In 1993, the Russian law against sex between men, which had been put into place under Stalin in 1934 and led to the arrest and exile to camps of thousands of men over the ensuing decades, was repealed (USCIS). In 2013, however, a new federal law was passed against “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships,” (КоАП РФ) which has complicated public discussion of LGBTQ issues in Russia and led to the detainment of a number of activists (Roeder). What led to this step backward in the rights of LGBTQ individuals in Russia, at a time when these same rights were advancing in many other parts of the world? There are several factors at play.
Political homophobia is not unprecedented, either in Russia or elsewhere, but Russia’s case is still interesting and informative. This federal law came after several similar regional laws were passed and a federal policy focusing on so-called “traditional values” was developed. This policy has been encouraged by a strengthening relationship between the government and the Russian Orthodox Church; some 66% of Russians claim affiliation with Russian Orthodoxy, and religiosity has been rising in Russia since the fall of the USSR (ВЦИОМ). There appear to have been other factors as well, including the effects of increased activism and visibility of LGBTQ individuals, a conception of LGBTQ individuals as inherently foreign to Russia, and Russia’s relationship with global norms of human rights.
The Legislation of the “Gay Propaganda” Ban
The 2013 law expressly bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors, expressed in the dissemination of information, directed at the formation of non-traditional sexual attitudes among minors, of the attractiveness of non-traditional sexual relations, of distorted representation of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations, or the imposition of information about non-traditional sexual relations, generating interest in such relationships…” (КоАП РФ). The law then enumerates the types of fines and other consequences for individuals, businesses, or government officials convicted of engaging in such “propaganda.”
A primary problem with the law is that there is very little that cannot be argued to be “propaganda,” which at its most basic definition is simply information that supports a particular point of view; even an image of two men holding hands could be considered propaganda by some. This law gives the government and law enforcement entities a lot of freedom in deciding what exactly constitutes propaganda, and thus, what is illegal.
In the 2014 documentary, Hunted: The War Against Gays in Russia, an example of the freedom this gives law enforcement officials is shown, as a group of protesters try to plan where to stand along the street to ensure that they will not be arrested. In Russia, one must gain permission in advance to hold a public protest, which the protesters in question did not do. Thus, they need to stand a certain distance apart (50 meters according to them, 150 according to the police officer who confronts them) in order to follow the rules, which permit single-person picketing. The protesters are ultimately unsuccessful, with police stepping in quickly to shut the protest down, even as others, including a man who previously shot a gay man in the face on camera, are given permission to protest in front of an abortion clinic across town (Hunted 30:22-33:52). While the law specifically in question here is one concerning protests and public meetings, it is telling that the law is selectively applied against those in favor of LGBTQ rights, but many more people are allowed to protest against abortion. Similar selective application is seen with anti-Putin protesters and other protesters the state disagrees with; the propaganda law simply provides authorities with more of a leg to stand on in such cases as this one.
The “gay propaganda” law provides law enforcement officers and government officials with the ability to shut down anything they suspect of pertaining to homosexuality at all, but also encourages and legitimizes amongst the wider public negative attitudes, discrimination, and even violence toward individuals known or discovered to be LGBTQ. This is documented in several sources, including the documentary mentioned above, wherein members of the group Occupy Pedophilia (which conflates homosexuality with pedophilia) target gay men in order to humiliate them on camera and “destroy their lives.” Another group, Parents of Russia, even goes after teachers who they believe espouse pro-LGBTQ views, on the grounds that this makes them “bad people” and unfit to teach (Hunted). A number of such groups became active around the same time that the national ban came into being.
Popular Attitudes toward LGBTQ Individuals in Russia
These types of attitudes toward LGBTQ individuals are not unprecedented in Russia, including from within the government. As sociologist Laurie Essig discusses in Queer in Russia, quoting Valery Chalidze, Soviet dissident and rights activist, homosexuality had a political nature in the Soviet Union. “If in the West homosexuality is/was seen as a threat to the ‘family,’ in Soviet Russia it was seen as a direct threat to the government,” because things people did in their personal lives were no longer personal, but political (qtd. in Essig 179). In “The Politics of Pride,” Alice Underwood, writing for the Harvard International Review, states that after the 1934 passing of Article 121 in the Soviet Criminal Code, which made sodomy illegal, “Homosexuality came to be reviled as a tool against the state, while proper heterosexual relationships were seen as both correct and patriotic,” in large part due to an emphasis on the importance of motherhood (Underwood 42). While this quote refers to Stalinist times, it could just as easily be referring to the present. Though the sodomy ban was revoked in 1993 under Yeltsin, this was done at a time when it was seen as important by the state to get out from under the shadow of the fallen Soviet Union (Healey 43). As the state sought Western support, aid, and relations, it moved closer in line with Western norms, despite the fact that societal views on homosexuality remained conservative, as evidenced by speculation from the late 1990s over whether it would continue on its pro-Western path (Pipes).
