This LGBT+ History Month, Ada Wordsworth, Final Year Russian Studies Student at UCL SSEES, explores how queerness and ideas of European values intersect in Russia.
Contrary to Western perceptions, queer culture in Moscow and St Petersburg is thriving. There are gay clubs open around the cities, people feel more confident than ever to hold hands with their partners, and attitudes, particularly amongst the younger generation, are increasingly liberal. It would be a mistake, however, to view this trend as Russia-wide.
In a country of 85 federal subjects, 190 recognised nationalities, and 140 million citizens, all spread over a country only slightly smaller than the entire surface area of Pluto, views on LGBTQ rights are wide-ranging and often self-contradictory. In Moscow, queer club nights are increasingly attracting a diverse client base of queer people and allies, while in Chechnya, LGBTQ people are being rounded up, detained, tortured, and even killed on the basis of their identity.
In fact, overall attitudes in Russia toward LGBTQ people have become increasingly negative in recent years. Polling by the Levada Centre indicates that in 2003, 45% of respondents viewed homosexuality ‘calmly and without any particular emotion’. However, in the most recent survey in 2015, this had almost halved to 26%, with increases in the proportion of people who viewed LGBTQ people either ‘apprehensively’, ‘with annoyance’, or ‘with fear and disgust’. Despite this and the infamous 2013 law preventing the public advocacy of ‘non-traditional relationships’, continue to be legal in Russia. The Kremlin insists that homosexual and transgender citizens of the Russian Federation are equal to their hetero- and cissexual counterparts..
In my research speaking to young, gay Russians about their lives, hopes, and dreams, I found a widespread, almost universal desire to leave Russia and flee to Europe. Europe represents a land of freedom and opportunity, where a life without fear of retribution seems possible. However, this Eurocentric symbolism exists on both sides of the debate. Whereas queer Russians see Europe as a place of freedom, the religious and the right-wing in Russia view Europe as a place of immorality and debauchery. Europe is often referred to, by Russian authorities, as ‘Gayropa’.
The Russian State’s attitude toward gay rights is inextricably linked to its views on the West and Europe. Russia finds itself increasingly at odds with the European Union’s definition of ‘European values’, such as liberalism and tolerance toward sexual and gender minorities. The situation is cyclical: the EU takes ownership over ideas of European morals, placing itself at the centre of the continent’s value system, thus alienating Russians who feel themselves to be European, but are fundamentally illiberal in their views toward LGBTQ issues.
Simultaneously, as Russia-EU relations grow increasingly hostile, it is minority groups in Russia which suffer the most, as the state attempts to position itself as a distinct, separate entity to the immoral and depraved West. Russia has, in recent years, given up on its efforts to redefine European values or to slot itself into them. Instead, it has returned to Soviet ideals of opposition to Europe, positioning itself as the moral ‘other’, defending itself and its sphere of influence from the debauchery on the other side of the continent.
To see this opposition in its most outward form, it is not to Russia that one ought to look, but to Ukraine, long forced to sit in between Russia and the West. In 2020, a bill was put forward to the Ukrainian parliament to criminalise hate crimes against sexual minorities. The polarisation it caused was striking–those in support were from pro-European parties, whilst those against were pro-Russia.
For many in the former Soviet Union, Europe has become synonymous with LGBTQ rights. Belgian Political scientist and LGBTQ rights activist Rémy Bonny has noted the direct links between support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine, and for ‘traditional family values’. Throughout the conflict in Ukraine, the Russia/Europe divide has been framed by Russia as a morality issue – and often, as an overtly sexual one. As one anti-European commentator put it, the only way for Ukraine to integrate with Europe is ‘through the ass’. Much of the Russian propaganda in Eastern Ukraine has been based around the narrative of rescuing Ukraine from ‘Gayropa’ and the threats it poses to a traditional, Slavic way of life.
This idea of Slavic countries being the home of ‘traditional family values’, in contrast with the depraved West, can be traced back to the nineteenth-century Slavophile movement, which posited that European modernity was intrinsically inferior to Slavic traditionalism. Whilst the West is defined by consumerism, Russia is defined by spiritualism. Today, the same rhetoric can be seen in conversations about gay rights. For as long as Russia sees itself in opposition to Europe on moral terms, it is inevitable that those who fall foul to the Kremlin’s views of morality will look westwards for liberation.
These attempts on both sides of the continent to create a sense of division are avoiding the uncomfortable truth of quite how often the motivations are similar. In Western Europe, far-right parties weaponise LGBTQ rights in order to spread Islamophobia and fear of migrants, whilst in Russia and other Eastern European countries, homophobia is necessary to promote the image of Slavic purity. Similarly, centrist parties in the West will use the Kremlin’s homophobia as a rallying cry in anti-Russian politics – whilst at the same time failing to properly support Russian LGBTQ asylum seekers.
Across the continent, LGBTQ lives are being weaponised to fulfil political agendas. As we look ahead to potentially decades more rule under Putin, the priority of those in the West who care about LGBTQ rights must be to centre these individual rights and liberties in discussions around the East/West divide, and to avoid falling prey to the typical propagandistic stereotypes to which we have grown all too accustomed
For more on queer life in Russia and the country’s LGBT+ relations with Europe, listen to Ada’s podcast, ‘Hope and Community for LGBT+ Russians’, on Pushkin House.
Photo credit: Christian Kadluba, CC BY-SA 2.0
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.