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Russia’s new anti-gay law: more cynicism than bigotry

putin kiss

Amidst worldwide condemnation, Russia’s parliament passed a law outlawing “homosexual propaganda.”

It was definitely a shameful milestone.

As of today,

The law will make it an offence…to communicate to Russian children and young people that love between two women or two men is “just as socially valuable” as that between a man and a woman.

The fines outlined in the draft law vary from 100 euros ($133) for private individuals to more than 23,000 euros for companies or organizations. If the “propaganda” is spread via the media, the fines can be 10 or 20 times higher. For example, if someone writes in a blog that homosexual love is okay, he or she risks being fined up to 2,000 euros in Russia. Companies and organizations would pay a far higher price and can even be closed down for up to 90 days.

However, while certainly reactionary, illiberal and immoral, the measure is far from undemocratic. After all, only 16 percent of Russian believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society.

What’s more, at least some of the Western criticism of the law is a bit rich considering just how recently the advanced democracies have themselves converted to the idea of gay rights. In the U.K., sexual equality only arrived in 2003, gay marriage has yet to be signed into law, and Britain is still refusing to pardon those convicted of homosexual offenses in the past, such as the scientist Alan Turing. Not to say anything of the world’s largest democracy, India, which stopped criminalizing homosexuality as late as 2009. Plainly, Russia’s opposition to homosexuality has little to do with tsarism, communism, authoritarianism or some other “unique” experiences.

Another bizarre suggestion, in the Atlantic, posits that “Putin’s government seems to cling to the age-old Russian/Soviet idea that rulers should set the country’s moral agenda” as if this were something unique to Russia, and as if the Kremlin’s opposition to homosexuality was an imposition from above rather than capitulation to public opinion. After all, isn’t the U.S. government’s condemnation of Snowden an attempt to frame his civil disobedience in moral terms?

In fact, the explanation behind this reactionary legislation may be a lot more banal.

At a time when its approval ratings continue to slip, the law may have been one of the most popular things the Duma has done in ages. After all, bigotry can, sadly, be an excellent unifier.

Even in advanced Western societies like France, a government can find itself majorly shaken by an overly progressive stance on gay rights. As Putin’s hold on the country remains challenged by the opposition movement and relentless foreign criticism, ganging up on an already popularly reviled minority group could be a cost-free way to shore up confidence and support for a government otherwise increasingly out of step with its citizens.



Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs