Art: Danny Berkovskii / Mediazona
The Supreme Court has just approved the request by the Ministry of Justice to ban the “international LGBT movement” and designate it as an “extremist organisation.” This put activists and human rights defenders at risk of criminal charges and renders the legal operation of organisations assisting the LGBTQ+ community impossible. Here is a brief timeline of Russia’s movement in this direction.
“In an attempt to forge a certain identity and strengthen statehood, specific categories of enemies were chosen”
What was banned: The first law prohibiting “homosexual propaganda” was adopted in the Ryazan region, near Moscow, in 2006. The regional deputies introduced fines for “public actions aimed at promoting homosexuality (sodomy and lesbianism) among minors.”
In 2011-2013, similar laws emerged in another 11 regions. Almost everywhere, the discussion was about the “promotion of LGBT” among minors, with only the Kaliningrad region extending this prohibition to adults.
Consequences: In practice, these laws were rarely applied, but they served as a pretext to ban rallies.
More details: According to a report by the Moscow Helsinki Group, published in early 2013, these laws were only enforced in three regions, mainly to prevent the coordination of rallies and penalize participants in solo pickets.
Igor Kochetkov, founder of the Russian LGBT Network, told Mediazona that the regional laws were “a state propaganda campaign aimed at testing the idea of adopting a federal law” and stressed that in practice they were “almost never applied.”
Alexander Voronov, executive director of the LGBT+ group Vykhod told Mediazona that before the adoption of the federal law in 2013, authorities paid much less attention to the queer community. “At some point, in an attempt to build a certain identity and strengthen statehood, specific categories of enemies were chosen. ‘Foreign agents’ appeared and attention to the LGBT community increased,” he notes.
Voronov references a study of homophobic and transphobic state propaganda, whose authors found that “only in the mid-2000s was the phrase ‘traditional values’ first used in relation to LGBT people”—previously, “traditional values” were only mentioned in discussions about indigenous peoples.
“The state said: ‘yes, go ahead, it’s okay to attack them’ ”
What was banned: In June 2013, the State Duma introduced administrative punishment for “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors.” Propaganda was understood as the dissemination of information that forms “non-traditional sexual attitudes”, equates “traditional and non-traditional sexual relations”, and shows the “attractiveness of non-traditional sexual relations.” Fines were also threatened for “imposing information about non-traditional sexual relations, causing interest in such relations.”
Consequences: LGBTQ+ organisations started adding 18+ disclaimers. In 2015, the Deti-404. LGBT Teenagers public page was still blocked. The police selectively, but regularly, drew up protocols under Article 6.21 of the Code of Administrative Offences. It became more difficult to conduct public events, which were often disrupted. Informers emerged who monitored the queer community. The legislation on “foreign agents” in the same years was also used to pressure LGBTQ+ organisations. The level of domestic violence increased slightly, but at the same time, there was its normalisation at the state level.
More details: Igor Kochetkov says that the authorities used homophobic laws to split the participants of the 2011–2013 protests, who included nationalists. LGBT persons were then a “closed deeply stigmatised group, which was very easy to use as an imaginary internal enemy.” At the same time, he says, human rights activists tried “to explain to society what the problem is, why homophobia and transphobia are bad, and this mobilised LGBT people.” As a result, many new LGBT organisations appeared in Russian regions.
“The enforcement of this legislation was rather tepid,” Alexander Voronov from Vykhod observes. “Actual prosecutions were rare, but they more frequently issued protocols. There was a lot of talk, numerous statements, and frequent calls for investigations. It served as a tool for intimidation. We also saw showcase cases, like that of Yulia Tsvetkova. True, real cases were scarce, but the whole system was chaotic and unpredictable—no one knew who might be targeted next. This created a pervasive atmosphere of fear, leading everyone to be overly cautious and to include disclaimers wherever possible, just to be safe.”
Igor Kochetkov echoes this sentiment, noting that “there was absolutely no logic to it.” “Throughout all these years, not once was a protocol issued against me, despite the fact that I never used an 18+ disclaimer and was always a public figure in human rights defense.”
