The Unique Challenges of Russian Homophobia

Jim Burroway

August 13th, 2013

It’s important to understand the particular nature of Russian homophobia if we ever hope to address it. In the U.S., much of our anti-gay politics emmanates from a politically influential religious class, and so it would be reasonable to assume that Russia’s anti-gay animosity springs from a similar source. And while the Russian Orthodox Church is virulently anti-gay, Masha Lippman says it would be a mistake to try to address Russian homophobia on religious grounds.

The country may appear to be fairly conservative, if one looks at its widespread homophobia or public condemnation of irreverence toward Russian Orthodox Church. Yet when it comes to other social habits, such as divorce, abortion, or birth rate, the picture is very different. Russia has one of the world’s highest rates of both divorce and abortion, and some of the most liberal laws on the latter. Russia’s birth rate is not dissimilar from that of secular cultures of western Europe. Premarital sex and single motherhood are fairly common; in one survey, a mere fourteen per cent of respondents said they believed a single parent can’t raise a child properly. And while a large majority of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, the proportion of those attending services or observing religious rituals in Russia is not dissimilar from many European countries.

A partial explanation of this discrepancy can be found in Soviet history. The early Soviet period involved a radical rejection of the ancien regime, a forced modernization by the Bolsheviks that included universal literacy and suffrage (along with the elimination of political choice, of course), as well as brutally imposed secularization, among other things. But the Soviet Union mostly missed the later, post-war stages of the Western social modernization, and especially the gay-rights movement. In the U.S.S.R., it was a crime to be a gay man. The atmosphere grew much freer for gays in the post-Communist period, yet gay rights have not become a nationwide issue until now, as the government has abruptly moved toward social conservatism.

This diary over at Daily Kos goes into it deeper, where Russian homophobia is seen in the context of Russian nationalism and distrust of foreigners. This is not the first time I’ve seen this; a number of Russians and citizens of former Soviet countries themselves have said this over the years:

In every way the homophobic tendency in contemporary Russia is riding the coattails of a decade’s worth of ethnic violence and xenophobia.  Even the horrific videos of Russians torturing young people because of their perceived sexual identity are a recent addition to an already crowded field of anti-immigrant videos, in which Russian neo-Nazis beat up, and in some cases kill, people they suspect of being non-ethnic Russians.  They share these videos on the internet for fun.  (If you can bear it, this short documentary on anti-immigrant crime is as eye-opening as it is horrific.)  On their own, these are the acts of fringe neo-Nazis like Maxim Martsinkevich (a major player in the torture video genre, who takes shirtless pictures and sexually violates LGBTs… read into that what you will.)  Taken more broadly, once you throw in mass unemployment, frustration, and malaise, you start to see these hateful, exclusionary beliefs drift more and more into mainstream discourse.

Another important aspect of this is still-widespread nostalgia for the USSR  – not the totalitarian policies per se, but the feeling that, for a couple of decades, Russia was an unchallenged world superpower, secure in its central place in international politics.  Not for nothing did Putin call the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”  This is all of a part with Russia’s attempts to assert itself on the national stage – think oil pipelines, Syria, etc. – as a pathetic echo for the glory days of Soviet power.  The gap between Russia’s (belief in its) former greatness and the inability to assert itself in the contemporary world has led to an ideological vacuum, conveniently filled with desperate nationalism.

Later, he adds:

No exaggeration here: there is a sadly widespread belief that the LGBT movement is a CIA-funded operation à la MKUltra.  For a local example, check out the current wiki page on Patriarch Alexy II, cached here, and note the section on his opposition to homosexuality.

That’s been one of the challenges in dealing with anti-gay politics in Africa, the belief that LGBT rights and that gay people themselves are a product of foreign meddling. Those charges find fertile ground in Africa where  European colonialism — and its import of sodomy laws — still casts a long shadow. That is why public threats of cutting foreign aide (as distinguished from private diplomatic engagement in which the same messages have been delivered) have sometimes been much more disruptive than helpful to LGBT advocates on the ground. The same potential effect could conceivable play out in Russia, where an attack on its laws, however repulsive and oppressive to human rights they may be, is seen as an attack on Russian sovereignty itself. This is where foreign protests can backfire.

That’s not to say that I’m against, for example, the Russian vodka boycott. I personally think it’s been a smashing success, although you won’t be able to measure it in economic terms. I don’t think you will see any impact on Russian vodka producers’ balance sheets, but you do see it in how people are suddenly talking about what’s happening in Russia, and their doing it on a daily basis. The so-called “anti-propaganda” law has been on the books since June, but it wasn’t until Dan Savage issued his call for a vodka boycott a month later that the media decided to take a look. And it has been a daily topic ever since.

