A man in Volgograd celebrates Russian Victory Day with two close friends, drinking a few beers. At 23 years old, he has hidden his identity for most of his life; tonight, he has finally built up the courage to come out to his friends as gay. Instead of giving him words of affirmation or acceptance, his supposed friends suddenly start to beat him. After beating him into submission, they strip him and rape him repeatedly with beer bottles. They then injure his genitals, causing even more excruciating pain, both physical and emotional. After continuing to rape him with these blunt bottles, the men smash his head in with a stone, killing him.
His body is left in a courtyard for anyone to find, allowing for humiliation even after death (McCormick 2013). While this case is particularly brutal, similar incidents are not uncommon in modern Russia. And this was before Russia passed its anti-“gay propaganda” law, which significantly increased the prevalence of homophobic violence. At least 5% of Russians believe that homosexuals should be “liquidated” from society, and that number has likely increased since the passage of the anti-“gay propaganda” bill into law (The Moscow Times 2013).
Russia is one of the many examples of European Christian values pushing homosexuality into the realm of the taboo. Due to the introduction of the Orthodox faith, the desire to be more European, and the strictly enforced norms of hyper-masculinity, homosexuality has become demonized in Russian culture. In this paper, I will explore the topic of historical homosexuality as a whole before delving into the Russian case study. Additionally, I will give a detailed overview of the history of sexuality in the region of modern-day Russia. This will shed light upon numerous trends in Russian history and culture that will provide a useful lens through which to view the third section: homosexuality and sexual policy in post-Soviet Russia. These three sections ultimately culminate in a discussion about the rise of Vladimir Putin and its effects on norms of sexuality and masculinity in Russia.
Academically, homosexuality is discussed differently than one might initially expect. In the vast majority of cases, scholars look at homosexual acts rather than monogamous or committed relationships. This is because many historians believe that the concepts of monogamous homosexual relationships and even exclusive homosexuality are purely modern phenomena. Others, like historian John Boswell, use the writings of Plato, which described individuals who practiced homosexuality exclusively, to counter these arguments (Boswell 1980).
Additionally, scholars often write about historical homosexuality and masculinity (or the perceived lack thereof) in tandem. A society’s norms of masculinity and their expectations of men significantly inform their views of sex, especially of sex between two men. The perceived binary of homosexual sex (top/bottom, masculine/feminine, active/passive, dominant/submissive, etc.) leads to comparisons to heterosexual sex. The ancient Romans, for example, did not have words for “top” or “bottom”; instead, “active” and “passive” were used (Williams 1999).
In ancient Greece, the same distinction was made (Halperin n.d.). It should be noted that in these societies, homosexual acts often occurred between an adult and an adolescent (Williams 1999). This practice is known as pederasty, and it partially explains these societies’ notions of power imbalance being inherent to homosexuality.
Additionally, before discussing the history of homosexuality in Russia, it is important to understand the history of homosexuality as a whole. Many of the topics discussed in this paper are not solely Russian issues, but rather Russian case studies of much broader problems that span the globe. Homosexuality has existed for millennia throughout the world. In Egypt, for example, homosexuality has been recorded as early as the 5th Dynasty (Parkinson 1995).
In pre-Colombian North America, many Native American societies and nations had “respected roles” for LGBTQ+ peoples (Estrada 2011). It is important to note, however, that these roles did not perfectly reflect the modern concepts of homosexual, bisexual, or transgender identities. Homosexuality and gender-nonconformity were also found in pre-conquest Latin American civilizations (Pablo 2004, Murray 2004). The Spanish conquistadors (who practiced Catholicism) were horrified by homosexuality and severely punished homosexual behavior in the Americas (Coello de la Rosa 2002).
In China, homosexuality has been recorded for thousands of years. Ancient emperors/royalty in China often had sexual relationships with both men and women (Hinsch 1990). In Melanesia, homosexual acts were an integral part of society until the introduction of Christianity (Herdt 1984). In Edo Japan, there was an accepted third gender: the wakashu. These people were sexually available to both men and women (Chira 2017).
