Russia: Counterrevolution and Revolt

Published in: May-June 2013 issue.


LAST YEAR will definitely be remembered in contemporary Russian history as the year in which politics returned to the country. For the first time since Vladimir Putin’s de facto coming to power in 1999, Russia saw large civil protests and political debates both in the parliament and in the media. With the emergence of the large-scale protest movement, which unified groups from all over the political spectrum, the Kremlin at first backed off and tried to make certain concessions to the demands of the unusually vociferous protesters. But following the inauguration of Vladimir Putin as newly re-elected President in May 2012, the government changed its policies on dissent, which became more restrictive than ever in the last twelve years. But not only did it fail to calm down the critics, it also provoked diverse strategies of resistance from different groups.

The GLBT movement in Russia, which has never been particularly active to date and could not even have been called a full-fledged “movement” until just several years ago, managed to bring its struggle to mainstream society while at last finding its own voice. Activists related to diverse organizations took part in a number of massive demonstrations against Russian oppression, like the notorious demonstration on May 6th when the police used brutal force to suppress the crowds in Moscow.

The so-called Marches for Equality have become a new phenomenon in GLBT politics in Russia. This form of public demonstration can be seen as an alternative to the format of the “gay pride” march, which did not take off in Russia for a number of reasons. Some say that the problem is that the word “pride” in Russia has a slightly different meaning, coming closer to “arrogance.” Obviously, this can only be part of the explanation. Another factor is that the “gay pride” brand came to be monopolized by the famous Russian activist Nikolay Alexeyev, who had been trying to organize a movement under that banner since 2006. He has not succeeded in his attempts so far; but he has managed to become a local celebrity due to multiple scandals related to his personal life. He is a frequent guest on many Russian TV shows, but his political and personal views have alienated many gay and lesbian Russians as well as the general public, so the brand itself became discredited in Russia. Not surprisingly, diverse GLBT groups are now trying to come up with alternative concepts to deliver the message.

Well-educated, arrogant, wealthy, and flamboyant, Alexeyev presents an elitist and “bourgeois” image of what it means to be gay. Some have even argued that his position is a repetition of the postcolonial discourse depicting Russia as being a “barbarian” country that has much to learn from the “civilized” West. While this might explain some of the opposition to Alexeyev, it does not explain the existence of homophobia in Russia as a circumstance of history and culture. (What’s more, the majority of Russians have never identified with the West.)

Under these circumstances, the organizers of the Marches for Equality have been trying to speak to people in a different, more familiar language. The message of these groups—such as the Rainbow Association, Left Socialist Action, and the Committee for Workers’ International—is more familiar to the public, or at least it does not scare people away (while definitely being less attractive to the scandal-hungry media). Instead of trying to sue the Russian government in the European Court of Human Rights or talking about the experience of the Western countries, these groups have taken a more down-to-earth approach, trying to explain to the general public that GLBT people are part of Russian society and face the same problems as “regular” Russians do. This might be seen as a bottom-up approach to emancipation rather than the purely legalistic and formal top-down approach of Nikolay Alexeyev.

A big part of the mobilization of the GLBT movement this year was the emerging trend to criminalize the so-called “propaganda of homosexuality” by making it an administrative offense to speak out publicly for gay equality. The looming threat has unified many activist groups and refocused the GLBT media from topics of nightlife, sex, and shopping to political issues.

In November 2011, Saint Petersburg became the third region in Russia to introduce a “propaganda” law that would amend its administrative code. By December 2012 there were already nine regions in Russia where “propaganda of homosexuality” was punishable by fines. On top of that, in mid-December the Federal Parliament (Duma) was supposed to have a first reading of a bill banning “propaganda of homosexuality,” which was postponed several times until it was finally adopted on January 25, 2013.

