How Russia rejected its latest anti-gay law, and what its failure means

Russia’s latest attempt to expand on its anti-gay legislation was thrown out on technical grounds within minutes of being brought up in committee.

This was, however, a more predictable outcome than it may first appear.


Moscow’s White House

In the words of former speaker Boris Gryzlov “the Duma is no place for discussion.” Most of the laws discussed there today have zero chance of ever passing.

Vladimir Putin’s personal approval rating may appear to be sky high at 85%, but a closer look complicates that picture, and faith in public institutions in Russia is even less secure. The most recent available polls show the Duma’s rating split about even, with 48% approving of its job and 50% disapproving.

If you think about it, that’s actually not bad for a legislature where the ruling party’s staffers once ran from desk to desk hitting the “yes” vote button to approve a law against drunk driving. Yes, those numbers are almost certainly inflated.

The fact is, nothing that passes in the Duma is an organic expression of the legislative process. Even the so-called “gay propaganda” law that makes any public discussion of homosexuality taboo was originally considered at the regional level before being passed as federal law. It wasn’t their idea.

Just to keep up the appearance that something is going on in Russia’s White House, minor lawmakers regularly propose absurd ideas to try and achieve some level of mainstream recognition. Last October for instance, Communist Vadim Solovyov introduced a law to ban lawmakers from using Whatsapp, Yahoo! or Google, citing how easily foreign intelligence can access their information. It hasn’t gone anywhere since.

Thanks to this phenomenon, Russian internet users coined a new nickname for the Duma — “the out of control printer.”


Google Trends search volume data for “Nikitchuk,” 1/18/2016. The first blip for “Nikitchuk” is for Sofia Nikitchuk, Miss Russia 2015. The second blip is for raging homophobe Ivan Nikitchuk. Note that searches for “Ivan Nikitchuk” in Russian are a flat line.

This latest law was just such a troll, but it was dangerous for two reasons: First, there is a very real possibility that, whether it became law or not, its discussion could bring further harm to LGBT Russians. Second, proposing such a law could draw attention to the odious people who brought it forth. Now that the second possibility has largely been fulfilled, it won’t be long before Russia’s shrill, anti-gay rhetoric escalates, resulting in further violence.

The decision to table Communist MP Ivan Nikitchuk’s motion wasn’t out of any generosity to the LGBT community. Committee chair Vladimir Pligin ruled amid giggling lawmakers that “if the emotional content of its authors were rephrased as an actual law, maybe it could be revisited.” The question may indeed come up again, but in all likelihood the authorities are satisfied with their current, half-assed discriminatory law, as opposed to a more blatant one that would be even more of an international liability.

(Liberal politician Dmitry Gudkov did sneak in a question as to how the law would aim to distinguish between a gay kiss and a Brezhnev kiss, amusingly enough, during the brief debate.)

Nonetheless, the dynamic that plays out whenever the issue of LGBT rights in Russia comes up in the media is not healthy. It is understandable that people are outraged when this happens, and it is commendable that they should want to do something. But any action should take into account what the reaction will be in Russia, and the best way to do that would be to reach out to activists on the ground first.

In several cases, I saw media reports on this story composed entirely of quotes from Nikitchuk, with zero from any Russian LGBT organizers. That is alarmingly close to PR — for the bad guy!!! — in lieu of journalism.

Worse yet, there is a considerable danger to playing into the homophobic argument made around the world that LGBT rights are being imposed on other countries by the West. As Mark Gevisser wrote in a New York Times op-ed describing the work of Russian LGBT groups on the ground just over two years ago:

…actions like mass boycotts against vodka or Coca-Cola (an Olympic sponsor) carry a double edge: They reinforce the official line that lesbian and gay rights are an obsession of the decadent, commercialized West, from which Russian values must be protected.

With that, it is time to acknowledge that feeding into the narrative that Russia and “the West” (whatever that means) are locked in a new Cold War is a dangerous game for LGBT people. This runs the very real risk of turning queer people into a political football. In fact, this latest story confirms is that it is already happening.

There needs to be a real discussion as to how to coordinate queer efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere. It isn’t going to happen without building bridges with activists in the country in question.

James Neimeister is a freelance writer from Ohio. His interests include: Russia, Ukraine, education, technology, and "cyberspace."

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3 Responses to “How Russia rejected its latest anti-gay law, and what its failure means”

  1. Xander says:

    Thank you so much for this article!
    I’m from Russia and I’m so glad to read the idea that you’ve pointed so many important and clever issues about LGBT rights situation in Russia.
    Without that blaming which I notice so many times like – “oh these Russians etc.” instead of discussing the problem itself and without mentioning of Putin 1 million times.

    The very important problem I see here in Russia – LGBT are not so interested in knowing about and making of LGBT rights groups. The majority will not be able to name even one.
    More than that – many LGBT groups and web-pages are more about politics than about human rights. They prefer to speak about big bad Putin instead of LGBT problems.
    Can you imagine the situation that gay will be injured by someone and the majority of LGBT groups in USA, Germany, France, etc will start saying something like – “It is all because of Obama! (Merkel, Oland) He should be thrown down from being a president!” In Russia – it is usual – Putin is to be blamed for ALL.
    As Nikitchuk is trying to make PR on this LGBT topic – LGBT groups only speak about politics.
    Only few groups are trying to speak about issues like education, health, social dialogue, safety, bulling at schools ( Not everyone want to understand that if Putin disappear – bulling will not stop immediately. Surprise.).
    When someone start speaking about fighting for his rights – it will sure be about politics – not human rights. How to improve the life of LGBT? Make a political revolution!
    And officials say – all this LGBT staff came from the West! (yes, some of them really think so! they are not hypocrites here.)
    So – no winners here. And most of LGBT do not want to participate in these political games.
    Trying to speak that this witch hunt will increase the violence? You will be eaten from both sides.

    Some people still think that LGBT is a mental disease. I want to stress it – they are really SURE about it. And nobody tell them that they are just wrong. They wonder – why nobody put LGBT in mental hospitals. I’m speaking about officials, and educated people. You will hardly find a doctor here who will clearly say – being LGBT is not a disease. They are not frightened of smth. They just don’t know that it is not.
    Who speaks for LGBT in Russia? Some journalists, some actors and singers (very few). That’s all. It is really impossible to find a doctor, military,engineer etc. Even if they wanted to say smth – they do not know what to say and how to say.
    I think it is very important for LGBT from Russia to communicate with LGBT from other countries.
    In Russia we also have some LGBT related festivals, films, sport groups and activists, etc – I think that mutual experience discussion is very important. For understanding of problems first of all.
    One more time thank you for the article! (and sorry for my poor English).

  2. Don Chandler says:

    Not entirely, they need Putin’s blessing. Ours won’t doing anything blessed by Obama. I think there is some truth in the statement that Russia can’t be bullied into social change. If say Obama started yammering about Russia overturning it’s anti-gay laws, Russians in general would support Putin over Obama and Putin could have a bump in popularity…what ever the truth of it is. So it’s much better to work closely with our brothers and sisters in Russia and support them in the way they think is most effective.

  3. BeccaM says:

    So, basically the Russian DUMA is very much like America’s Congress under GOP majority control: A place where ideas and proposals, including even horrifically bad ones, go to die.

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