What unites these examples is their apparent disappearance after being introduced to Western, Christian society. While homosexual, bisexual, and transgender people still existed, their identities were forced underground due to sexual oppression by Western values. Russia is no different, as homosexuality first became taboo there after the introduction of Western European values. That said, over time, Russia developed its own culture and concepts of masculinity that fostered homophobia; however, this is arguably still entrenched in the initial introduction of Christianity.
History of Homosexuality in Russia
Scholars do not know much about the early history of homosexuality in Russia, as there are almost no written records of anything, much less evidence of same-sex love or activity. Christianity was introduced to Russian society in the mid to late 9th century by Greek missionaries (Herbermann 1913). Before the introduction of Christianity, Russia still consisted of many independent or semi-independent tribes. The presence of the Church, first adopted nationally by Vladimir the Great in 988 C.E., helped created a more unified Russia. With Christianity came the concepts of “territorial and hierarchical organization,” which spawned the creation of states. (Hosking et al. 2017).
This allowed the once-Prince Vladimir to become the Byzantine-backed King of Russia, one of many examples in which religion is used for purposes other than personal spirituality (Hosking et al. 2017). Additionally, the Church brought more strict gender roles. This introduction of Christianity also gave Russians a “negative views of all sexual activity… that were generally as harsh [towards] adultery and masturbation as they were for same-sex acts” (Healey 2004 Section 1). Thus, while the society of Kievan Rus clearly had a negative view of homosexuality, they did not view it as any worse than other common sins. Russia has been occupied by Indo-European, Ural-Altaic, and a diverse array of other peoples since at least 2000 B.C.E. While we are aware of the existence of these peoples and civilizations, most of the evidence we have is archaeological (Hosking et al. 2017). This severely limits our knowledge of their cultural practices, including the prevalence of and their views of homosexuality.]
The decline of Kiev in the 12th and 13th centuries had much to do with a shift in trade routes after the First Crusade, which hurt the Kievan economy. At the same time, conflicts increased between Kievan Princes, creating an atmosphere of regionalism instead of one of nationalism. This disunity led to alliances that gave the princes of Moscow more power than those in Kiev. Ultimately, this power gave Moscow the ability to take control of Russia near the end of the Golden Horde period. Thus, by the 15th century, Moscow became the center of Russian civilization (Hosking et al. 2017).
Much more written evidence survived the Muscovy period than the Kievan period before it, so historians know far more about Muscovite culture. According to Simon Karlinsky, “the Muscovite period may have been the era of the greatest visibility and tolerance for male homosexuality that the world had seen since the days of Ancient Greece and Rome” (Healey 2004 Section 2). This is because there were no laws against homosexuality; that said, there was still a negative social stigma attached to homosexuality (Healey 2004 Section 2). However, this openness was limited to the early Muscovite period. One can speculate that this was because the Muscovites were building a city and creating a culture. There was no significant need for state-sponsored homophobia, as the ruling class was busy with much more important tasks, such as maintaining their power, creating new laws and regulations, and forging diplomatic ties.
Most notably, Moscow’s diplomatic links to Crimea. These ties with Crimea also led to Moscow’s closer relationship with Constantinople (Hosking et al. 2017). Crimea offered a warm-water port, which was crucial for trade, and was highly influential throughout much of Russian history. The Muscovy period ranges from the late-13th century to the mid-16th century, while the Kievan period ranges from the late-9th century to the late-13th century.
During 16th and 17th century Muscovy, contact with Western Europe increased. In fact, much of what we know about social life in the late Muscovite and the pre-Imperial Tsarist period comes from the writings of travelers who visited Moscow. 16th and 17th century travelers “wrote vividly about the widespread practice of sodomy or “unnatural vice” between men and boys, between adult men, and between men and animals” (Middlebury n.d., Healey 2004 Section 2). Usually, these writers were Christian, so they came to Moscow with their own ideas about what was or was not socially acceptable.
