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Russia’s absurd claim that the LGBTQ community is extremist, explained

It’s part of Putin’s strategy to paint himself as Russia’s protector against Western immorality.

A group holds a large rainbow banner.
Participants hold a rainbow flag during a gay pride demonstration in St. Petersburg in 2017.
Igor Russak/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

Life in Russia became even more restricted for queer people last week, after a decade of increasing repression against the LGBTQ community there.

On November 30, Russia’s Supreme Court labeled the international LGBTQ movement an “extremist organization,” claiming that it incites “social and religious hatred.”

The new ruling is alarming in its own right, in that it could subject LGBTQ people and activist groups in Russia to legal penalties for openly supporting queer and trans rights. But it is also connected to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s greater ideological project. As part of that project, Putin has worked during his presidency, and over the last decade in particular, to create a narrative of “traditionalist” Russian history and culture that has led to the ongoing war in Ukraine and the exclusion of minorities like LGBTQ people, among other things.

The Russian Ministry of Justice brought the case to the Supreme Court on November 17, according to the New York Times, where it was ruled on in a secret four-hour session. No opposing arguments were permitted in the case, Russian media reported.

The new designation means, according to the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, a Russian civil rights organization, that organizers and members of LGBTQ organizations could face prison sentences of up to 10 or six years, respectively, and that displaying symbols of the movement, like a rainbow flag, in public could result in a sentence of up to four years. Even “approving statements” about the LGBTQ movement could potentially result in punishment.

Anti-LGBTQ extremism in the Russian government is nothing new, and over the past decade-plus, repression against LGBTQ people and organizations has gotten increasingly more extreme. “This is a continuation of a long-established effort that’s been going on for a decade, at least, and that actually already builds upon a whole anti-LGBTQ+ institution in Russia,” said Alexander Kondakov, a Russian sociologist at University College Dublin who studies how the legal and security systems affect LGBTQ life. “It’s not just an instance of state homophobia, but it’s a wholesale institution.”

Though the new designation is absurd and shocking, it’s years in the making — and it’s part of Putin’s broader strategy to justify his place as Russia’s protector against “Western values,” particularly as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reaches the two-year mark and he tries to secure yet another presidential term.

Putin’s regime erodes civil society and human rights to protect “traditional values”

Thursday’s legal decision represents the intersection of three different but intertwined social and legal trends under Putin: the illegalization of “extremism,” the oppression of LGBTQ Russians dating back a decade, and Putin’s efforts to create an alternative Russian cultural and historical narrative to justify his repressive rule and imperialist aspirations.

“[Anti-LGBTQ] Russian legislation specifically highlights patriotism, strong family, and religiosity (Orthodoxy in particular) as important ‘traditional values’ helping to protect and strengthen the nation,” Radzhana Buyantueva, a researcher studying LGBTQ communities in Russia and their intersection with the political sphere, explained to Vox over email. “In the 1990s-2000s, Russia experienced a range of issues such as economic and demographic crises and the loss of its impactful role on the international stage, causing the perceived ‘emasculation’ of the population. The Kremlin has utilized these insecurities in its anti-gender queerphobic propaganda,” cracking down on LGBTQ groups and other perceived opponents while also militarizing society and “culminating in the escalating military aggression toward neighboring states (Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine since 2014).”

The roots of this trend date back early into Putin’s tenure: In 2002, the Russian government adopted the Federal Law on Combating Extremist Activity in the wake of Russia’s wars in Chechnya and the global “war on terror.” Part of its definition of extremism is the “kindling of social, racial, ethnic, or religious discord,” as the court now claims the international LGBTQ movement does. It was initially used against Muslim groups in the North Caucasus that represented a threat to the Kremlin and its control over Russia, as well as “skinhead organizations, different kinds of neo-Nazis, Russian nationalists — different violent organizations that had discrimination of various ethnic or racial communities at the core of their ideology,” Kondakov said. “But then it shifted toward us against any enemies of the current government.”

