Features | Affairs: Russia for Russians
Affairs: Russia's Anti-LGBT Culture
There were about 20 to 30 people at the Rainbow Tea-Party, a traditional gathering at the LGBT-friendly community organization LaSky in St. Petersburg. It was Saturday, Nov. 2, and the group was discussing the results of its March Against Hate the day before, in which organizers were protesting a set of laws in Russia that criminalize the propaganda of homosexuality to minors. The protest went well, and everyone was safe thanks to protection from the police, who, with more resistance than usual, had given the protesters permission to organize. The doors to the offices were unlocked when two masked men entered the room next door, where Dmitri C., 27, was getting ready to leave the office and Anna P., 22, was answering calls. The men attacked them with an airgun and a baseball bat and then fled when meeting participants opened the door. Anna’s back was injured by the bat, and Dmitri suffered a bullet wound to his eye, causing irreparable damage. Attacks like this, fueled by homophobia, have become more frequent in the past few years and are now justified by the Russian government’s new set of laws. In the summer of 2013, Russia moved into the spotlight of global mainstream media after a federal bill was signed into law by Vladimir Putin on June 30, criminalizing “propaganda of homosexualism among minors.” In the U.S., Dan Savage—an American author known for his relationship and sex advice column Love Savage and co-creator of the It Gets Better Project—responded by calling on people to “dump Stoli”—short for Stolichnaya, one of the most popular Russian Vodkas in the U.S.—to create leverage against this new law that opened up a wave of discrimination and violence against homosexuals and members of the LGBT community in Russia.
In Moscow, Igor Iasine is a gay activist. In his opinion, “things like boycott and vodka dump in front of the embassies do not have any effect and can only bring negative effects. Such solidarity campaigns cannot be done aggressively. It alienates some Russians here. Moreover, these images of vodka dump would be used by the mainstream Russian media to even further accuse LGBT people of ‘being aggressive and being puppets in the hands of politicians in the West.’” Shortly after the start of the Dump Stoli campaign, Stolichnaya issued a statement saying that it is mainly producing vodka in Riga, Latvia, with Russian ingredients, that the Russian government has no stake in the company, and that it is owned by SPI group, which is controlled by Yuri Scheffler, who has lived outside of Russia for more than a decade for fear of arrest in Moscow under the accusation that he stole the Stolichnaya name.
In the Soviet era, homosexuality was a taboo that wasn’t openly discussed. Joseph Stalin signed a law in 1933 that made it punishable by up to five years in prison. Russia had, seemingly, made progress since the end of the Soviet era, when under its first president, Boris Yeltsin, the Russian Federation decriminalized male acts of homosexuality in 1993. The trend was slowly progressing toward more openness on the subject in Russian society, with 29% of people in 1994 saying homosexuals should be left alone, while another 23% of Russians said “homosexuals should be killed,” which was down from 31% in 1989. But to be a homophobe in Russia means denying a valuable part of Russian culture and history. Famed Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), who wrote The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, among many other works, was gay, as was influential cinematic pioneer Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) and many others who contributed to Russia’s rich cultural history.
This is an English translation of the law in question, Article 6.13.1: “Propaganda of homosexualism among minors is punishable by an administrative fine for citizens in the amount of 4,000–5,000 rubles [$123–$154]; for officials, 40,000–50,000 rubles [$1,229–$1,536]; for legal entities, 400,000–500,000 rubles [$12,290–$15,362]”
An explanatory note on the law states that its necessity arises from traditional values, the goal being that minors not think of homosexuality as a “behavioral norm,” de facto making gays and lesbians out to be abnormal. This in itself is a dangerous propaganda, promoting and encouraging discrimination against anyone who doesn’t align with traditional Russian Orthodox Christian family values.
Igor actively participates in protests, marches as an advocate for LGBT rights, and has had rocks thrown at him for this. In his opinion, LGBT teenagers are the real victims of this law. Even though it is presented in a way that supposedly protects minors, it does quite the opposite by refusing to acknowledge the existence of LGBT teens and parents. “The lawmakers do not want to know that LGBT teenagers suffer more from bullying in the school, that many young LGBT try to commit suicide, and some of them actually kill themselves. This law makes it impossible for those teenagers to get correct information about their sexuality and required assistance,” he observes. Also, the vagueness of the law allows for open interpretation of the term “propaganda.” The lack of definition bears the danger of abuse and selective application—for example, defining an innocent public display of affection like a kiss or holding hands as propaganda. Regional legislatures across Russia have passed similar legislation, like St. Petersburg in 2012, before the federal law was created. So far, this has been applied in very few instances, but protesters have been arrested on various occasions.
