Why the Duma’s new restrictions against LGBTQ “propaganda” are both dangerous and unsurprising.
Nearly everyone who pursues an advanced degree in area studies without having ethnic or family ties to their chosen region has an unusual story about how they got into the field. In my case, the interest stemmed from two short-term evangelical youth mission trips to Russia in 1999 and 2000.
I had just graduated from high school at the time, and I was looking for something to help me contextualize a crisis of faith that had been troubling me for several years. I wanted to imagine a world beyond the stifling Midwestern conservative Christian enclave in which I’d grown up, and when I first stepped off the plane in Moscow, I was nervous but also thrilled to start getting a sense of what Russia was like. I was thus susceptible to certain romantic notions about the “Russian soul” and its depth of authenticity that supposedly contrasted with Western superficiality and calculation, and, after seeing the sights in Moscow and spending a couple of weeks getting to know young Russians in a rural summer camp environment, I was hooked. In that lingering post-Cold War moment of relative optimism, I developed a naive fascination with Russian language and culture that came to define my professional and intellectual life in the following years.
It’s embarrassing to me now that I ever engaged in missionary activities, but, while I quickly gave up on the desirability of converting (Orthodox) Christians to (Protestant) Christianity, the new friends and pen pals and an interest in the country itself remained. I began to study Russian in college, and from that point on, I traveled to Russia regularly until the end of 2015, by which time I had earned a PhD in modern Russian history from Stanford University and spent three years teaching at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), a school with which Stanford partnered at the time. But these days, I’m forced to wonder if I’ll ever go back.
Amid the coverage of Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine, which has dragged on now for nearly eight months, the Russian State Duma has been preparing to pass further restrictions against LGBTQ “propaganda” in an initiative that Deputy Alexander Khinshtein, chair of the committee on information policy, believes may pass as early as next week, according to reporting by the Russian news service Interfax. The new legislation, for which hefty fines will be demanded from violators, is quite comprehensive, banning any public representation of queer sexualities or gender identities, and making particular mention of banning “information that might cause children to wish to change their sex.” Thus far, this new legislation has received relatively little comment in the Western press. But there is no doubt that the legislation and the Russian discourse around it will generate yet more violence against a scapegoated minority as the government drives LGBTQ existence entirely underground.
“Sodomy” was illegal in the Soviet Union, and was only legalized in Russia in 1993. At that point, many observers believed that a democratizing post-Soviet state was on a trajectory toward greater acceptance of difference and greater integration into the international community. Sadly, and in retrospect unsurprisingly, the openness did not last.
From 2003 to 2004, in between finishing college at Ball State University and starting my postgraduate studies at Stanford, I worked as an English teacher at the American Home—a private English school and center of cultural exchange—in the provincial Russian city of Vladimir, in the region I’d traveled to as a youth missionary. In my advanced English classes at the American Home, I had students read and discuss newspaper articles about current events, and that year, the state of Massachusetts had legalized same-sex marriage. When we discussed the topic in class, by and large, the students voiced negative opinions. But whether it was acceptable that we were discussing homosexuality and LGBTQ rights in the classroom was never remotely in question.
Fast-forward to the 2012-2013 academic year, when, post-PhD, I taught humanities classes to both undergraduates and master’s students at RANEPA. One of the Russian students in my postgraduate course—the only liberal among the Russians in the class—gave a sympathetic presentation about Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” protest and its aftermath. She chose the topic entirely on her own, but I was admittedly enthusiastic. Her presentation gave way to a chaotic shouting match among the students, which I should have taken as a foreshadowing of things to come. Some weeks later, I got a frantic phone call from a RANEPA administrator demanding to know why I had “taught Pussy Riot lyrics” in my class. The conversation left me wondering if I was going to get fired. While I didn’t, I did learn to self-censor a bit in the classroom. Later that summer, the Russian State Duma passed its notorious anti-gay “propaganda” law banning the dissemination of any information about “non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. I was dismayed.
