The world economic crisis had a crushing effect on all countries, but post-Soviet Russia, with Vladimir Putin guiding—if that is the correct term—the country since 1999, either as the president or prime minister, and trying to keep power in his hands indefinitely, was particularly sensitive to this crisis. This has led to the passing of severe laws and prohibitions affecting not only business but also culture. For example, any reference to sex or obscenities in a book now warrants a special label on its cover. Asked about this, the notable poet and kulturträger Dmitry Kuzmin stated that this was to be expected: “The question of why the so-called anti-gay propaganda law and other prohibitive measures were enacted now and not years before is quite trivial. It has to do with the bad economic prognosis which was just released.”
Indeed, the news agencies promise a continuing slowdown in economic growth and an increase in budget deficits in Russia. In the international arena, Russia’s future does not look promising either. The conflict in Ukraine is a heavy political and economic burden (as I was told, employees of some government organizations in Moscow were recently instructed, at the risk of their jobs, to contribute a certain percentage from their paycheck toward the “Ukrainian Crisis”). The international credit agency Moody’s announced that it had lowered Russia’s credit rating, citing the conflict with Ukraine and the poor economic prognosis. These events had a negative impact not only on Russia’s credit rating but on the mood of average Russians.
To compensate for this economic and social malaise, government ideologists decided to focus on morality, making it a common ground for Russia’s “national identity.” Asked to contribute his opinion on current events specifically for this article, a former image maker for Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, the well-respected political scientist Igor Mintusov wrote:
During the last two years in Russia, a very conservative trend started in the mentality of the Russian people. For instance, 30 percent of Russians think that the girls from Pussy Riot received adequate punishment (two years of jail), 35 percent think that Pussy Riot did not get enough, and only 14 percent consider that for singing a song at an altar they got too many years of imprisonment. In this sense, the anti-gay propaganda perfectly aligns with already existing feelings. 50 – 60 percent of Russians think that homosexuality is a sickness which one has to fight. This conservative trend is embraced by the current powers which gain support by going along with this trend. Only 20 – 30 percent of the population is tolerant toward the L.G.B.T. community.
There are several reasons for Russia’s sexual conservatism and political apathy. The first one is the influence of the Orthodox Church, which often marches hand-in-hand with the state in the fight to preserve the morality and “soulfulness” of the Russian people (for instance, pupils in public schools today study a course called “The Basics of Christian Culture” using a textbook written by one of the most reactionary Russian protodeacons, Andrey Kuraev). The second reason, especially for the more conservative older generations whose adulthood coincided with Soviet times, is the idea, inculcated during those times, that societal goals should override the private “pursuit of happiness.” In the socialist U.S.S.R., the main goal was, supposedly, building a perfect society to achieve communal bliss, compared to which any individual needs, including sexual satisfaction, were unimportant diversions from reaching this goal. Finally, corruption, total disorganization, and chaos, which are prevalent in contemporary Russian society, assure that many strict laws enacted recently are not easy to enforce, and average citizens know this all too well. This is however a double-edged sword: knowing that breaking some absurd law is most likely not going to be punished simply because the Russian government has no financial or institutional means to do so, Russians don’t protest it. At the same time, the Russian government spreads a wide net of prohibitions with exactly the same thing in mind: they don’t plan to use it against all citizens, only those carefully selected individuals who are too visible, who protest too much, and who pose a significant threat to the image the ruling power has created. It’s not surprising, then, that many L.G.B.T. Russians blame L.G.B.T. activists for more and more strict laws against homosexuality; they say that “if you kept quiet and didn’t go on parades, we still could enjoy our freedom.”
The government ideology coupled with the economic crisis makes a good case for self-censorship, in accordance with the “anti-gay law” enacted a year ago, on June 30, 2013, which since then has become widely popular within certain elements of the Russian public, and is considered a human rights violation only by a minority. This so-called Mizulina Law (after Yelena Mizulina the State Duma Deputy, who proposed it) explicitly covers:
distribution of information that is aimed at the formation of nontraditional sexual attitudes among minors, the attractiveness of nontraditional sexual relations, misperceptions regarding the social equivalency of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations, or enforcement of information about non-traditional sexual relations that evokes interest in such relations.
