After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia was left with a legal heritage that criminalized male homosexual activity between consenting adults. In the general opinion, homosexuality was mostly associated with prison practices of establishing hierarchies among inmates. After the dissolution of the Gulag in the mid-1950s, where millions of criminal and political inmates were kept together and released together as well, prisoner subculture largely influenced common life.
Later, the general pro-natalist policy, either supporting or forcing birth to compensate for significant Soviet casualties in World War II, left little space for understanding relationships which did not lead to birth. ‘Homosexualism’ was regarded officially as a medical perversion, and consensual male homosexual behavior led to up to five years of imprisonment.
However, in 1993, male homosexual behavior was decriminalized, and the overall climate of increasing freedom, openness, and last but not least, chaos, led to a brief period of increase in gay and lesbian visibility, sometimes even in mainstream media and art. In the 1990s, a singer and dancer Boris Moiseev made a solo performing career based on strong gay allusions, with stage programs In Memoriam Freddie Mercury, Child of Sin, Fallen Angel and especially Blue Moon with Nikolai Trubach (in the early post-Soviet times ‘blue’ used to be the most common euphemism for a gay man).
By 1999, LGBTQ issues appeared so promising commercially that a pop duo t.A.T.u pretended to be a pair of lesbians on stage and in their lyrics (‘I went crazy, I need her’). This duo and a less mainstream one – Night Snipers, portrayed feelings and situations that lots of post-Soviet homo- and bisexual young girls could relate to.
In the academic and activist community, some changes took place as well. In 1991, first festivals, NGOs, and issue-based magazines were founded. Igor Kon, the founder of Soviet sexology, in the 1990s openly included homosexuality and male studies in his research interests. Moscow-based researcher Elena Gusiatinskaya established a private lesbian and gay archive in her apartment, which still serves as a community centre.
Since 1997, transgender people could correct their legal gender after corresponding medical procedures, and in 1999, with the adoption of the 10th revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases, Russia officially declassified homosexuality as a mental illness, which also allowed homosexual people to join military service.
However, all this was not enough to build acceptance and equality. LGBTQ rights and freedoms were not established strongly and were not grounded in changes in the popular perception of this issue. The influence of the first generation of activists on legal changes was rather limited, and they originated to a large extent from liberal politicians, who were adjusting Russian legislation to international standards, for instance, in order to join the Council of Europe.
Decriminalization of homosexual activity in practice meant amnesty for the convicted, but nothing was done about legal rehabilitation or recognizing their suffering; and while archive court materials about such cases are not available publicly, professional historians have limited access to the data. Then, after a brief increase in freedom for the community in the 1990s and even the early 2000s, Russia’s conservative turn became more and more apparent – for different reasons.
Russia’s Slow Conservative Turn
Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, never admired the human rights agenda, but his second and, especially, third term were marked by a strong increase in actions crystallizing right-wing values as an official ideology. After the peaceful revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine (in 2003 and 2004 respectively), which marked liberal and democratic stances of the participants and suggested a more pro-European turn of these countries, Russian internal politics started to rely on far-right movements as a means of preventing democratic changes of power inside the country.
The following several years marked a dramatic increase in far-right street violence, with some groups like BORN curated by the presidential administration. The legal wing of BORN, Russkii Obraz, explicitly denied political rights for women and promoted ‘traditional values’ as a basis for family and general education (lowering the status of Darwin theory’s to ‘a version’). While these groups targeted mostly non-Slavic people, the general climate of intolerance, blended with homophobic public opinion as a part of Soviet legacy, was intensifying.
Besides this, Putin’s public image began to be presented in a way that it could put deliberate emphasis on his normative masculinity. Sociologist Elena Gapova compares this image to those of James Bond – ‘“a spy”, Judo black belt, a superman with steel nerves and muscles […] In the images that spread across the media, Putin appears in a cockpit, in a snowmobile, at a gym, in a helicopter, driving an SUV, skiing.’
In 2012, Putin even flew on a motorized hang glider, leading a group of young cranes to their migration place. A physically strong man was blended here with a ‘strong leader’. This focus on masculinity and leadership epitomized the trend to build a centralized, authoritarian power. Focusing his efforts on an anti-oligarchic campaign in order to concentrate power in his own hands, Putin presented himself as a leader. Focusing his political program on ‘winning’ of the Second Chechen War and combating real and staged Islamic terrorism with brutal methods, Putin addressed typical masculine men (together with their girlfriends and parents) to put value in militarism, brutality, and so on.
The popular culture of those days relied on strong masculinity as well, presenting it, for instance, in images of effective criminals (Brigada TV series, 2002). Arguably the most popular movie of post-Soviet Russia, Brother 2 (2000) is a crime drama fully based on patriarchal masculine self-assertion, xenophobia, anti-Americanism, and other negative values. This version of masculinity was asserted as hegemonic, leaving little space for feminism, varieties of LGBTQ expression, as well as any non-aggressive masculinity.
