BERLIN – In a rambling speech on 21 September given during a ceremony to mark the illegal annexation of four occupied regions of Ukraine, the Russian president Vladimir Putin framed his invasion of Ukraine as a holy war between Russia and the West.
“[The West’s] complete renunciation of what it means to be human, the overthrow of faith and traditional values, and the suppression of freedom are coming to resemble… pure Satanism,” Putin said during his address. “The West is ready to cross every line to preserve the neo-colonial system… This explains their aggression towards independent states, traditional values and authentic cultures.”
As Russia’s military has suffered increasing losses on the battlefield, official rhetoric has played up the alleged civilisational nature of Russia’s conflict with the West. Putin and other elites within the regime have in recent months explicitly linked the invasion to a moral struggle pitting Russia’s “traditional values” against the liberal West’s “Satanism”. And just as Russia’s soldiers are fighting “Satanism” in Ukraine, so too must the country fight moral depredation at home.
Within Russia, the regime’s struggle against “Satanism” has taken the form of a renewed assault on sexual minorities in defence of what the government terms “traditional values”. In October two new bills explicitly framed in reference to the war in Ukraine were presented to the Duma, Russia’s parliament, with the intention of hardening already draconian anti-LGBT laws.
The first bill would ban “information that denies family values” and “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”, while the second would expand an existing law banning “gay propaganda” to cover that aimed at audiences of any age (it currently only bans “propaganda” aimed at children). In practice, the laws’ vague wording will mean that any public statement that could be perceived as positive about LGBT people could be criminalised, while even small events depicting or involving LGBT communities might be banned. (Large events are already out of the question. Pride marches have been banned in Russia for over a decade.)
During discussions on the bills, the anti-LGBT measures they contain were presented as a sort of second front to the invasion of Ukraine. “A special military operation is taking place not only on the battlefield, but also in the minds and souls of people,” Alexander Khinshtein, an MP from Putin’s party, United Russia, said while introducing the legislation on 17 October, using the regime’s preferred terminology for the war. “Our confrontation with the West is primarily civilisational, because Russia is an outpost for the preservation of traditional values as opposed to the new pseudo-values imposed by the West, primarily the norms of sexual deviation.”
During the hearings, Dzhambulat Umarov, an ally of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen tyrant, went further, saying plainly: “Sodomy is the core of Satanism, against which our brothers and sons are now dying on Ukrainian soil.”
However absurd the rhetoric about Satanism, it serves a purpose for the Kremlin. “At first sight, the ‘LGBT propaganda’ draft legislation might seem like an odd distraction during Russia’s war on Ukraine, but the two are very much connected,” Ben Noble, an associate professor of Russian politics at UCL, told me. “The bills allow Russia’s political leadership to talk about what they see as the non-military, values dimension of the conflict between Russia and the ‘collective West’.”
The intensified civilisational rhetoric may also be intended to appeal to people and governments around the world which are also hostile to values promoted by the West, such as tolerance of sexual minorities. In his September speech Putin – while leading an unprovoked colonial war of conquest of a neighbouring country – appealed to countries of the Global South and far-right movements in Western countries, which could both be seduced by Russia’s fight against liberal values.
“New centres of power are emerging. They represent the majority of the international community,” Putin said. “We have many like-minded people in Europe and the United States, and we feel and see their support. An essentially emancipatory, anti-colonial movement against unipolar hegemony is taking shape in the most diverse countries and societies.”
Although Russia has received little overt support for its invasion from countries in the Global South, a number of governments have nonetheless been reluctant to join Western nations in their full-throated condemnation. On 13 October, during a vote at the UN General Assembly to condemn Russia’s annexations of Ukrainian territory, the 35 states that abstained were almost entirely from Africa and Asia.
Meanwhile, some far-right leaders in the US and Europe have called for sanctions on Russia and support for Ukraine to end. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a member of the US Congress closely allied to Donald Trump the former president, said on 3 November that “under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine”. Some European leaders, such as Marine Le Pen in France, have been vocal in opposing sanctions on Russia. Putin may be attempting to appeal to such figures by presenting himself as a bulwark of traditional values against out-of-control liberalism.
Whatever their purpose and justification, the new laws are likely to lead to further marginalisation of LGBT Russians in public and private life, said Maxim Yakubovsky, a lecturer at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. “Gay people’s lives – never easy in Russia – will become a nightmare because of these laws.” He added that the vague provisions of the legislation are also likely to be used to repress dissent among opposition activists who have not yet left the country.
LGBT people in Russia already face discrimination in a deeply homophobic society. “I lead a secretive life. I try not to stand out, as there are widespread prejudices [in society],” said Artyom, a 28-year-old from Moscow who is gay. He added, though, that his family and close friends accept him and support him. He does not think that the new legislation will change the attitudes of younger people, who he said are more tolerant of differences. “The law is one thing, but the attitudes of people are another.”