Any spoken word, visible act, or published phrase that a minor might encounter—such as a kiss between two same-sex people in public—is branded as a violation of the law.
An editor of a popular publishing house in Moscow, who wished to remain unnamed, reported that, because of the anti-gay-propaganda law, he had to change the name of an early 20th-century children’s book from The Tales of the Blue Fairy to The Tales of Forget-Me-Not. “Blue” (goluboi) in Russian means “gay.” Recently a performance of the children’s play The Soul of a Pillow was cancelled at the Moscow Open International Book Festival because it contained “homosexual propaganda.” This news, together with a signed letter from the First Deputy Minister of Culture, Vladimir Aristarkhov, appeared on the pages of all Russian newspapers. The deputy minister stated that the government was not going to support works of art not “based on traditional Russian values.” This is how The Soul of a Pillow is described in a pro-government newspaper:
The heroes, a preschooler Kostya and some pillows, only care about coupling and finding a mate. There are boy pillows and girl pillows. Nobody wants to be with the boy pillow ‘Grechik’ (‘Buckwheat’) because he’s so special: he’s filled with buckwheat instead of regular feathers. Grechik is different from the others and does not fit in. ‘Luckily,’ there is an allergic preschooler Kostya who is different too. He can’t force himself to be with girl pillows (played by women). Kostya refuses to mate with girl pillows and beds Buckwheat.
Propelled by deteriorating economic conditions, the practice of discovering homosexual propaganda and pornography in the most obscure and innocent works has become widespread in Russia, but not all cases of censorship reach the public. Several months earlier a major book publisher A.S.T. scrapped plans to distribute a promising erotic anthology, I am in Lisbon. With Somebody Else. The book had been printed and widely announced (even more remarkably, some of its authors were even paid) but never reached the bookshops. The main offenders in the anthology, two stories, were carefully inspected by the publishing house’s lawyers, who counseled that distribution be halted, despite letters of protest sent to the publisher by prominent writers and critics summoned by the anthology editor Natalia Rubanova. The first troublesome item was a novella, “Call Him Bambi,” which features Procyon cancrivorus, a species of raccoon that dives for crabs. A young wife has purchased one in the Russian version of Petco and brought him home. At first, her husband is repulsed by the sight of the energetic and jovial “Bambi” touching intimate parts of his wife as he tries to get to a plastic crab that she bought for him, but then he reevaluates the situation and joins them in bed. This tale was deemed pornographic, while the second problematic story—which concerned a man daydreaming about sexual intercourse with an alien who looked like the American actor James Dean—aroused suspicions of homosexual intent.
Many Russians do not see that the prohibition against obscene language in public and in print, coupled with the anti-gay propaganda law are all parts of the same trend. Many writers and artists who become victims of these prohibitions often do not want to have anything to do with politics, dissociating themselves from political activities such as marches, petitions to the government, and other kinds of confrontations. There are several reasons for this. One is economic. “If news about the banned erotic anthology appears in Russia,” says one person familiar with the case, “some people can simply lose their jobs. The economy is so horrid that we can’t allow it.” Another reason is the disconnect between government policies and the people themselves. Many Russians, including gays and lesbians, think that if they are allowed to do whatever they want in their beds, they don’t need any Pride parades. Many Russian people with whom I have talked say that these policies do not affect them and that gay and lesbian couples continue living together “without anyone knowing.” “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has become a slogan dear to the hearts of numerous Russian gays.
Russia under Putin and his party is passing into a new phase of conservative chauvinistic behavior reminiscent of the 19th century’s era of “Great Russian” nationalism, orthodoxy, and autocracy. Anti-gay, anti-pornography, and anti-obscenity laws fit comfortably into this schema of self-identity, abrogating the vigorous countervailing tradition of expansion and enforcement of individual rights that was apparently an aberration of the 1990s. The future does not look good for free artistic expression in Russia, as it does not look promising for its population, or, in particular, for that small part of Russian society that does not agree with the state-created and state-enforced idea of “national identity.”
An author of six books, Leningrad-born MARGARITA MEKLINA came to the U.S. as a refugee and currently resides in San Francisco. A recipient of the Andrei Bely Prize and the Russian Prize, established by the Fund of the First President of Russia Boris Yeltsin, she writes fiction in English and Russian.