First steps towards the conservative turn were made already during these days. In 2002, Member of the State Duma (parliament) Gennady Raikov proposed a draft bill to restore Stalin’s penalization of male homosexuality dating back to 1934. His follow-up proposals suggested even further steps: to penalize consensual lesbian relations and to make masturbation an administrative offence. His initiatives were ridiculed across the entire political spectrum; however, another draft bill On the defense of morality was proposed and voted on the same year.
While most provisions of it were not inappropriate as such (harsher penalties for sex with underage persons), it employed the rhetoric of morality, preparing the basis for alleged protection of children from everything ‘immoral’, which played its role later. With expressions like ‘responsibility for the education of minors’, the route to denying the very existence of child sexuality was chosen and taken, instead of recognizing and approaching it in an age-appropriate way, which could include sexual education in schools.
Then, between 2006 and 2013, a number of federal subjects enacted various regional laws which banned ‘propaganda of homosexualism’ among minors, and some of them prohibited ‘propaganda’ of ‘bisexualism’ and ‘transsexualism’ as well. In 2008, an official Day of Family, Love, and Fidelity was established based on an Orthodox Petr and Fevronia day (attempting to provide an alternative for ‘extrinsic’ St. Valentine’s Day).
In 2012, a restrictive law on ‘foreign agents’ was adopted. It provided an additional tool for suppressing activist initiatives that engage in international cooperation and receive foreign grants. The necessity to register as a ‘foreign agent’ had legal consequences for them, expanding the number of official reasons to inspect or even prohibit an organization. This targets LGBTQ organizations as well, for instance, Bok O Bok (Side By Side) cinema festival.
Russia’s Official Conservative Turn
By Putin’s third term, conservatism became a brand for Russia’s international self-assertion. Russia currently attempts to present itself as a leader for the illiberal part of the world, towards which those dissatisfied with liberal values, allegedly silently suffering under the rule of elites (more liberal than they are) can lean. This created a win-win situation for both Russia and the Western far-right: they could mutually confirm each other’s political and moral legitimacy.
While mainstream Russian politicians started seeking their first contacts with the Western far-right back in the 1990s, by the mid-2010s Russian authorities successfully relied on them both for domestic and international justification of its actions – they effectively spread Russian narratives in Western media and provided international political support to be presented for the domestic audience. Western criticism of various Russian internal decisions (such as the murder of an imprisoned opposition lawyer Sergei Magnitsky) served as an additional factor in establishing an alliance with the Eurosceptic far-right.
Since June 2013, state-sponsored homophobia as a part of this conservative turn became explicit and official. The Russian federal law ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’ criminalized the distribution of materials on LGBTQ issues among minors. Ukrainian writer and academic Anton Shekhovtsov believes this was done to splinter the opposition on a divisive issue.
Canadian and English historian Dan Healey suggests that the campaign was aimed to shift public anger away from the economic crisis and declining living standards. Whatever it was actually planned for, this step marked an official turn to state-sponsored homophobia and permission for homophobes to act however they want. Patriarch Cyrill publicly stated that gay marriages bring about the Apocalypse. The law was condemned by various foreign institutions and in 2017 was ruled discriminatory by the European Court of Human Rights, but this has not led to its amendment or repeal.
The new legislation launched a dramatic increase in violation of the LGBTQ community’s human rights, making it virtually impossible to hold public events aimed at protecting LGBTQ rights and leaving LGBTQ adolescents without any possibility to seek help and advice. A number of activists were fined just for single-person street rallies. Numerous and often successful attempts to disrupt the actions of LGBTQ people by homophobic activists (some have become infamous) followed. In a year a homophobic provocateur Timur Bulatov, bragging of committing a number of various crimes, started regularly appearing on federal channels.
Polls indicated a dramatic decrease in already low indicators of an equal attitude towards gays and lesbians: from 13% (July 2012) to 7% (April 2013). Journalist Masha Gessen commented: ‘I had to leave Russia in 2013. Everyone knew everything about me. Nobody thought about it – neither my neighbors, nor my employers, nor the child protection authorities, nobody thought about it until the Kremlin said: “Attack!”” Only in 2019, when the effectiveness of the campaign was exhausted, and due to activists’ struggle even under harsh conditions, the numbers returned to those from the mid-2000s. The general worldwide increase in LGBTQ visibility, including an increase in the amount of such content in English on social networks, also works against the state-sponsored campaign.
