In his annual state of the nation speech last month, Vladimir Putin talked about defending traditional values. One phrase stood out, revealing the deep-seated fear and prejudice which lie behind the country’s anti-gay legislation.
Family values, said the Russian President, are the foundation of the country’s greatness and a bulwark against “genderless and infertile” Western tolerance. He didn’t mention homosexuality but it was clearly what he had in mind, and he added another slur a couple of days ago. Gay people will not be harassed at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, he declared, as long as they stay away from children.
The conflation of adult homosexual love and paedophilia has long been used as a tactic against gay people. Putin claimed he was merely clarifying Russia’s law in advance of the Olympics, pointing out that “the propaganda of homosexuality and paedophilia” is banned, not gay relationships. But his phrasing – “Leave children alone, please” – will inflame anti-gay sentiment in Russia, where a poll carried out last year suggested almost half the population believe homosexuality is a consequence of “being subjected to perversion”. Three-quarters support the law banning gay “propaganda” and Moscow has outlawed gay pride marches for 100 years.
Putin’s sneering homophobia is shared by the Russian Orthodox church. His friend and confidant, the Patriarch Kirill, has said that recognising gay relationships would be “a sign of the Apocalypse”. The church is believed to have encouraged the prosecution of members of the punk band Pussy Riot, who support equal rights for gay people. At their trial, witnesses described the group’s performance as “demonic”. When I spoke to Pussy Riot last summer, they talked about homophobia in Russia and linked it to the government’s support for “traditional” gender roles. “The atmosphere in Moscow is very conservative. People don’t understand the LGBT community,” one of them told me.
She added that the idea of “Russian motherhood” is very important under Putin’s presidency. “In former times women were active and followed careers. Now a woman has to give birth to a child before the age of 23. She needs her husband’s permission to use contraception.”
Her words were prescient in view of Putin’s recent attack on blurred gender boundaries. In a dreadful confluence of interests, the Orthodox Church’s conservative outlook has found a match in the President’s identity crisis. Putin is mocked abroad for his Action Man stunts, staged events in which he rides bareback. They do not suggest a man at ease with himself.
Weak egos and repressive states require scapegoats and, tragically, gay people in Russia have been chosen as targets. The Olympic Games, which celebrate human achievement, are being used as a rabble-rousing tool by a leader who hankers after an imaginary past when men were straight – and women were mothers.