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Understanding Russia's homophobia

Because there's been so much discussion about Russia lately, and because I've written quite a bit about the immediate context of Russia's anti-gay laws and political difficulties (most recently 1, 2, 3, and 4), I thought it might be useful to back up a bit and provide some of the deeper background for these issues that might help round out our understanding a bit.  

This diary will address two broad topics:

1. The historical and cultural context for Russia's homophobia, which is different enough from our own native homophobia to warrant some explanation.  That in turn will help us to discuss...

2. The strategies for dealing with it, given the debates over boycotts (both of the Olympics and of Russian products), marches, and various symbolic gestures.  Various dkos diarists have been working on this already, so I hope this will supplement their work so far.

This is going to be a long and somewhat involved diary, but I hope the information below is useful.

(regional bans on "homosexual propaganda" as of this year)

First, a caveat: this is going to be a really broad diary.  One of the things I want to argue here is knowing a bit about the deepest roots of a culture's history can give us some insight into present politics, especially if we're talking about ways to affect it.  Of course there are limitations to this - we can discuss the politics of America's conservative evangelicals without digging into the Second Great Awakening; likewise, most Americans who operate with an intuitive sense of "manifest destiny" have never heard the name John L. O'Sullivan.  But for outsiders who are new to the culture, this kind of information, however broad and seemingly esoteric, can be helpful in understand how and why certain arguments are as deeply embedded as they are.

All that is to say, Russian readers might find this stuff entirely unnecessary and beside the point.  But if you're an outsider to a culture, these bits of historical data may be more useful than they are to someone currently living it.


National Pride

Let's begin in the present day.  First, I think it's important to read this article at Buzzfeed by the formerly Moscow-based journalist Miriam Elder.  Elder gets most things right, although she's dealing more with the contemporary politics.  She also (in my opinion) gets one big thing wrong, which I'll talk about below.  Elder's thesis is that the rhetoric of homophobia is really the rhetoric of nationalism, and this is absolutely the case.  Nationalism in Russia is a strange beast, but in a more urgent rhetoric than the typical "Russia for Russians" idea: the current political buzzword is "survival", and it's been an increasingly popular term over the last decade.  

Survival from what?  A lot of things, but ethnicity is the major issue here, despite Russia being a multi-ethnic, religiously diverse republic.  Note that the Russian language has two words for "Russian".  The first, "rossiiskii", is a civic definition; the second, "russkii", is ethnic.  When you hear the world "survival", it's often couched in civic terms, but its implications are clearly ethnic: the (ethnic) Russian birthrate is down, and the other (non-ethnic Russian) workers are taking "our" (sic) jobs.  This allows the purveyors of racial hatred a convenient elision between foreigners, especially from the central Asian republics, and otherwise legal (civic) Russians of different ethnicities.  In the midst of a wave of violence and hatred against non-ethnic Russians, the idea of ethnic Russians engaging in non-procreative sex is, to their eyes, an offense against the nation, especially in a society with such a radically different history of sexual politics.  Not for nothing did the deputy head of Russian media suggest banning gay organ donors and especially sperm donations, as gay bodies are "unfit for the continuation of life".

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.

Here's my one point contra Elder: Putin is actually leading from behind on this issue.  I traced the history of these homophobic laws in a previous diary, and though members of his party have taken the lead in recent years (especially Vitaly Milonov and Elena Mizulina), Putin himself has been content to reap the benefits of homophobia while mostly playing a hands-off role in its growth and popularity, as well as playing the role of the more "moderate" voice in the debate (who nonetheless supports the will of the people).  As a matter of public record, his enthusiasm about the law has been muted, with only a few statements intended to rile up the foreign press, on whose outrage he feeds like a media vampire.  Nor is this policy shift toward homophobia much of a response to the recent electoral protests (which offered him no real threat... American politicians would kill for his lowest numbers), but a calculated embrace and acceptance of the way the public-opinion wind is blowing.  Putin's politics are nationalist, and that nationalism has taken such a strange turn is fine by him, as long as it's still working in his favor.  That the Sochi Olympics has turned a national issue into an international scandal is an opportunity for him to play both sides against each other, and both to his benefit.

Certainly this process has been accelerated by the government's increasingly deferential position toward the Orthodox Church - Milonov is a particularly outspoken advocate for the Church - but the truth is, Orthodoxy is only one of a handful of ideologies to blame for the situation.  Currently, less than half of the population of Russia identifies as Orthodox, while an overwhelming majority support these laws, and in increasing numbers over the last five years. While religion in general, and the Orthodox church in particular, are implicated in this issue, it's not the whole story.  

So the first thing to understand about Russian homophobia is that its roots are linked closely, if not inextricably, to questions of national self-identity and "survival".  Appeals to broader moral questions of the type common to our discussions of LGBT rights and protections, criticisms of the Church and of religious beliefs... these things are all secondary to the national question.