After the legislative amendments were adopted, the number of hate crimes against LGBTQ increased dramatically as well. The infamous leader of Russian neo-Nazis Maxim Martsinkevich developed his (invented beforehand) project of mass hate crimes, targeted particularly towards gays – Occupy Pedophilia. On lots of videos that easily went viral, Martsinkevich and his disciples lured gay men to ‘dates’ and afterwards labelled them as ‘pedophiles’, tortured and humiliated them. Martsinkevich encouraged franchising his ideas, which is why this movement became popular in other regions, and a number of similar projects under different names appeared independently but found his approval, in Russia and in other countries.
In Chechnya, secret abductions and murders of gays reportedly took place in recent years. This became possible because of a special regime established in the region. After years of suppressing insurrection for political independence, Ramzan Kadyrov, a leader of the pro-Moscow militia, was granted a ruling position in the region, trading peace and almost unlimited possibilities to control the region for personal loyalty.
While homophobia itself was not new to the region, this appointment led to the establishment of authoritarian Islamism, which strongly promotes patriarchal values and tribalism (in a small land of slightly more than 1 million people, where everybody knows everybody), which completely excluded human rights in general and the rights of LGBTQ people in particular, making the latter victims of so-called ‘honor killings’.
After an attempt of Moscow-based LGBTQ activists to hold rallies in Northern Caucasus, and after a detainment of a gay drug user with lots of personal contacts in his phone (both events took place at the beginning of 2017), mass detaining initiated personally by Chechnya parliament speaker Magomed ‘Lord’ Daudov started, and an extremely strong wave of purges unfolded. Kadyrov personally encourages extrajudicial killings: ‘If there were such people in Chechnya, law-enforcement agencies wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no return.’
Reportedly, secret concentration camps for gays were created in the town of Argun and in the village of Tsotsi-Yurt. Lesbians are beaten with sticks and subjected to exorcising jinns out of them. More than 100 people were forced to leave Russia because of these purges.
Popular culture could not feature LGBTQ issues anymore, as it did in the 1990s. In 2019, gay sex scenes in the movie Rocketman were cut out in distribution; in 2020, the same type of censorship was applied to Supernova (both movies were rated 18+ and therefore were legal even uncensored). Call Me by Your Name was exhibited only once at a special screening. Organizers of a film festival that showed a Russian indie LGBTQ-drama Outlaw, even though it managed to receive a screening license from the Ministry of Culture, were put under police pressure. A politician Vitalii Milonov, at first a local St. Petersburg legislative assembly member, and then a member of the State Duma, gained notoriety for a number of ridiculous initiatives such as attempts to hold Rammstein and Madonna accountable for ‘propaganda’ when they gave concerts in Russia.
In March 2020, among other amendments to the Constitution suggested by the President, a provision about family as a union of a man and a woman was announced and followed by a homophobic video clip by the Federal News Agency. The clip suggested voting for amendments; otherwise, queer couples would be able to adopt children. It ended with a question: ‘Will you choose this Russia?’
Russian Homophobic Soft Power
Russian state-sponsored homophobia does not impact Russian LGBTQ citizens only, it also influences its neighboring countries in various ways. While Western far-right are not necessarily homophobic, the ones from the post-Soviet neighborhood, sharing the same legacy, often are. As a former centre of the Soviet empire, with much money spent and a widely-known language, Moscow has the means to support its political and cultural influence.
The World Congress of Families (WCF), a worldwide network of anti-LGBT and anti-abortion organizations founded in Russia in 1997 by activists from American Christian Right and Russian intellectuals concerned with demographic decline, is allegedly funded by conservative Russian oligarchs Konstantin Malofeev and Vladimir Yakunin. The WCF works as a soft power tool for Russia, not only promoting conservative views on family, gender and sex but also spreading international political messages in favor of Russia. Dozens of politicians from across Europe have participated in WCF events over the years. In total, more than 700 people from more than 50 countries around the world have been connected to this network in the last 15 years.
Former French WCF representative, Fabrice Sorlin, explicitly supported Russian expansionism on the basis of conservative values: ‘This Europe of the people and of nations would substitute technocratic Europe with a more traditional European civilization; it would promote Christianity within Europe, which has until now been dominated by the LGBT lobby.
It must ally with Vladimir Putin’s Russia in order to create a version of Europe that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific.’ This sponsored expansionism to the benefit of the state works differently in each European country but destabilizes the entire region either deliberately or by indirect influence.
In Hungary, the ruling party Fidesz proposed legislation which is actually very similar to the Russian one – on the prohibition of exposing minors to any LGBTQ+ content. Also, sex education in schools will be taught only by a limited number of government-approved educators. In the summer of 2021, UEFA drew criticism from LGBTQ groups for declining a request to illuminate the stadium in Munich during the Germany v. Hungary match, a suggestion by Munich mayor Dieter Rieter made in response to this legislation. It should be noted that in this case, the championship was officially sponsored by Gazprom, a Russian majority state-owned company.
