Russia’s politics have become the subject of great debate. The outcry in the West over Russia’s controversial 2013 anti-gay bill has overshadowed the $51 billion spectacle of the Sochi Olympics. In its statutory code, the law states: “Propaganda of homosexualism among minors is punishable by an administrative fine.” While critics of the bill say the legislation has contributed to an increase in homophobic crimes and discrimination, Russian President Vladimir Putin has downplayed it, saying that Russia does not criminalize homosexual relationships. In addition, he said that LGBT athletes and visitors would not face harassment at the Winter Olympics, as long as they “leave our children in peace.”
This statement drew strong international criticism. Because of its vague wording, the law has been interpreted in a way that would suggest that there is a clear correlation between homosexuality and pedophilia. Interestingly, the Russian word for pedophile is pederast, but it is also a slang term often used to define a gay man. Regardless, the law is intended to keep schoolchildren from learning about homosexuality and more importantly to turn around Russia’s declining fertility rate which is among the lowest of any developed nation.
The West has been using the games to press changes on Russia over the issue of gay rights. U.S. President Barack Obama, who has been critical of the Russian law, sent a delegation to the Olympics including two openly gay athletes, hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow and the figure skater Brian Boitano. Other foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, have snubbed Sochi. These are merely symbolic gestures. Any talk of boycott has been dismissed because it would ultimately deny athletes the opportunity to represent their country at the Olympic games.
Challenging Russia’s laws seems to have backfired. In a clearly defiant move, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has banned the adoption of Russian children by same-sex couples and unmarried citizens of countries where same-sex marriages is legal. According to Medvedev, it is the West who may be in moral decline, and he believes public opinion supports his position. The Kremlin has gone further, painting itself as the defender of traditional values and as a moral compass of the world.
Attitudes about homosexuality vary. In the Asia-Pacific, the majority of ASEAN nations and East Asian countries feel that homosexuality should be rejected. In neighboring China (the world’s most populous country), more than half of the population rejects it. In India (the second most populous country), the national Supreme Court recently re-instated a law criminalizing same-sex acts. Also, in 38 of 54 countries on the African continent, being gay is a crime. In developing countries throughout the world, homophobia and intolerance is the norm. Even Poland, once part of the former Soviet bloc and now a EU member state, favors rejection.
Talks of morality and metaphysics are always a murky debate. Yet Russians, who are not particularly devout, by and large support the Russian Orthodox Church’s strong anti-gay rhetoric. Roughly three quarters of the population feel that society should reject homosexuality and are supportive of the current legislation. The Church, which has become a tool of the Russian state under Putin, has also defended traditional values that they see as pivotal for Russia’s revival. These traditional values are, as Putin and the Church see it, Russian values and they must be defended against Western ones.
Russia, we must remember, has made remarkable changes over the last twenty years since the fall of the Soviet Union. Before the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1993, you could be put in prison and forced into hard labor for being gay.
International criticism has helped raise the visibility of a growing concern over rolling back on Stalinist-era laws, but it will not help the country arrive at more egalitarian realities for LGBT people. It seems to actually have had the opposite effect. Bullish forms of criticism will always fail to transform.
It’s impossible to engage the Putin administration (and the overwhelming majority who support his leadership and decision-making) when it is so vehemently demonized and the West only fixates on its flaws and authoritarian political life.
The Olympic Games have always been about hope, promoting peace, and moving beyond prejudice and differences. The Sochi games will soon end, and our worlds will have only moved further apart.