How liberal outrage pushed a homophobic troll video to the top of Russia’s political agenda

Analysis Democratically minded Russians reacted in an ‘awfully stupid way’ by amplifying a pro-Putin advert uncritically, says prominent LGBT+ activist 

Oliver Carroll
Sunday 07 June 2020 04:36 BST
Homophobic political advert urges people to oppose LGBTQ people adopting children

As far as storyboards go, the advert was as inept as it was crass.

The year is 2035. Two gay men are in the process of adopting a child. A worried boy asks where his mother is. Orphanage workers look on with concern. An effeminate actor in eyeliner, “mum”, gets out of his car.

“Is this the Russia you choose?” asks a voice from off-screen. “Decide the future of your country and vote for amendments to the constitution.”

Given the history of politicised homophobia, it was easy to link the video to the Kremlin and its forthcoming plebiscite on allowing Mr Putin to annul presidential term limits.

Most of liberal Russia did just that. Pyotr Verzilov, a media publisher and spokesperson for Pussy Riot, was one of the first to express indignation. “AAA! Official campaign video: vote for the amendments or GAYS WILL TAKE ALL RUSSIAN CHILDREN HOME WITH THEM,” he wrote on Twitter. Russia’s independent media — and many western commentators — largely followed suit.

In reality, however, there is little evidence suggesting the Kremlin had a hand in the advert. And by amplifying its message as if there were such a link, liberal commentators arguably gave the video a platform way above its pay grade. In other words, they did for homophobia what Barbara Streisand did for unsanctioned photography.

Despite Mr Verzilov’s initial tweet describing it as an official campaign video, the 10 minute clip was in fact the production of media groups answerable to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a shadowy oligarch associated with Russian troll farms and mercenary operations abroad.

There are few absolutes in Russian politics, but it is important to recognise Mr Prigozhin’s domestic media interests are much more autonomous and marginal than his other projects. As far as this campaign video is concerned, all the evidence points to a freelance enterprise.

In conversations with The Independent, a source close to the presidential administration with experience of off-book political campaigns described the video as an “attempt to influence” the official July 1 campaign. “Prigozhin tries to muscle in on every movement or vote, and he has enough money for all the experiments he pleases,” the source said. “He regularly, and without any orders from above, does his own thing.”

Tatyana Stanovaya, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center and keen observer of elite politics, agreed that the video appeared to be Mr Prigozhin’s personal initiative. If the presidential administration had any role, she said, it was to turn a blind eye: “Over the last few years, the presidential administration has chosen to ignore many things, and is losing its monopoly on domestic politics as a result.”

None of this, of course, is to say the Kremlin was especially angered by the video. Mr Prigozhin knew where he was treading, and followed the party line of homophobia completely. It also seems likely that the video’s viral success will now give officials pause for thought. They understand they have a job on their hands to achieve a convincing win in the constitutional vote on July 1 without reverting to blunt manipulations. According to a recent poll by Levada Centre, the last independent pollsters left in Russia, only 44 per cent of Russians were ready to vote for Mr Putin’s power grab.

Abbas Galyamov, a prominent political consultant, suggested the Kremlin could be pleased to turn the constitutional vote into a vote on minorities. “A referendum about gays is the regime’s wet dream,” he wrote on Facebook. “A referendum about annulling presidential terms is the Kremlin’s worst nightmare.”

Judging by the way it wasn’t widely distributed at first, it was probably designed as a test, to see if homophobia still chimed with the electorate

Igor Kochetkov, Russian LGBT Network

But The Independent’s Kremlin source cautioned it was “unwise” to read any “deep meaning” into the appearance of the video. “We are talking about particular PR consultants outside of government who have identified what they think is a successful product of homophobia, and who have tried to make a big media provocation out of it,” he said.

Igor Kochetkov, head of the Russian LGBT Network, said democratically inclined Russians had reacted in an “awfully stupid way” by amplifying the video’s message uncritically.

“The only thing people did was bring attention to it, and save Prigozhin a lot of money in the process,” the activist said in comments to The Independent. The advert appeared to be Mr Prigozhin’s way of impressing his bosses: “Judging by the way it wasn’t widely distributed at first, it was probably designed as a test, to see if homophobia still chimed with the electorate.”

The homophobia card certainly worked the last time it was road-trialled in a major way in 2013. Then, the introduction of the much-derided law on “gay propaganda,” Russia’s Section 28, divided society and bolstered Vladimir Putin’s rating. But fast forward to 2020 and it is less clear what effect, if any, it can have on electoral dynamics. The context is quite different given the coronavirus pandemic, a multi-year economic squeeze, and increasingly liberal mindsets among the younger generation.

A poll published last year suggested half of Russians were now in favour of equal rights for LGBT+ people, up from 39 per cent in 2013.

Marianna Muravyeva, professor of gender and law at Helsinki University, suggested Mr Prigozhin’s advisors were working to an “outdated script.”

“It’s a dumb strategy,” she said. “It comes from people who believe that the nation is made up of dark, unenlightened masses. They don’t understand it hasn’t been like that for some time.”

Signs of Russia’s increasingly tolerant reality were also evident in a strong counter-reaction to the video. Going under the hashtag #davyberu, or #yesIchoose, a stream of commentators took to the internet to explain why they would, in fact, choose a Russia with gay parents. Artists published scenes of idealised gay families; one post garnered 15,000 likes within a couple of hours of posting.

Activist Kochetkov said he was greatly encouraged by what he saw in the counter-campaign, and expressed hope it would deter authorities from using homophobia in their campaign.

“Back in 2013, when we were fighting against the propaganda law, we had nothing like #YesIchoose,” he said. “The Kremlin needs to understand homophobia won’t help increase turnout or support for their changes. It simply isn’t fashionable any more.”

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