From Russia With Hate
The situation in Russia for LGBTQ people has deteriorated dramatically over the past few years. Vladimir Putin’s government has fostered homophobic sentiment and passed oppressive legislature in an attempt to bolster its own political positions. This has led to an upswing in vigilante violence against queer people in Russia. Russia’s persecution of its LGBTQ citizens can be explained, at least in part, by the strategic nature of the movement and its benefits for those in power.
A brief look at the history of Russian treatment of its LGBTQ population provides context for today’s situation. Legal recognition of homosexuality has varied throughout Russian history. Medieval Russia was fairly accepting of homosexuality, and “men lying with men” was not criminalized until 1832. Although the ban only applied to anal sex and was lightly enforced, the punishment was four to five years in Siberia.[] The Russian Revolution effectively legalized homosexuality by striking down old Tsarist laws. However, in 1933 Joseph Stalin added Article 121 to the Russian criminal code, banning male homosexuality. Homosexuality was regarded as the province of fascists.[] By 1989, 30% of Russians in one poll believed that homosexuals should be “liquidated.[]” By 1993, President Boris Yeltsin re-legalized homosexual acts.[]
LGBTQ Russians today face continued discrimination. In 2013, the Duma unanimously passed the Russian LGBTQ propaganda law, officially an amendment to the legislation, “On Protecting Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development.” It seeks to prevent the dissemination of “propaganda” promoting “non-traditional sexual relationships” to minors. The ambiguity of the phrase “to minors” allows the state to oppress a variety of LGBT-affiliated groups. Individuals can be fined up to $120-150, public officials $1,200-$1,500, and registered organizations $24,000-$30,000. Organizations can also be made to stop operations for up to 90 days.[]
The state’s sanctioning of discrimination against LGBTQ Russians is accompanied by a terrifying surge in anti-gay vigilante violence. Human Rights Watch has stated, “Authorities deliberately ignore that these are hate crimes and fail to protect victims.[]” The largest vigilante group is Occupy Pedophilia, a name interesting for its mix of the progressive (an homage to the Occupy movement) as well as the retrograde (a confusion of “homosexuality’ and “pedophilia”). The group is active in over 30 cities and claims that all the pedophiles it has attacked just happen to be homosexual. A member of the group will entice a gay person via social media to meet up. When the target comes, he is grilled about his homosexuality, humiliated, made to tell details about his life, and beaten. The video is then uploaded to the Internet for continued humiliation.[] One concerned Russian citizen, Valentin Degteryov, sent in 70 appeals to local, regional, and federal officials to combat Occupy Pedophilia, but not one took action.[]
The upsurge in homophobia in Russia is due to several reasons. The most basic one is that a base level of homophobia never went away. The Soviet Union was homophobic, and the percentage of Russians who believe that homosexuality should not be accepted by society has gone up from 60% in 2002 to 74% in 2013.[] Homophobia is linked to religion in many countries. However, Russia presents an interesting case. It displays high levels of homophobia alongside low religiosity. That said, Russians strongly support the Orthodox Church, seeing it as a symbol of “Russianness.”[] The Orthodox Church and Vladimir Putin are closely allied politically. The head of the Church, Patriarch Kirill, has publically stated that “liberalism will lead to legal collapse and then the Apocalypse” and has also called Putin’s rule “a miracle.”[] This strongly right-wing institution is more than willing to turn a blind eye to increasing intolerance of LGBTQ Russians.
Persecution of LGBTQ people in Russia serves another important purpose—scapegoating. After a wave of protests that “shook the Kremlin” in December 2011, the Duma passed several laws cracking down on civil rights: a requirement that all NGOs that receive funding from abroad register as “foreign agents,” a ban on US adoptions of Russian children, and laws that make it harder for people to congregate freely[]. At a time when Russia has been ejected from the G8 (now the G7)[], the price oil has fallen by more than one half[], numerous sanctions have been imposed[], and the ruble has fall by about half.[] At a crucial junction such as this, Putin’s prestige and political power will be protected by turning attention and public anger against an embattled minority.
In addition, Russia’s strong policies against the LGBTQ community are an asset on the international stage. Such policies drew a strong contrast to an increasingly tolerant Western Europe. In a recent interview, the president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili warned that Russia is attempting to export homophobia to its Slavic neighbors in an attempt to solidify a regional bloc. He says that Russia’s message boils down to: “If you go to Europe, your family values will be undermined, your traditions will be destroyed. So we as Orthodox unity, we should stick together.” Moldova passed a similar law to Russia’s “propaganda ban” and Armenia came close to doing so in August 2013.[] Similarly, Russia brought increased homophobia with the invading forces when it annexed Crimea. The region’s new de facto leader stated the Crimea “does not need such people” and that the area’s armed forces will “explain to them what kind of sexual orientation they should stick to.”[]
Putin and his government have declared “open season” on LGBTQ Russians. Public action has bolstered private action, and neither seems to have an end in sight. It is possible that change could come quickly. As recently as 1987, the UK passed a similar “gay propaganda bill.[]” In addition, condemnation from within and outside Russia has come quickly. However, Russia faces several political and economic challenges, and shifting public attention and anger to queer people could be an effective strategy. Russia’s increasing suspicion of the liberal West in particular could keep it in the homophobic camp globally.