27 May 1993 the Federal Law that decriminalised same-sex relations for men was enacted in the Russian Federation. Where are we now?
On the 17th of May 2019, International Day against Homophobia (IDAHO), Taiwan’s Parliament voted in favour of same-sex marriage law. On the same day, US Congress passed the Equality Act that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender expression in the fields of education, work, housing, and other domains. Meanwhile, in Russia, seven people were detained by the police during a peaceful rally in Petersburg’s ‘hyde park’ where they waved rainbow flags to mark IDAHO. Three of the detainees were charged with administrative offence under Article 6.21, ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationship.’ What kind of ‘traditions’ are policed in current Russia? Is this policing a path to an outdated past that is being overcome in many other countries around the world as the US and Taiwan examples show?
Russian legislators are very confused about what kind of values are ‘traditional.’ Some talk about strong families, others about respect toward elder family members, or about protecting children from hazards of the modern world. There is somewhat of an agreement, though, on religion being an inherent value of Russian culture, despite the radical rupture of religious piety which Soviet policies conditioned. In fact, this indulgence into a religious renaissance brought what is seen as a conservative agenda into Russian politics: heavy focus on sovereignty, patriotism, different (from the West) value set, protection of ‘traditional values’ from supposedly modernized Euro-American value-system that is destined to ruin Russia. Armed with this discursive arrangement, Russian leadership went into a ‘protectionist’ mode , legislating by reducing rational modernist politics to ‘catch-all’ populism, which arguably proved effective and resilient.
Experts such as Phlipp Casula identify several characteristics of Russian populism as main features of political discourse. First, populism comes ‘from above,’ not ‘from below.’ In other words, it is not that people demand for traditional values: on the contrary, they are demanded to want those. Secondly, it relies heavily on being structured around a name (no matter if it is Putin or Navalnyi), which acts as a nodal point, sort of an empty signifier for an empty signifier of the very ‘traditional values.’ With these tactics at hand, populism works as an attempt to split the political space into two camps ‘with us’ and ‘against us’ both in domestic and foreign policy fronts.
Finally, depoliticization is a flip side of populism. In the Russian case, it introduces manual control as the key procedure in politics. The leadership identifies national interests as a rebuttal of any ideology: the main political goal is to be ‘non-Western.’ In this vein, the Russian people are called to fight back against economic pressure by opposing Spanish jamon and Polish apples (anti-sanctions), as well as to ensure nationalist (demographic) revival by chasing off LGBTQI+ compatriots and literally engaging in procreation (pro-heterosexual family policies). These conflicts are presented as technical questions rather than left or right politics.
In this framework, scapegoating as an attempt to redirect attention from faulty and corrupt political decisions targets LGBTQI+ people as visibly different, who ‘stir’ the society asking for trouble, that is, vocally trying to claim their human rights. However, the argument against same-sex relations is not ‘traditional,’ but rather pragmatic and instrumental: as the Russian government tries to convince us all, recruitment into a homosexual’ lifestyle damages national revival and, hence, economic development. Therefore, queers threaten the country’s survival and progress. Agency intervenes with paternalism and protectionism: instead of patiently waiting for what they deserve, they are claiming rights. Thus, Russia’s major problem is not with LGBTQI+ people as such. The problem is that someone (in fact, anyone) questions the power of the Kremlin. How non-traditional of them!
Marianna Muravyeva is an Associate Professor of Russian Law and Administration at the University of Helsinki;
Alexander Kondakov is a Postdoctral Researcher in Russian Law, University of Helsinki.
Philipp Casula. Sovereign Democracy, Populism, and Depoliticization in Russia: Power and Discourse During Putin’s First Presidency. Problems of Post-Communism, 2013, 60(3), pp. 3–15.
Alexander Kondakov. Resisting the Silence: The Use of Tolerance and Equality Arguments by Gay and Lesbian Activist Groups in Russia. Canadian Journal of Law and Society, 2013, 28(3), pp. 403–424.
Marianna Muravyeva. Conservative Jurisprudence and the Russian State. Europe-Asia Studies, 2017, 69(8), pp. 1145–1152.