In the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, much ink was spilled regarding the persecution of LGBT people in Vladimir Putin’s Russia -- along with the occasional prophecy of chaos at the Games themselves. Those prophecies were never going to be fulfilled; as in Munich in 1936, the past two weeks have been relatively quiet, with the exception of a small kerfuffle involving Pussy Riot and whip-toting Cossacks.
But all this is prologue. In fact, Putin’s pre-Sochi campaign against gays in his home country was only in the first stage of a much larger and more dangerous process that will only get underway after the spotlights have turned elsewhere.
Inside of Russia, the consensus is that as soon as the Olympic torch goes out, enforcement of the so-called “anti-propaganda law” and the state-sanctioned violence that accompanies it will increase. New laws, such as the proposal to tear children away from same-sex families, will likely be passed. And the wholesale destruction of civil society, of which the anti-gay laws, the “Foreign Agents” law, the NGO law, and dozens of administrative measures, will continue. As evidenced by the brutal beating of Pussy Riot, in Sochi last week, gays are simply the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, the most visible victims of Putin’s slide to the far Right.
But as bad as this situation is, Russia itself is just the beginning.
First, Russia’s neighbors are following suit. The former Soviet Union is witnessing an anti-gay, anti-Western, anti-civil society domino effect. Ukraine, amid its blood-soaked and now possibly aborted tilt toward Putin and Russia, rapidly passed its own “foreign agents” law last month, and was widely expected to pass an “anti-propaganda law” until President Viktor Yanukovich fled the capital. (The law was shelved last year in response to criticism from the EU.) Moldova has already passed one. Not all the dominos have fallen: Armenia, for example, shelved its version of the anti-propaganda law after a Western outcry. But many have.
What’s perhaps most troubling in this pattern is how gays are being depicted as foreign, and support for equality as a kind of litmus test of how pro- or anti-Western one is. Love the West, accept LGBT people. Hate it, and hate them. We’ve seen this dynamic at work in Ukraine, in Georgia (where Orthodox church leaders and Georgian nationalists led a violent demonstration that was alternately anti-gay and anti-Western), and, of course, in Russia itself.
Second, the anti-gay backlash we’re seeing further afield—in Nigeria, for example, which recently banned all forms of same-sex intimacy—is being capitalized upon by the Putin regime to bolster its international standing. For example, at the UN and regional human rights bodies, Russia has led the effort to incorporate so-called “traditional values” into human-rights law in order to fight protections for women and LGBT people. This would turn human-rights conventions on their head: the rules currently used to protect people from discrimination would now protect discrimination.
This is much more than an anti-gay backlash against the advances we have seen in the West. It is a cynical effort to use gay people as pawns in Russia’s renewed attempt to establish itself as a quasi-superpower opposing the United States.
Ironically, Putin’s newfound religious piety is actually American in origin. As reports by the think tank Political Research Associates and others have shown, American evangelical extremists such as Scott Lively have exported their form of intolerance around the globe—including, we now know, in Russia. Coming soon: the “World Congress of Families," an Illinois-based network of American evangelicals and their partners around the world (including conservative Russian oligarchs and politicians), meeting this fall in Moscow.
In fact, the entire Putin policy is drawn from the playbook of American evangelicals in the 1990s, which used the specter of homosexuality to create a powerful anti-liberal bloc.
The fight against Putin’s cynical power gambit will be a long one. Russians has been fed a toxic diet of misinformation about gay people. They have been told that gays are pedophiles, that they “recruit” young people, that they are somehow responsible for Russia’s falling birth rate. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church even opined that same-sex marriage is a sign of the apocalypse. As a result, three quarters of Russians say they oppose “homosexuality”—although it is unclear whether this refers to sexual orientation, or sexual behavior, or both. The rates of disapproval are similar in other post-Soviet countries.
But that does not mean there is nothing to be done. The West can keep attention focused on the Russian anti-gay crackdown, even after the Olympic klieg lights dim. Cultural ambassadors and historians can fight the pernicious myth that homosexuality is un-Russian (Tchaikovsky, anyone?), or un-Nigerian, or un-any culture; in different forms and by different names, sexual diversity is found everywhere in the world. And rather than impose American standards on foreign countries, U.S.-based NGO’s must empower activists in countries around the world to fight for the changes they understand better than we do.
This crisis is about much more than gay people in Russia, though their lives are indeed at stake. It is about the contestation of such lofty values as democracy, human rights, and freedom—and whether the civilized world will stand up to defend them.