Repression and Gay Rights in Russia

Repression and Gay Rights in Russia

A wave of anti-gay laws have brought Russia’s LGBT movement into the international spotlight, but activists are divided over strategies, including proposed boycotts.


Gay rights activists hold a banner reading “Homophobia—the religion of bullies” during their action in protest of homophobia, on Red Square in Moscow, Russia, on Sunday, July 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Evgeny Feldman)

“Our elders and atamans entrusted me to thank you for the course our country is on and for your policies,” Anton Maramygin, a Cossack youth, said to Vladimir Putin at the Seliger Youth Camp in early August. “We see what you are doing: fighting against the sodomites and not allowing them to adopt our children. We support you in every way.” The crowd of young people applauded as Putin smirked.

Homophobia is state policy in Russia, a kind of new sexual sovereignty defending Orthodox Christian morality against the corrosive influence of Western decadence. Putin’s fight against the “sodomites” has spawned numerous pieces of legislation at the regional and federal level. Maramygin’s gushing gratitude referenced two: the infamous federal “anti-gay propaganda law” and the law banning foreign gay couples from adopting Russian children. Both of these laws have elicited international condemnation and calls for boycotts of Russian vodka and the Winter Olympics in Sochi. While the sudden international outcry is welcomed by Russian LGBT activists, many are pessimistic about the boycotts, even to the point of questioning their efficacy. Russian activists, after all, have been struggling against state-sponsored homophobia since 2006 and know well the state’s intransigence. In many ways the anti-gay laws have inadvertently midwifed Russia’s LGBT movement to national and international prominence.

In the last seven years, Russia has increasingly become an overtly homophobic society. Russia’s recent federal law banning “gay propaganda” is a creature of local legislation adopted in Ryazan (2006), Arkhangelsk (2009), Kostroma (2011), Novosibirsk (2012), Magadan (2012), St. Petersburg (2012), Samara (2012), Krasnodar (2012), Chukota (2012), Bashkortostan (2012), Kaliningrad (2013) and Irkutsk (2013). Each law bans the public display and dissemination of homosexual “propaganda.” The punishments vary from fines of $150 to $1,500 for individuals and up to $15,000 for organizations. The federal law carries up to a $1,500 fine for individuals and $30,000 fine for legal entities as well as a possible fifteen-day jail sentence for persons and a ninety-day suspension of work for organizations. The law leaves the definition of “gay propaganda” open to interpretation. Anything could be deemed “gay propaganda,” from kissing in public to counseling gay teens. ‘This law is so vaguely formulated” Polina Andrianovna, an activist for Coming Out, St. Petersburg, told me, “that it’s not really possible to know which actions are legal or illegal because nobody knows what this ‘propaganda’ is.”

Given the international outcry against the law, including hyperbolic comparisons to Nazi Germany, it’s somewhat surprising how sparingly it’s been used. No organization has been prosecuted yet. So far there have been only a handful of cases involving individuals. And most of these concern gay activists who’ve purposely violated the law to challenge it in court. In 2009, two activists, Nikolai Baev and Irina (Fet) Fedotova, were convicted of violating Ryazan’s gay propaganda law for holding a sign reading Homosexuality Is Normal and I Am Proud of My Homosexuality outside a school.

Baev brought his case before the European Court for Human Rights; Fedetova brought hers before the UN Committee for Human Rights. In their November 2012 decision, the UN Committee determined that the law was discriminatory under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and violated Fedotova’s freedom of expression. Nikolai Alexeyev, the head of Gay Russia and one of Russia’s most prominent LGBT activists, received the first fine under St. Petersburg’s law in June 2012 for holding a sign in front of city hall reading Homosexuality is not a perversion. A perversion is hockey on the grass and ballet on the ice. Alexeyev also took his case to the European Court.