photo by Alexey Vinogradov . Igor Iasine at a March in Moscow, Russia. 2013
The government created laws that enable violence, shifting attention away from national problems and onto a common enemy. This strategy aims to unify and strengthen the country from within by marginalizing minorities, and it’s the same strategy that was used in Nazi Germany, where it ultimately led to genocide and the Second World War. Extreme nationalists are becoming puppets of the Russian government, who do the dirty work for free. Indeed, the hate they passionately express is fueled by the mis-belief that minorities are the cause of the country’s problems, that they somehow threaten a golden-age illusion of a past society that they are clinging to nostalgically. But the reality is that Russia has a multicultural population, with many minorities including homosexuals, who have always existed in Russian society. There are residents of Moscow who are becoming increasingly worried and even scared by what they hear and see in the media, like Alexander M. and his friends. He has been living in Moscow for 30 years, and he thinks these laws are a distraction from larger issues and that they are using gays as a scapegoat. If the government harnesses the fact that a large portion of the population is not well informed about what it actually means to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), then it becomes easy to substitute this missing knowledge with wrong stereotypes, conspiracy theories, and a false equivalence to criminal behavior like pedophilia. Members of the LGBT community aren’t the only ones in Russia facing violence and hostility. There is a link to a larger national movement concerning immigration under the slogan “Russia for Russians,” which aims to marginalize immigrants from ex-USSR countries and turn them into a common enemy. “LGBT + immigrants. Both are not welcome. Both are the main topic of the media. IMHO both topics are being used to unite the nation and to support our current government,” says Alexander.
photo by Igor Iasine. March in Moscow, Russia, Protesting the Anti-Gay Propaganda Laws. 2013
Once he decided not to hide his identity as a gay man anymore, Alexander came out to his family, friends, and colleagues at work but says that he publicly only tells people that he is gay when someone asks him directly. “Be Russian. Be Christian. Be straight.” That’s the message the Russian media is sending to the public. “Sometimes I hear that my colleagues (from other departments) are discussing gays, and usually I step up into conversation and ask them how many of them know gays in person? How many gays do they have among of their friends? And usually the answers are—none,” he says. “So I ask them, how could they discuss something that they don’t know? How come they could judge something what they had no experience with in their lives?” The media, Alexander notes, is blaming gays and lesbians for what’s going wrong within the country and having a hugely negative impact on LGBT life in Russia. “Now our government is pushing the nation to unite, and the best way to unite the people is to show them a common enemy.”
He says, “Russia more and more turns into a fascist country. A lot of stupid and aggressive laws are proposed by the government, and some of them already passed and became a reality.” In July 2013, for example, Putin signed a law that prevents the adoption of Russian children by gay or lesbian couples abroad. “And they [the media] blame LGBT society almost in everything. It does look to me like a fascist propaganda during WWII, when similar topics were used to unite the German nation. So exactly the same happens here, word to word, point to point.” Alexander personally knows people who have been beaten, robbed, and even murdered for being gay; some became victims of online dating services, others were hassled by taxi drivers or on their way home from a gay club. He and his friends used to go to gay bars or parties weekly, but now, he says, it’s easier to fly to Europe for a weekend about once a month to go out. “All of us are looking for the way to get a job in Europe and get out of here.”
photos by Ilya Vydrevich // March Against Hatred in Saint Petersburg, Russia. 2013
Then there are people in Moscow who say that this law doesn’t affect them at all, like Victor K.. To him, dating and finding new friends are relatively easy through mobile social applications. He is gay and not completely out but mentions that he has a lot of straight friends who understand and support him. When he travels, he says, it hurts him that people feel sorry for him when he mentions that he lives in Russia. It got to the point where he would feel too ashamed to tell people where he is from, and no one would believe him when he tried to convey that it is not as bad as is portrayed in the media or on the internet. “The problem with this law is not the law itself or the fines,” Victor says, “but the fact that it unleashes homophobes, especially in the regions [outside Moscow and St. Petersburg] and causes a wave of anger against anyone who is different from the ‘standards.’” Victor wants to be married and have kids one day but mentions how he understands that for the people who were brought up in the Soviet era, this is unacceptable. The only way this could change, in his opinion, is for that generation to pass away.
Socioeconomic status and location can influence a person’s perceptions of the LGBT situation in Russia, along with the influence of the Orthodox Christian Church. How much individuals are affected by this law depends on which social circles they frequent, how much money they can spend on the sometimes pricey nightlife establishments that offer a place to connect with other gay people, and whether they live in a large city like Moscow or St. Petersburg. But even there, violent attacks against gays and lesbians have occurred and protesters have been attacked and arrested while voicing their opinion against Russia’s anti-gay laws.
