In a near unanimous vote on Wednesday, the St. Petersburg city parliament passed the first draft of a law that would ban what the Russian press has labeled “homosexual propaganda.” Actually, and if we’re to be precise, the law would fine people for “public actions, aimed at propagandizing sodomy”—literally, “man-laying” in Russian—“lesbianism, bisexuality, [and] transgenderness among minors.” Violators would be subject to fines ranging from three thousand rubles (about $100), for individuals, to fifty-thousand rubles ($1,600), for organizations. The fines and language are the same for those propagandizing pedophilia, more or less inserting an equal sign between the two.
The sponsor of the bill—it still has to go through two more votes to become law—is Vitaly Milonov, from the ruling United Party. He explained the legislation by saying, “children have to be protected from destructive information.” What that meant was subject to interpretation. According to Milonov, this information could be found in sex-education classes where such values were “advertised,” as well as in the works of that gay cabal—show business. This was not in any way meant to be an intrusion into the personal lives of Petersburgers, Milonov added, but what could he do when his city is drowning under “a wave popularizing sexual perversion”?
Milonov’s colleagues chimed in, lumping sexual assault of a child in with consensual gay sex. “Children maimed by pedophiles jump out of windows, they take their own lives. Pedophilia is an attempt on a child’s life!” one of them said, adding that spreading such propaganda should be a criminal offense. Another deputy, Elena Babich, from the nationalist-crazypants Liberal Democratic party, agreed that the proposed penalties were too light. “What is a three-thousand ruble fine to a pedophile when they are supported by an international community?” (Did she mean show business?)
The legislation, which was rushed through the local parliament, is not unique. A similar law was passed this summer in the northern city of Arkhangelsk, where legislators expressed concern about the effect of gays on the city’s already low birthrates, and in the Ryazan region. But those were the provinces.
St. Petersburg, long Russia’s window to Europe and its bastion of high culture, is both a strange and logical place to pass such a law. For one thing, it was the first place with an L.G.B.T. organization: Kryl’ya (or “wings”) was founded in October 1991, having fought for its creation in the Soviet courts at a time when homosexuality was still criminalized and punishable by five years of hard labor. (That provision, the notorious Article 121, was repealed two years later, in 1993.) Moscow used to have a mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who denounced homosexuality as “satanic.” St. Petersburg, in contrast, was in some ways the center of organized gay life in Russia: the Russian branch of the I.L.G.A., the international L.G.B.T. rights organization is run out of St. Petersburg; pride parades, long the subject of violent battles with the Moscow authorities (who won’t allow them), have passed through this city peacefully, until this year. Imagine passing an anti-gay law in San Francisco.
“They upset me more as Petersburgers,” said Igor Kochetkov, of the LGBT Network, one of several gay-rights groups based in the city. “St. Petersburg has always been a European city, a city that’s very different from the rest of Russia, where the level of civilization, of intellect, of simple common sense is much higher.” Kochetkov added, “It’s no secret that life in Russia is difficult, and there are a lot of poorly educated, frightened, phobia-stricken people who are ready to be against anyone who doesn’t look like them, who lives better than them.”
Despite the elitist strain in that comment, there is also much truth in it. I witnessed a flamboyantly racist Russian March earlier this month, with blue-collar youngsters shouting “Fuck the Jews!” and “Allah is a fag!” Playing to a very low common denominator, especially when Europe’s economic crisis threatens to spill over to Russia, is a very dangerous game. “We’re not just fighting for our rights,” Kochetkov said, of the picket gay-rights groups had set up outside the city duma. “We’re trying to save Russia from fascism.” And there is a bit of truth in that, as well.
The passage of the draft legislation shows that attacking the supposed enemies of “family values” can be an easy pleaser come election time everywhere. Russia has only eighteen days to go until the parliamentary elections. The results will doubtless be adjusted to keep an increasingly unpopular United Russia in power. That adjustment will have to be biggest of all in hyper-educated, cosmopolitan St. Petersburg, where United Russia has one of its lowest poll numbers in the country. Rallying the party’s naturally conservative, less affluent, less educated base against a horde of pernicious, perverted, effete homosexuals and/or pedophiles—they too are portrayed as foreigners, planted and financed by the West—is an easy, if unsavory, last-ditch play.
And yet, under the seriousness of fomenting hatred and inscribing discrimination into the legal code, there has also been a streak of irony and humor in the response to this development. It’s especially fitting in a country where public displays of machismo can often bleed into the homoerotic. How, for example, will this law affect the annual celebration of Paratrooper Day, when, all over the country, thousands of former paratroopers get drunk, strip to their skivvies, and frolic in city fountains, splashing and wetly embracing? Is that homosexual propaganda? And, as a Russian friend pointed out to me, what about the ruling tandem? When Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin go bike riding together, when they have intimate public breakfasts, when they are forced to deny that they’re married, when they play badminton, when they ski and drink cocoa and fish, often in matching outfits and in the total absence of women, what about that?
What’s Russian for “Homosexual Propaganda”? [TNY]