Why Russia’s Anti-Gay Backlash Will Backfire

Published in: July-August 2014 issue.


MOST READERS of this magazine are fully aware of what’s going on now in Russia, and far be it from me to preach to the choir. That the law prohibiting “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” is odious need scarcely be argued. Under the guise of protecting the young from being indoctrinated, the law is clearly designed to shut down the kind of open discussion and advocacy that have been indispensable in the fight for GLBT equality in the West—which is to say, they’re shutting down the gay rights movement itself. The question is, what is driving the anti-gay campaign in Russia, and why is it happening now?

It is impossible not to think, however fleetingly: how very Russian, how very Soviet (are they one and the same?): don’t ban homosexual acts themselves, as so many countries have done; ban the right to talk about them.

Indeed this seems to me an under-noticed facet of the widely condemned law as it applies to speech about this particular topic: the fact that the government in the post-Communist era would outlaw speech of any kind; what next? Well, guess what: Moscow has just enacted a new law banning the use of all obscenities in the print media—the forbidden words are specified in the law, but doesn’t that make the statute itself illegal?—subject to stiff fines. It’s just more evidence that things are reverting back to Soviet modalities, if not to Czarist times.

What unites the two laws is that the type of speech being targeted relates to certain matters of a sexual nature (said with a sniff). A much-discussed article in The New Yorker ten years ago (April 17, 2004) revealed to the world that virtually all curse words in Russian—all expletives, all terms of abuse, all taboo utterances—refer not to bodily functions but to sexual organs or acts. This feature is unusual, as most European languages include a mixture of the “shit” and “fuck” vocabulary, and it points to a peculiar Russian relationship to sexuality itself, which bears the full brunt of people’s anger and hatred where speech is concerned. Not that this linguistic quirk can explain Moscow’s readiness to outlaw speech about gay rights, but somehow it seems related.

Whether the Vladimir Putin regime represents a return to the Soviet era or to Czarist times is a subject for parlor debate. The military incursion into Ukraine that’s now underway lends credence to the former model, but the recent laws against obscenity and pro-gay speech take us back to those centuries when the Czar and the Orthodox Church ruled the country as one, when Russia was something of a theocracy. The Communist Party did away with the Church (or so it thought) and ruled without the blessing of the Patriarch of Moscow. But now the Orthodox Church is back, and Putin has found it politically expedient to form an alliance such that the Church is allowed to dictate matters of morality, on which it is very “orthodox” indeed, while Putin doesn’t much care. (Rumor has it that Putin is not personally homophobic—seriously, those shirtless photos?—but the Church is a useful tool.)

Adding to the religious thrust, current anti-gay legislation was largely inspired (and even drafted) by U.S. evangelicals, who started visiting Russia shortly after the USSR’s fall and have relentlessly lobbied both politicians and Church leaders to put anti-gay legislation on the books. It’s all nicely laid out in a piece in Mother Jones (Feb. 21, 2014): how the World Congress of Families, a U.S. evangelical umbrella organization, arrived in 1995, how they latched onto the Orthodox Church with a message tailored to Russian culture, how the Sanctity of Motherhood was born, and how it  finally mounted a huge convention in late 2010 that rallied the nation to crack down on “the homosexual agenda” in favor of “traditional family values.” Among other things, the U.S. evangelicals introduced a whole new vocabulary into Russia, the same one that had worked so well (for a while) in the U.S.

The semi-official justification for the “propaganda” law was that Russia is facing a demographic collapse, what with birth rates low and death rates high, and with net migration running negative. The underlying premise seems to be that if young people never hear about homosexuality, they’ll never be tempted to try it and end up shirking their duty to make babies. Well, not to put too fine a spin on it, but Russian birth rates are at rock bottom for reasons that have nothing to do with homosexuality or sex of any kind (hint: life in Russia is hard). What has happened is that anti-gay laws have created an atmosphere of homophobic violence and discrimination that undoubtedly prevents many GLBT people from coming out, so they lead closeted lives of quiet desperation.

Then too, in a final irony that puts Putin squarely in the Soviet era, the strategy is likely to backfire, because the net effect of anti-gay legislation—and the atmosphere of intolerance it represents—will be to encourage the steady drip, drip of educated young people who are leaving Russia and landing in London or L.A.—and this applies to both straight and gay people. Studies of U.S. cities have found a positive correlation between economic growth and a culture of tolerance, fueled by patterns of migration, and it appears likely that Russia’s retreat from glasnost will only accelerate the exodus. Conversely, it goes without saying that Russia is looking less and less like an attractive travel destination.


Wendy Fenwick is an international writer based in Boston.


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