Though homosexuality was no longer illegal after 1993, this did not mean that one could be openly homosexual without expecting consequences. A poll from the mid-1990s found that nearly half of Russians thought that homosexual individuals should be either killed or isolated from the rest of society (Essig 67). A more recent poll from 2020 found about 20% of Russians still advocating for “liquidation” (killing), along with about 30% who believed in isolation of these individuals – a lack of improvement that is not very promising (Левада-центр, Социальная дистансия). The government appears unlikely to have any positive impact on this situation, as its focus on “traditional values” can be expected to only further encourage those who hold negative views of homosexuality.
The Roots of the “Gay Propaganda” Ban
The Putin administration began to endorse the concepts of “traditional values” and “traditional sexual relations” during Putin’s first presidential term. As historian Dan Healey discusses in his book, Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi, a draft bill entitled “On the defense of morality” in 2002 proposed measures to protect young people from sexual exploitation and early sexual activity. According to Healey, the bill helped to advance these concepts of “tradition,” including a specific notion of sexual maturity which held that young people should not know anything about sex or sexuality, as well as a nationalist focus on the demographic problem facing the country and the figurative remasculinization of society following the embarrassment of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the difficult 1990s, which many considered demasculinizing. Healey continues, explaining that the evolution and spread of these concepts were also aided by a much-ridiculed proposal for a new sodomy ban by Gennady Raikov, the leader of a conservative pro-government group in the Duma, as well as allegations about a liberal homosexual conspiracy by Dilia Enikeeva, a psychiatrist and author. Enikeeva suggested, instead of Raikov’s sodomy ban, a ban on homosexual propaganda, which gained traction and took on a religious dimension with support from the Russian Orthodox Church, despite the secular nature of her initial arguments and proposal. Some of the people involved in this, including Raikov and Enikeeva, formed a new group within the legislature with the slogan, “To support traditional moral and spiritual values in Russia,” in early 2004 and began to campaign for local propaganda bans, which would eventually lead to the 2013 national ban. While the group had to campaign for nearly a decade to achieve a national ban, they were, in the end, successful in passing it with presidential support (Healey 131-147).
Healey also notes that a likely reason for the focus on the concepts discussed above after Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 was increasingly strained relations with the West and the loss of “a wider sense that Russia shared common interests with Europe” (Healey 146). Healey is not alone in mentioning this – political scientist Andrea Chandler in her article on the law as a response to “global norm diffusion,” states that Russia generally attempts to make some pretense of subscribing to global norms (by participating in international institutions, for example), but the 2013 law broke this pattern, taking Russia in a notably different direction from where other countries were heading. She further goes on to discuss how Russia appears to be trying to promote its own set of norms and gain influence and support amongst conservative and anti-LGBTQ groups abroad, though the only place this policy seems to have had some success so far is in the United States (Chandler 4). This effort may also be intended to keep such countries as Georgia and Ukraine closer to Russia and further from the West and the EU by convincing them that their countries’ identities, particularly regarding Orthodox religion, are under threat from the West. This led the EU Enlargement Commissioner to personally meet “with the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church to refute rumors that EU association would require the legalisation of gay marriage. As [he] emphasized, EU members were expected to have anti-discrimination laws in place, but legalising gay marriage was not a condition for membership” (Chandler 8). This is not the only context in which the West is mentioned in terms of homosexuality in Russia.
The LGBTQ Community as “Other” in Russia
There is a belief that LGBTQ individuals are inherently alien to Russia, and thus they must have either come from the West or been “turned” by Westerners or Western influence. They may even be “agents of Western influence,” pursuing some type of homosexual Western agenda. A Levada Center poll from 2013 found that 86% of Russians believed they had never met an LGBTQ person, and a more recent survey from 2019 found that 89% of respondents did not believe they knew any LGBTQ people (Левада-центр, Страх другого; Volkov). This alone does not necessarily indicate that LGBTQ people are believed to be a specifically Western entity, but it does indicate that they are not thought of as Russian. There has long been a dichotomy between Russia and the West, which means it is not unreasonable to believe something non-Russian would be considered Western.
