Now that Russia’s “war on gays” is an established narrative, one aspect of it still leaves global observers thoroughly confused: the timing. A mere eight months stretch between the enactment of a law that bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” and the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, the costliest spectacle of its kind in history.
Unlike China, which was on its best behaviour in the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics, Russia, with no discernible provocation, is enthusiastically supplying the world with reasons to boycott, sabotage or mock the Games, or protest at them.
The Winter Olympics were supposed to be President Putin’s big – how shall I put it – coming-out party: a planetspanning, fortnight-long infomercial for the Russia he had, over 14 years, remade in his image. Viewed in this light, the event’s reported price tag of £33bn begins to seem almost reasonable. To Putin’s Russia, obsessed with its standing in the western world even as it does everything to torpedo it, this kind of publicity is priceless. But the one thing most of the world will now be watching out for is the flash of a rainbow flag on the podium. What was Russia thinking?
To put it simply, it wasn’t. The war on gay people is one part of a broader crackdown on civil rights that got out of control. Ever since a wave of mass protests in December 2011 shook the Kremlin, the Russian Duma has passed a staggering number of restrictive laws: new regulations that make it harder for people to congregate freely; a rule that requires all NGOs that receive funding from abroad to label themselves as “foreign agents”; a stultifying ban on US adoptions of Russian children; and a suite of decency and anti-piracy bills that makes it easier to shutter inconvenient websites.
Some of these laws, such as the ban on adoption, are projects pushed by Putin himself. Others, owing to the bizarre way in which the Duma operates, are more like the self-fulfilling side effects of demagoguery. Putin says something off the cuff; an obscure Duma deputy looking for a publicity boost introduces a slapped-together bill; the rest rubber-stamp it; the law gets an equally ramshackle enforcement arm (Roskomnadzor, the feared digital-censorship body, is just a few people in a room tasked with monitoring the entire internet for offensive and pirated content); a few unlucky test cases go to trial, with the aim of frightening the rest.
This is the dreary context in which we should view the two anti-gay laws (the other one bans adoption of Russian children by gay couples and single citizens from countries where same-sex marriage is legal). Ironically, Russia, when it is not being whipped up into paranoid frenzy, is not a particularly homophobic culture. Its motto on the subject is something along the lines of “Whatever you do behind closed doors is fine”. (In Russia, everyone is doing something behind closed doors.) With new laws against gay people, Americans and the internet, Putin has used the classic dictator’s gambit of shoring up the most backward elements of his base by demonising everything they don’t understand about the protest demographic.
Homosexuality, in this case, is just one part of the semiotic cluster of otherness. “Americans” are “Jews”, “Jews” are “gay”, “Americans” are thus also “gay”. “Liberals” may stand for US stooges (as in Putin’s speeches) or Jews (as in the spreading nationalist rhetoric), but their defining traits are feminine – softness, pliability, indecisiveness – so they are “gay” above all (cf: “liberast”, the popular conflation of “liberal” and “pederast”). And so on.
So why has the mistreatment of gays in Russia caught on as an international cause when the other scarecrow laws have not – to say nothing of the jailing of Pussy Riot and other protesters? The answer is partly that it provides a black-and-white narrative, something Russia has in short supply. And it comes with villains so outrageous that casting the inevitable movie would be a breeze: from the author of the “propaganda” law, Yelena Mizulina, a bespectacled schoolmarm with hair in a bun, to Dmitry Kiselyov, a federal TV executive and presenter who has proposed “burning gays’ hearts” so they don’t end up being donated for transplants.
The international backlash has focused on Sochi because it’s the next big event; were Russia about to host, say, Eurovision, as it did in 2009, there would be calls to boycott that. For those wishing to protest against Russia’s anti-gay laws, however, the timing may be fortuitous. Villains rarely realise their villainy. That’s what would make spoiling Putin’s Olympic party so satisfying: it’s the closest the world can get to staging an intervention against the man.
Michael Idov is the editor-in-chief of GQ Russia