all right, folks—as promised, here are my thoughts on russian homophobia and what factors have shaped it to be how it appears today. please keep in mind that while i did put in hours of research into this and speak partially from experience as someone who grew up in a homophobic russian household, i am by no means an expert and for brevity had to simplify some issues/concepts.
to begin with, russia wasn’t always so violently homophobic. the russian empire was generally more or less tolerant as far as persecution goes until peter the great began to westernize and discovered that the west was generally opposed to same-sex relations. even then, the crackdowns were fairly mild, and the government generally stayed out of such matters. even towards the end of the 1800s, the tolerant attitude prevailed, and alexander ii’s reforms actually spurred the development of a lgbt+ by promoting freedom of press and abolishing serfdom, which created an influx of peasants to the cities, where they lived in close quarters and without many women around. as you can imagine, this resulted in a rise in same-gender relations and even marked the beginning of the first urban lgbt+ communities. while homosexuality was still illegal, cities teemed with discourse on the matter, which was potential enough. (this period can also be noted for the emergence of lgb+ writers and artists, such as mihkail kuzmin, marina tsvatayeva, and numerous others [but that’s for another post])
at this point, most of the opposition to same-sex relations stemmed from orthodox christian values, which marked homosexuality as sin (along with many other carnal sexual acts) and biological arguments that used early endocrinology and psychology to argue that homosexuality was unnatural and must be treated. however, it is vital to note that at the same time, some scientific circles also promoted tolerance on the basis of same-sex attraction being a natural variation of human biology, which was incredibly progressive for its time. while not all views were positive (in fact, some actively pathologized homosexuality, much like western science), it is important to note that there was discussion.
the first shift came with the 1917 revolution and lenin’s regime. while lenin decriminalized homosexuality (as well as many other things, such as abortion and prostitution), the regime also limited freedom of the press and speech, which stunted conversation about same-sex desire.
what truly demolished the russian/soviet lgbt+ community was stalin’s regime, which coincided with wwii and rise of fascism. in response to wwii, a wave of hypermasculinity and patriotism shook the nation through propaganda to encourage men to be strong, hard working, and loyal to the country—male homosexuality, which was seen as effeminate and weak, had no place in such a society. what officially led to the recriminalization, however, is the alleged nazi infiltration of moscow’s gay circles, which led stalin to pass a law banning male homosexuality. by this time, homosexuality came to be associated with bourgeois decadence and aristocracy, which clashed with soviet proletarian values. weimar germany’s infamous tolerance of same-sex relations also influenced the association of fascism with homosexuality (nevermind that hitler’s regime was violently homophobic, as well). a popular slogan was: “destroy the homosexuals–and fascism will disappear”
stalin’s strict repression had the most profound influence on the lgbt+ community—it erased its history by silencing literature and arts and prevented lgbt+ people from being able to find each other and create opposition. this lasted for decades after stalin’s death, which, to the average public, made same-sex attraction and gender nonconformity apprear nonexistent within the soviet union.
that is exactly why the 80s and 90s, when gorbachev’s reforms allowed lgbt+ individuals some freedom to gather and converse (thus gaining visibility) came as such a shock to the straight russian public. it seemed that “the gays” appeared out of nowhere—and since the period is also marked by the fall of the soviet union and introduction of western capitalism—seemed a product of western infiltration. since the west, especially america, had a visible lgbt+ community by then, it only seemed logical that lgbt+ russians are brainwashed by the west. another wave of hypermasculinity spread through the country once the soviet union collapsed, leaving the nation in crisis. all these reasons, in addition to the old religious and biological arguments, played a role in cultivating the very specific strain of homophobia in russia today.
because of this association with the west, it is incredibly difficult for activists to achieve anything, and in some circles even prompts discussion of whether it is truly worthwhile and beneficial. a quote by a russian lesbian haunts me in particular: “the problems for lesbians only start when they fight for their rights. because now the russian public knows the word. they know that lesbians exist.”
violence, financial insecurity, and psychological damage awaits anyone who is outwardly gay or associates with lgbt+ organizations, which makes it hard to gather collective action. funding for organizations is also low; if you lose your job because you’re lgbt+, it’s unlikely that you’ll have money to contribute to organizations. for many people, the costs of associating with an lgbt+ organizations outweigh the benefits.
that is why financial support rather than demonstration and protest is potentially more important to russian activist efforts. western demonstrations, such as those following the sochi olympics, only further solidified the connection of homosexuality and the west and made russia retaliate further against lgbt+ people. if you want to help, i think the best thing to do is stay informed, spread awareness, and contribute financially if you are able to. local efforts, such as those by the russian lgbt network, are in many cases better able to provide the specific aid that is required (for example, by evacuating gay men at risk in chechnya, or by assisting with legal issues).
only by understanding russia’s complex history and unique political and social climate can we cater our activism to be effective at helping lgbt+ russians.
my inbox/IM is open to anyone who wants any further insight, discussion, or clarification! (please do be mindful, however, since this is a highly sensitive topic for me)