Over the past 20 years, the international community has seen an increasingly global push for universal human rights. For Russia, however, there has existed an icy relationship between the government and such pesky humanitarian movements with their exasperatingly altruistic promoters. More recently, the rights of LGBT citizens have come to the fore of domestic Russian politics. Yet instead of looking to the West for means of dealing with the situation, the former Soviet state has dusted off its history books of the Stalinist era.
Before charging into a moral judgement of its system (which there will be, fear not), it is important to disaggregate the Russian context. As it currently stands: The Russian Federation considers homosexuality legal (since 1993); Single LGBT citizens are permitted to adopt (though LGBT couples cannot, as same-sex marriage is illegal); Citizens are given the right to change gender (since 1997); and Blood donation is allowed regardless of sexual orientation (since 2008). There are also, officially, no restrictions on homosexuality in the military, though soldiers are de facto advised to hide their sexual orientation.
Despite these civil liberties—some of which are simply loopholes in the system—the Russian model serves as a most draconian example of state discrimination in the Western world. Same-sex marriage is banned, without even the inferior status of civil partnership offered in many less developed nations. Adoption is prohibited, with only married couples permitted the privilege. And, perhaps most disconcertingly, the rights of LGBT citizens to speak and assemble publicly have become increasingly restricted.
This last trend, gaining ground in recent years, has also garnered considerable media attention abroad. With various levels of Russian government making moves against so-called “homosexual propaganda,” LGBT citizens have found themselves dispossessed from their own public sphere. Moreover, legislation currently before the Federal Assembly of Russia would prohibit the dissemination of such “propaganda” to minors. The fear is that this would encompass such events as gay pride parades, LGBT demonstrations, and even PDA’s between same-sex couples.
To make matters more complicated, Russian governments are not acting against an opposed public. A majority of Russians themselves continue to hold views that many in the West would consider to border on bigotry. In January 2005, the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre conducted a poll showing only 14% of Russians in support of legalizing same-sex marriage. More ominously, a similar poll that year found 44% of citizens in support of the re-criminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults. The historical entrenchment of such anti-homosexuality runs deep, though, as revealed in a 1989 poll. It showed 32% of Soviet Russians in favour homosexuals being isolated from society, with another 31% in favour of their execution.
LGBT activists clearly face an uphill battle, fighting against a country that seems to relish repeated dives into the quagmire of Western opposition and international distaste. Especially while so many nations, both developed and developing, are moving to legislate against discrimination based on sexual orientation, Russia appears content to aggravate domestic intolerance.
Stories of discrimination in the workplace are common. As revealed by Project GayRussia.ru in 2011, after founding an LGBT employee group at Aeroflot (the state-owned airline), flight attendant Maxim Kupreev was given an ultimatum: enter into a heterosexual marriage with his former high school girlfriend, or face dismissal. Kupreev ended up marrying his former girlfriend.
Discrimination in the public sphere is even more prevalent. Moscow Pride parades in particular, begun in 2006, have been banned annually by Moscow City Hall. Despite activists continuing to hold them every year regardless of governmental approval, each parade has found itself shut down within hours, if not minutes, by city police—or, as in 2011, attacked by ultra-Orthodox protestors. In June 2012, Moscow courts thought it prudent to institute a hundred-year ban on the parade.
All of this must be placed against the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing attempts at regaining the international weight and superpower status it lost following the USSR’s dissolution. Yet such aims are laughable when the world finds itself unable to overlook Russia’s medieval domestic policies and desultory attempts at solving them. Rather than using foreign policy as a means of reliving the Soviet past, it should instead focus its attention on protecting and consolidating the rights of its own citizens. For, how can a nation such as Russia find empathy from others when it treats its most vulnerable citizens in ways jarringly reminiscent of the Stalinist era?
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.