Some Russians who are outspokenly opposed to homosexuality publicly dehumanize those who identify as LGBT, calling them “perverts,” “shameful,” “non-Russian,” “abnormal,” and “pedophiles,” while on the other end of this prejudice spectrum, they refer to heterosexuals as “normal,” a term over which they claim to have authority to push their own agenda. Extreme Russian nationalists, like Mikhail K. in St. Petersburg, publicly blame ethnic minorities, migrants, and homosexuals for all the country’s problems. They refer to organized protests called March Against Hatred as “March Against Morality.” This kind of blind nationalism distorts reality into nonsense, best evidenced by Mikhail’s own words: “The Nazis are those who promote homosexuality, multiculturalism, and tolerance.”
photos by Ilya Vydrevich // March Against Hatred in Saint Petersburg, Russia. 2013
Russia’s LGBT community is not unified, but the displays of homophobia in the past few years are slowly changing that. There is a clear distinction between private and public life, and to some, the question of homosexuality is a question of allegiance and whether it lies with your country or your sexuality. “Very often, LGBT people are depicted as unpatriotic and fifth-column, and this is where Putin is playing a big role. He likes to divide society and to manipulate these groups to maintain his control. He needs to create external and internal threats,” says Igor Iasine. Additionally, many Russian cultural values are rooted in the Russian Orthodox Church, with which about 64% of Russians affiliate (though only very few of those regularly go to church).
There are American extreme-right-wing conservatives whose discriminatory beliefs and policy ideas are losing foothold in the United States and who are consequently taking their agenda to other countries in search of listeners. Just before the bill preventing foreign same-sex-couple adoptions passed in Russia, the president of the National Organization for Marriage in the U.S., Brian Brown, traveled to Moscow to testify in favor of the ban to the State Duma, the Russian national parliament. In another case, anti-gay psychologist Paul Cameron, whose largely discredited “statistic” that homosexuality is harmful to society, spoke to the Russian Duma on “family values” in October. Similar connections can be drawn in the case of Scott Lively, who met with Ugandan lawmakers and, together with Caleb Lee Brundidge and Don Schmierer, spoke at a conference in Uganda in 2009 on converting homosexuals to heterosexuality and how “the gay movement is an evil institution.” Following that conference, Uganda passed a law in 2009 that criminalizes homosexuality with the death penalty by hanging.
photos by Ilya Vydrevich // March Against Hatred in Saint Petersburg, Russia. 2013
A resident of St. Petersburg, Dmitry Musolin, who works at a university and volunteers at the LGBT organization Coming Out, told us the story of the incident at the start of our article, in which Dmitri C. lost an eye. He tells us, “[The authorities] say that these are gay people who destroy our traditional society, who have ruined the Western civilization, and who now are hunting for Russian children and trying to destroy Russia. I cannot understand how people can listen and buy all this in the 21st century, but they do…”
Recently there have been incidents of people creating fake profiles on gay dating services, either online or mobile, to get young gay men to go on a date, sometimes offering money in exchange for kissing or sex. Once the date is organized, a group of homophobes awaits the young men with a video camera. Dmitry says, “They humiliate him, sometimes take his mobile phone and call the relatives and say that the guy is gay or ask for money not to do so. They film everything (except the scenes of violence) and then put it online—sometimes send the link to all friends of the victim. Again, now, they sell tickets for such safaris.” The videos have gone viral in Russia and turned this form of violent hate crime into a movement.
With the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi ahead, many are hopeful, some even nostalgic for the civil-rights sentiment of the 1968 Olympics, where gold- and bronze-medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos saluted to black power with their fists in the air during the U.S. national anthem. Putin has said that everyone is welcome at the Sochi Olympics, regardless of sexual orientation, but he hasn’t issued an official written statement to assure it. The Russian LGBT Sport Federation is planning the Russian Open Games in Moscow from Feb. 26 to March 2, 2014, three days after the Sochi Games, as a response to the homophobic climate. It claims the event will not be breaking the new anti-gay propaganda law but merely promoting healthy living and sports.
There are more signs of hope for gay Russians. The LGBT movement is becoming stronger, forced to organize and unite for positive change. When Lena Klimova realized that an article she wrote changed someone’s decision to commit suicide, she started a group called Deti-404 (deti is Russian for “children,” and “404” is derived from the error message displayed when a page on the Internet cannot be found). Today, Deti-404 is an outlet for Russian teens to find help and communicate with others about homosexuality, especially when there is no one in their lives to turn to. In the end, it is up to Russia to resolve its internal problems. No amount of boycotting will resolve the problem from the outside; many Russians do not identify with Western values, so the change has to come from within the country. The best way to support Russia from here is by supporting the people there in their grassroots approach to making a difference.