Stealing the rainbow. Ilya Shablinsky — on the how Russia’s battle against the “international LGBT movement” resembles death throes

1 December 2023

By Ilya Shablinsky


Spitting on sexual minorities is a much-loved entertainment of dictators. It is a relatively inexpensive means of gaining popularity with certain groups of the population. As a repressive policy, it is fail safe: for the inhabitant who is totally loyal to the authorities, it’s not a calamity, it’s fun. Funny, even! How everyone laughed when, at a recent forum in St Petersburg, Putin touched on the topic of sexual minorities, in which he included trans people and “some other kinds of transformers”. It was a joke. 

Belarusian dictator Lukashenko, making fun of the issue in his own inimitable style, used the expressions “they’ve nothing in their trousers” and “they’ve no balls” as well as referring to “molly houses”. That’s funny too. 

In Russia, though, as always happens, the jokes soon stopped. On 30 November 2023, the Supreme Court, satisfied an administrative suit from the Ministry of Justice and deemed the “international LGBT movement” extremist. This is fraught with very serious consequences.   

Over recent days, it has been said on multiple occasions that the said international movement doesn’t exist, that there is no administrative defendant as such. Therefore, consideration of the claim involved only the Ministry of Justice which, it must be assumed, came up with the “international movement” and the case itself in order to carry out a task set by its superiors. Given that there was no administrative defendant, there was no one to articulate an objection either. This fact left the court unabashed. It is, however, pointless talking about justice here. Russian judges are seemingly drawing up a collection of utterly absurd and shameful rulings. 

In this case, for reasons unknown, the trial was to be closed to the public. The administrative suit by the Ministry of Justice has not been published. We don’t know what evidence of extremism it exposed. The ruling – the Supreme Court ruling itself – has not been published either. We don’t know what arguments lie behind it! There’s the 2002 law on countering extremism and these arguments have yet to be found in it. To be honest, I don’t think anyone’s looked there for them. Something was hastily cooked up. And that’s exactly what constitutes the reason for making it a closed trial, to cover up the dirty business being done by people en-swathed in judge’s robes. They might be a little uncomfortable. It suits them better behind closed doors. 

And so for now there is no talk of a new article in the Criminal Code. But there could be. 

Today we have already come very close to the practice of the later USSR and the mature Third Reich with regard to sexual minorities. In the USSR, the criminal codes of all the union republics contained a cherished article on liability for “sodomy”. It was introduced on the eve of acts of mass repression in 1934. 

In the Third Reich, the criminalisation of same-sex relations coincided in time with the adoption of the relevant laws in the USSR – amendments to the German criminal code were made in the October of that same 1934. Hitler himself instigated these amendments and everything seems to suggest that he initially associated the persecution of people of the “wrong” sexual orientation with the elimination of the leaders of the SA (Sturmabteilung), in whom he detected a threat to his authority. Later another influential Nazi, Himmler, initiated mass round-ups of people of the said orientation. Primarily on the bases of denunciations. Most Nazis were pleased at these round-ups.

Stalin too was initially motivated by the presumed counter-revolutionary nature of the “wrong” sexual orientation. This is the way that several NKVD reports put the matter to him. Later, the political nature of a variety of sexual orientations in itself began to be explained in terms of a crisis of bourgeois society and its morals. Under socialism the phenomenon ought not to exist as a matter of principle. This, naturally, did nothing to make things easier for those put behind bars in pursuance of the article.

After the death of Stalin and the adoption of new criminal codes, this criminal policy in this area arguably became even harsher. Criminal Code Article 121 emerged in the RSFSR. On the basis of this article and related articles in the laws of the other union republics as many as 200,000 people were convicted over approximately 30 years, according to a variety of data. Some of them perished either in prison camps or jails or, later, from illnesses they contracted.

The ideological basis of these criminal persecutions, incidentally, started to fade gradually into the background in the final years of the Soviet regime. The main role was already being played by the grim conservatism of a part of society and its highest ranks in the era of “mature socialism”. In other words, what began to be called “homophobia”. 

At the same time, by the 1970s, the overwhelming majority of states in the world no longer had any liability for “non-traditional” sexual relations. 

