaigns and through mass protests on the streets, sexual minorities in Russia will inevitably need to come up with different – less public, more personal – tactics for raising awareness. In the long run, this may prove more productive. Research shows that it is more difficult for individuals to maintain negative stereotypes of sexual minorities when they are personally acquainted with gays and lesbians. However, according to a recent opinion poll, only 7% of Russians personally know someone who is LGBT – compared with over 50% in the US. If Russian gays and lesbians can find the courage to come out to their friends, families and colleagues, this may help to chip away at the negative image of sexual minorities in Russian society that Putin has so far been able to use to his political advantage.
This article has also been posted on UCL’s SSEES blog.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Richard Mole – University College London
Richard Mole is a Senior Lecturer in Political Sociology at UCL SSEES (School of Slavonic and East European Studies). His research focuses on the relationship between identity and power, with particular reference to political legitimacy, social citizenship, gender and sexuality.