Russian Exceptionalism

Let's dig a bit deeper.  One of the major hurdles against foreign intervention has been the belief that the world outside Russia has nothing to offer Russia.  True, there are very few states/peoples that don't have bouts of insular nationalism, but like the United States, Russia has a form of national exceptionalism that's hardened into a complex, useful (for politicians), and often very dangerous ideology.  The Russians who hold this ideology do not just believe, as any nationalists would, in the primacy of their own culture, but in Russia's unique destiny of providing a moral counterweight to a degenerate world.

The deepest roots of this movement are religious, and go back as far as the written records: we can trace a religious exceptionalism from the earliest recorded native sermon (Metropolitan Hilarion's 11th century sermon "On Law and Grace"), through the medieval formulation of the "Third Rome" idea and local legends like the "White Cowl", to its rebirth in the 19th and early 20th century.  Russia came last to Christianity, but the last shall be first.  Rome has fallen, Byzantium has fallen, but Moscow stands strong (and there shall never be a fourth!)   For this reason, Russia has an historical destiny to preserve Christianity in the face of Western collapse. Though this may seem like too-distant history, this belief is still plain the rhetoric of the contemporary Orthodox church.  Patriarch Kyrill likes to remind his listeners that Russia is the one and only heir to Byzantium, because some Russians still believe in invoking a centuries-dead empire as their source of their singular moral authority.  Only Russia carries this torch, so outside criticisms are beneath their radar.... just as their American counterparts believe that the singular genius of the American experiment insulates us from anything the rest of the world (scoff, scoff) might say against us.

Note that this hasn't been exclusively religious rhetoric for a long, long time.  As is often the case with ideologies that persist for centuries, this belief evolved into other, more secular frameworks: we see the same international messiah complex in the 19th century Left's idealization of the Russian peasantry and embrace of revolution.  We hear the story of Russia's moral destiny echoed in the language of such diverse thinkers as Herzen, Chernyshevsky, Lenin, and Stalin.  For Lenin in particular, the October Revolution was proof of Russia's leadership in the establishment of a new world, a position he adopted with the single-minded, messianic frenzy of a medieval priest.

The collapse of the Soviet Union sent this ideology into a tailspin: its secular premise was undermined, its religious roots long dormant.  The nationalist backlash has reawakened a sense of the Russian mission, and the Russian mission, whatever it may be, is singular, native, and deaf to outside appeals. Does this mean every Russian on the streets believes in a mystical path of national salvation?  Of course not.  But the rhetoric, and the deeply-felt belief in Russia's special place in the world, are felt throughout these discussions.

So the second thing to understand about Russian homophobia is this: Russians of the National Exceptionalism bent cannot be shamed into rightness by the outside world.  It's rather the outside world, they argue, that's precisely in need of saving.  

But it's not the whole world that's the problem.

Russia and the West

If there's one major theme that best defines Russian cultural history, it's the difficult relationship that Russia has with the "West".  As with religious exceptionalism this issue goes back as far as the written records, but for our purposes, we can start with Peter the Great, the 18th century Russian emperor who traveled extensively in Western Europe and, frustrated by what he perceived to be the backwardness of his empire, implemented an ambitious slate of reforms to turn Russia westward.  Peter built a new city to look like a European city - St. Petersburg - and made it the capital.  This same belief, applied in a different context, was equally present in the legal reforms of Catherine the Great, and her persistent attempts to turn Russia into a despotic version of France. But the deepest cut came from a 19th century philosopher, Petr Chaadaev, in the first of his "philosophical letters" (circulated illegally in French, natch).  Russia is an exceptional nation, Chaadaev argued: it's a backwards state full of slaves, and its only purpose is to teach the rest of the world what not to do. (Ouch.) If only Russia could arise from its sleep and shake off its despotic history, it might be invited to the adults' table one day.

Chaadaev's letter was a "gunshot resounding in the dark night", helping define a debate that, in one form or another, still continues today.  Though there were always segments of society resistant to Westernization, the immediate backlash was tied up in a recent (for Russia) Western concept: nationalism, in the Romantic sense. The movement that rose up to challenge the Russian elite's persistent pull toward Europe called themselves Slavophiles, and they ranged from believers in a very insular Russian purity to a broader appeal to a brotherhood of Slavs.  They were largely, but not exclusively, religious - and here we can see the convenient dovetailing between the ideas of nationalism and the undercurrent of religious exceptionalism that had existed for centuries.  Russia's mistake had been trying too hard to ape the West, when it's clear that Russia's destiny is unique and separate.  Russia's economic, social, and political problems were Western problems, inherited by a nation that had no use for them.