Russia renounced Article 121 in 1993. The article seemed like the Soviet dictatorship’s last refuge. There was talk at the time of joining the Council of Europe, of the comprehensive defence of human rights and the expansion of their catalogue. And it seemed that nothing posed a threat to this trend.

Twenty years later, however as we know, an amendment was adopted to the Russian Code on Administrative Offences for promoting “non-traditional relations” among children. This formulation seemed then and still does seem absurd and unclear – well, that’s how it was planned to be. 

But now everything looks much worse. Last December, Article 6.21 of the Russian Code of Administrative Offenses was extended to relations among persons who have reached the age of majority. And now we have this Supreme Court decision.

What consequences could stem from this? The gravest of consequences. Because of this decision — with unknown contents, made against some unknown person — the coming months could see countless criminal verdicts against actual specific individuals. Say, against any person who uses the abbreviation “LGBT” outside the context of state propaganda, and, say, in a human rights sense. So anyone who now dares to speak about equal rights for people regardless of their sexual preferences can with full confidence be charged with activity in an extremist organization, under Article 282.2 of the Russian Criminal Code. With up to six years in prison.

You may ask: but in what extremist organization, if there is no extremist organization? Now that doesn’t matter. The Supreme Court designated a certain combination of letters as an extremist organization, and now in the same way — behind closed doors — it will be possible to accuse anyone of furthering its causes.

Furthermore: alongside participating in an extremist organization, displaying its symbols can also be grounds for a criminal case. What are we referring to here? First off, of course, there’s the rainbow, the rainbow flag, and the like. Initially, this could prompt a warning or fine, but repeated display of an “extremist symbol” is punishable under a criminal article.  

Again, as of yet there is no criminal liability for “non-traditional” relationships. But we can see the dynamic here. And we see that the current Russian leadership has already led the country into good company: Iran, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Turkmenistan, and others. These are all states where persecuting people for their sexual orientation is an important part of state ideology.  

What’s the main falsehood and cruelty in this? 

That the so-called “imposing of information about non-traditional sexual relations” (this is how the law is worded) is a fabrication of the group of officials who carried out the order of the presidential administration.

That there is not, and never has been, any “LGBT propaganda.”

There are state TV channels and radio stations where, if these “untraditional” sexual orientations have been mentioned recent years, it’s to describe their various shades of condemnation that is stern sometimes to the point of comedy. And there’s the sea of information that is the Internet, where users can search for what they consider useful. As for famous people, we can usually only guess about their sexual preferences. In reality, in recent years we have learned about their preferences only as a result of extremely rare “coming-outs.” (A group of deputies from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation once proposed to punish these declarations.) Zakhar Prilepin was deeply worried that some Russian theatres are run by people of the wrong orientation. This frustrated him greatly. But me, for example — I didn’t know anything about it. And I’m hardly even interested. And here I must repeat myself: This isn’t some famous people loudly announcing details of their intimate lives. It’s Mr. Prilepin prying into their — or your, or anyone’s — private lives and poking around for what’s troubling them. Something is troubling them — that’s a fact. But what does this have to do with the “LGBT movement”? 

One final question. Why does Putin need all of this? There’s no doubt that this dictator is the main person requesting all the fuss about amendments.

I think he needs these laws and the escalation for purely propaganda purposes. It is, in fact, a byproduct of his dictatorship. Putin’s jeering rhetoric about transgender “transformers” has a clear addressee. It’s his constituency, ready to write denunciations and scoff at their neighbour as they’re dragged into a police van. It’s his portion of the people. And these same groups, though not as numerous as in Russia, can be found in Europe, Asia, or anywhere else. Putin is signaling to them that he is their president. He remarkably presents their phobias and their anger. He rightly believes that these signals will be relevant in times of war.

He sends these signals of hatred. He’s jeering and mocking. It may go on for a little while, but I don’t think it will last too long. Ludicrous laws usually die out almost at once with with the dictatorships that spawned them. Our own experience here at home demonstrates this.

The state can intimidate. But it can’t change a person’s essence.

Translated by Melanie Moore and Nina dePalma

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