The upcoming Winter olympics in Sochi have put a spotlight on Russia’s “gay propaganda” law, putting the international community on an inescapable collision course. But behind the Kremlin’s crackdown on LGBT rights is a desperate campaign for national and political survival. In the months prior to Russia’s parliament passing federal laws banning the propaganda of ‘non traditional relationships’, the bill’s main promoter went on prime time television to explain herself.
“Analysing all the circumstances, and the particularity of territorial Russia and her survival…I came to the conclusion that if today we want to resolve the demographic crisis, we need to, excuse me, tighten the belt on certain moral values and information, so that giving birth and raising children become fully valued,” legislator Yelena Mizulina told Vladimir Posner, the Russian answer to Leigh Sales.
Mizulina leads the Russian institution for family, women and children and is now the face of Russia’s anti-gay crusade. For Mizulina, the county’s new laws – banning LGBT advocacy and foreign same sex couples from adopting Russian children – are at the crux of the nation’s very fight for survival.
First, there is the matter of physical survival – the country’s birthrate fell spectacularly following the collapse of the USSR, and the promotion of reproduction (through government rhetoric and grants) has been a distinctive feature of Vladimir Putin’s reign. Then there is the matter of moral survival: if Russia is to endure as Russia, it needs to repudiate the amoral influences of the West.
The first matter is popular hectoring. But the second helps to explain why Russia amped up its anti-gay campaign just as the West is heading in the opposite direction. The harsh legislation, violent demonstrations and public disgrace that the Russian LGBT population now face isn’t the result of a traditionalist recoil as much as it is at the heart of the new politics of Russia – a country looking for someone to define itself against.
Homosexuality wasn’t really in the mind space of Russians for much of the last few decades. Gay sex was decriminalised in 1993 following the Soviet collapse. Gay night clubs slowly became more prevalent in St Petersburg and Moscow. While Russian society remained largely homophobic, larger issues were at hand. The nation had to recover from a political and economic collapse, claw its way out of poverty and deal with the wave of violence that arose from the influx of capital and corruption.
Enter Vladimir Putin.
Putin ruled from 2000 to 2008 largely without any real ideology. This was on purpose. According to one of his his former campaign and political advisers Gleb Pavlovsky, this was done because of the wariness that lingered in the minds of many of the feckless shell that the Communists had become before its collapse. So there was Putin. Shirtless Putin. Putin building schools and hospitals. Animal-loving Putin. Putin Putin Putin.
What this approach failed to take into account was that some day. eventually, someone would get over Putin. And that’s exactly what happened last year, when Putin declared that he would return to the Presidency after some down time as the Prime Minister. A movement made up of mostly middle-class liberals erupted by the thousands. It was a display of discontent that was unprecedented for Putin.
Part of his reaction was largely predictable and reflexive – a crackdown with the arrests of opposition leaders and protesters and the passing of new laws that limited the ability to protest in the future. His other response was more arbitrary – a new campaign to galvanise support in the ‘heartland,’ an ambiguous place removed from the teeming streets of Moscow where headscarf wearing communities cling to bygone Russian values.
In the absence of any real ideology to unite the nation, the next best way to fill the void has been to turn to the Orthodox Church – a reactionary, extremely corrupt, Kremlin-loving organisation that reaped many benefits after the fall of the atheist Soviet Union. From this came the arrest of Pussy Riot, the punk-band arrested and sentenced to two year in prison for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. From this also came the law passed just hours after the anti-gay laws making “insulting religious believers” a crime punishable by up to three years in jail.
Filling this void has also been done by vilifying the “other,” manufacturing a new energy for everyone to rally against. It couldn’t be the Jews – Putin who upholds loyalty was saved by a Jewish neighbour during his childhood against a violent street gang. It couldn’t be migrants either – Russia needs them to keep their economy from sinking, besides the nationalist card is a dangerous game. So who was left? The gays.
Vilifying gays allows Putin to preach to the ‘heartland.’ To build himself as the protector of ‘traditional’ families in the ‘real’ Russia. It also simultaneously puts suspicion on the opposition, depicted as ‘un-Russian’ as they advocate for LGBT rights. Finally, it allows Russia to do what it does best: to paint itself as Not the West.
It is no coincidence that Russia is cracking down on gay rights as support for marriage equality sweeps through the EU and U.S. The West is depraved, licit, and doomed to fail. As a senior figure in the Russian orthodox church put it: gay marriage is a “dangerous apocalyptic system” that leads to “self destruction.”
Then there was Russia – not particularly standing for anything, but standing against a hell of a lot: gays, liberals, the West. It’s the grand design that Putin has chosen to ensure his survival.