While the law itself didn't significantly increase violence levels, state propaganda contributed to normalizing it. In 2013, Vykhod initiated a program to monitor discrimination. As Voronov points out, human rights defenders saw a consistent pattern of violence against LGBT for a long time. In 2021, a decline in violence was observed for the first time. “LGBT individuals themselves report feeling a bit more at ease. Despite the continuous homophobic and transphobic rhetoric from the state, day-to-day life started to improve,” he observes.
The Russian LGBT Network has been conducting surveys since 2006. According to Kochetkov, these surveys didn’t show an increase in violence following the enactment of the new law. However, violence became more overt and cynical. For instance, Maxim Martsinkevich, the founder of the Occupy-Pedophiliay movement and a famous neo-Nazi, was even invited on television. “This has led to a normalization of violence. The state’s message was clear: ‘Yes, go ahead, it’s okay to attack them.’ ”
The laws on “LGBT propaganda” and “foreign agents” were both utilized to pressure support organizations. Kochetkov mentions that while the “foreign agents” law wasn’t initially targeted at the LGBTQ+ community, it became a significant tool by 2021. “For about a year, each Friday brought news of another LGBT activist or organization being added to this list,” he recalls. “It seems they have included everyone they possibly could.”
Voronov reflects on a time when the registry of unregistered public associations, labeled as “foreign agents”, included OVD-Info, Golos, and five LGBTQ+ organizations. When Vykhod was designated as “foreign agents” in 2021, several businesses ceased collaborations with them, leading to the departure of some volunteers and specialists.
The year 2021 also marked a surge in informants targeting LGBTQ+ individuals and groups, with figures like Timur Bulatov, “Male State”, and the “Safe Internet League” being prominent. “Our volunteers monitor all these channels to see if there’s a campaign brewing against us. I believe it’s mutual; someone is probably monitoring all LGBT organizations’ Telegram channels just as closely. It’s a stark reminder that we’re not alone,” Voronov says with a hint of irony.
Voronov mentions the challenges faced during offline events. The LGBT film festival “Side by Side” (“Bok o Bok”), active since 2008 in St. Petersburg and other Russian cities, faced regular disruptions by homophobic activists and the police. In 2021, the festival transitioned to an online format. Meanwhile, Vykhod annually hosted the “QueerFest” in St. Petersburg, which largely occurred without major incidents. Voronov suspects that the “Side by Side” festival was specifically targeted for some reason.
He recalls the community center Vykhod operated in St. Petersburg until the start of the war. The center’s address was public, but visits required prior arrangements. “We were vigilant, constantly ensuring that no one under 18 was present at support groups or events. In 2021, there were incidents where provocateurs deliberately sent minors to events held by our colleagues.”
The dynamics of the state's attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community can be tracked through public opinion polls, as they reflect the official viewpoint, believes Kochetkov. “When the state actively conducts a homophobic campaign, the number of homophobic responses in sociological surveys increases.”
The activist notes that there was a rise in homophobic sentiments until 2015, followed by a plateau, and then a slight decline. “Attitudes have changed across different groups,” he says. According to surveys, the youth “believe that there is no such thing as propaganda, it doesn’t matter who sleeps with whom, the main thing is that everyone gets enough sleep.” In other groups, attitudes are less tolerant.
Voronov notes that “before the pandemic, things were a bit freer,” although “it always seemed at the moment that this was already the apex, a complete nightmare, it couldn’t get worse, we were in hell.” When the war began, “it was absolutely clear that enemies would be sought and found in the ‘pernicious influence of the West’, in LGBT people.”
“Homophobia and transphobia become the ideology of war”
What was banned: In November of 2022, the State Duma adopted new, more harsh laws targeted at the LGBTQ+ community. Fines of up to 400,000 roubles for individuals and up to 5,000,000 roubles for legal entities were introduced for the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations, preferences, and sex-change” among people of all ages (Article 6.21 of the Code of Administrative Offences).