The most vocal proponent of the “propaganda of homosexuality” law is Vitaly Milonov, a self-proclaimed Christian who is also a member of the pro-Putin ruling party and a deputy in the Saint Petersburg city council. He was the one who identified “propaganda of homosexuality” as an “activity for purposeful and uncontrollable dissemination of information capable of damaging the health, morals, and spiritual development of the under-aged as well as forming a distorted understanding of the social equivalence of traditional and nontraditional marriage relations.” A similar definition is written into the bill offered to the Federal Parliament. The reasons for the postponement of the bill reading in the Duma were not specified, but many observers saw the delay as a response to the intense criticism the bill received. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev openly stated that he does not support the bill. Similar comments were made by the always-in-power President Putin who, in his annual address to the Parliament, said that “morality should not be the sphere of government regulation.”

THEN THERE WAS the notorious Pussy Riot affair. On February 21, several members of the radical feminist punk group performed a song named “Mother of God, Chase Away Putin” in the major temple of Russian Orthodox religion, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The members of the band saw themselves as supporters of the Russian protest movement, and at least one of them—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova—had spoken at a Moscow demonstration in the aftermath of the fraudulent parliamentary elections in December 2011.

The Pussy Riot performance of February 2012 might have gone unnoticed had it not been for the upcoming presidential elections in March 2012. As Russian opposition journalists reported widely, the band members were detained and faced criminal charges for “inciting religious hatred” because they explicitly referred to Vladimir Putin during their performance. However, the message of Pussy Riot was far more sweeping than that. They were speaking about the male chauvinism and homophobia that saturate Russian society and politics.

This cathedral, which is the headquarters of the Russian Church, was chosen as the performance venue on purpose. After seventy years of strict secularism and separation of religion and state in the USSR, the Russian Orthodox Church has been trying to re-establish its position ever since the end of Communist rule in 1991. To this end, religious activists have supported the ruling party, and the head of the Church, the Patriarch, has endorsed Putin’s everlasting tenure. Pussy Riot’s performance was designed to call attention to the corrupt collaboration of Church and State and to oppose the spread of the neoconservative religious ideology, which marginalizes both women and gay people.

The fierce debates over the Pussy Riot affair and the proposed “propaganda” laws merged into one big media circus, framed as a discussion about the boundaries of self-expression and freedom of speech as well as the age-old debate about “Western” values—which today include feminism and GLBT rights—and their suitability for Russia. (Conservatives generally ignore the inconvenient fact that Russia had its own, well-developed, and progressive ideas on feminism in the first half of the 20th century.)

In early 2012, when the “propaganda of homosexuality” was banned in Saint Petersburg—the “cultural capital” of Russia—the law did not meet any significant criticism within Russia. On the contrary, many public figures seemed to support restricting the “corruptive influence” of homosexuals. Over the course of the year, however, the attitudes slightly shifted. For the first time in history of Russia, homophobia and GLBT rights became dominant themes in mainstream media.

What added oil to the flames were appearances by Madonna and Lady Gaga, each of whom visited both Russian capital cities last year. Madonna in August and Lady Gaga in December delivered special speeches at their concerts against the “propaganda” laws and in support of the Russian GLBT rights movement. This kind of rhetoric from pop stars might be usual fare for Western audiences; but in Russia, where public discussion of such issues is rare, the concerts of the two American superstars became bona fide political events. Madonna called for the release of Pussy Riot during her Moscow concert, and in Saint Petersburg delivered what came to be called her “No Fear” speech. There she distributed tens of thousand of pink wristbands and asked everyone to raise their hands in support of gay rights.

As if politics in Russia were not ridiculous enough already, a “parents’ organization” headed by Vitaly Milonov suddenly arose and sued Madonna for this speech, citing the very law on the “propaganda of homosexuality” that the pop diva was railing against. The claimants demanded around ten million U.S. dollars. This lawsuit might have been a real challenge to Madonna, who owns a number of luxurious fitness centers in Russia. At the end of the day, however, the judge dismissed the charges, sarcastically suggesting that the plaintiffs should instead have sued the Russian army for the extensive displays of affection shown by male soldiers for one another at annual military festivals. Despite this defeat in court, however, anti-gay activists are now trying to sue Lady Gaga under the same law.