There have been some unreported cases, but only a few. In 2012, the Straight Alliance for LGBT Equality discovered that in the first six months of the St. Petersburg law, only four people were charged under the gay propaganda provision. So far, there is only one recorded incident of the federal law’s application: Dmitry Isakov, an activist from Kazan, was recently charged with for holding a sign that said Being gay and loving gays is normal. Beating gays and killing gays is a crime! The complaint against Isakov was filed by a teenager who saw the activist’s protest online. The complainant, however, says his father forced him to file it. The father reportedly hates gay people because his wife left him for another woman. If convicted, Isakov could be the first person punished under the federal statute.

The police and the courts appear reluctant to enforce the gay propaganda law. In one case in St. Petersburg, the police forgot to record the “gay propaganda” of two arrested activists, Aleksei Kiseleva and Kirill Nepomniashchii, and the judge ordered them released. In another, also in St. Petersburg, the judge lost materials from the case file. Igor Kochetkov, a LGBT activist, believes that “the judge simply didn’t want to take responsibility for [enforcing] a completely absurd law.” In Murmansk, a judge refused to consider the arrest of four Dutch nationals for violating the gay propaganda law.

Yuri Gavrikov, an activist with Equality and organizer of St. Petersburg Pride, told me that the law is mostly for public show. The authorities publically refer to gay propaganda to shut down events like the St. Petersburg pride parade he organized in June. “But they didn’t include all of these reasons into the arrest protocols,” Gavrikov told me. “And this is what has happened every time before when authorities banned some events or arrested some activists. They declare publically before people and the media that its gay propaganda, but there is nothing written in the police protocols.” Gavrikov explained that the authorities are afraid to enforce the law because the courts don’t want anything to do with it. “On the level of intelligent judgment, it’s not so easy to decide if it’s really propaganda. This is why some cases from last year didn’t past through the courts.”

This, of course, doesn’t mean the laws are meaningless. Even if used sparingly and selectively, they’re still on the books. Foreign gay couples have lost their right to adopt children, and there’s talk of drafting legislation to remove children from same-sex families. Also, there are calls to forbid gays from donating blood, a ban many countries have, including the United States. These existing and potential laws serve as legal capstones in turning Russian LGBT people into second-class citizens. Plus, the laws give nationalists and others an implicit green light to carrying out anti-gay violence.

Some say the laws are part of Putin’s effort to carve out a new conservative constituency. But state-sanctioned homophobia has another context: the upsurge in protests against Putin. In July, the Moscow department of the FSB, Russia’s secret police, placed homosexuality within a perceived foreign conspiracy to overthrow the Russian government. The FSB report read: “The spread of the idea of homosexuality…is all the more widespread. According to our operational data, groups of people counting themselves among sexual minorities…actively employ the special services and organizations (including NGOs) of foreign governments, to realize projects with destructive goals. In particular, it was recently noted that the active participation of said people in the staging of protests (including the May 6, 2012 protest on Bolotnaya square in Moscow) that sought to harm the Russian Federation.”

Interestingly, Andrianova and Gavrikov don’t consider the LGBT movement as part of the Russian political opposition. Rather, they view themselves as part of Russia’s human rights movement. “We don’t consider ourselves a political movement. We are a civil rights movement. We don’t meddle in politics. We are ready to establish dialogue and collaborate with any authority, and we try to aid our government to uphold human rights,” says Andrianova. “We aren’t so tightly connected [to the political opposition] at the moment,” explains Gavrikov. He says that the unity of the opposition movement has splintered since Putin was re-elected. Both Coming Out and Equality make alliances with organizations that are democratic and promote human rights. But LGBT focused activism should be prioritized says Gavrikov. “For me, it’s clear that LGBT activists need to organize not only joint events. For us it’s most important to have their own public actions, only for LGBT, maybe not only for gays and lesbians but for transgender because there are very few public activists that support equality for transgender.”

Still, Andrianova places the current wave of homophobia as a backlash against Russian civil society in general and the LGBT movement in particular. “Three years ago, the Russian public was passively homophobic, and that was because the LGBT community was quite invisible,” she told me. “Now the situation is quite different. In the last three to five years, the LGBT movement has become quite strong and visible and in many regions in Russia it’s on the forefront of the human rights movement. So in a way these propaganda laws and the violence and aggression in society are a backlash to the growing visibility of the LGBT movement.”