A separate article (6.21.2) was dedicated to disseminating information that “demonstrates non-traditional sexual relations or is able to prompt a desire for sex-change” in minors. With fines of 200,000 roubles for individuals and 4,000,000 roubles for legal entities.
“Materials that propagate non-traditional sexual relations” are banned in legislation dedicated to advertising, film, and media. Websites with information like this are to be blocked.
Consequences: The government censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, started to systematically draw up protocols on video streaming services. Fearing fines, these services began to censor mentions of LGBTQ+ in movies, TV shows, and music videos. In Moscow, courts expel transgender sex-workers from the country, with their adverts being the pretext.
More details: Igor Kochetkov stresses that in his speech on the day the full-scale invasion in Ukraine started, on February 24, president Vladimir Putin mentioned protection of “traditional values” as one of his goals. “It's an unprecedented situation when homophobia and transphobia become the ideology of war,” the human rights advocate says. “It changes the status of these views. Before, it was someone’s whimsey, you could have different views: maybe you don't like fish, maybe you don’t like LGBT. But now it’s an ideology which is justifying war, and it must be banned under Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” Often, books are disappearing from circulation, movies are banned from cinemas “not because someone orders this, but because citizens themselves show initiative, they are frightened.”
“Among the worst traps of repressive regimes is that it’s impossible to know how legislation is supposed to work,” says Voronov. This leads to a rise of self-censorship: “People are like: well, if they fined MuzTV, they’ll definitely fine us. And MuzTV can handle a multi-million fine, but we can’t.”
Kochetkov points out the deliberate vagueness in the law’s language, stressing, “This is done quite intentionally, so that every citizen of the Russian Federation sits and thinks: ‘Am I not propagating something accidentally?’”
Voronov recalls that before 2022, there weren’t any notable cases against legal entities, as an “18+” disclaimer usually sufficed to avoid accusations of spreading prohibited content. He observes that after the law’s amendment, avoiding a fine has become “practically impossible.”
He highlights that current enforcement predominantly targets popular services like Kinopoisk, an online movie database and a streaming service, and visible activists in Russia. He also notes a new trend in law enforcement pursuing transgender sex workers for online advertising, a previously uncommon practice. Kochetkov, citing rumours, links the actions against online cinemas to “business interests of Roskomnadzor” and suggests that the crackdown on sex workers relates to “restructuring the sex services market in Moscow.”
The law: In July, the State Duma passed a law prohibiting “medical interventions, including the use of medicinal products, aimed at changing sex,” along with changes to gender markers in documents. Consequently, trans people are barred from adopting children or becoming guardians. Moreover, a change in gender markers within a marriage could lead to its automatic annulment.
Consequences: This law strips trans people of access to medical assistance for alleviating gender dysphoria. Human rights activists warn that this will likely exacerbate systemic discrimination and potentially increase suicide rates.
“The prospect of legal work of LGBT organizations in Russia will become impossible”
What is being banned: The Ministry of Justice’s press release claims that the activities of the “LGBT movement” exhibit “various signs and manifestations of extremist orientation, including incitement of social and religious discord.”
Consequences: Law enforcement will gain the authority to prosecute individuals they deem associated with this group under the “extremist” articles of the Criminal Code.
More details: Igor Kochetkov from the Russian LGBT Network stresses that the implications won’t lead to immediate arrests or imprisonment for extremism. A separate criminal case would need initiation for a conviction, and labelling books or films “extremist” also requires a court ruling. “On one hand, this represents absolute arbitrariness, but on the other hand, it’s a quite cumbersome bureaucratic procedure,” he observes. Nonetheless, “after the Supreme Court’s decision, the prospect of legal—I emphasize, legal—work of LGBT organisations in Russia will become impossible”.
Vykhod’s Alexander Voronov concurs, noting the increased difficulty and fear for those who continue to work in the country, anticipating “chaotic and selective” persecution. “As for ordinary people, we hope, and it seems to be the case, that there will be no repressive actions based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” he says. “But it’s clear that this represents a significant blow to everyday life. More stress, more closed life.”
Editor: Yegor Skovoroda
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