The combination of the two pop divas’ concerts and the Pussy Riot trial led to heated debates on TV and forced public figures, politicians, and journalists to clarify their position on gay issues. The aggressive homophobia of some of the “morality defenders” alienated some of their original supporters. Just in the past few months, thousands of Russians, including some big celebrities, have signed several petitions calling for the resignation of Vitaly Milonov for “multiple activities shameful for a parliamentarian who is damaging the reputation of Saint Petersburg.”

Despite all the scandals and the outrage of GLBT activists, the bill to ban “propaganda of homosexuality” was adopted in the first reading. Now it will have to go through a second and third reading, but these will be aimed at merely specifying the terminology. If finally adopted and signed into a law, it could be used to ban any public GLBT event and, in the worst Russian tradition, the diligent bureaucrats might use this law to persecute people even for mentioning homosexuality in public. Even though this bill has not become a law as yet, some local authorities have already felt the winds of change blowing from Moscow and banned GLBT-related discussions in universities and in the media. The most famous case to date was the court ban on having a “Pride House” at the coming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

It would be wrong to believe that the proponents of the bill are merely ignorant homophobes. On the contrary, some of them, including some Russian diplomats, are well aware of the topic, and they cite “scientific” data to justify the ban on propaganda. The authors of this essay sent an inquiry to the Russian parliament regarding the legality of the law under the Russian Constitution, and their thorough reply, however confusing, had its own strange logic. According to that reply, there is no clear theory on the nature of homosexuality in contemporary science. Multiple theories testify that sexual orientation is conditioned by a number of factors. While biology might be one factor, sexual orientation might also be influenced by one’s social environment and upbringing. Therefore, they concluded, the uncontrolled dissemination of information about homosexuals might lead to an increase in the proportion of homosexuals in society, which, in turn, could decrease the reproductive capability of society. (This is presented as a threat to national security due to Russia’s extremely low birth rates.) In addition, public discussion about GLBT people infringes on the rights of children and their best interests. Since homosexuality is associated with significant difficulties related to its social acceptance in Russia—true, but whose fault is that?—it is in the best interest of children to be pushed toward heterosexuality, at least until they can take responsibility for themselves at the age of eighteen.

The holes in this argument may be obvious to readers of this magazine, but in the mind of the average Russian conservative lawmaker, it makes perfect sense. What’s more, this logic was supported by the supreme court, which ruled that the laws on “propaganda” do not contradict the Russian Constitution, since their purpose is to protect children. The future of the law as of now is unclear. Following the multiple protests by GLBT activists, the authors of the homophobic bill agreed to create a working group for further deliberations on the bill, and Russian parliamentarians invited GLBT activists to work on the bill with them. Some of the activists expressed the hope that their participation can lead to changing the wording of the bill, to make it a bill protecting the rights of children from any sexual abuse, but to remove “homosexuality” as a threat to the children’s rights.

Even though the bill itself is not a law yet, the outrage of many activists was justified. While the mainstream media started to broadcast anti-gay reports reminiscent of anti-Jewish screeds in 1930s Germany, independent media have shown surprising support for the GLBT struggle. One of the popular on-line news magazines, Big City, has been posting the speeches from Russian public figures addressing GLBT teenagers, calling on them “to remain strong and to know that there is always someone there to help.” Another popular magazine, Afisha, released a special edition with its whole cover a rainbow flag, a sign of solidarity. The issue contained the stories of Russian gays and lesbians from different walks of life—teachers, engineers, workers, doctors—sharing their stories about what it’s like to be gay in Russia. Finally, the bill provoked probably the largest collective coming out in the history of Russia: in January, a special website,, was launched where thousands of GLBT people and heterosexual supporters have published their pictures with messages condemning homophobia and calling for mutual respect in the Russian society.


Evgeny Belyakov, based in Vladivostok, is a writer and researcher.

Andrey Demidov, from Saint Petersburg, is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Public Policy at Central European University.

Igor Yassin, a socialist and LGBT activist based in Moscow, has been at the forefront of campaigns against homophobic laws, political repression, and authoritarian rule in Russia.


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