Russia has become a dangerous place for dissent. Its ex-KGB president, Vladimir Putin, has accomplished what Republicans in America only dream of: he’s built an electoral majority by appealing to the most religious and conservative elements of society, including by courting the alliance of the Russian Orthodox Church. With his victories, he’s becoming increasingly autocratic, dispensing with even the pretense of democracy.
Besides his notorious sidestepping of term-limit laws, he’s presided overshow-trial prosecutions ofpolitical opponents and reformers on flimsy or trumped-up charges. He’s brought down the wrath of the state against artists who mock religion. He’s looked the other way ascrusading journalists have been brutally beaten and murdered, and his government may have been directly involved in at least one such killing. In the classic tactic of dictators everywhere, he’s diverting attention from his own authoritarianism by painting a marginalized minority as a powerful and sinister enemy corrupting society from within. In this case, the invented enemy is Russia’s LGBT community.
Over the last few years, Putin’s rubber-stamp parliament has passed a series ofincreasingly draconian anti-gay laws. The most recent of these outlaws “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”—a term so deliberately vague and sweeping that Russian activists can be (and have been) arrested merely for holding up a sign in public reading “Gay is normal.” It effectively silences any advocacy for LGBT rights or even any public acknowledgment of LGBT people’s existence. An even more horrific bill now under consideration would take away children (both adopted and biological) from gay and lesbian parents.
With the Russian government sending clear signals that LGBT people are beneath moral consideration, it’s no surprise that violent homophobes in Russian society are feeling increasingly disinhibited. We’ve seen the premeditated torture and murder of gay people, and gangs of skinheads assaulting gay-rights protestors in public, sometimes with the police looking on, sometimes with the police’s active assistance.
In this climate of deepening fear and brutality, we’re already starting to see an exodus of gay people from Russian society, like the journalist Masha Gessen, who’s calling on Western nations to grant asylum: “The only way at this point that the U.S. can help Russian gays and lesbians is [to] get us the hell out of here." The historical parallel to the exodus of Jewish people from pre-World War II Nazi Germany seems impossible to ignore.
The fact that the 2014 Winter Olympics will be in Sochi, Russia, has focused international attention and outrage on Putin’s crackdown. The playwright Harvey Fierstein, among others, has argued that we should boycott the Olympics in protest. With corporate sponsors getting nervous, the IOC initially tried to allay people’s fears by assuring them that foreign visitors in Russia wouldn’t be subject to the anti-gay laws. But that was quickly undercut by Russian government ministers insisting that the laws will apply to everyone, including athletes, journalists and spectators. In the face of this, the IOC announced that all protests and political statements by athletes would be forbidden at the Olympics, thus making it clear whose side it’s on.
Whether the international community should boycott Sochi is a wrenching political question. A boycott would be a huge embarrassment for Russia, to be sure. But it’s not at all clear it would actually weaken Putin’s power the way divestment from apartheid South Africa did. If anything, the people who’d be most directly harmed by an Olympic boycott would be the athletes, who spend their whole lives training for this chance to prove themselves. Gay medalists like Greg Louganis have argued that rather than boycott, athletes should use the global stage of the Olympics as a platform to protest Russian bigotry, IOC be damned. On the other hand, given the political climate in Russia and the anti-gay violence that occurs with impunity, it’s not clear that LGBT people and allies would even be safe there.
But although these are difficult dilemmas with no easy answers, there’s one group of people who aren’t morally conflicted at all: American right-wing religious extremists. A long list of religious-right figures have lined up to praise Russia, loudly insisting that its brutal suppression and persecution of gay people is exactly what we need at home. Here are some of them:
- On the Christian news site OneNewsNow, an article by Charlie Butts opens with the headline, “Russia sees America’s error, may ban public homosexuality.” It quotes Tim Todd, the head of Revival Fires International Ministries and an “evangelist who works in Russia,” as saying he “believes the move afoot there to ban the public display of homosexuality is because the nation’s leaders—both political and religious—have seen the damage American culture has suffered from the homosexual movement.”
- Linda Harvey, founder of the anti-gay hate group Mission: America, said on her radio program that Christians should pray for the Russian laws to continue, saying that by forbidding gay pride parades and adoption by gay couples, “they are protecting kids… What responsible adult would have a problem with keeping kids on a path of high moral standards?”
- Peter LaBarbera, an anti-gay evangelical and head of Americans For Truth About Homosexuality, said, “Russians do not want to follow America’s reckless and decadent promotion of gender confusion, sexual perversion, and anti-biblical ideologies to youth” (source) and sneered at the idea of offering asylum to Russian LGBT people.
- Bill Owens, the religious liaison of the National Organization for Marriage,sent out an e-mail saying he was “intrigued” by the Russian law and saw it as a sign of Russia’s leaders “attempting to stem the tide of moral decline.” He also said, “I applaud the Russians for taking a stand for children!”
- Bryan Fischer, spokesman for the American Family Association, said hewholeheartedly supports the Russian law and has said that, if anything, it doesn’t go far enough: “Heterosexuality is God’s design. Policies that encourage young people to think this are good ideas.”
- Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, wrote in an editorial for the Daily Caller that “there is no human right to teach school children about sexual practices, neither is there a human right to parade your sexual preferences and practices down public streets.” He also said he “admire[s] some of the things they’re doing in Russia" and that he plans to travel there to meet with government officials to offer his support.
- Another CFHRI official, Stefano Gemmarini, praised Russia for barring gay pride parades and seemingly implied that some of the fines laid out in the bill aren’t severe enough, saying “$155 is hardly unmanageable for homosexuals who want to kiss in public.”
- The World Congress of Families, a Christian-right group based in Illinois,plans to hold its 2014 annual conference at the Kremlin in a show of support for the Russian laws. The WCF website says that Russia, “with its historic commitment to deep spirituality and morality, can be a hope for the natural family supporters from all over the world.” A WCF spokesman, Larry Jacobs, added that “Russia could be a great ally for conservatives” and cheered its anti-gay laws as a “great idea” (source).
- Another American anti-gay group, MassResistance, has praised the Russian laws and said that a mob of thugs who assaulted gay-rights protestors were “provoked” by the protesters kissing in public. This is the same group that’s praised a draconian anti-gay Nigerian law.
- Scott Lively, an American evangelical who helped draft the proposed Ugandan “Kill the Gays” bill (and who’s being sued in Massachusetts for crimes against humanity because of it), conducted a speaking tour in Russia in 2007 and has praised the anti-LGBT laws for reflecting ideas he advocated at the time. He’s said that “Russia could become a model pro-family society” and went so far as to say that Russia “is becoming a beacon of freedom to those who love God’s design for the family” (source).
Even though the religious right’s power is slowly ebbing in America, they’re working to export American-style culture wars all over the world. As the world ever so slowly becomes more peaceful and tolerant, they’re engaged in a rearguard action, planting the seeds of theocracy wherever they can, urging developing countries to be more authoritarian, more repressive, more intolerant of differences. They’ve partially succeeded, to devastating effect, in countries like Uganda where domestic homophobia makes fertile soil for their brand of paranoia and unrelenting hatred. We’re now seeing that same deadly symbiosis in Russia.