The law allows for the persecution of “non-traditional” religious groups, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as media outlets and, increasingly, civil society organizations that the Russian state deems extremist, as analyst Maria Kravchenko wrote in a 2018 report for the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

As Putin consolidated power over the next decade, the anti-extremism law came to be broadly applied to groups or individuals that posed a threat to his power — chiefly, in the words of SOVA, “organizations (whether registered or not) and mass media.” That became clear especially during the “Snow Revolution” of 2011 through 2013, which initially began as protests against Putin’s return to the presidency and parliamentary election results that journalists, civil society organizations, and opposition figures including Alexey Navalny decried as fraudulent.

Following those protests — the largest in Russia since the 1990s — and Putin’s return to power in 2012, the government in 2013 passed a law banning LGBTQ “propaganda,” unrelated to the extremism law. It was, essentially, an apolitical distraction and a nod to the socially conservative sectors that had helped elect him.

Similar to the American right, the Russian political class had begun looking for wedge issues to consolidate their base, Sam Greene, director for democratic resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Vox in an interview.

“They kind of just [started] throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks,” he said. And while Russia’s laws surrounding LGBTQ rights were quite liberal and had been since the 1990s, the policy came before the widespread cultural understanding of LGBTQ life and queer identity — so, Greene said, “religion sticks, LGBT sticks.” It also was in line with Putin’s hypermasculine, misogynistic posturing and the lack of visibility and public conversation about sexuality.

And that political posture had real consequences for queer people. The 2013 legislation placed heavy fines on sharing information with minors about “non-traditional sexual relations.” At the time, Reuters reported in 2013, several municipalities in Russia already had similar laws, and anti-LGBTQ violence was becoming an increasing concern for queer Russians.

Since then, Putin’s government has increasingly used legislation as a weapon against LGBTQ people and organizations. In 2022, the Russian government passed a law banning any depiction in the media of queer life and just this summer passed a law criminalizing gender transition.

“Promotion of conservatism and assertiveness toward Western liberalism have accompanied Russia’s increasing authoritarianism and efforts to ‘manage’ civil society,” Buyantueva said. “Prior to [last week’s ruling], the most harmful in this regard has been the legislation on ‘foreign agents’ and ‘unwelcome organizations’ that explicitly targets links between Russian NGOs and Western donors,” demonizing those organizations and making it more difficult for them to operate in Russia.

Life is already terrifying for LGBTQ Russians

Since Thursday’s ruling, Russian authorities have already raided a number of queer venues including two bars and a bathhouse in Moscow, according to the Associated Press.

“Of course [the ruling] affects people in absolutely terrible ways — it’s part of a violent crackdown that is unleashed by the state and is performed by the state, but also by non-state actors and agents and wider society,” Kondakov told Vox in an interview. “It has an absolutely devastating effect on so many different levels — on a psychological level, but also real violence.”

That violence is perpetrated not only by the state — the FSB, or Russian Federal Security Service, and the police — but also by criminal groups that attack LGBTQ people and organizations with the tacit acceptance of the state, Greene said.

“One of the things that happens is when the state starts identifying a community as extremist, and thus, by definition, beyond the pale of legality, not deserving of the protection of the law, that gives carte blanche to vigilantes to go off and do what they do,” he told Vox. “So even from the very beginning in 2012, 2013, when the state starts pushing against the LGBT community, you see a significant uptick in violence against members of that community that’s mostly not done by the state. It’s mostly skinheads, Christian nationalists, that kind of thing.”

And since there’s no way to visibly identify queer people, and “no such organization as ‘international LGBT public movement,’” Buyantueva said, general police repression and public homophobia will likely increase under the new law. “Basically, anyone suspected/accused to be a part of the ‘movement’ might be harassed, prosecuted, and/or face violence,” she said.

Given that, many LGBTQ Russians may choose to leave, especially as Putin’s homophobic and anti-Western rhetoric increases during his campaign for the 2024 presidency; he’s campaigning on saving Russian traditional values through the war on Ukraine.

As Kondakov told Vox, the government’s oppressive anti-gay policy “doesn’t work as well as it used to, and probably they need the injection of homophobia more and more frequently nowadays” to distract people from the Kremlin’s “crisis of legitimacy” over the unsuccessful and unpopular war and increasing isolation from the rest of the world.

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