Their writings had a specific audience, too: other Western Christians, who viewed Eastern Europe as “Christian, but only barely civilized.” (Healey 2004 Section 2). Oxford historian Daniel Healey (2004) states “These stories of sodomy in Muscovy may well have been accurate, but a certain degree of exaggeration to emphasize Muscovy’s “primitive” and “barbaric” character cannot be easily dismissed.” While there does not appear to be any literature explaining why interaction with Europe increased, one possible explanation is the series of successful reforms in Russia starting in the 1540s. These reforms affected everything from Russian law to the structure of local government to the military (Hosking et al. 2017).
One famous example of alleged homosexuality in pre-Imperial Russia is Ivan the Terrible. Ivan the Terrible is often cited as having a sexual relationship with his henchman, Fedor Basmanov. The source of the rumor, however, is not reputable. It comes from a letter written by a prince who defected to Poland because of his disdain for Ivan the Terrible. A. K. Tolstoy’s 1862 novel Prince Serebrenni is one of several later works that embellish this story, which is impossible to confirm. This novel’s take on the story is a product of the time it was written, not a valid view of life in the Muscovy period (Healey 2004 Section 2). This shows just how careful one must be when looking at historical homosexuality. Often, accusations of homosexuality are just that: accusations.
Following the rule of Boris Godunov, Russia entered a “Time of Troubles.” This involved the overthrowing of a ruler known as “False Dmitry” (Hosking et al. 2017). Russia’s Boyars gave Prince Vasily Shuysky, who led the revolution against Tsar Dmitry, control of Russia.[footnoteRef:6] When Tsar Dmitry was killed, his body was “dragged through Moscow by [his] genitals” along with the “mutilated body of his reputed lover” (Healey 2004 Section 2). This demonstrates the negative societal perceptions of sodomy at the time. In Muscovy, a man doing anything feminine (shaving, wearing cologne, etc.) was not tolerated; clergymen even proscribed punishments for it as penance. This extremely strict view of masculinity strongly influenced Russian society’s views of sexuality. In 17th-century Moscow, public bathhouses began to open and young males were often paid for various sexual favors in these locations (Healey 2004 Section 2). This illustrates the closeted nature of homosexual acts in this period. The Time of Troubles was from approximately 1606 to 1613. Boyars are members of the Russian Aristocracy.
Not much is known about homosexuality in Russia during the 18th and 19th centuries. However, this is far more likely to be due to a lack of documentation, not an absence of homosexuality. In fact, historians can verify the presence of homosexuality by looking at several Russian laws. In the early 18th century (1716), Peter the Great banned homosexual acts in the army and navy (Middlebury n.d.). This strongly suggests that homosexual acts were common in the homosocial environment of the Russian military. In 1754, there was an attempt to ban homosexual acts between civilians (not just military members); however, a civilian ban on homosexuality did not become law until 1835, which was likely a response to homosexuality in boys’ boarding schools, explicitly homosocial environments (Healey 2004 Section 3).
By around 1900, gay subcultures had developed in both Saint Petersburg and Moscow. A large part of this subculture was male prostitution, as prostitution was the most socially acceptable form of homosexuality. Russian gay culture’s background in prostitution negatively affected the perception of homosexuals for decades. Blackmail was a huge part of this subculture, as blackmailers would initiate a homosexual act then proceed to blackmail the person, usually of a higher status, that engaged or attempted to engage in the act with them (Healey 2001).
Homosexuality in late Imperial Russia did not only consist of these very public, transactional affairs, though; these are simply the best-recorded instances of homosexuality. Mikhail Kuzmin’s novella Wings is said to be the first coming-out story with a happy ending. Almost three decades’ worth of Kuzmin’s diaries, which depict his life as a gay man and his interactions with the homosexual subculture of late Imperial Russia, are also available (Healey 2004 Section 6). Though a matter of debate, most scholars believe Pyotr Tchaikovsky, a famous Russian composer, to have participated in this homosexual subculture of Imperial Russia (John 2013).
The Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 created what was hailed as the first socialist state. Part of the Bolshevik Revolution was a desire to modernize Russia, and this included mass reform of the Russian law codes. The first post-revolution criminal code was composed in 1922 and decriminalized homosexual acts; this was part of a broader sexual revolution in the Russian legal code. That said, society was not completely accepting of homosexuality. It was viewed as a medical/hormonal anomaly that should eventually be fixed by medicine and psychiatry (Middlebury n.d.).
This perspective arguably set the LGBTQ+ rights movement in Russia back as far as legalizing homosexuality pushed it forward. Lesbians at the time were in some ways welcome in Russian society, but this was because they were perceived as more masculine. This supports the claim that a culture’s concepts of masculinity have significant influence on their views of (homo)sexuality. The inability of lesbians, like gay men, to have children together, however, created a negative social stigma, since Russia desired a higher birthrate (Healey 2004 Section 6). This is because the Russians had just pulled out of the Great War and created a new state. Thus, they needed a larger workforce to run the country. Disdain for homosexual relationships due to their lack of reproductive ability is a continuity throughout much of Russian history, as the inability to have children is deemed abnormal and undesirable.
Because of the war, Russia wanted to increase its declining birthrate—abortion reform and the recriminalization of homosexuality were part of this. Stalin’s policies made abortion illegal in 1936 and “made divorce more difficult and expensive” (Healey 2004 Sections 6 and 7). In 1934, homosexuality was recriminalized (Middlebury n.d.). Stalin’s government often emphasized Lenin’s most militaristic and violent ideologies to minimize the dichotomy between the two leaders. The scale at which Stalin practiced violence, however, was incomparable to that of Lenin.
In the first 5-year plan, prostitutes (many of whom were homosexual men) and beggars were taken to camps to learn how to be factory workers and integrate into society; the 5-year plan quickly became chaotic and essentially collapsed. By the end of these 5 years, the “socially anomalous” were simply taken to farming prison camps (Healey 2004 Section 7). Reducing economic marginalization and giving the “socially anomalous” usable skills had turned into a complete “urban social cleansing” (Healey 2004 Section 7).
While Khrushchev did decriminalize abortion in 1955, the ban on male homosexuality was not lifted for reasons that were unspecified. Khrushchev also dissolved the Gulags. Gulags were often homosocial environments, and the sexual culture in them was brutal: rape and sexual humiliation were widespread. Authorities exploited this, “keeping the majority in line by stigmatizing a small minority who were forced into the receptive role in anal intercourse” (Healey 2004 Section 8). In this same period, psychiatrists started proscribing libido-reducing pills and therapy sessions to lesbians. In some cases, lesbians were even denied drivers licenses due to their perceived mental illness. It should be noted that transgender rights had a different path in this period of Russian history. Surgical sex re-assignment, for instance, became routine in the USSR starting in the 1960s (Healey 2004 Section 8).
By late 1991, the Soviet Union had officially dissolved and become the Russian Federation (Hosking et al. 2017). In 1993, due to political pressure from the Council of Europe and internal debate, President Boris Yeltsin decriminalized homosexual acts between men (Schaaf 2014). In the mid 1990s, gay and lesbian cultural centers and gay-themed periodicals started appearing. However, in the late 1990’s and early 2000s, many, if not most, of these organizations shut down or left Russia.
Since 2000, the largest advancement in Russian gay life has been “large gay nightclubs, bars, cafes, and gay-specific saunas (as opposed to traditional bathhouses)” (Schaaf 2014, Healey 2004 Section 9). In 2002, multiple bills (from multiple parties) were “introduced and discussed” to recriminalize homosexuality, though none were passed (Healey 2004 Section 9). They were, however, strongly supported by many religious leaders, doctors, and “other conservative forces” (Healey 2004 Section 9). Many of these people believed Russia’s low birth rate was the nation’s biggest problem.
