Putin LGBTQ+ Rights in Context: Russia’s Story

By Mikaela Schaller


Russia has been highlighted for its extremely anti-gay propaganda, legislation, and treatment of LGBTQ+ persons.  ILGA-Europe, the European section of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, rates Russia as the least protective country in Europe for LGBT citizens, ranking it 49th out of the 49 European countries rated in its annual survey (Global Equality, 2014). This rigid stance came to the forefront during the international news coverage leading up to, and during, the Sochi Olympics.  Russia’s abject refusal to recognize the rights of the LGBTQ+ community has become more entrenched in Russian life and public policy under President Putin with the passage of legislation, most recently, the Mizulina Law. Statements from Russian activists, like Igor Iasine, a socialist and member of the Rainbow Association, continue to shine a light on the repressive social, cultural, political, and legislative environment in which Russia’s LGBTQ+ population is forced to exist. These human rights violations take place both due to government sanctioned oppression and vigilante violence. This paper argues that, under President Putin, the Russian government’s propagation of traditionalism, the vigilante violence movement, and the refusal of the Russian government to bend to international pressures and norms has resulted in increased violations of the right to freedom of expression, right to assembly, right to privacy, and freedom from discrimination.  

International Framework- the Erasure of LGBTQ+ Persons

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states; "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This statement does not have any clarifying statement that removes these rights from LGBTQ+ people.  However sexual minorities “like victims of racism, sexism, and religious persecution, …are human beings who have been identified by dominant social groups as somehow less than fully human, and thus not entitled to the same rights as ‘normal’ people, ‘the rest of us’ (Donnelly, 1999, 8). However “the right to protection against discrimination is an explicit guarantee of equal -- and thus all -- human rights for every person, despite the myriad other differences between human beings” (Donnelly, 1999, 2). As Article 2 of the Universal Declaration explains, "everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” It can be argued, then, that “non-discrimination is among the most fundamental principles of international human rights law” (Hunt, 2003, 191). However if this is true, why is it that LGBTQ+ persons undergo discrimination globally on a daily basis?  “In most countries, sexual orientation is not an accepted ground for discrimination in employment, housing, or access to public facilities and social services. In Russia, and in many other countries, “same-sex couples are denied civil status, resulting in discrimination in inheritance, adoption, and social insurance” (Donnelly, 1999, 11).

This overarching question of why are LGBTQ+ citizens are ignored or denied when it comes to the granting of rights can be answered first and foremost by examining the wording of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; there is no mention of sexual orientation anywhere in the UDHR leading to the erasure of LGBTQ+ citizens from equal application of human rights. Therefore, the UDHR, like many documents is arguably open for interpretation. Since there is no direct mention of LGBTQ+ persons, there are two options- deny them rights because they are not explicitly mentioned, or allow them their rights because “all human beings” are equal in rights. In the case of Russia, and contrary to the international “norm” (although this norm is not globally accepted and is mostly propagated by Europe, the United States, and Canada), Russia chooses to mostly deny the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals legally and the public carries out physical and emotional violence against these citizens.

However, Russian “popular beliefs about the inferiority or corruption of homosexuals and members of other sexual minorities simply cannot provide human rights grounds for continued discrimination. Even accepting, for the purposes of argument, that voluntary sexual relations among adults of the same sex and families headed by same-sex couples are a profound moral outrage, discrimination against sexual minorities cannot be justified from a human rights perspective. “Perverts,” “degenerates,” and “deviants” have the same human rights as the morally pure, and should have those rights guaranteed by law” (Donnelly, 1999, 18). “Members of sexual minorities are still human beings, no matter how deeply they are loathed by the rest of society. Therefore, they are entitled to equal protection of the law and the equal enjoyment of all internationally recognized human rights” (Donnelly, 1999, 18). It is important to note that the very existence of human rights is based in the ideology that every human being is entitled to a set of rights because they are human, and that no other factor makes their existence as humans null and void.

A Deep Rooted History of Violence and Oppression

Russia’s popular belief in the inferiority of LGBTQ+ citizens is rooted in a deep historical context. Stalin’s regime began the anti-gay rhetoric by criminalizing male homosexuality in 1933. In an interesting footnote, however, women, instead of being arrested, were committed to psychiatric wards for rehabilitation (Essig 1999, 4). After the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the LGBTQ+ community in Russia experienced a period of increased freedoms, a growth in activism, and more acceptance, coupled with greater socialization, within the Russian community at large.  Transgender Russians, for example, have been allowed to change their legal gender on identity documents since 1997(Global Equality, 2014). However, since that time Russia has begun to see a more conservative ideology regain momentum, and this was strengthen by a fractured LGBTQ+ rights movement. Even with these advancements in rights and freedoms, cracks within the LGBTQ+ community were beginning to show from the 1990’s onward. The book Queer in Russia describes the movement of the early 1990s and how it collapsed under fatigue, demoralization, internal differences, "disillusionment with Western models of organizing and identity," lack of support, "and a general feeling that the politics of sexual identity was not meant to flourish on Russian soil (Essig 1999, 68)." This set of events further influenced the indoctrination of nontraditional sexual behavior as contrary to the family, the Church, and fundamentally contrary to Russia.  Coupled with the collapse of the LGBTQ+ common voice, the political winds of Russia were changing in 2006 when Putin came to power.