In Georgia, a big real estate investor Levan Vasadze, known for his nativist, explicitly anti-liberal, and ultra-religious views, has strong business and political ties with Russia. A former board member of a number of large businesses in Russia, he also founded Georgia’s Demographic Revival Foundation, a part of the WCF. In May 2021, Vasadze announced his official entry into politics as a founder of the public movement Unity, Essence, Hope. Recently, he urged the government to cancel Tbilisi Pride events, which then were violently disrupted by right-wing radicals.
Moldova is said to be one of the most homophobic countries in Europe. The 2018 WCF congress in Chisinau was organized under the auspices of Moldova’s president Igor Dodon. He was quoted telling journalists: ‘I have never promised to be the president of the gays, they should have elected their own president.’ The ‘propaganda’ laws, similar to Russian, were implemented in 2013 but soon repealed as they were threatening the possibility of joining the EU.
While current president Maia Sandu is openly pro-European, she only generally expressed her respect towards minority rights, and the fake narrative of expected legalization of same-sex unions was used in the electoral campaign against her by her opponents, thus relying on general societal homophobia.
No data on the possible Russian influence on Belarus is available and further research is suggested. However, the general situation is in no way different from that in other countries of the region. The legislation on protecting children from harmful information does not specify homosexuality as something harmful, however, prohibits it ‘discrediting the institution of family and marriage and family relationships’.
In February 2016, a member of the Minsk department of homophobic Occupy Pedophilia group Artiom Shlahtiuk was found guilty of delinquency and robbery aggravated by homophobia. The space for civil initiatives and freedom of speech is extremely restricted under authoritarian Lukashenko rule, who in 2012 stated that ‘it is better to be a dictator than gay.’ Opposition activists (namely Pavel Severinets from Belarus Christian Democrats) are sometimes explicitly homophobic as well.
In Ukraine, Maxim Martsinkevich toured in 2013 to promote his Occupy Pedophilia project, which resulted in more hate crimes and creation of similar projects, which lasted approximately till 2014-2015. However, in early 2017 the number of hate crimes against the LGBTQ community rose again, now in attempts to disrupt their public and closed events. While this can be explained by an increase in the number of events in itself, and by poor and ineffective work of the local police, the researchers of the Ukrainian Women’s Fund spotted an anti-gender information campaign that had been prepared since 2014 and unfolded fully in 2017.
The campaign was based on manipulating the concept of ‘family values’, suggesting it relates only to Christian heterosexual families with children. The messages fully copied words of the aforementioned Vitalii Milonov and Vladimir Putin (only replacing Russia with Ukraine). In the parts of Ukraine illegally annexed by Russia or captured by Russian-backed separatists in 2014 (Malofeev reportedly was tied to these actions), Russian legislation or similar local legislations apply. Besides this, sometimes small but unpleasant incidents based on lack of differentiation between Russia and Ukraine take place: for instance, a video game Tell Me Why was not available both in Russia because of legal restrictions for LGBTQ content and in Ukraine where no such restrictions exist.
All facts stated above allow us to interpret Russian homophobic influence as large and threatening to human rights in the entire region.
First of all, larger studies of the Russian impact on the region can be suggested, and they would involve experts from each country engaged in local fieldwork. Then, the foreign community should introduce effective sanctions against individuals and entities undermining or threatening human rights and freedoms of the LGBTQ community, including freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Diplomatic measures to influence the situation would also be useful.
Russian LGBTQ organizations which are currently listed as foreign agents should receive support from their partners in a well-judged manner that does not make their situation even worse. Economic cooperation with the Russian regime, including the development of Nord Stream 2, which allegedly allows further military development of Russian troops in Ukraine and capturing more territories, should be frozen as soon as possible. Speaking about refugees, especially from the Chechnya region, special attention should be paid to the measures that help them leave Russia and find refuge.
Since Russia proved itself to exercise a strong influence on regional matters, supporting illiberal political forces in surrounding countries and beyond, as well as serving as an example for them, it is critically important for the local LGBTQ communities to be aware of this influence, to recognize it and to resist it. It is equally important for the Russian LGBTQ community to resist state and societal pressure and to progress further in the necessary development.
The article was originally published in “Free Voices. LGBT+ Rights in Eastern Europe” published by the European Liberal Forum. The publication is available here.
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 His first book to introduce LGBTQ matters is Kon, I. (1997). Klubnichka na berezke: seksualnaya kultura v Rossii. Moscow: OGI.
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 Ibid, p.132
 Zaklyuchenie o posledstvijah prinjatija zakonodatel’stva o zaprete ‘propagandy gomoseksualizma sredi nesovershennoletnih’ v Rossijskoj Federacii i ee regionah (2014). Vykhod.
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