In 2003, the Russian military banned homosexuals, alcoholics, and drug users from service (note the kinds of people homosexuals were grouped with); this is thought to be a product of the 2002 Duma debates over the recriminalization bills (Middlebury n.d., Healey 2004 Section 9). In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights fined Russia for refusing to approve of gay pride parades (BBC News March 2012). Two years later, Moscow still enacted a 100-year ban on pride parades. Their reasoning for this was the possibility of ensuing “public disorder” (BBC News August 2012, Schaaf 2014). Additionally, under the reign of Putin and Medvedev, human rights activists have been increasingly subjected to much harsher criticism and public disapproval (Schaaf 2014).
One issue that disproportionately affects gay communities is the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. There are many factors that contribute to this, from anal sex’s comparatively high transference rate to the lack of gay-inclusive sex education. In May 2006, Moscow hosted the first regional conference on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe. This “marked a turning point in a country that has been reluctant to admit the disease is a problem” (Kmietowicz 2006). HIV/AIDS, in recent years, has spread from mostly being found in drug users to also not being uncommon in the general population. Dr. Luba Potemina said that 63% of new AIDS cases were from sexual transmission, not drug use.
342,000 cases of HIV/AIDS are documented in Russia, but many scholars believe the number to be closer to 1 million; the population of Russia (at the time Kmietowicz published this) was approximately 145 million. Putin even allocated over 100 million dollars to “prevent, diagnose, and treat HIV and viral hepatitis” (Kmietowicz 2006). 1 in 10 Russians with HIV/AIDS are in prison, but in Russian prisons, homosexual acts are often ignored, even to the point of prison officials denying its existence (Kmietowicz 2006). Still, Russia’s financial investment in HIV/AIDS will inevitably help the gay community there. That said, the investment was more likely intended to improve optics than to help marginalized Russians, so this should not be misinterpreted as support for gay rights.
In 2013, Russia’s Duma unanimously passed a law criminalizing the spread of gay-related propaganda. Many activists considered this a violation of international human rights law. One likely reason Putin chose to sign this bill, other than homophobia, was to get votes from the traditionalist, uneducated electorate in much of Russia (Bloomberg.com 2013, Schaaf 2014). Only a day after the anti-“gay propaganda” law went into effect, Vladimir Putin signed another law criminalizing blasphemy in places of worship (Amnesty International 2013).
This reveals that this anti-gay legislation was part of a broader move toward more “traditional” Russian values. According to Human Rights Watch, while the law leads to relatively few arrests, the law’s main consequence has been an increase in “violence and harassment” towards LGBTQ+ persons (Human Rights Watch 2014). These acts of violence have ranged from simple shoving to rape and forced consumption of urine (Tharrett 2014). According to activists in Russia, many of these hate crimes go unreported because the victims are afraid the police will do nothing (or worse, continue their harassment) (Schaaf 2014).
The Russian vigilante group “Occupy Pedophilia” is responsible for many of these horrific crimes; often, they are recorded and posted on the internet, effectively outing the victims (Tharrett 2014). Although their title implies that they fight pedophilia, this could not be further from the truth. They are a homophobic hate group. Of the many videos that have been released, one particularly heartbreaking clip depicts the kidnapping and humiliation of a teenage boy, who claims to be 15 and bisexual.
Throughout the video, a group of aggressive members of Occupy Pedophilia (and what appear to be a few bystanders) verbally and physically assault the boy, who they found on a gay website. He shows a stunning amount of bravery and stays calm the entire time, suggesting that, at 15 years old, he is already used to dealing with homophobic violence. At the end of the video, a bottle of urine is poured onto his head and the camera goes black (Poltavtsev 2013). One can only imagine, based on the precedent of other Occupy Pedophilia videos, what happened to this boy after the video cut off.
