The St Petersburg legislature wants to make it illegal to discuss homosexuality. What does this say about contemporary Russian attitudes?
If countries had personalities, Russia would almost definitely be the alpha-male nation; with Putin at the helm shooting tigers and releasing Judo videos, a geography that boasts a quarter of the earth’s fresh water supply, the biggest forest, energy and mineral reserves and nine different time zones and the ability, and willingness, to shut off its neighbours gas supplies, you would avoid eye contact with Russia if you saw it drinking vodka in a bar. But a darker side to this macho personality is the fact that when it comes to liberalism and tolerance Russia’s record is far from something to be proud; in its transition to a liberal democracy, Russia seems to be using the term ‘liberal’ rather, well, liberally.
One of the worst areas of intolerance is homophobia. This month, the United Russia political party introduced draft legislation in St Petersburg that would outlaw “public actions directed at promoting sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transgenderism to minors.” This is just one of a number of actions taken by Russian policy makers that have led to the reputation of the intolerance of homosexuals; the most infamous occasion being the refusal by the Moscow mayor to allow a gay pride parade and then using notable force to stop anyone who ignored the ban.
On the face of it, Russia is fairly liberal on the subject; homosexuality and transgenderism are both legal, and homosexuals can donate blood, which isn’t allowed in many Western countries. But when analysed further, Russia’s position is much more backwards than it appears at first glance. Homosexuality may be legal but gay people are not considered equal nor does the Russian government see it necessary to offer legalisation or action to offer protection for this minority, which is frequently targeted with violence and discriminated against. Moreover, Russian politicians regularly say horrendously intolerant things about homosexuality with no consequence; the ‘Archives of Russian Homophobia’ claim to contain homophobic public statements made by 487 politicians, officials and public figures, 100 judges, 19 governments and 40 parties, movements and organizations.
This intolerance of homosexuals by public officials is also widely reflected in the general Russian population; in fact 43.5% of people in 2005 said they support the re-criminalisation of homosexuality. So what is the reason for this apparent inherent homophobia in Russian society? The authoritarian nature of Russia’s history may be a contributing factor, but can’t be solely to blame; the former Communist states of Hungary and the Czech Republic have embraced gay human rights. Despite this, the majority of former communist nations have failed to adopt liberalism when it comes to minorities, which would suggest that history has moulded people’s perception and attitude towards homosexuals.
An even more substantial root of homophobia lies in the extreme nature of religious groups and nationalistic movements in the country, the freedom they have to incite hatred and violence against homosexuals and the importance the Russian public place in religion and national pride. During the banning of Moscow Gay Pride in 2006, much of the homophobic sentiment had been whipped up by religious leaders; the chief mufti of Russia’s Central Spiritual Governance for Muslims said “the parade should not be allowed, and if they still come out into the streets, then they should be bashed… Alternative sexuality is a crime against God.” Russian Orthodox groups similarly incited violence against the protest and Russia’s chief Rabbi said the march would be a “blow to morality.”
With Russia becoming once again a major player on the world stage and a regional hegemony, it is worrying the intolerance it exhibits, not just to homosexuality but to numerous minority groups. The continued suppression of a number of populations stand as a major obstacle in its path towards liberal democracy. It should be remembered that oppression isn’t just bad for Russian homosexuals, but all Russians who long for a liberal and progressive society. Russia however has made great strides since the fall of communism, and if gay activists continue to be as brave and determined to achieve equal status within society as they have been previously, then the battle for widespread tolerance will be won.