Understanding Russia’s perspective on “gay propaganda”

A boat carrying a rainbow flag sails on the Neva River during a gay rights activists' protest in St. Petersburg, on July 25, 2011. Source: AP Photo / Dmitry Lovetsky

A boat carrying a rainbow flag sails on the Neva River during a gay rights activists' protest in St. Petersburg, on July 25, 2011. Source: AP Photo / Dmitry Lovetsky

Despite the now notorious “gay propaganda” bill, frustrated westerners would be wrong to view Russian society as innately homophobic.

As much as I love Russia, I’ll be honest - I’ve seen some angry Russians in my time. There are a lot of half-baked stereotypes about Russia that hold up no further than the arrivals lounge at the airport. You won’t see any bears (trust me, I’ve looked), but the tales of poor customer service and bossy old ladies are regrettably accurate.

Fortunately, after living in Russia for a while, I have learned how to defuse such a situation or, only when absolutely necessary, defend myself by talking back.

Yet, my on-the-ground experience could never have prepared me for the tirade I recently received. This particular angry Russian objected to my opinion that Russia’s new ‘gay propaganda’ bill might be somewhat misplaced. The young man decried homosexuality as ‘unnatural’ and inveighed against the corruption of Russian children by such “filth.”

This is not an uncommon opinion in Russia. A recent study from pollsters at the Levada Centre found that a considerable majority (76 percent) of Russians support a bill passed in June that targets the proponents of “homosexual propaganda among minors” with heavy fines. Where does this recent surge in homophobic sentiment come from?

Firstly, it should be emphasised that this trend is a recent one. According to state polling agency VTsIOM, in 2007 only 19 percent of respondents believed homosexuality should be a punishable crime, a figure that rose sharply to 42 percent by June 2013.

Secondly, although any one of these figures might seem worryingly high to an American or European reader, Russia is not America, and not, despite many historical intersections, Europe. This does not mean that Russian people are innately homophobic, a point that Georgy Manaev’s fascinating historical review for RBTH here aptly demonstrates.

Rather, the roots of Russia’s current homophobia should be sought not in some fixed ahistorical identity but in its recent past, and specifically in the vast upheaval of the 1990s, which accompanied the post-Soviet transition.

The World Values Survey, a decades-long investigation of socio-cultural change conducted by a worldwide network of social scientists, has consistently demonstrated that a society’s interest in matters of human and individual rights arises only after long periods of stability that correspondingly satisfy the primary concern of collective survival. Correspondingly, it was the chaos of the 1990s that created such fertile ground for homophobic sentiment.

To make matters worse, post-soviet Russia was gripped by a demographic crisis and rapid decline in birth rates, which made homosexuality seem a threat to society’s very survival. It is Russia’s recent history that explains why, as analyst Igor Bunin recently told Russian daily Vedomosti, “[Russian] society always reacts negatively to even the slightest threat to traditions and family values.”

Our analysis so far has shown the fuel, but it needed conscious political actors to light the fire. Enter United Russia, the ruling party with a plummeting popularity and a shaky future. It was United Russia that conceived of the “gay propaganda” bill, and it is United Russia that believes it can profit from such shamefaced exploitation of identity politics. Deserted by Russia’s emerging middle class, the party is attempting to appeal to those for whom life is still a struggle for survival: Russia’s poor.

All the same, the “gay propaganda” bill is, surely, a safe step for United Russia. After all, no one is going to object to a spot of gay bashing, right?

Wrong. Although there had been early indications, I suspect few were expecting the scale of the global backlash that followed. That backlash dramatically accelerated in August after the release of a series of truly disturbing videos released by a nationalist organization in the provincial town of Kamensk-Uralsky, allegedly showing young gay men being forced to drink urine, threatened with axes, and forced to carry wooden crucifixes.

The response has been particularly pronounced in the U.S., where a number of cities have seen “vodka dumping protests.” The number of bars and restaurants boycotting “Russian” vodka (ironically, the brand most targeted, Stolichnaya, is produced by a Latvian company) is rapidly gathering in number.

The situation is fast turning into a PR disaster on a scale that dwarfs last summer’s Pussy Riot publicity train wreck . More troubling still for President Vladimir Putin are the calls to boycott his pet project, the 2014 Sochi Games, while the enquiries of foreign governments as to the safety of their athletes are being met by a prevarication in the statements of government officials that smacks of incompetence.

LGBT campaigners, while justifiably angry, should bear in mind that Western protests could have the unintended consequences of pushing Russia more and more into isolation, especially as the more committed homophobes here are unlikely to take their cues from a modern Europe that they view as something akin to Sodom multiplied by Gomorrah.

On the other hand, those who do travel to Europe and realize the continent has not yet been definitively godforsaken might realize that tolerance of homosexuality actually leads to more, not less, social harmony. Probably best to avoid Amsterdam on the first trip though.

Ultimately, if Russia is going to embrace sexual tolerance, the impetus will have to come from within. Last summer I wrote about Pavel, a particularly bright gay Russian lawyer who tried to convince me that the “gay propaganda” law was actually a blessing in disguise for St Petersburg’s LGBT community, as it would push the subject into the national discourse and give it the welcome oxygen of publicity.

A year on, the subject has been well aired, yet Russian society seems to have become more, not less, homophobic. I wonder whether Pavel has changed his mind, or whether his thinking was on an altogether different timescale.

I suspect the latter, and I hope he was right. There is no reason why a long period of stability, one which Russia thoroughly deserves, should not give its society the breathing space required to focus on individual rights rather than on group survival.

Conventional thinking in social science would expect just such a course. Maybe, at some point, Russians themselves will start being outraged at the way in which their LGBT community is treated. Then their trademark anger will definitely come in handy.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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