Recognizing that this kind of pressure can exasperate Russian nationalism at the expense of LGBT people there doesn’t mean that we should suspend the boycott and call off all protests against Russia’s gross violations of human rights. I don’t see how we can cater to a culture’s xenophobic biases any more than than its homophobic ones. But I do think that there are some smart ways to go about it, and that we should consider following the lead of Russian LGBT activists who know their country and culture far better than we do. I think these examples are good ones to keep in mind:

In responding to the charge that queerness is a Western import, the St. Petersburg advocacy group Vykhod (“Coming Out”) put together an astute set of advertisements aimed at dismantling the rhetoric of Western cultural imperialism by showcasing various figures from Russian history.  It’s hard to argue that homosexuality is a CIA plot when so many famous Russians, particularly in the reasonably relaxed culture of the early 20th century, left such a prominent legacy on their culture while living quasi-openly as gay, lesbian, and bisexual. (Transgender history is less prominent but no less there, especially during the early Soviet years and, surprisingly, the 1960s.)  Tchaikovsky is of course the usual starting point, but actively open and out Russians included a diverse slate of artists, politicians, scientists… names like Georgy ChicherinMarina TsvetaevaSergei DiaghilevSophie Parnok… The list is very long, because turn-of-the-century Russia’s queer history is actually richer than anything contemporary in the West, where it was handled with much more euphemism.  … For their troubles Vykhod was labeled a “foreign agent” and fined 500,000 rubles.  So there’s that.

Quite a lot of Russian LGBTs have not kept silent, risking arrest and condemnation in order to make their existence known.  One worth getting to know is the “404” movement (like their FB page here), a Russian spin on the “It Gets Better” web presence. Celebrity culture, so vital in turning around attitudes in America, has been considerably more muted, but there are exceptions: e.g. actor Aleksei Panin came out as bisexual in an interview earlier this year in order to draw attention to the widespread cultural intolerance; socialite and media figureKsenia Sobchak has been very outspoken against the homophobic law; news anchor Anton Krasovsky came out on air and was immediately fired, etc.  My first and most important piece of advice is this: get to know these people, share their stories, and don’t let them disappear into the memory hole.

Randy Potts

August 13th, 2013

Thanks for this, Jim. With all the noise and hype it’s going to be difficult over the next 6 months to know what will actually help people on the ground in Russia. The Scott Long piece was particularly illuminating. Russians have always seen themselves as victims of the West, going back for hundreds of years, and it seems like that perception really complicates how we show support both now and at the Olympics especially.

kokas

August 13th, 2013

Just another case of russians being russians. It’s pointless for the Western world to try to interfere with their laws, this is a fight that must be fought by LGBT russians. The vodka boycott also makes little sense considering the fact that most brands are produced in Western Europe. All in all, a waste of efforts with the potential of backfiring.

Soren456

August 13th, 2013

It’s not only nationalism and nostalgia that figure here, it’s also the remains of intellectual damage to individuals that the Russian government inflicted for generations.

For more than 70 years, the government dictated what Russians could see and hear, and told Russians what they should believe. A marketplace of ideas just didn’t exist for the average citizen. And to the small extent that one did, it was very, very dangerous to investigate.

The capacity for critical thinking is learned, and it expands only with use, I think. Russians were robbed of this; the average citizen never had genuine, meaningful opportunities to weigh and sift information, to evaluate it and make up his own mind.

This impaired capacity for evaluation is my own observation, and I haven’t seen anyone else say it, so maybe I’m mistaken. But if this has weight, if in important ways, Russians just don’t usefully process information contrary to set belief, then it’s a significant obstacle.

I believe, and the posts above seem to say, that more than usual, it’s the Russian people who need to be reached. These are grass-root laws. It’s the people who believe these things, who support and created these laws. And who are ready to punish any politician who tampers with them.

To me, it’s like confronting a nation of street preachers: they aren’t open to your ideas and, in fact, consider them the devil’s work.

MattNYC

August 14th, 2013

I am not sure how unique this is to Russia.

The right-wing nostalgia for the 1950s in the U.S. was a reaction against the progressive and civil rights gains of the 1960s and 70s. There were many accusations that “Commies” were behind the unrest, and the FBI, Congress, and Birchers (and their ilk) were happy to foment this lie.

It’s not a coincidence that in both cases, Cold War (old or new) tensions and mistrust of the outside are evident.

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