How Russian Prudishness Produced an Anti-Gay Law

“In general,” one Russian TV personality told The New York Times, “it was not acceptable to speak about sex.”

After Communism fell in the 90s, the UN attempted to launch sexual education in Russian schools. The effort garnered some support within Russia’s health and education ministries, but it was soon kyboshed by conservative parliamentarians who feared that it was a masked attempt by the West  to corrupt Russia’s morals. To this day, wariness over the West’s influence is a frequent rationalization for a range of policies, including the anti-gay laws.

Combine that with Russia’s perpetual demographic anxieties (there aren’t enough births, and men tend to die young), and any attempt to get teens to do anything other than marry and make babies is doomed.

Demoscope and Rosstat via Wikimedia Commons

"There is a feeling now that first the West dumped its pornography on us, its diseases, and now they want to spread theories that have failed over there and birth control that would keep the Russian population down," Irina Ivaschenko, an aide in parliament and an opponent of sex education, told The Christian Science Monitor in 1997.

Erofeeva, who worked on these early sex-ed efforts, said it’s always been hard for Russia’s more progressive policymakers to stand up to the “conservative nationalist and religious winds” of its society.

“Around 1994 to 1996, the parliament was very conservative. And this parliament was struggling with [former President Boris] Yeltsin,” she said. “They used the issue of sex ed to attack Yeltsin. They combined their social interests and their political interests with the idea that the new democrats in Russia are bringing sexual relationships to the children, and that this is killing our children.”

A similar dynamic is playing out again today. Groups that Meylakhs calls Russia’s “neomoralists,” with names like “The Association of Orthodox Parents” and “The Union of Soviet Pedagogues,” are pushing for “a concomitant return to the old Soviet values and their blending with a mythologized pre-revolutionary Russian tradition,” as he wrote in a 2009 article.

Pew

In 2011, a collective of such parents’-rights groups lashed out against the UN’s efforts to promote “human rights” in Russia, arguing that doing so undermines the country’s belief that “the family, and maternity and childhood, understood in the traditional sense, received from ancestors ... are the necessary condition for the preservation and development of the multinational people of the Russian Federation.” Meanwhile, the Orthodox church has tried to argue that feminism would pose a threat to Russia. A leading conservative parents’ group called ARKS has campaigned against a law to protect domestic violence victims. Russia now has its own pro-life activists who picket abortion clinics.

Putin, meanwhile, has been trying to shift his base of support to the more conservative middle class, and in doing so has boxed up all of the neomoralists’ anxieties in measures like the anti-gay propaganda law. He used his December state-of-the-nation address in part to tout Russia’s “traditional values,” and deride the West’s "genderless and infertile" liberalism.

Today, campaigns against sex-ed programs make frequent mention of homosexuality, as though a “your body is changing” video might inadvertently promote same-sex relationships.

“In Russia, anti-gay sentiments are widespread,” Meylakhs said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you want to campaign against sex ed, connect it with homosexuality. This link has always existed, and now it exists even more.”

Erofeeva added that the anti-gay propaganda law came at a time when Russian society and policymakers were both swinging to the right. The chief sponsor of the St. Petersburg version of the bill was Vitaly Milonov, a young Orthodox parliamentarian who once told the St. Petersburg Times that he is “profoundly against gay parades,” because the “demonstration of the sin of Sodom is repellent to me. If, God forbid, I happened to see a crowd of those citizens—like they do in Berlin—it’s natural that I’d try to take my children aside, so that they would not see this perversion.”

Responses from a Levada Center poll on sex ed, December 2013

To Erofeeva, that kind of bile only means one thing: “It is a turn from the modern development of society back to the Middle Ages,” she said. “To the traditional family, to the traditional relationships, to the traditional role of women in society.”

Meylakhs, though, isn’t quite so pessimistic. Nearly two-thirds of Russians now say that sex ed is “probably” or “definitely” necessary, according to polls by the independent Levada Center. And opinions toward sex and gender roles seem to be changing on the street, too. Even hinterland areas like Sochi have gay clubs, after all, and hundreds of sex shops have sprouted in Moscow.

“At this point, the majority of Russians are much more open about discussing and living their sexual lives,” Meylakhs said. “They’re much more free regarding women’s sexual behavior, for example. People used to call them sluts and stuff, but now a girl can say, ‘I had sex,’ and no one would frown. They would say, ‘Okay, she had sex. So did I.’”

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

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