Russia’s anti-“gay propaganda” law spread beyond the modern borders of the Russian Federation. When discussing the history of Russia, one is typically discussing an area significantly larger than modern Russia, and therefore affects the modern nations of those regions. The Baltic states (Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia) were all part of the Soviet Union. Lithuania recently passed a law entitled: “Law on the Protection of Minors Against the Detrimental Effects of Public Information” (Plummer 2015). This was based on Russia’s propaganda law. Latvia attempted to pass similar legislation in 2013, but failed. In Lithuania, approximately 50 percent of those who took Eurobarometer’s poll believed that LGB people should not have the same rights as heterosexuals. 79 percent would “feel uncomfortable if their child dated a person of the same sex,” the highest homophobia rating in the EU (Plummer 2015).
The Olympics in Sochi in 2014 put homophobia in Russia in the international spotlight. Russia’s anti-“gay propaganda” law applies to not just Russian citizens, but also foreigners. This raised numerous concerns about the safety of gay athletes and tourists. This spotlight on Russia’s new law caused public outcry in the West and led to numerous boycotts of Russian products, including vodka (Schaaf 2014).
While in most countries tolerance towards homosexuality has increased or stagnated over the last decade, it has decreased in Russia (Morello 2013). Eighty-five percent of respondents surveyed by the Levada Center said they opposed same-sex marriages in Russia and 87 percent said they did not want gay parades to take place in Russian cities, Interfax reported. The survey showed that 23 percent of respondents felt that gay people should be left alone, while 27 percent said they needed psychological help. Another 16 percent suggested that gays be isolated from society, 22 percent insisted on compulsory treatment, and 5 percent said homosexuals should be “liquidated” (The Moscow Times 2013).
Over the past eight years, the number of Russians who that believe gays and lesbians should be left to themselves has declined 7 percent, while the percentage of Russians who think homosexuals should receive treatment has climbed 5 percent. The percentage of those who believe that homosexuals should be isolated from society has also increased by 4 percent. Although no margin of error was cited, Levada Center surveys usually have a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points (The Moscow Times 2013). It should be noted that these surveys were conducted before Russia’s anti-“gay propaganda” law, which further energized anti-gay sentiment. It should be noted that these numbers will change based on location within Russia.
In Chechnya for example, the percentage of people who think homosexuals should be “liquidated” would most likely be much higher. However, this paper focuses on Russia as a whole, so a regional breakdown is not included. An entire other paper or book could be written about gay rights in Chechnya, as the history, religion, and culture of Chechnya differs greatly from that of Russia.
In stark contrast, in a survey by Eurobarometer of the 28 European Union member states, an average of 71 percent of the population believe that gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons should have the same rights as heterosexuals. Additionally, 67 percent believe that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality and 61 percent believe same-sex marriages should be allowed throughout Europe. In the United Kingdom, these percentages are 84, 75, and 71 respectively. In France, the percentages are similarly high, at 81, 83, and 71 respectively (Eurobarometer 2015).
The irony here is obvious: the cultures that once pushed severe homophobia on Russia are now some of the most accepting in the world. As economist Vladislav Inozemtsev notes, Russian history can be described as a pendulum, swinging from wanting to be more like the West and wanting to distinguish itself from it (The Moscow Times 2015). If this pattern continues, there is hope yet for LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance in Russia, as, if the historical pattern continues, eventually Russia will move toward more Western values.
Modern Russian Masculinity
After the death of Stalin in 1953, there was an intense feeling of defeat among the Soviets, particularly Soviet men; this was only compounded after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 (Vlaeminck 2016, Hosking et al. 2017). The Soviet Union, particularly the era of Stalin, was characterized by hyper-masculinity. This was most often shown through militaristic strength, be it through Stalin’s purges or the US/Soviet arms race (Hosking et al. 2017). The fall of the Soviet Union took this idea of militaristic superiority away, emasculating Soviet men. Emasculation leads to a need to prove one’s masculinity, and this can lead to homophobia and homophobic violence, as homosexuals are perceived as less masculine by default.
