Why Russia Turned Against The Gays

Vladimir Putin's new campaign for national — and political — survival.

Three months before Russia's parliament unanimously passed a federal law banning the propaganda of "non-traditional relationships" — that is, same-sex ones — the bill's sponsor went on the country's most respected interview show to explain her reasoning.

"Analyzing all the circumstances, and the particularity of territorial Russia and her survival…I came to the conclusion that if today we want to resolve the demographic crisis, we need to, excuse me, tighten the belt on certain moral values and information, so that giving birth and raising children become fully valued," lawmaker Yelena Mizulina told Vladimir Posner, Russia's Charlie Rose.

Mizulina heads the Duma's committee for family, women, and children and has become the stern face of Russia's campaign against gays. But she would never call it that. Russia's new laws — banning same-sex foreign couples from adopting Russian children in addition to banning LGBT advocacy — are part of the country's very search for survival, according to her.

On the one hand, there's its physical survival — Russia's birthrate plummeted in the wake of the Soviet collapse and encouraging baby-making (through government grants as well as rhetoric) has been one of Vladimir Putin's hallmarks. And then there's its moral survival; if Russia is to survive as Russia it needs to reject the corrupting influences of the West.

The first form of reasoning is populist bluster. But the second goes some way toward explaining why Russia has stepped up its campaign against LGBT rights just as the European Union and the United States march in precisely the opposite direction. The violent images, restrictive legislation, and public humiliation that LGBT people in Russia now face isn't the product of a traditionalist backlash as much as it is a vital part of the new politics of Putin's Russia, a nation in search of someone to define itself against.

Homosexuality wasn't really a topic of conversation in Russia for much of the last two decades. Laws banning gay sex were lifted in 1993, two years after the Soviet collapse. Slowly but surely, gay clubs began to appear in Moscow and St Petersburg, at first underground, eventually out in the open. Russian society remained widely homophobic, and there were many who saw gays and lesbians as an inevitable and evil Western import, but there were other things to worry about — recovering from the collapse of a political-economic system, clawing out of poverty, dealing with the explosion of violence that engulfed a country suddenly flowing with cash and corruption.

And then came Vladimir Putin.

Putin spent the first two terms of his presidency, from 2000 to 2008, ruling with no ideology. It was an explicit decision, his former campaign and political advisor Gleb Pavlovsky once told me, that took into account the fact that so many had grown tired of the empty shell that Communist doctrine had become by the end of Soviet times. Instead there would be Putin and just Putin. Putin and his bare chest. Putin-loving animals. Putin single-handedly building kindergartens and hospitals. Putin Putin Putin.

What that strategy didn't take into account was that sometime, some day, someone would get sick of Putin. That finally happened late last year, when Putin announced he would return to the presidency following a four-year break as prime minister. A movement that largely comprised middle-class liberals took to the streets in the tens of thousands. It was a show of criticism that Putin thought would never come.

Part of his reaction has been reflexive and obvious to everyone — to launch a crackdown, arrest opposition leaders, arrest average protesters, adopt laws limiting future ability to protest. The second is more oblique: Putin has launched a campaign to shore up support in the Russian "heartland," that mythical place far from the bustling streets of Moscow where headscarved peasants embrace core Russian concepts that don't actually exist anymore.

In the absence of any ideology — any core belief to tie together the Russian state and nation — the easiest way to fill the vacuum has been by turning to the Russian Orthodox Church, a deeply corrupt, reactionary, and Kremlin-loving institution that has enjoyed a spike in support following the (atheist) Soviet Union's collapse. Thus the arrest of Pussy Riot, the anti-Putin punk band whose members were sentenced to two years in prison for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." Thus the law passed by the Duma just hours after the anti-gay law was passed, making "insulting religious believers" an offense punishable by up to three years in jail.

The second easiest thing has been to demonize the "Other," creating an internal enemy for everyone to fear. Jews are out — Putin, who values loyalty above all, has had an affinity for Jews since childhood, when he was reportedly saved from being beaten up by street kids by a Jewish neighbor. Migrants are out — Russia needs millions of them in order to carry out the mass infrastructure projects that the country needs to keep its economy afloat; and the nationalist card is simply too dangerous to play with anyway. Who's left? Gays.

Demonizing gays allows Putin to tell the "heartland": I will protect you and your "traditional" families; you are the real Russia. It also grows suspicion of the liberal opposition, presented as fundamentally "un-Russian" as they stand up increasingly for gay rights amid Putin's growing crackdown. And finally, it allows Russia to do what it does best these days: present itself as Not The West.

It is no accident that Russia is stripping away gay rights as (popular and legal) support for gay marriage in the U.S. and Europe grows. The West is decadent, permissive, and doomed to orgiastic decline. As Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, recently put it: gay marriage is a "dangerous apocalyptic system" that leads a nation "on a path of self-destruction."

And then there is Russia — not really standing for anything, but standing against a whole lot: gays, liberals, the West. It's the strategy that Putin has chosen for his own survival.

"I think the most ridiculous questions come up during the decay of an empire," said Anton Krasovsky, a prominent Russian journalist recently fired for being gay, when asked why the "gay question" had suddenly emerged in Russia. "It's like when Judeo-Christians were fed to the lions in third-century Rome — it's just the sunset of the empire."

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