A Brief History of Gay Rights in Russia

The ushering in of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia has brought an intense media focus on the Russian government’s condemnatory views on homosexual rights in that country.

Let’s be honest. Going to Russia is probably ill-advised if you are part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Or, at least, if you plan to publicly display your affection for a member of the opposite sex. With rumours abound of competing athletes being subject to draconian restrictions, such as not being allowed to approach children in public, we take a critical look at the current state of gay rights in Russia and how the laws – and indeed, the society in general – came to adopt this attitude.

As has been well documented in mainstream news outlets recently, gay rights in Russia have been suppressed and a series of recent laws have been enacted to criminalize gay propaganda.

‘Gay propaganda’ essentially means openly mentioning or celebrating homosexuality, such as holding parades or demonstrating in public. In some cases the law has been extended to include overt displays of homosexuality such as wearing a dress in public or dressing in drag.

LGBT rights protesters in Russia have faced not only the wrath of the law but also have experienced several attacks from their fellow citizens as their express their concerns about their lack of rights and equality. This obviously horrendous state of affairs has stemmed from a long history of suppression of gay rights in Russia.

The reasons for the development of this intolerance of homosexual probably stem from a multitude of things, but first and foremost is the history of the country.

From the brutal and bloody reigns of Czars past, to more recent history in which the country has been subjected to political upheaval and a series of hardline communist regimes, combined with a history of significant religious influence has at least partially led to the spawning of a deeply conservative culture.

It’s not just recent times, though; being gay or lesbian has been looked down on in Russia for the past several centuries. Leaders of the dominant Eastern Orthodox Church have suppressed homosexuality even before the period of Russian Csars.

During this time, the Eastern Orthodox Church was well known for it’s open persecution of innocent gays and lesbians. Look no further than Russia as an example of what strong negative influence religious fervour can inflict on a society.

It might not be all bad, though; this piece from Russian state-sponsored news agency RT attempts to redress the balance of opinion and quell some of the moral outrage displayed by the West, by giving us a tour of some inner-city Moscow gay nightclubs, in which it is revealed that (gasp) gay people are not suppressed after all – look, they have a nightclub they can go to!

This completely ignores the real issue at hand, though; the fact that a solitary gay nightclub exists in Moscow, one city in a vastly sprawling country, does not make up for the fact that homophobia is deeply imbedded into the psyche of many Russians and the country as a whole still adopts a largely homophobic attitude. That’s like saying a country that holds deeply racist attitudes (say, against black people) is off the hook because its biggest city has a black oriented nightclub.

Back to Russian history. The fact remains that Russia has a long and sordid history regarding gay rights. Yes, a lot of Western countries do as well, but they have at least made the humble first steps towards enacting equality. In 1716, Csar Peter the Great banned homosexuals in the Russian armed forces. He made continued efforts to extend the ban to civilians, which came into effect in 1835.

In 1832, Tsar Nicholas I added Article 995 to Russian law that outlawed sodomy. Men who were caught engaging in homosexual sex were sentenced to slave labor in Siberia, often for periods of up to 4 to 5 years. Accurate figures and data are not available as to how many Russians were imprisoned and sentenced to Siberia during this time.

This period was followed, to be fair, by a period of relative equality, brought about by the Russian Revolution in 1917, in which Lenin abolished the old Csarist laws and enacted a relatively progressive series of laws including legalized abortion,no-fault divorce, and legal homosexuality. In this period, homosexuals could even work and serve in the Soviet Government.

Things took a turn for the worse however under Stalin. Under his dictatorship, homosexuality was considered a disease. In 1933, Stalin created Article 121 wherein homosexuality was considered a crime punishable by 5 years in prison.

It is widely believed this law was intended to win the favor of the higher-ups of the Eastern Orthodox Church. As such, homosexuality has continued to be a serious crime in the country until Stalin’s law was revoked in 1993.

In 1999, Russia formally removed homosexuality from their official list of recognized mental disorders. Several gay marches and parades were soon established in Moscow, largely as a result of newfound ‘liberation’ as a result of the attempted destigmatization of homosexuality. However, in the year 2007, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov banned the Moscow Pride parade.

He said of the parade, “Last year, Moscow came under unprecedented pressure to sanction the gay parade, which cannot be called anything other than satanic. We did not let the parade take place then, and we are not going to allow it in the future.” Since then, whenever a gay pride parade has been attempted in Moscow, it has erupted in violent clashes between protestors and police.

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In 2012, when President Putin returned to his position, he enacted the current anti-gay propaganda law. He claimed the intention of the law is to “protect the younger generations from the effects of homosexual propaganda.”

Gay couples that have children were particularly worried about this law since informing their own children about the status of their relationship would technically be a breach of the law. Best to keep things in the dark, eh? Stay in that closet. That’ll be better for the long-term mental health of your children. Note the heavy sarcasm.

The denial of gay rights in Russia has, of course, been a frequent topic in the media in recent times largely due to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Western media has understandably taken a firm stance against the Russian government’s policies; which has been labelled as ‘anti-Russian propaganda’ by Russian media – whether this is the intention or not, it is highlighting the need for reform in this area, which can only be a good thing.

Numerous celebrities and public figures have spoken out in protest against the anti-gay laws, none better known than Stephen Fry, the beloved British broadcaster and personality, who said that Russia should not be allowed to host the Olympics given its questionable record on gay rights. Barack Obama has also expressed his concern regarding treatment of gays in Russia.

The Russian LGBT community will continue to face problems in their country if their leaders do not understand and respect the rights of these individuals to hold an equal status in the community. As insular as Russia historically has been and to a large extent continues to be, the continued media coverage and focus as a result of the Olympic games should hopefully help bring about some much needed changing of opinions and change in attitudes on gay rights.

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