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Russia's Past Is Ever Present

The "homosexual propaganda" ban is traditionalism at its worst

Getty/John MacDougall

The ban on "homosexual propaganda among minors" has yet to become law in Russia—only its first draft has passed the lower chamber of the Russian parliament—but it has already become the most discussed subject in the Russian press and has claimed its first victims. A loyalist Russian television host was fired from the channel he co-founded after coming out on the air in protest, and beatings of gay men have spiked, including a chilling and well-planned attack on a gay club in Moscow. The European Union's foreign policy chief has spoken out against the ban, and at least two European cities have taken action, with Venice and Milan canceling their sister-city status with St. Petersburg. Russia has retaliated by saying that same-sex European couples will be banned from adopting Russian orphans. Even Madonna was a victim: This fall she was sued for propagating the gay gospel during her August concert in St. Petersburg.1 

It is not totally clear what the term "homosexual propaganda" even means, but when the law passes the upper chamber and is signed by Vladimir Putin—and it is only a question of when—it will allow authorities to fine any such propagators. Much has been written, correctly, about the law's violation of human rights—"I am a human being, just like Putin," said the fired TV host, Anton Krasovsky—as well as its shocking backwardness.2

But the proposed ban is troubling for other reasons. The law would be yet another signpost on Russia's descent into a harsher, more authoritarian version of Putinism; one more turn of the screws in response last year's pro-democracy—and anti-Putin—protests. The president is showing that he is not only not going anywhere, but that he will impose his vision of Russia on all Russians, whether they like it or not. That vision is not, as many think, the neo-Soviet one—though there are elements of it in Putin's foreign policy—but the imperial one. Putin's favorite character from Russian history is not Stalin, but Pyotr Stolypin, a brute reformer who served under Nicholas II.3 Putin is also said to see his greatest achievement as the reuniting of the Russian Orthodox Church, which split shortly after the Russian Revolution into a domestic and Western one. He has overseen a renaissance of orthodoxy and has ushered the church into the halls of power, to the point where it is now widely seen as a Kremlin affiliate. These days, hardly a policy move happens without the church stating its position on it. 

A certain yearning for the rosy, simpler, but likely fictional past has crept into Russian life in the last few years. Yesterday's kitsch—samovars, Cossaks—is today's holy relic. This pattern was aptly spied and satired by Vladimir Sorokin in his 2006 novel, The Day of the Oprichnik. (The oprichnik was a member of Ivan the Terrible's secret police.) It imagined a dystopia in which Russia had built a great wall separating itself from the heathen West and turned inward, ruled with an iron fist by a nameless tsar. His rule ushered in an era of Disneyland Russia, with people dressing and eating and speaking like they would have in the 16th century, while driving futuristic cars and doing futuristic drugs. Alas, Sorokin was not far off the mark, and the warped Russian traditionalism he imagined is, in many ways, becoming a reality. 

All of this smacks of the Russian Empire's "God, Tsar, and Country." That motto was the expression, in many ways, of a wish for homogeneity in a sprawling empire encompassing hundreds of ethnic groups and languages, and coincided with a push for the Russification of non-Russian minorities, most notably the Jews. It would happen again in Soviet times with Central Asian Muslims.

The imposition of Russian traditionalism, in other words, is not a coincidence, nor is the attendant rise in violent Russian nationalism. (Some of the first to rally for the gay propaganda law were the Russian nationalists, who came out with ludicrous signs, like "the place of a rooster"—a highly derogatory prison slang for a "bottom"—"is in the hen house.") These crypto-fascist yearnings for a simpler, more noble past seems to coincide with a preoccupation with pedophilia, to which the new law equates homosexuality. I can't help but recall an evening I spent several years ago in Santiago de Chile with affluent Catholics from prominent local families. I was in town to do a story on the hunt for Paul Schaefer, a Nazi medic who escaped to Chile and set up a sprawling farm on which he tortured Chilean dissidents—he was a sort of subcontractor for Pinochet—and systematically abused children. The Chileans at the table couldn't stop talking about the children, while pooh-poohing the scores of "disappeared" dissidents.

The perception of homosexuality in Russia is that it's both a perversion of nature and a fashion import from the corrupt West: something into which a man can slip if he's had a bit too much vodka—by all accounts a common occurrence in Russia—and as a posture one adopts to be cool. Thus, the "propaganda" ban. Homosexuality is seen as an aggressive ad campaign that, traditionalists fear, will persuade impressionable young minds that being gay not only isn't abnormal and abhorrent, but stylish and hip. The idea that homosexuality is a natural and innate phenomenon, needless to say, has not gained traction here outside of small circles among the educated. Even there, it's rare. 

Ironically, the very propaganda that the Russian law would seek to root is all over state television, in weekend variety shows featuring local pop stars. The men who perform fall into two categories: manly brute and the sensitive, sensuous lover. Both are ideals of manhood in Russia, but the problem is that the men in the latter category are almost uniformly—and very quietly—gay. That Philipp Kirkorov, Russia's pop king, is gay is an open secret, and, for all the church's apparent stodginess, he rented out a church to baptize the daughter he had with a surrogate mom. The child's godfather was Andrey Malakhov, Russia's most popular talk show host, who is also known to be gay. As is Valentin Yudashkin, Russia's premier clothing designer, who, well, is incongruously married. Millions of women across the country watch these men, and countless others like them, every day on their televisions and sigh, wishing their men were more like them. This is the less educated, less affluent part of Russian society most vehemently opposed to homosexuality—"the light blue ones," as they call them, or the "homosexualists"—but the ones whose hearts race the fastest when they watch ballroom dancing and ballet (both, of course, are very popular).

It's one thing to have these contradictory forces tugging at the nation's subconscious, and another to make them law. Putin is not just imposing a traditionalist view of Russia onto the country. He is sending signals to the police and the army and everyone else, that crimes aren't crimes if they're committed against gay people. He had sent this signal earlier by loosing the security forces on the opposition, jailing and harassing anyone who participated in the violent protests on the eve of Putin's May inauguration. One of these activists recently committed suicide in Holland when the Dutch refused him amnesty. Another was abducted from the front stoop of the U.N. office in Kiev, where he was seeking refugee status, and brought back, blindfolded and bound, to Moscow. Many more are in jail or, like Maria Baronova, are awaiting trial.4 It is in this context that the law must be viewed: In practice, Russia, true to its traditional desire to homogenize and its obsession with unity, is signaling which of its minorities are no longer welcome—ostensibly for the good of the majority.

When the law was introduced in the Russian Parliament, the country's cultural leaders debated its significance. One Russian journal, echoing the "It Gets Better" project, asked them what advice they had for young gay Russians. "Guys, get out of Russia as fast as you can," wrote Kirill Serebrennikov, a prominent theater director. "You are not destined to be happy here." But fellow director Vladimir Mirzoev disagreed, pointing out that for a country in which traditional homogeneity is but a dream, this is not a viable strategy. "This is not a solution for our society," he said. "Not every ‘inconvenient' minority can leave Russia, because it is of these minorities that it is made."

  1. The suit was eventually tossed out not because Madonna was not found to be disseminating homosexual propaganda, but because tickets had been sold only to those who were 18 and older.

  2. Russia only recently decriminalized homosexuality, in 1993.

  3. Putin has inaugurated a Stolypin prize and has even mandated that those who serve in his cabinet contribute part of their paycheck towards a future Stolypin statue.

  4.  I wrote about her for the magazine.