The rise of Vladimir Putin in the early 2000s was coupled with a return to hyper-masculinity in Russian men, but their homophobia did not lessen. Some argue that this was because of a “new wave of Islamic fundamentalism” and the looming war with Chechnya that came along with it (Vlaeminck 2016). A new need for militaristic strength allowed Russian ideals of masculinity to return to the masculine ideals of the USSR. In addition to needing men to idealize war, Russia needed women to idealize childbirth. As with other eras of Russian history discussed above, Russia did not consider these ideals and homosexuality compatible. This is a constant throughout much of modern Russian history due to the relatively high volume of conflicts Russia enters and the country’s relatively low birthrate.
This attempted masculine revitalization was fairly successful, as draft evasion numbers dropped significantly under Putin’s reign. It is important to note, however, that masculinity was only part of the Putin administration’s rebranding of Russian men. The re-masculinization campaign was paired with a revival of patriotism and traditional values. This created a “fixed understanding” of what it meant to be an authentic Russian man. This was (and is) characterized by “virility, heterosexuality and patriotism” (Vlaeminck 2016).
I have not been able to find a source with hard numbers of Russia’s birthrate historically, but many of the sources I used at least mentioned Russia’s low birthrate in passing. These include the Healey (2004) article, the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Russia, and quite a few of the other sources listed in the works cited. We do know, however, that Russia’s birthrate reached a historic low in the 1990s. Russia also faced other demographic obstacles, such as a lower life expectancy for men due to smoking and alcoholism (Hosking et al. 2017). One can speculate that this can be tied to the emasculation of Russian men after the fall of the USSR. While historically Russia’s birthrate appears to have been problematically low, new research suggests modern Russia has a fairly healthy and stable birthrate (Kiselyova 2017).
Vladimir Putin is the epitome of modern Russian hyper-masculinity and homophobia. His hyper-masculine public image, though seemingly genuine, is constructed with great care. In 2007, for example, images of a shirtless Putin fishing in Siberia went viral. On this trip, he also rode horses, went whitewater rafting, and swam in a freezing Siberian river, shirtless all the while. The viral images of shirtless Putin fishing were “prominently enshrined on the Presidential website” (CBC 2007). In 2009, while President Obama was visiting Russia, Putin rode around Moscow with the biker gang known as the Night Wolves (Massie-Blomfield 2009). In 2010, Putin helped a team of scientists track down and tranquilize polar bears, an endangered species, in the Franz Josef Land of the Arctic Ocean (Fox News 2010). That same year, Putin shot tagging darts at endangered whales off Russia’s Far Eastern coast (NBC News 2010).
Putin also helped put out wildfires in Ryazan that year, helping fly a firefighting helicopter (The Moscow Times 2010). In 2011, Putin decided to learn how to play ice hockey, learning the sport in just a few months. In 2012, Putin flew a hang glider to help guide endangered Siberian white cranes along their migration route (The Guardian 2012). Additionally, Putin frequently practices both Judo and Sambo, holding a Master of Sports in both. Putin has also made multiple highly-publicized appearances flying military jets and supersonic bombers (The Moscow Times 2010). It should be noted that all of this was done in his late 50s/early 60s. This crafted persona has made him the apotheosis of traditional Russian values. His approval ratings reflect this, as approximately 88 percent of Russians have a positive view of Vladimir Putin (Stokes 2015).
The uplifting of these values of virility, heterosexuality, and patriotism in Russian society has come with the passing of legislation reflecting these values. In addition to the anti-“gay propaganda” and anti-blasphemy laws discussed above, Russia’s parliament also passed a law that would decriminalize certain acts of domestic violence earlier this year. Passed 380 to 3, the law essentially decriminalizes a man’s first act of domestic violence. While, if charged, the man may have to pay a fine, criminal prosecution will not take place unless he commits the crime again.
Supporters of the law purport that this keeps families together, as it will supposedly lower the number of fathers/husbands in prison, while those opposed to the law claim that it condones spousal abuse and ruins families. Additionally, Russian law does not provide a path for anyone to get a restraining order and there is no distinction between disciplining your children and abusing your spouse in the Russian legal system. While not all Orthodox Christians support the bill, the Russian Orthodox Church is officially in favor of it; this furthers the culture of hyper-masculine violence, as the Church condones it (Kim 2017).