The most pernicious aspect of this national movement was its rejection of what its founders considered the centerpiece of Western thought: Rationalism.  If Catherine the Great's francophilia a century earlier had been bound up in Enlightenment thought, the 19th century Slavophiles would cast themselves as the anti-Enlightenment, focused instead on an intuitive, communal link between God, the community, and the natural world (sobornost').  It was the national antidote to the West's radical individualism.  As one of the most well-known and oft-quoted lines of Russian poetry admonishes us, you can't understand Russia with your (rational) mind.  (If you've read your Dostoevsky, you've heard this spiel before.)  Instead of playing catch-up to Europe, what Russia needs to do is find its own "special path" [osobyi put'] (though as one sympathetic commenter put it, it appears to be a path to nowhere.)  The "special path" is one of the most pervasive linchpins of contemporary political discourse in Russia, and Putin has wielded it effectively. Incidentally you'll recognize the word "path" [put'] in the root of a certain head-of-state's name [Putin].  The man has national self-identity built into his name!

Read into recent history, it's easy to see why this idea has become so popular again.  The last time the West exerted a strong influence in Russian life was the disastrous 1990s, when they allowed in a capitalist feeding-frenzy on the carcass of the Soviet Union.  By the time Yeltsin belched himself into retirement, a once world-power had struggled through hyperinflation, currency devaluation, scarce resources, a corrupt oligarchy, and widespread crime syndicates.  For Russians of a certain age, this is the legacy of the West.  This is what we gave them.

So the third thing to understand about Russian homophobia is this: those people inclined toward defining it in a national context are especially unimpressed with arguments coming from us Westerners, who've done enough already, thank you very much.  Among the more fanatical, they believe homosexuality is just another Western weapon against their survival.  

(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.)


So... none of this looks particularly good as far as advocacy goes.  When you're dealing with a movement that looks on itself as the only legitimate source of moral authority, that considers Western degeneracy the source of its problems, and that bases its rhetorical defenses on the notion of national survival, the suggestions we've made so far - boycotts, marches, and whatnot - seem to miss the point by a wide mile.

But I don't want anyone not to boycott or march or whatnot, because any of these are preferable to silence, and silence is the worst response imaginable.

Plus, it's hard to offer something more productive.  And in truth, certain boycotts may be successful in other ways.  Caving to public pressure, Stoli has finally added protections for its gay, lesbian and bisexual employees (again, our community's "T" is left out.)   Minor victories are still victories, but we can do better.  The calls for an Olympic boycott/transfer may do that; the participation of gay athletes in Sochi may also.  On the domestic side, I'm especially optimistic about the attention brought to Olympic sponsors, who themselves may not be able to change the situation in Russia, but who may be brought around to better and more focused LGBT treatment in other areas.  In a nice bit of irony for progressives, the most vulnerable target in these debates are transnational corporations.

As for actions that target Russia itself, I don't have easy solutions due to all the national identity issues I laid out above.  I'm a little less enamored of boycotting Russian products for the basic reason that economically successful Russians are by far the demographic most likely to support the LGBT community.  But I also understand the symbolism inherent in the act, and the fact that boycotts can sometimes yield productive secondary results.

Some of the (I think) smartest ways to thread this national needle have come from inside Russia (of course).  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 Chicherin, Marina Tsvetaeva, Sergei Diaghilev, Sophie 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 figure Ksenia 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.

This, I think, has to be a necessary component of any long-term strategy: the constant reminder that LGBT Russians exist, and have existed, and will continue to exist no matter what the West says or does.  I'm not optimistic that anything we do will engender any kind of change in the short run: the hurdles that we face, and the deep cultural issues in play here, are too much for easy solutions.  The best we can do is help lay the groundwork for long-term change by the Russian LGBT community, with our shows of support, whatever they may be.  To speak up, as Pushkin says,

       Что в мой жестокий век восславил я Свободу
                   И милость к падшим призывал.

So keep talking about, keep blogging about it, and keep getting to know these people in Russia who are risking it all to put themselves out there.   Their rallying cry is "we exist"; ours should be to acknowledge it.

(To that end I want to extend special thanks to dkos diarists who've been persistent in keeping this issue on the front burner, especially Dave in Northridge, Horace Boothroyd III, Richard Lyon, Steveningen, and anyone else I my have missed.)

6:54 PM PT: The link is already embedded above, but I really, really recommend reading this article on the way that ethnic hatred laid the groundwork for the homophobic movement.  It's a tough read, but it's chock-full of very specific, very astute observations about what's going wrong in Russia today.

A choice quote:

Unaware Westerners call Putin a “czar” and focus on the letter of legislation, but this ignores the peculiarly lawless character of his rule. Police persecute dissidents, journalists, and businessmen who don’t pay and play along; meanwhile, many laws go unenforced, much actual crime unpunished. [Matsinkevich's] vigilantism thus is a ready route to popularity. And he can carry on his own obviously criminal campaign in the full light of YouTube with little tangible threat of prosecution.

Tue Aug 13, 2013 at 1:30 PM PT: And a special thanks to Jim Burroway at Box Turtle Bulletin for highlighting my diary, and bringing it together with Masha Lipman's article at the New Yorker.  The information out there is getting better and more nuanced, and I'm hoping this helps us build a more astute, long-term engagement with homophobia in Russia.