Russia’s President Vladimir Putin this month signed a law introducing an even-stricter ban on “gay propaganda.”
It is not the first time the Russian leader has used anti-LGBT discourse in an attempt to shore up public support and he may hope for success from a repeat of his socially repressive message. However, in the short term, this is unlikely to deal with the main challenges that his regime now faces. In particular, it is unlikely to broaden approval for the war against Ukraine.
The new anti-gay legislation is an amendment aiming to toughen what was initially a prohibition of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among children, introduced in 2013. Back then, the Kremlin used the anti-LGBT agenda as a part of a broader illiberal counter-mobilization that emerged as a response to the mass protests of 2011-2013. At that moment, Putin tried to instrumentalize homophobia as an ideological prop to consolidate his support.
Today, the Kremlin is delving back into its old cupboard of tricks. It is advancing anti-LGBT policies at a time when it is forced to face unfavorable movements in Russian public opinion. According to Levada-Center polls, the number of Russians who definitely support the Russian military effort in Ukraine has been slowly decreasing for the last four months, and even smaller numbers of people express support for the military mobilization, which was declared in September. Moreover, most Russian respondents say they prefer peace negotiations instead of continuing military action in Ukraine. Russia has not admitted its full casualty toll in Ukraine — estimated by the US at 100,000-plus in dead and wounded — but clearly, news of the losses is seeping back to the citizenry.
The return of the anti-gay card might therefore have been predicted. This time, the move is designed as part of a broader campaign to frame the war against Ukraine as a “desatanization” effort under the banner of “traditional values.” Thus, the war is described as a part of Putin’s crusade against of West that promotes “perversions that lead to degradation and extinction.”
It is doubtful whether many Russians will fall in behind this banner. For two decades, Putin’s rule has been primarily based not on high mobilization and an overarching ideology, but on maintaining political passivity. Moreover, today’s Russia is a country with an aging population (and even faster-aging leaders). So mobilizing large numbers of young people and persuading them to fight in the protracted war is not something that the Kremlin can easily achieve. The young are simply not keen to fight a war in another country, as shown by the decision of hundreds of thousands of young Russians to leave the country. The anti-LGBT discourse is unlikely to raise a warlike enthusiasm among military-age males, some 220,000 of whom have been drafted. Almost the same number have fled to Kazakhstan alone; and many more to other countries.
In fact, it is not evident that playing the anti-gay card has ever actually worked for Putin in terms of improved popularity. In particular, there is no sign that the initial adoption of the anti-LGBT law brought Putin any substantial gains in 2013. (He did eventually manage to increase his public support, but this happened in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea.)
Moreover, while homophobic sentiment is fairly widespread among Russians, anti-LGBT ideas are far from uniform across the nation. On the contrary, this issue is becoming increasingly polarizing, as the polls indicate the growth of both the group of strong advocates of tolerance towards same-sex relationships, and its strong opponents.
Most young Russians (18-24 years old) believe that gay people should enjoy the same rights as other citizens. At the same time, homophobic views are most common among older demographics (55 years and older, the age group that also encompasses the 70-year-old Putin.) Similarly, pro-war opinions are also most popular among older Russians.
It will therefore be difficult for Putin to construct a unifying national ideology based on this rather polarizing issue.
If the new anti-gay campaign brings any short-term results at all, they will probably be largely limited to Putin’s existing supporters and may help preserve pro-war sentiment among the older and middle-aged demographics. It will also further widen the divide between older pro-war Russians and younger anti-war ones.
Of course, this does not mean that the new anti-LGBT legislation will be harmless in every respect. It immediately puts Russian LGBT people, LGBT rights activists, pro-LGBT authors and artists, as well as gender studies researchers, under even more severe pressure than before.
And if Russians, due a combination of domestic restrictions and foreign sanctions, are excluded from the European and global mainstream, anti-LGBT views may come to dominate. In a tightly controlled state of long-term isolation, strict censorship, and aggressive propaganda, there is a chance that Putin will eventually succeed in instrumentalizing anti-gay sentiment more effectively.
Ivan Fomin is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Previously, he was an associate professor at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow. He participated in projects at the Jagiellonian University, George Washington University, and Ruhr University Bochum. He holds a Candidate of Sciences degree in political science.