There is even legislation protecting Vladimir Putin from assaults on his masculinity. The two major examples of this are the banning of certain memes and the banning of the “gay clown Putin” image. For the banning of memes, there was no new law created, but rather the government simply reinterpreted laws already on the books. Any meme that depicts an individual “in a way that has nothing to do with his personality” is officially illegal (Dewey 2015). Russia’s censorship agency released a statement declaring that memes relating to individual people “harm the honor, dignity, and business of public figures” (Dewey 2015).
While the Russian government will not (and likely will never) confirm this, this reinterpretation of the law was likely used to prevent memes about Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev, and so on from being spread around the internet. Due to the circulation of a photoshopped image of Vladimir Putin with bright, excessively applied makeup, the Russian government declared the circulation of this image and any other image with Putin wearing makeup or implying that he is gay illegal just this month. The punishment for even retweeting something like this can be not only a fine of approximately 3000 rubles, but also 15 days in prison (Ilyushina 2017). This is a perfect example of just how insanely toxic Russian masculinity has become.
In the military, Russian society’s already-toxic ideals of masculinity are compounded. As noted in the second section of this paper, over 100 years before homosexuality was first made illegal throughout Russia, there was a ban on homosexuality in the military. One negative effect of Russia’s culture of toxic masculinity within the military is the practice Dedovshchina, a form of military hazing. In Russia, men are required to serve in the military for at least 12 months. This was only recently reduced from 18 months (HRW 2004). While militaries across the globe have hazing rituals, Russia’s are particularly violent.
Dedovshchina can involve a variety of forced activities, but most commonly it consists of giving an older, more experienced soldier (a “ded” [pl. dedy]) a portion of one’s salary, buying that soldier cigarettes or other luxury items, doing that soldier’s chores, getting beaten by that soldier, and even getting raped. The dedy also take a significant amount of food from the dukhi and molodye (new conscripts) and forcibly deprive them of sleep (HRW 2004). These actions degrade the young conscripts and force them to submit to the will of those above them in the hierarchy, emasculating them. The dedy forcibly take autonomy and “manhood” away from the conscripts to make themselves feel more masculine. This is a result of a culture of hyper-masculinity.
Another effect of Russian norms of masculinity and Russian homophobia is mandatory tattoo checks. Why? “The reason for getting tattoos could indicate a low cultural or educational level,” the Defense Ministry document said (The Moscow Times 2013). “If an influence by external factors is determined, for example, persuasion or direct coercion, this indicates the malleability of the young man, his disposition to submit to another’s will” (The Moscow Times 2013). Men joining Russia’s military are now required to be examined, with emphasis on their genitalia and buttocks. These recruits will also be questioned about their sexual history. According to many, the main reason for checking for tattoos is to check for possible homosexuality (The Moscow Times 2013).
Masculinity and homosexuality are inseparably tied in Russian culture, as homosexuals are seen as effeminate by default. When, as in Russia, ideals of masculinity favor hyper-masculine men, gay men often suffer homophobic sentiment. This is only exacerbated when the President is the apotheosis of these hyper-masculine ideals. For gay Russian men, this manifests in real-world danger.
Russia has a highly dynamic history of homosexuality. Throughout Russian history, homosexuality has gone from being highly visible to being brutally persecuted. Most often, homophobia is brought on by Russian society’s ideals of masculinity, which have historically favored toxic hyper-masculinity. This is due to the militaristic nature of Russia and their society’s historical emphasis on population growth. Modern Russia is no different, with a President whose persona is hyper-masculine and whose leadership style and policies tend to be militaristic.
The future of homosexuality in Russia is likely somewhat grim. While, historically, Russia swings back and forth between being more Western and separating itself from the West ideologically, it does not appear to be approaching a shift back toward Western, liberal values. Vladimir Putin’s administration actively pushes Russia away from being more Western, and while his Presidency may end, his influence will not wane in the foreseeable future.
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