Andrianova knows this state backlash first hand. But her concern is less with the gay propaganda law—Coming Out has decided against altering any of their activities—and more with the “foreign agents” law. Coming Out St. Petersburg and the Side-by-Side LGBT film festival have both been prosecuted under the foreign agents law. The LGBT NGOs Rainbow and Karitas have also come under scrutiny. Adopted in July 2012, the NGO law requires any organization receiving funds from abroad to register as a “foreign agent.” Organizations refusing to register can be hit with a $16,000 fine and closure. NGOs refuse to register because in the Russian context “foreign agent” is equivalent to being a “spy.” Coming Out and Side-by-Side were both convicted of being “foreign agents.” But to Andrianova’s surprise, a St. Petersburg district court recently overturned Coming Out’s conviction and ordered a retrial. Side-by-Side’s conviction, however, was upheld even though the cases are almost identical. “As sad as it sounds, this is pretty arbitrary,” Andrianova explained. “Probably because the judge in our case had a nice cup of coffee in the morning and decided to do the right thing. The good thing here is that there are judges out there who are willing to be fair and willing to follow the correct legal procedure and make a controversial decision.”

Nikolai Alexeyev is also in the Russian state’s sights, again not so much because of the anti-gay laws, but the libel law, which Putin recriminalized in July 2012. On August 27, Investigative Committee agents raided Alexeyev’s apartment as part of a slander investigation prompted by Yelena Mizulina, the chair of the Duma’s Committee on Family, Women and Children, and Olga Batalina, a Duma deputy. Both politicians claim that Alexeyev and four others, Ksenia Sobchak, columnist Olga Bakushinskaya, Novaya Gazeta reporter Elena Kostiuchenko and former vice-premier Alfred Kokh, made libelous comments about them on the Internet. “We will ask to penalize [Alexeyev] with community service in places where he will be unable to carry out his gay propaganda, for example, in a coroner’s van,” Mizulina told Izvestia after announcing her request for an investigation.

At the same time, Alexeyev is increasingly controversial in activist circles. In an article for Russia Today, he slammed Russian gays for seeking asylum in the West and Western activists for calling boycotts of vodka and the Sochi Olympics. “Prominent figures in the West think they have their own understanding of the situation in Russia and the way the LGBT movement should proceed,” he wrote. “They think the strategy of boycotts when dealing with Russia will work, like it sometimes works in their own countries. So, they want to export them. After all, it is an easy way forward, just gather the media and start to do something eccentric, like dumping vodka on the pavement.”

Alexeyev too downplays the hoopla over the gay propaganda law. “[The] widespread application of this law has led to… what do you think?… two convictions.” Instead he views the laws as well as the Sochi Olympics as the best stage to make homosexuality and the LGBT movement visible in Russian society. “These laws, especially the one passed at federal level, actually gave a boost to the LGBT fight in Russia.” Boycotts, he argues, will only drive gays and lesbians back into the closet. “A Sochi Olympics boycott will only serve those who do not understand that their goal will only further isolate the LGBT community in Russia and make the lives of its representatives living in the country even harder.” The Olympic boycott has split the movement into two camps. Alexeyev’s Gay Russia, Andrianova’s Coming Out, Moscow Pride and the Russian LGBT Network all oppose the Olympic boycott. Other individuals, activists and organizations, however, endorse the Sochi boycott. “The international community would be much more effective if it listened to the activists on the ground, and brought to justice those who are directly involved in stirring up homophobic hysteria in Russia,” Alexeyev wrote in his Russia Today article. Instead of boycotts, he calls for a visa ban similar to the Magnitsky Act to restrict the travel of officials from the US and EU.

