By Elizabeth Wood
Homophobia in Russia today brings together so many issues and trends in Russian history and society that in Russian it would be called “a tangled ball,” sputannyi klubok. First, there’s the problem of sex and ambivalence about sex. Then there’s the problem of difference of any kind. Then there’s the problem of visibility and public display, especially visibility and public display of sex and difference. Then there’s the problem of sexuality as a field of state regulation—which is related to the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Finally, there’s the general problem of “archaization”: the retreat, by an otherwise modern society, to a premodern or neotraditional mindset.
But is homophobia really as widespread in Russian society as the church and the state claim? There is plenty of evidence that it is, but people’s attitudes and reasoning are also quite muddled, and the depth of antigay sentiment has been exaggerated. In March 2013, for example, eighty percent of Russians interviewed said they didn’t know a single person of “nontraditional sexual orientation.” One-third said their relationship to a person wouldn’t change if they learned that person were gay; fifty percent said it would. In one poll, 76 percent supported the June 2013 law against “propaganda” about so-called nontraditional orientation (in another poll, the proportion was 86 percent), although 65 percent thought their own sexual orientation would not change if they were exposed to such propaganda. Eighteen percent thought that their orientation might have changed had they been exposed when they were children. In most of the country, only six percent had actually encountered such propaganda, although in Moscow and St Petersburg this figure rose to fourteen percent.
Attitudes change over time. Sadly, government and church propaganda (theirs is perfectly legal!) has had an effect on the general population: increasing numbers have signaled their acceptance of the idea that government intervention is appropriate. In 2007 only nineteen percent of Russians thought homosexuality should be a punishable crime, but by June 2013, some 42 percent believed that. In 2007, one-third said the government should not be involved in the sexual orientation of its citizens; today, the figure has gone down to only fifteen percent. As Anna Arutunyan pointed out in The Moscow News, these statistics suggest that only six years ago, Russians were twice as accepting of homosexuality as they are today.
Comparing the notorious June 2013 law against homosexual “propaganda” to earlier Russian laws and codes demonstrates the ups and downs of euphemisms regarding sexuality. According to Dan Healey, in Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia, the 1903 and 1918 draft codes, especially their sections “On obscenity,” were steeped in the euphemistic Russian language of the time: the word used for “obscenity,” nepotrebnyi, comes from the word for “not needed,” and hence by extension, “inappropriate.” The Soviet law of 1934 (in force from March 7, 1934, to June 3, 1993), by contrast, was more explicit. Article 154-a criminalized “sexual relations of a man with a man (sodomy)” by imprisonment for three to five years. If there was violence or the abuse of power, the sentence was increased to five to eight years. Even the 1993 decriminalization was not euphemistic, spelling out restrictions on “sodomy, lesbianism or other acts of a sexual character with the use of force or the threat of its use.”
The new antigay law is formulated as an amendment to Article 5 of the federal law, “On the Defense of Children from Information Harming Their Health and Development.” The amendment claims to have “the aim of protecting children from information that promotes the negation of traditional family values.” Typical of the government’s use of euphemism, sexuality isn’t mentioned in the name of the law.
In March 2012, the St. Petersburg authorities initiated the new homophobia by passing a law making it an offense to spread information that could bring “harm to the health, moral and spiritual development of minors.” In particular, the decree created fines for “propaganda” about sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality, and transgender identity. In 2013, when the extremely conservative Committee on the Family, Women and Children in the national Russian Duma discussed imposing fines for “gay propaganda,” they spelled out that they meant “undertaking any visual activities and other public actions justifying and approving homosexuality,” as well as “distributing generally accessible information to minors that could lead them to equate traditional and non-traditional relations in marriage.” The definitions of what was meant by “propaganda” were so vague as to leave the the door open to the repression of anyone who even dared to mention homosexuality or hint at it in an artistic work.
The final amendment as passed into law was not nearly as vitriolic as the original reading in the Committee on the Family, but it was also far vaguer, more euphemistic on the question of “nontraditional relations,” saying only “nontraditional family relations” in the title and “nontraditional sexual relations” in the body of the amendment, without ever mentioning homosexuality or lesbianism (though that was clearly meant). But both the law and public discourse have another problem: they conflate homosexuality, pornography, and pedophilia. For example, an amendment to an existing article (Point 1, Article 14) on pornography adds a clause, “including information propagating nontraditional sexual relations,” thus equating “pornography” and “nontraditional sexuality.” In January 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that homosexuals would be welcome at the Olympics, as long as they did not touch children, thus perpetrating a similar elision, this time between homosexuality and pedophilia.
