On State-Sponsored Homophobia in Russia

Guest post by Russian sociologist, Asya Tsaturyan.

Can a homophobic government create a homophobic populace?

In June 2013 the Russian Parliament (Duma) passed, and President Vladimir Putin signed into law, a bill that prohibits ‘homosexual propaganda’ directed at minors. Putin also signed legislation that forbids adoptions by same-sex couples or single people from countries where same-sex marriage is legal. During the current legislative session the parliament was going to vote on a bill that would empower the state to remove children from parents known to be or suspected of being homosexual, but moved to spring based on a technicality (See story here). In July 2013, Levada-Center, the country’s only independent public opinion research organization, conducted a survey focused on Russians attitudes toward LGBT issues that revealed 76% of those polled support the law prohibiting ‘homosexual propaganda’. The government has been citing these figures to justify an agenda of even more aggressive and comprehensive anti-gay legislation (See story here).

But did Russians always espouse such homophobic sentiment? While Russian conservatism is well documented, as is widespread apprehension about the influence of Western culture in Russia, is suppression of LGBT rights a pressing, general public issue that the government is responding to? Has a pro-gay agenda been “imposed” from outside, influenced by progressive developments in the West? As it turns out, gay rights have never been a populist concern. They appear as orchestrated state initiative to challenge minority rights. These laws have been deployed as a tactic to reinforce a social “order,” in support of an authoritarian regime. What follows is an analysis of how “mobilization” operated in Soviet Russia, an examination of current statistics on homophobia, and discussion explaining the State’s new homophobic agenda and its relationship to the grassroots protest movement.

In his theory of Homo Soveticus, Soviet-Russian sociologist Yuri Levada postulated that Russian public opinion is mainly a reflection of the normative position imposed by the government. Unity of mindset, he argued, can result from political mobilization carried out by the government that focuses on a never-ending struggle with external and internal enemies of the Soviet regime. As in the past, today, such measures are invoked to reinforce support for and the stability of Putin’s administration. A psychologically aggressive social atmosphere results and in turn impacts, a decrease in the diversity of public opinion and decrease in the value of any individual position. Following this theorem it is not surprising, as data confirms, Russians by large have not actively thought about LGBT rights. Their image of the “homosexual lifestyle” issignificantly influenced by state-controlled TV (88% of the population use federal TV channels as their primary source of information (See this). Russian homophobia seems not stem from a deep fear, suspicion or hatred of gays, but instead, as a manifestation of passive alignment with the government. Looking at the data, we can see, that before the homophobic policy has appeared, LGBT theme was not a matter of awareness nor concern for the majority of Russians. Almost 80% of respondents reported that they are not acquainted with any gay, lesbian or bisexual person (See this), suggesting that for the majority of the population, LGBT issues are remote and an abstract concept.

For almost 20 years the Levada Center has been asking Russians, “Which of the problems in our society concern you the most?” This is a partially categorized question that is posed twice a year to a representative sample of the urban and rural population in Russia of 1600 people aged 18 years and older in 130 localities in 45 different regions of the country. The margin of error in these studies does not exceed 3.4%. During this period, the rights of gays and lesbians has never been among the top 20 concerns for Russians. The last time the question was asked was in August 2013. Apprehensiveness about homosexual rights failed to make the list of 20 top fears, despite that this poll was conducted almost a year into the government’s anti-gay legislative campaign. Russians remain mostly anxious about high prices for goods and services, corruption and criminal activity, in line with polls from prior years. It also worth noting that Russians have virtually no fear of “contamination.” The question that was asked in the survey in May 2013 “Do you think your sexual orientation could change under the influence of homosexual propaganda?” 85% of respondents said no. In other words, the vast majority of Russians believe they do not know any gay or lesbian people and believe that they personally cannot be affected by “homosexual propaganda.” Evidently, the anti-gay legislation is also a kind of abstraction: the perpetrators of the crime of “homosexual propaganda” are imaginary, as are its victims.

Oddly, counter-intuitively, support for the anti-gay propaganda law is high, while support for the government as a whole, is at an all-time low. Indices of support for the government show a 20% decrease since 2008, and support for Vladimir Putin dropped from 78% in September 2008 to an all-time low of 27% in December 2012 and has stayed low since (The indices are constructed as the difference between positive and negative answers to the question: “Do you support Vladimir Putin”?), suggesting that the  Homo Soveticus type of thinking may be stronger than the discontent aimed at the government. This may sound paradoxical, but what follows may explain this effect.

So, what explains this contradictory sentiment? In winter 2011-2012 the biggest protests since the 1990s took place in Moscow. Authorities felt threatened, so anti-LGBT campaign was invented as a tool of a new mobilization strategy. This mobilization policy aimed to unify the conservative part of the society by casting LGBT rights as real threat to traditional Russian values, and moreover to identify and marginalize any tolerant and progressive opinions on this topic as corrosive to the body politic. This mobilization was characterized by a complete rejection of individual opinion in the public sphere. And it appears to be a successful strategy,s nice the vast majority of Russians support these homophobic laws. Throughout the 20th century, a primary goal of the Soviet government was to achieve and reinforce the conformity Yuri Levada identified as a key characteristic of Homo Soveticus. Then, as now, evidently the populace sustains a level of inertia that is stronger than any particular discontent with specific leaders or issues, yet vulnerable to fear-mongering. The question remains: if the state can product cultural homophobia, what social forces must be in place to remedy it?

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