Update: On Nov. 24, Russia’s State Duma voted to pass a law expanding the country’s ban on LGBTQ “propaganda” to include people of all ages and encompass mass media, the internet, advertising, literature and films.
The first time someone told me he was gay was during my first visit to the United States. It was the summer of 1991, and I was a student and aspiring journalist, hitchhiking across the country with a Russian colleague. One morning we stood on a country road in upstate New York for almost an hour, and were happy when a car finally pulled over and the driver offered us a ride.
His name was Ben, he was about 25 years old, and he gave us ham and cheese sandwiches, which we devoured with pleasure. We talked as we drove, and after a while, Ben told us he was heading for a picnic on a lake with his gay friends.
He must have sensed our reaction — mine in particular. “I hope you’re broad-minded enough to accept the fact that I’m gay,” Ben said. I remember his every word, because for me, thanks to my background and ignorance, this was a traumatic moment. Initially I felt both frightened and physically ill.
It was an absurd and awful reaction, I know now; but in the Soviet province where I was born and raised, we had been taught to believe that gay people were mentally ill and even dangerous. Surely there was some reason why the Soviet Union had laws that could send gay people to prison?
Fortunately, my companion was 12 years older than me, had traveled extensively in Europe, and he had learned by then that the myths of Soviet propaganda often had little to do with reality. He understood my reaction, smiled and pulled me aside to suggest I calm down and listen to Ben. It might help me understand how warped my own ideas really were.
Later that day, I met Ben and his friends, and we all laughed when I shared my initial feelings. But it would be a while before I fully realized the scale of my ignorance and really changed my attitude.
Three decades later, Putin’s version of the myth
I share this story because today my homeland is back in the same appalling rut. A new generation of young people in Putin’s Russia is likely to grow up with the same ignorance and prejudices that infected me three decades ago.
And in some ways, what’s happening now is even worse.
During the Soviet period, the topic of sexual orientation was essentially taboo. It was simply unheard of, for example, to hear the word “homosexuality” on TV. Today one hears “LGBT” and “gay” and its many synonyms constantly, blaring from TV screens and other Russian media. They are spoken in both chambers of the Russian parliament, and they are regularly referenced by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. The taboo is gone. Because, as it turns out, today’s Russia has united around a pair of new myths: that gay people constitute an existential threat to their country; and that the war in Ukraine is also a war against that threat.
Here was Putin last month, in his annual address to the Valdai Discussion Club — a kind of “State of the Union” for the Russian president.
“Do we really want us, here in our country, in Russia, instead of ‘mom and dad,’ to have ‘parent number 1, number 2, number 3′?” Putin asked. “They’ve gone totally crazy! Do we really want perversions that lead to degradation and extinction to be imposed on children in our schools, in elementary grades? To be drummed into them that besides women and men, there are supposedly some ‘genders’?”
It’s an echo of the ongoing culture wars in the U.S., taken to extremes and articulated by the leader of the country.
“If Western elites believe that they can indoctrinate their societies with strange … newfangled trends like dozens of genders and gay Pride parades,” Putin said, “then so be it, let them do what they want. But what they certainly do not have the right to do is to require others to follow in the same direction.”
A war on the LGBTQ community
“Against us today is part of a dying world …”
“Our goal is to stop the supreme rulers of Hell …”
“Rising against them, we have acquired sacred power …”
These aren’t the words of an Iranian mullah or a conservative Bible Belt preacher. These are excerpts from a long Nov. 4 Telegram post by Dmitry Medvedev, the man who was President of Russia from 2008-2012. Medvedev once enjoyed hamburgers at McDonald’s with President Barack Obama and announced a “reset” of Russian-American relations. Today, Medvedev is deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, and one of the most ardent supporters of prosecuting the war with Ukraine to a victorious end, by whatever means necessary.
And he has other wars on his mind.
“We are fighting against those who hate us, who ban our language, our values and even our faith,” Medvedev wrote recently on his Telegram channel, which has 910,000 subscribers. “With them is a motley pack of grunting pigs and narrow-minded inhabitants from the collapsed Western empire. … They have no faith and ideals, except for the obscene habits invented by them and the standards of double-think that they impose, denying the morality bestowed on normal people.”
Most Russians today know what Medvedev means by “obscene habits” and “denying the morality.” He’s talking about the attitudes of Europeans and Americans toward gender issues and the rights of sexual minorities.
There is of course no American or European effort to indoctrinate Russians, but never mind the facts. Putin and Medvedev and a chorus of other influential Russians have taken recently to inventing a threat and arguing that war — in Ukraine and elsewhere, if necessary — must be waged to stop it. In this same vein, the Russian parliament recently passed new laws aimed at “preventing propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.” The legislation is actually an expansion of a 2013 ban on such “propaganda” that will now include the portrayal of gay relationships everywhere — in books, movies, newspapers, TV, radio and the internet.
“We must do everything to protect our children and those who want to live a normal life,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma or parliament. Everything else is sin, sodomy, darkness and “our country is fighting against this.”
Volodin presented the bill to deputies of every political faction and invited them all to sign as its co-authors. Not a single parliamentarian refused.
Sergey Mironov, leader of the “Fair Russia” faction, explained his position this way:
“The propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships is war. It’s a spiritual war of information, an ideological war.”