All of this has been on my mind in light of the Duma’s new anti-LGBTQ legislation—legislation that feels all the more potent given what is fueling it. Because while anti-queer sentiment has been brewing for years, with much encouragement from above, it is also quite clear that Moscow’s anti-queer obsession is connected with the war in Ukraine, both of which derive from an authoritarian ethos that elevates toxic masculinity, patriarchy, and “traditional values” as an ideal to be emulated, promising punishment for those who deviate. The legislation is of a piece with the war effort, which Russian Orthodox Church and state officials have cast in terms of “spiritual warfare” against the “satanic” West, specifically for its rejection of these same “traditional values.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken an increasingly right-wing populist line since 2011, a period when protests against corruption and election irregularities were a regular feature of life in Moscow. Meanwhile, since the Ukrainian protests of 2013, which centered on Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) and developed into what is now referred to as the Revolution of Dignity, right-wing Russian politicians and Russian Orthodox Christian leaders have fixated on Ukrainian aspirations for democracy and self-determination, denouncing these hopes as a Western conspiracy, Nazism, Satanism—and, of course, as the corrupting influence of “Gayropa.” The authoritarian desire of the Putin regime and Russian nationalists to control the future of Kyiv has thus been framed in terms of “Western decadence” vs. “traditional Slavic values,” a framing that, until Putin actually invaded Ukraine, generated a great deal of sympathy for the Russian autocrat on the American and European Right.
Here at home, of course, LGBTQ rights are also under intense attack by the Right, and certain states’ governors—those of Florida and Texas in particular—have so severely abused their respective state bureaucracies in their efforts to persecute transgender Americans and their supporters that many families with trans children have been forced to move out of state. This isn’t the post-Cold War world many of us once young, naïve idealists imagined. When I returned from Russia to take a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of South Florida in Tampa in 2015, I still thought I was going to a place where things were getting better and better for queer folks like myself. I was wrong.
In both Putin’s authoritarian Russia and Trump’s authoritarian America, it was (and has been) painful to watch people I thought were reasonable go all-in for the nationalist narratives that leave no room for those who are different from the straight Christian norm. Ironically, it was while living in Moscow, at age 33, that I finally came to recognize my own queerness, the source of feeling “different” and uncomfortable in my own skin that had marked my evangelical childhood and youth, and which that same evangelical socialization had left me ill-equipped to see or acknowledge. Once upon a time, I had held up Russia as a mirror to America, my vague young adult discontent and inability to feel comfortable in my Christian Right milieu fueling a need to broaden my horizons about human possibilities. Now, I see in both countries a sort of imperial provincialism, a post-Cold War hangover borne of “great power” nostalgia and a yawning abyss of insecurity papered over with jingoistic bravado, conspiracy theories, and approved categories of people to hate, while (in classic abuser mode) claiming to “love” them so much that you have to beat them into conformity with what is ultimately “best for them.” In both countries, there are many good people who resist these toxic impulses, but the impulses persist, leaving destruction in their wake.
The last time I was in Russia was December 2015, when RANEPA flew me to Moscow to sign a contract that supposedly had to be signed in person before I could get paid for the last semester of editorial work I had done remotely on one of the school’s academic journals. With not much to do other than wait for the paperwork, I visited friends, strolled down memory lane, and went ice skating with a colleague and an ex-girlfriend at the massive outdoor rink in Gorky Park. Amid New Year’s preparations, almost no work gets done in Russia in late December, and on the day I had to leave Moscow, there was still no contract for me to sign. “Don’t worry,” a young administrator told me. “We’ll just forge your signature on the contract.” I finally got paid in cash at an academic conference in the United States that took place nearly a year later.
That surreal goodbye to Russia is an apt coda to the years I spent at RANEPA, when Putin’s creeping authoritarianism started to become, well, much less creeping. In the first few years after 2015, I continued to assume I would return to Russia someday. But now, many Russians themselves, including some of my friends and colleagues, have had to flee the country for their own protection as conscientious objectors to the full-scale war that, back then, none of us anticipated. Some LGBTQ Russians have also fled in recent years, a trend that will no doubt continue as state persecution of the LGBTQ community intensifies. Just as Americans sometimes debate whether it’s ethical for people whose rights and safety are threatened to leave red states instead of staying and trying to change things for the better, the topic of leaving or remaining in Russia—which inevitably raises questions of privilege and survivors’ guilt—has been a contentious matter among the Russian intelligentsia in recent years. My own thinking is that no one who can find a way to leave—especially no marginalized person—is ever ethically obligated to remain in a place that denies them their rights and is unsafe for them. Sometimes, as you struggle to keep hope alive that someday things will be better, all you can do is bear witness.