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Putin’s Prerogative: The Kremlin’s Anti-Gay Crusade

News & Features | September 23, 2013

In a recent poll, about 66% of Russians reported they believe that homosexuality is unacceptable regardless of the circumstances. In another survey, 35% of the Russian population cited homosexuality as a disease, and 43% thought that it was a symptom of bad parenting or abuse. Suffice to say, the attitude towards homosexuals in Russia is fairly antagonistic.

This antagonism is being mirrored in a new set of laws spearheaded by Russian president Vladimir Putin this year. On July 3rd, Putin signed a law that made it illegal for gay couples to adopt Russian-born children. The law extends to individuals outside the country: any individual or couple who lives in a country where marriage equality is legal cannot adopt a Russian child. There are whispers that a new law will take this one step further and seize Russian children from their blood-related families if the parents even suspected of being gay or lesbian. The Putin administration claims it is protecting Russian children against a form of sexual deviance that is homosexuality.

The Russian government passed another law in this vein earlier this year by a vote of 388 to 1: any form of media that acknowledges homosexuality is marked as propaganda and pornography and is legally required to contain a 18+ warning. In a survey conducted in June, 88% of Russians stated they supported this new propaganda law. Putin signed another law stating that foreigners in Russia could be arrested for being homosexual or “pro-gay” and detained for up to 14 days.

Anti-gay sentiment has gained a significant amount of traction with the public due to the government’s rather overt, repressive intentions. Critics argue that this new push from the government comes as a rejection of western liberal ideas—there has been some wistfulness for old imperial ways amongst the upper class. However, others look at Putin’s politics individually: the first six months of his current presidential term consisted of a large number of protests and street demonstrations. Putin has started pushing agendas that are markedly more conservative, often aligning himself with the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin’s harsh conservatism could be a way of coalescing a divided populace under one ideology.

Putin has stated, “The law does not in any way infringe on the rights of sexual minorities. They are full-fledged members of our society and are not being discriminated against in any way.” Yet Russia has become a dangerous place for homosexuals, or even those suspected of promoting gay rights. There have been handfuls of violent, anti-gay murders and beatings committed by civilians. At a gay rights protest outside the State Duma, several protesters were beaten while police looked on in typical governmental indifference.

The western world has grown increasingly outraged as news has filtered out of Russia. Many commentators have compared the new laws to anti-Jewish laws created during the rise of Nazi Germany. President Obama has received increasing pressure to “do something.” The question becomes: what can be done?

One movement hoping to pressure the Russian government calls for the boycott of Russian vodka. The boycott, advocated by popular gay rights activist and writer, Dan Savage, and the group Queer Nation, aims to create economic pressures for the Russian economy and government. Many gay bars in America have been particularly supportive of this movement. Despite popular backing, it seems that the boycott does not have the capability to accomplish much. Political scientists state that while the Russian government depended on vodka profits in the mid 1800s, today’s Kremlin is not tied to the vodka industry. Furthermore, as many vodka producers have rushed to explain, most “Russian” vodkas aren’t entirely Russian. The famous brand Smirnoff has not been produced in Russia since the 1930s. Similarly, the primary target of this boycott, Stolichnaya, is distilled in Latvia and is owned by a company in Luxembourg. Support for the vodka boycott has thus largely died down.

Many westerners are calling for an even larger social embargo: a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. The anti-gay laws have raised many questions regarding the games. It is unclear as to how tourists and athletes will be treated when it is legal for anyone who is homosexual or “pro-gay” to be arrested. How will homosexual athletes, family members, or fans, for that matter, navigate the openly hostile social landscape?

According to the Olympic Charter, “no kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda is permitted” at the Olympics. Yet under Russia’s new propaganda laws any mention of homosexuality is propaganda. How will foreign journalists fare and how will this legislation alter their reporting? Even U.S. corporate sponsors of the 2014 Olympics (such as Coke, General Electric, McDonald’s, Visa, Dow Chemical and Procter & Gamble) are beginning to feel nervous about the strongly anti-gay sentiment.

President Obama has expressed his great distaste for the situation in Russia: “I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgendered persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.” But the President has stated firmly that the U.S. will not boycott the Olympics, reasoning that it would be cruel to the athletes. It is clear also that Mr. Obama hopes to avoid the public relations disaster of the last U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympic games in Russia.

What can be done to ameliorate the situation in Russia is, at the moment, a question that remains unanswered. Gay rights groups are gaining more and more popularity in Russia with support from the western world. Conversely, though, as President Putin feels the heat of global disapproval, he continues to crack down through anti-gay legislation.

On September 6th, President Obama met with a group of gay rights activists in St. Petersburg while there for the G-20 economic summit. Obama called the activists’ work “critically important.” This meeting has not directly changed Russian attitudes or repealed any of the conservative laws, but the activists cited it as a step in the right direction.