Why Is Russia So Homophobic?

Communist-era justifications for bigotry don't make sense anymore. What's behind lawmakers' opposition to gays?
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A man attacks a gay rights activist during a gay pride parade in St. Petersburg on June 25, 2011. (Reuters)

The Russian Duma unanimously approved a law on Tuesday that prohibits the distribution of homosexual "propaganda" to minors. Holding gay pride events, speaking in defense of gay rights, or equating gay and heterosexual relationships can now result in fines of up to $31,000.

Before the vote, gay rights activists who attempted to hold a "kiss-in" outside the Duma were pelted with eggs by Orthodox Christian and pro-Kremlin activists. Anti-gay protesters also gathered, with one holding a sign that read: "Lawmakers, protect the people from perverts!"

The argument that a young person can be "propagandized" into turning gay may seem outdated (not to mention an overestimation of the power of propaganda), but it's actually not out of place in modern Russia.

"Children maimed by pedophiles jump out of windows, they take their own lives. Pedophilia is an attempt on a child's life!" cried one St. Petersburg lawmaker when a similar ban in that city passed last year, seemingly confusing homosexuality and child molestation. Madonna was recently sued for speaking in favor of gay rights during a St. Petersburg concert. When a 23-year-old man in Volgograd revealed he was gay to some drinking companions last month, they beat him, shoved beer bottles in his anus, and crushed his head with a stone.

In the Soviet Union, homosexuality was a crime punishable by prison and hard labor, and Stalinist anti-gay policies persisted throughout the 60s and 70s. Gays were considered "outsiders," and homosexuality was thought to be the domain of pedophiles and fascists.

Measures like the propaganda ban show that many Russians still haven't shed that view, even decades after the fall of the regime that kept homophobia in place.

"When the Stalin anti-homosexual law was repealed in 1993, there was no amnesty for those still sitting in prison for sodomy," wrote history professor Dan Healey, an expert on homosexuality in Russia, on Facebook.

Since the 90s, Russians have faced incredible economic turmoil, a loss of public services in many areas, and widespread corruption -- all factors that combine to reinforce negative stereotypes.

"To the degree that a given society that is insecure about its political, social, economic, and uniting cultural identity, it will mask that insecurity with a swaggering show of gendered strength," said Yvonne Howell, a Russian professor at the University of Richmond.

Only 16 percent of Russians today say homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared with 42 percent in nearby (and also formerly communist) Poland.

Interestingly, Russians buck a major trend in modern homophobia: more religious countries are far more likely to be less accepting of homosexuality. But Russia and China seem to reject both God and gays. Russia ranks as one of the least devout countries on earth, with only 33 percent of Russians saying religion was very important in their daily life in 2009:

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But even though Russians aren't churchgoers in the traditional sense, most are still incredibly supportive of the Orthodox Church, which wields power both politically, as an ally of the Putin government, and as a symbol of national pride in much of the population.

Indeed, many Russians today view Church affiliation as a way to reaffirm their "Russianness," as Masha Lipman, the chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Society and Regions Program, told me via email. Roughly 80 to 90 percent of Russians identify as Orthodox Christians, but almost none attend services even monthly. Instead, in a 2007 (Russian) poll on the subject, the majority of respondents said religion for them was a "national tradition" and "an adherence to moral and ethical standards," while only 16 percent said it was about personal salvation.

The Church's head, Patriarch Kirill, has been outspoken against "social ills" like alternative sexual orientations.

"The church has very strong anti-gay rhetoric, its getting stronger and stronger all the time," one St. Petersburg gay activist told PRI. "Five years ago, they would ignore the issue and now they say homosexuality is a sin."

It's no coincidence that the punk band Pussy Riot was sent to jail for performing in an Orthodox church, specifically. Kirill and other Church elders have also served as occasional Putin campaigners, issuing bizarre declarations that mash together Christianity and the longevity of United Russia. Kirill has said that "liberalism will lead to legal collapse and then the Apocalypse" and referred to Putin's presidency as "a miracle." Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov warned once that "one needs to remember that the first revolutionary was Satan."

Putin's government seems to cling to the age-old Russian/Soviet idea that rulers should set the country's moral agenda. And Russian lawmakers are more than happy to marshal the Church's support, as well as the public's entrenched intolerance, to rally the country's conservatives. To Elizabeth Wood, a professor of history at MIT, the propaganda ban shows that, "Putin and his cronies are circling the wagons, creating a climate of us versus them."

Wood went on to say in an email:

While there is plenty of homophobia in Russia, I think the Soviet state continued the Tsarist Orthodox state's direction of being a moral and tutelary state -- the continuity of state influence over moral choices never died away. Hence it is relatively easy for the post-Soviet state to return to Soviet-style regulation. And since the Soviet state and now, even more, the Russian state is built on oppositions of us versus them, it is easy for the authorities to say "we" are x, not y. Homosexuality makes an easy "y," alas.

In some countries, such a law might seem like a sign of religious influence run amok. But in Russia, it's part of a broader anti-opposition push and a crackdown on a wide array of civil liberties.

"Homophobia more often than not ... derives not from one's faith, but from being essentially anti-liberal," Lipman said. "Russia is an illiberal country, and Putin's government capitalizes on illiberal sentiments, especially during the past year -- after the Kremlin faced mass protests of the liberal minority."

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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