It is not out of the question to draw a line between the Western and Russian LGBTQ activist communities, particularly those of the mid-1990s, when the Soviet Union had just fallen and Westerners had more of an opportunity than they had had in a long time to come to Russia and get involved. However, there are at least three obvious problems with using this link to connect all homosexuality in Russia to the West: 1) the Russian activists did not appear to want the Western activists’ help, despite what the Westerners may have thought or wished; 2) activists in Moscow and St. Petersburg are far from the only LGBTQ people in Russia; and 3) LGBTQ people existed in Russia before the 1990s. The latter two do not really require any explanation. As for the first problem, Brian James Baer, scholar of Russian and translation studies, touches on the “reluctance of Russian gays and lesbians to engage in activism” and “the American obsession with labels” in his article “Russian Gays/Western Gaze”(Baer 503, 505). The contrast in the way Westerners and Russians feel about identity and identifying themselves is described in Essig’s Queer in Russia. She states that “few persons [in Russia] felt the need to engage in the endless process of publicly self-identifying, in part because few identities were publicly ‘allowed’ in Soviet Russia” (Essig 56). This contrasted with the large role that identity politics had played in the American LGBTQ movement up until that point. Similar conflict appeared between what Americans and other Westerners thought Russians should do and what Russians themselves thought they should do. While one may see similarities between the West and the Russian LGBTQ community, it is largely due solely to the fact that LGBTQ people exist in both places, and certainly not because the West created the Russian LGBTQ community.
Nonetheless, promoting an image of Russia’s LGBTQ community as a foreign creation is a good way to create a scapegoat, or an “other.” This tactic was also used in the Soviet Union, against a number of different groups. In the Hunted documentary, Yekaterina, a teacher targeted by a hate group for her pro-LGBTQ views and activism, explains: “To stop people from focusing their anger at the authorities, the regime is igniting and maintaining this conflict and hatred. They are making people fight amongst themselves” (Hunted 39:13-39:27). There is always something to be angry at the government for; it is impossible for a government to please every single person under its purview. Governments often prefer that anger is directed elsewhere, and thus it is useful to maintain distractions and scapegoats to absorb blame. This particular scapegoat can be said to be a result of the “traditional values” policy and propaganda law, though it is far from the only one, with anger also directed toward migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus. The law provides a legal acknowledgement of an other that can absorb blame for problems, such as the demographic and economic problems currently facing Russia, and an image with which to associate Russia’s claims of foreign interference. Even if connecting these problems with the LGBTQ population obviously relies on logical fallacies, allowing unhappy people the opportunity to discriminate against and even attack certain people who have been made official “others” within society provides a pressure valve that is not directly focused on the government.
Various factors led to the adoption of the 2013 Propaganda Law, including long-term and international factors. Domestically, these included the Putin government’s focus on the remasculinization of the country and the homophobic ideas that had been perpetuated throughout society by the Soviet government and continued to be perpetuated by the popular Orthodox Church. Internationally, they included Russia’s movement away from the liberal West and attempts to posit itself as a conservative alternative, particularly in its near abroad. These factors created the environment that allowed “traditional values” to spread and prosper in Russia.
At this time, these homophobic views and the violence and discrimination that this law allows do not seem particularly likely to abate in the near future. In 2012, Moscow banned all applications for pride parades for the next 100 years (Healey 208). With this happening even before the national propaganda law existed, it seems still more unlikely that the passing of the law was some kind of mistake, and much more likely that this is simply the direction the country is moving in. However, all hope is not lost. LGBTQ individuals have existed in Russia and will continue to do so, quietly, until the time when they are able to get a little louder.
Baer, Brian James. “Russian Gays/Western Gaze: Mapping (Homo)Sexual Desire in Post-Soviet Russia.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 8 no. 4, 2002, p. 499-521. Project MUSE. Web.
Chandler, Andrea. “Russia’s Laws on ‘Non-Traditional’ Relationships as Response to Global Norm Diffusion.” The International Journal of Human Rights, 2020, pp. 1–23., doi:10.1080/13642987.2020.1789106.
Essig, Laurie. Queer in Russia: A Story of Sex, Self, and the Other. Duke University Press, 1999.
Healey, Dan. Russian Homophobia from Stalin to Sochi. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.
Hunted: The War Against Gays in Russia. Directed by Ben Steele, HBO, 2014.
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