As the journalist Maksim Ivanov notes in Kommersant, the 1993 Russian Constitution specifies rights of assembly, thought, and expression, and forbids only “propaganda arousing social, race, national or religious hatred and enmity.” The 2002 law “On Counteracting Extremist Actions,” forbids only one type of public action, namely, terrorism. Thus, restricting discussion of sexuality outside of the “traditional” equates homosexuality and extremism, even terrorism—dangerously narrowing the broad right to free expression.
Many in the West are unaware that Russians generally dislike demonstrativeness—of any kind. Some in the Russian media have argued that the Duma politicians, as well as the general population, see the problem not as one of homosexuality but of openness. They object to gay parades and public displays of affection. The commentator Iren Bulatova points out that Russia has no tradition of talking about sexuality, even sexuality within monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Thus, only the forbidden homosexuality is available to be discussed, lambasted, and trumpeted as the ultimate evil.
Implicit in such attitudes is a tendency to project onto homosexuals an Otherness that threatens the supposed moral purity of Russia, a fear that “they” want to conquer “us.” According to this logic, the fact that LGBT people want to hold pride marches on the main streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg signals that they are trying to act as victors, since that is where military victors have traditionally held their parades. Thus, the gay marches will demonstrate their domination and victory over ordinary Russians.
The Putin regime has a deep and enduring anxiety about declining birth rates, and Putin himself told the Washington Post that Russia must “cleanse” itself of homosexuals in order to raise the birthrate. In 2012 a new group called “Parents’ Control” [Roditel’skii kontrol’ ] accused the social networking site Vkontakte of promoting homosexuality, saying, “We [as a nation] are dying out, and they have allowed such a path to degradation [by allowing] the propaganda of homosexuality among minors.” The commentator Mikhail Leontiev went so far as to claim that “Gay marriage, gay couples raising adopted kids, all this will lead to changing biology. This is the conscious, purposeful turning of humans into animals.” (The Russian word he uses—skotizatsiia—is very strong; it means something like “animalization of humans.”)
The Russian Orthodox Church, which is widely seen as one of the forces behind the antigay laws, is attacking LGBT people to propagate the idea that the Russian nation needs church guidance to combat immorality. The church has gone so far as to declare a “holy war against the fatal homosexual menace.” Moreover, the timing of the passage of the antigay law demonstrates a revived link between church and state: on the same day that the Duma passed the antigay law, it passed another law, “On the Defense of the Feelings of Believers.” Shortly afterward, in July 2013, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill attacked western governments for legalizing gay marriage which, he said, had to be seen as a “sign of the impending Apocalypse.” The church and society, he went on, should do everything they can, not to allow the presence of sin “on the territory of holy Rus.” In January 2014, the church began agitating for a national referendum on criminalizing homosexual relations.
For educated, urban readers, the Russian words for “sodomy” [muzhelozhstvo] and “blasphemy” [koshchunstvo] have an utterly archaic sound: one editor had to define “sodomy” for his readers; he explained that it was a religious term. Recently, using this biblical terminology, a prominent Russian actor said that gays should be “burned alive.” In fact, the US analyst Paul Goble argues that Russia is currently experiencing a period of what he calls “archaization,” which he defines as clinging to outmoded forms of government, social organization—and, I would add, ideology.
This archaization tends to look to the worst aspects of the past. According to Healey, in 1933, the director of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police), Genrikh Yagoda, wrote to Stalin to tell him that the NKVD had conducted raids on what he called “organizations of pederasts” and arrested 130 individuals who had established “networks of salons, centers, dens, groups, and other organized formations of pederasts, with the eventual transformation of these organizations into outright espionage cells.” Stalin forwarded the letter to his henchman Lazar Kaganovich, saying, “[T]hese scoundrels must be punished as examples!” In 1936, the Commissar of Justice N.V. Krylenko added homosexuality explicitly to the list of class enemies, declassed enemies, and criminal elements who would be subject to social purges.
Is this where Russia is headed? The signs are not good. The combination of euphemism, conflation with extreme behavior (“nontraditional relations,” pedophilia, pornography), and the mobilization of nationalist mythologies—us versus them; pure Russia versus Sodom and Gomorrah—makes it easy to sweep uneducated citizens into mobs and goon squads.
Elizabeth Wood is professor of Russian and Soviet History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she also codirects the MIT-Russia Program. She is the author of two monographs, The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia and Performing Justice: Agitation Trials in Early Soviet Russia. Her current work centers on the performance of power under Vladimir Putin in Russia today.