A war on homosexuality is now part of the war in Ukraine
While homophobia may have a long history in Russia, it’s only in recent months that it has taken center stage on Russian television, as part of conversations about the war in Ukraine.
Here, for example, is how chief Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov sees things:
“What we did on Feb. 24 (the date of the Russian invasion of Ukraine) was a counterattack!” It was necessary, Solovyov said, to beat back a Ukrainian “genocide against the Russian people, against Russian speakers, against those who don’t accept LGBT, transgender-Nazi values.” He went on to use a crude epithet for gay people, who he said “deny the very essence of humanity! Just look at [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy! Even in his acting career he was constantly promoting absolutely pederastic values!”
It was a horrible rant, and one would like to think it carried no weight. But Solovyov has an almost unequaled following in Russia, with tens of millions of viewers of his television show and a huge social media following as well.
Zelenskyy has of course come in for near-constant vilification in the Russian media. He has been called everything — a US puppet, a clown, a neo-Nazi, a drug addict — but it was Solovyov who for the first time accused the Ukrainian leader of promoting LGBTQ values, and equated this with Nazism, genocide, and all the rest.
There were earlier signs. In April, Russia’s Channel One prime time talk show, broadcast a report “documenting” ways in which the West and specifically the U.S. had converted and infected the minds of the Ukrainian people:
“We can’t explain what we’re finding here,” said the Channel One correspondent, in a piece that featured books with pictures and the words “gay” and “lesbian” written in Ukrainian.
“It’s an attack on children, the most vulnerable people in society. … One of the houses we found there … was the headquarters of an organization of nontraditional sexual orientation — gays, lesbians and everything else. It was directly funded by [the United States Agency for International Development], which is controlled by the Congress and the president of the USA.”
Another iconic and popular Putin propagandist, Margarita Simonyan, said on Russian TV that America has been popularizing dangerous media content since the early 1990s. She cited “Friends” as an example.
“You would have to have a very keen eye to notice that in the show “Friends,” which first came out in 1994, the first episode begins with the main character coming in looking depressed and lonely because his wife had left him for a woman. … And all this was shown rather sympathetically: ‘Good for her, the show said.’”
Fuel on the fire of Russian homophobia — if any were needed — came via the recent wedding of two Russian celebrities — Mikhail Zygar, former editor-in-chief of the opposition network TV Rain, and the actor Jean Michel Shcherbak. Both left Russia after the start of the war, and at the end of October they publicly announced their wedding in Portugal. Photos and videos from the event were too much for the TV propagandists to bear.
Simonyan commented on the wedding on her RuTube channel: “It’s a shame to look at this, what a blessing that they left the country.” For his part, Solovyov showed Zygar’s Instagram posts on his TV show and expressed his own outrage. “These two happy gays … this filth, this awfulness, wickedness, vileness!”
For Solovyov, it all adds up to an obvious conclusion: The stopping the “filth” is now part of the case for war.
“And now the whole country must grit its teeth and go to war. Because we are at war not only with this (Ukrainian) scum and fa***ts under their rule, but with the entire satanic machine of the West.”
What lies beneath the madness
Tikhon Dzyadko, editor-in-chief and anchor at TV Rain’s YouTube channel, believes that behind the vitriol is a Kremlin plan to distract public attention from setbacks on the battlefield.
“Now that Putin has begun to lose his credibility in the wake of so many strategic failures, the propaganda targets have shifted once again,” Dzyadko said last week. “Russia’s greatest enemies are now Western satanists who wrap themselves in the rainbow flag.”
As a former Russian TV journalist who has covered Russian politics for many years, I think things are simpler than that.
For the 22 years of Putin’s rule, the Kremlin has failed to come up with any clearly structured system of values, nothing to replace the ideology of the Soviet era. Today the sum-total of a Putinist ideology can be boiled down to anti-Westernism, a constant construct of “We versus They.” I believe this is why the Kremlin ideologists and propagandists feel they have no choice but to find new enemies and dig up old, vile tropes wherever they can find them.
One of these is the increasingly nasty vilification of the LGBTQ community.
Put differently, I am certain that if today’s Europe and the U.S. were publicly and openly homophobic, then Putin’s Russia would take the opposite approach: The Kremlin would position itself as vanguards of the LGBTQ rights movement. But since Europe and the U.S. stand for human rights and tolerance, the Kremlin must do everything it can to reject both.
Will it work? Will homophobia be accepted in modern Russian society? And even if it is, will people buy the idea that it justifies war with Ukraine?
While many gay people have left Russia as a direct result of the Kremlin’s campaign, a vibrant gay community is still active in Russia and isn’t going anywhere. Having said that, I fear that many other Russians may buy in. Not because Russians are especially homophobic, but because for centuries of existence under both Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, anything having to do with the LGBTQ population was taboo in Russian society.
A huge number of Russians are no more educated than I was when it comes to matters of gender and tolerance. And ignorance, of course, is fertile ground for this sort of nonsense — as we have seen during these nine months of war. Suggesting that Ukraine is home to some dangerous crusade to spread LGBTQ values is only the latest variety.
Russia is not Iran, and the country is unlikely to turn suddenly into a theocracy. On the other hand, 105 years ago, on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, it was hard to imagine that the centuries-old patriarchal Russian society would suddenly transform into the most atheistic state on the planet. But it did exactly that, in less than a decade.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.