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International responses to homophobia in Russia: A win-win for Putin

By Sean L Hanley, on 26 March 2014

Gay putin

Photo: Brian Minkoff-London Pixels/Wikicommons
CC BY-SA 3.0

Vladimir Putin has used the international backlash against Russia’s sweeping anti-gay laws as part of his wider strategy for asserting conservative Russian values against those of the West argues Richard Mole.

Despite the best efforts of President Putin to keep the focus on sport, the Sochi Winter Olympics became a focal point for international criticism of the Russian law banning the spreading of ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’, with global media coverage of the Olympics casting a spotlight on Russia’s anti-gay laws and rise of extreme homophobia in the country.

The law did not initially contain a definition of what constituted propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations – not that this stopped the police from making arrests.  But in December the government published the Criteria of Internet Content Harmful for Children’s Health and Development, which listed the following as examples of homosexual propaganda:

  • Information that justified the acceptability of alternative family relations, including any statistics or stories about children adopted by gay or lesbian couples, which might lead to the conclusion that same-sex couples are ‘no worse than straight couples at coping with parental responsibilities’;
  • ‘Intense emotional images’ aimed at discrediting traditional family models and propagating alternative family models;
  •  Information that contains ‘images of behaviour associated with the denial of the traditional family model’ which promotes homosexual relationships;
  • Depiction of homosexual people as role models, including any mention of famous homosexuals; and
  • Anything that ‘approves or encourages’ LGBT people in their homosexuality.

The latter condition is so poorly defined, that it effectively means that any content which may be considered offensive by the Russian government can now be deemed illegal and subject to prosecution.

The international backlash was vocal. Numerous world leaders, including Barack Obama, announced that they would not attend the Olympics in protest at the law and, on the eve of the opening ceremony, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for an end to attacks on and discrimination against sexual minorities arguing that ‘[w]e must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender or intersex people. We must oppose the arrest, imprisonment and discriminatory restrictions they face.’

As the games got under way, LGBT activists in Moscow and St Petersburg briefly staged protests, before being dragged away by the police. Yet, while Putin appears to have underestimated the strength of international feeling against the law, any criticism from the West will only strengthen his position at home.

Putin’s strategy

For Putin, the banning of propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations serves multiple purposes. Firstly, it is part of his on-going attempt to clamp down on actual and potential opponents and shore up support among the conservative majority.

 It also enables him to entrench traditional Russian values in the face of the spread of Western liberal ideas, which he blames for corrupting the nation’s youth and fuelling opposition to his rule. Tapping into pre-existing antipathy towards homosexuality, he is able to use LGBT rights as a lightening rod to divert attention away from political corruption and the weakening economy.

 Putin and his fellow travellers have ensured that the law resonates strongly with society  – 88% of those surveyed by the Russian Public Opinion Centre after the bill was signed into law expressed support –  by framing it as a strategy to ensure the survival of the Russian nation.

  The survival of the physical nation would require a marked increase in the Russian birth rate, which plummeted following the collapse of the USSR; and to achieve this goal, according to Putin, Russia would as he told a TV interview need to ‘cleanse’ itself of gay people. And to reinforce its specifically Russian identity, the nation would need to define itself against its main Others: the United States and European Union, rejecting their liberal values.

 The culture clash between Russia and the West was evident from the Kremlin-backed human rights report published in January in which Moscow lashed out at the European Union for its ‘aggressive promotion’ of the rights of sexual minorities as well as from Putin’s State of the Nation address in December, in which he defended Russia’s conservative values as a bulwark against ‘so-called tolerance’, which was ‘genderless and infertile’.

 Putin’s defence of traditional values chimes with the Russian belief in its national exceptionalism, which can be traced from medieval Moscow’s claim to be the ‘Third Rome’, through the Slavophiles’ insistence on Russia’s ‘special path’ all the way to Lenin’s communist messianism. Since the collapse of the USSR, Russia has been searching for its special mission. Establishing itself as the defender of traditional values against Western decadence can be seen as a way for Russia to fulfil its historical destiny.

 The construction of homosexuality as both non-traditional and thereby non-Russian in tandem with Putin’s rigorous defence of traditional values as the foundation of Russia’s greatness have successfully legitimised the marginalisation of the country’s LGBT citizens. While the international outcry has been vociferous, Putin can simply point to this Western support for gay rights at the expense of Russian national values as further proof that he was right all along.

Richard Mole is Senior Lecturer in Political Sociology at UCL-SSEES. His research focuses on the relationship between identity and power, with particular reference to nationalism, gender and sexuality. 

 Richard is planning a new MA course in Sexuality and Society in Russia and Eastern Europe  analysing the social construction of non-heteronormative sexualities in Russia and Eastern Europe across various periods in the region’s history.  Subject to final approval, the course will be available as part of the MA in Identity, Culture and Power and other UCL-SSEES Masters programmes from September 2014.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL

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