Alexeyev’s broadside has received criticism, and it along with other recent online rants, have caused some to question whether he’s gone off the rails. In Out Magazine, Michael Lucas, who is too no stranger to controversy, referred to Alexeyev as a Kremlin stooge. “It could not be clearer to me that the Kremlin is up to its old tricks—and that somehow, it has gotten to Alexeyev,” Lucas wrote. In response, Alexeyev announced that he’s quitting LGBT activism. “Within 24 hours this Twitter account will be closed,” he wrote on Twitter. “Thanks to all who was [sic] with me and courageous activists in Russia for years.” A few days later, he declared that his intent to leave activism was all a ruse. In a tweet to Duma deputy Olga Batalina, he wrote, “I’ll leave when I beat your bloody regime in all 30 cases at the European Court for Human Rights just to sting your budget a bit.”

Since the Lucas article, Alexeyev has continued to poison the relations between Russian and Western activists. He’s tweeted a slew of anti-Semitic comments. “Not so many people in today’s world can say what they think about jids. I can! Tune!” he wrote. Then he added, “It’s not a secret anymore that I am Russian Jorg Haider or Pim Fortuyan.” That’s not all. His disparaging comments about western presumptuousness continue full force. He views Obama’s meeting with Russian LGBT activists as useless. “I would meet Putin, don’t see any use to meet Obama. It will be another meeting for nothing as Obama has no power in Russia,” he tweeted. When asked why he’s responded to activists abroad with such vitriol, Alexeyev responded, “They are attempting to seize power in Russia—power over the [Russian] LGBT movement…. All the campaigns their pulling off is pure PR for a hot topic which has only recently developed in Russia. They don’t help LGBT organizations in Russia, but simply undermine them. They risk nothing sitting there in New York and London. But we are here.” Alexeyev is hot-headed and uncompromising, but also erratic, anti-Semitic and even a nationalist. Whatever he is, Western supporters of gay rights in Russia need to realize Alexeyev is no American-style liberal.

Alexeyev’s fiery tone is an exception, however. Other activists welcome the outpouring of support from abroad at the same time they demand recognition of Russian realities. Though also against the Olympic boycott, Andrianovna is grateful of the mass Western support and urges human rights groups and politicians to put pressure on their Russian peers. “Larger and more powerful LGBT organizations and general human rights organizations can apply pressure on their own governments to keep bringing these issues up in all the meetings with their Russian counterparts.” Gavrikov is also pessimistic, but views the call for an Olympic boycott as necessary. “I don’t believe this boycott will be supported by any country, but at the same time I agree we need to talk about a boycott and call for a boycott of Sochi to use the opportunity to raise this issue not only of LGBT but violations of all human rights in Russia,” he says. Gavrikov’s only hope is that a gay or lesbian athlete who wins a medal will make some gesture in support of gay rights like John Carlos and Tommie Smith did for Black Power in the 1968 Olympics. “I believe that if at least one gay or lesbian athlete wins a medal and [does something similar] they will be a hero.”

Six months ago, few in Russia, let alone abroad, knew about Russia’s LGBT movement. Now it seems that gay rights in Russia are on everyone’s lips. The sudden incessant talk about homosexuality is the dialectical result recent attempts to repress it. In his History of Sexuality, the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that the more a society strives to regulate and prohibit sex, the more it witnesses “an explosion of unorthodox sexualities.” His reasoning was that the more a society seeks to repress sex, the more it has to talk about, identify and categorize it. Prohibition, he wrote, ensures “the proliferation of specific pleasures and the multiplication of disparate sexualities.” Russia is currently experiencing what Foucault called the repressive hypothesis. That Yelena Mizulina, the force behind Russia’s conservative turn, has had to deny she’s against banning oral sex and that Maramygin uttered the word “sodomites” to Putin are cases in point. The worst thing that could happen is that Russia’s current LGBT explosion is silenced. Or as Andrianova says, “It is very important to keep this pressure on because here in Russia the LGBT community is very mobilized and very much more open than before.”

Dave Zirin on why banning Russia from the olympics is a bad idea.

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