Gay politics in Russia
Russia’s new bill banning propaganda of homosexuality among minors should not be overdramatized.
Under discussion at the federal level since 2003, this piece of legislation is in fact only a clarification of an existing ban on sexual child abuse and stipulates a financial penalty. It stops short of criminalizing homosexuality or infringing on the civil rights of gay people.
Homosexuality is still classified as a crime in more than 80 countries and in seven, it is punishable by death. So why should Russia set an example of liberalism on this particular issue if its legislation is far from liberal on almost all others?
It is highly unlikely that any Russian politician will dare to openly oppose this bill – such a move would be tantamount to political suicide in this country.
Russian society needs some system of morality to appeal to, and the ruling elites are trying to meet that demand in their own particular way. There are ethical issues the establishment is apparently too embarrassed to bring up, so it is focusing on others instead, ones that won’t make it feel quite so uncomfortable. Homosexuality is one such “easy” target: the authorities believe that by cracking down on the gay community, they will be able to enhance public morality.
Moral issues are an integral part of ideological platforms in many countries, and Russia is no exception. But in countries such as the U.S., parties never focus on just one single issue, be it same-sex marriages, homosexuality, or pedophilia. Rather, they tend to build their platforms on a comprehensive system of values, where each component slots harmoniously into a unified whole.
It would be great if Russia’s new bill against homosexual propaganda was followed by other measures to strengthen morality – ones targeting violence on television and corruption among government officials, for example. And it would be no bad thing if a new Conservative party was set up in this country – a modern party by all means, not an ultranationalist or retrograde one.
But all that seems highly unlikely if the idea behind the adoption of this law is simply to put one finger up to the West, with its liberalism and respect for human rights. The finger gesture cannot possibly serve as the foundation for a comprehensive or sincere program of morality.
The threat posed to Russia’s gay community by this bill is greatly exaggerated. Given the sloppiness of the country’s judicial system and the inefficiency of the authorities and law enforcement systems, the matter is unlikely to go beyond emotionally-charged rhetoric and the occasional fine. The current system appears incapable of forming a comprehensive uniform policy in this area.
Homosexuality has been a political issue for centuries. In modern history, progress was brought about by what can be called either “emancipation” or “lax morals,” depending on one’s perspective.
The first country to decriminalize sodomy was France, during the French Revolution in the 18th century. Andorra, Monaco, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands then followed suit.
Gay emancipation was part of the Socialist agenda in the 19th and the early 20th centuries. In this way Die Neue Zeit newspaper – the mouthpiece of the Second Internationale – condemned the prosecution of the writer Oscar Wilde. Among those who became part of the struggle for gay rights were high-profile Socialist figures such as Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, and Eduard Bernstein.
The Bolsheviks, who revered the Jacobins, scrapped the anti-sodomy law shortly after seizing power in Russia in 1917. In tsarist Russia, people convicted of sodomy were sent to Siberia to hard labor camps.
Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s first president, considered Socialist by the Bolsheviks, scrapped the anti-sodomy law in his country at about the same time. He was rumored to be gay himself.
In 1934, Stalin revived the anti-sodomy law, making it an offense punishable by three to eight years in labor camps. This law was only abolished in 1993. The treatment of homosexuality as a psychopathology ended in 1999.
Stalin acted in parallel with Hitler, who used his anti-homosexuality campaign as a pretext to crack down on Ernst Roehm, who had helped bring him to power, and on Roehm’s organization, where there were purported to be quite a few homosexuals. The Soviet press then described homosexuality as a “phenomenon attesting to the degradation of the Nazi bourgeoisie.”
Maxim Gorky wrote in his article “Proletarian Humanism”: "In the land where the proletariat governs courageously and effectively, homosexuality, with its corrupting effect on the young, is considered a social and criminal offense. By contrast, in the 'cultivated land' of great philosophers, scholars and musicians (a reference to Germany and Roehm), it is practiced freely and with impunity. There’s even a new sarcastic saying: 'Destroy homosexuality, and Nazism will disappear.'"
In the Soviet Union, hundreds of homosexuals were convicted every year from the 1930s to the 1980s under Article 121 of the Penal Code. At the time section 121.1 of the Criminal Code was repealed on May 27, 1993, 73 men convicted of having voluntary sexual relations with adult men were being held in prisons. Another 192 inmates were serving time on several convictions, including homosexuality.
Some Eastern Bloc countries adopted a liberal approach to homosexuality much earlier than Russia did. Czechoslovakia and Hungary decriminalized homosexuality in 1961 and the German Democratic Republic did so in 1967, two years before West Germany. In the UK, homosexuality continued to be a criminal offense until 1967.
It does not look like homosexuality in Russia will become depoliticized as an issue any time soon, so it is important that it does not get turned into a symbol of the struggle between Russia’s healthy patriotism and the “sinful West”.
Georgy Bovt is Editor-in-Chief of Russkymir.ru magazine (since 2007), Co-Chairman of the Federal Political Council of the Pravoe Delo Party (since 2008)
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.