Justification of Violence: Biopolitics, Traditionalism, & Religion

It is important to begin this discussion by highlighting that the Russian popular discourse that advocates that LGBTQ+ behavior is contrary to nature, and thus LGBTQ+ citizens are less than human and not deserving of equal rights, is fundamentally flawed. “Scientists have observed homosexual behavior in 471 animal species--167 species of mammals, 132 species of birds, 32 species of reptiles and amphibians, 15 species of fishes, and 125 species of insects and other invertebrates (Bagemihl 1999, 673). Scientists have also observed that same-sex pairs have successfully reared young in at least 20 species. (Bagemihl 1999, 23-26). “We also now know that homosexuality is biologically natural in that it arises through the interaction of many biological factors in the early development of fetuses and children--genes and sex hormones shape the body and the brain in early life so that people are naturally predisposed to become heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual” (The Thinker 2016). In addition “most thoughtful analysts, at least outside of sociobiology, recognize that sexuality and sexual orientation are constructed sets of social roles” (Donnelly, 1999, 13). “We are taught what behaviors are appropriate within the home….But we are also taught about appropriate social roles within the home. And in the process, through the repetitive, day-to-day learning, we may come to expect these behaviors as natural and normal: just the way things are” (Tyner, 2012,  26). In the case of Russia, the staunch heteronormativity present finds its strength in the Russian government, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Russian home, all three of which have immense influence on the socio-cultural ideology of Putin’s Russia.

To explore how the government finds LGBTQ+ citizens as a subclass of Russians, we must first explore Russia’s biopolitical power, and examine how Putin’s government has used that power to justify LGBTQ+ rights violations. Yuval-Davis discusses “that in some forms of nationalist discourse, population is seen as a source of collective wealth and power, and the future of a nation is seen as dependent on its continuous [homogenous] growth” (Stella et al, 2015, 19-20). The discourse of “people as power” is dominant in contemporary Russia, and largely impacts the Russian political system and its actions (Snarskaia 2009). “The problem of population as an object of political economy and state administration is, according to Foucault, central to modern forms of government: [. . .] population comes to appear above all else as the ultimate end of government. In contrast to sovereignty, government has as its purpose not the act of government itself, but the welfare of the population, the improvement of its condition, the increase of its wealth, longevity, health, and so on; and the means the government uses to attain these ends are themselves all, in some sense, immanent to the population; it is the population itself on which government will act either directly, through large-scale campaigns, or indirectly, through techniques that will make possible, without the full awareness of the people, the stimulation of birth rates, the directing of the flow of population into certain regions or activities, and so on. (Foucault 1978/2001, 216– 217)” (Stella et al, 2015, 20). Foucault defines biopolitical power as the power over life exercised at the level of the nation state. “With the onset of modernity, the realm of the biological and of the sexual, once the domain of religious morality in feudal societies, came under state control” (Foucault 1997/2004, 240). Biopolitics “finds expression in an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (Foucault 1978/1998, 140). Russia exerts biopolitical power over its LGBTQ+ citizens in a variety of legislative ways, fundamentally through its use of Concept of State Family Policy legislation and the Mizulina Law, discussed below. These policies have, in turn, justified the increase in vigilante violence rampant across Russia.

Public support seems to stand behind the laws and conservative government. Since 2006, Russia has seen an increase in civilian vigilante violence against the LGBTQ+ community following United Russia’s campaign, which preached traditionalism and the family as the locus of the nation. “The Geneva Conference Report (as of July 2014) on the situation of LGBT people in Russia mentioned 12 cases of violations, 8 cases of hate speech and manifestations of intolerance, 13 cases of infringement of the right to freedom of assembly and association, 15 cases of legislation prohibiting so-called ‘‘homosexual propaganda,’’ its implementation and attempts, and 17 cases of problems in legal recognition of transgender persons’ gender identities (Kirichenko and Kozlovskaya 2014)” (Soboleva and Yaroslav, 2015, 280). “This includes queer teenagers being videotaped and publicly shamed (in person and online)” (Soboleva and Yaroslav, 2015, 280). Some online groups, inspired by the anti-LGBT campaign and focused on demonstrating the “true” beliefs of Russian society, are still active in Russian social networks and on Youtube. One such group is “Occupy Pedophilia,” an explicitly homophobic movement led by Maksim Martsinkevich, a well-known member of a Russian neo-Nazi group and known for his hate speech and intolerance (Human Rights Watch 2014).  Members of Occupy Pedophilia use social media to deceive gay men into meeting, supposedly for a date, then proceed to verbally and physically assault them while videotaping the encounter. Occupy Pedophilia currently has hundreds of videos from over 30 Russian cities on their webpage for public viewing (Human Rights Watch 2014).  

Additionally, any attempts by the LGBTQ+ community to mobilize, through either parades or protests, have been meet with not only resistance from the government, but also strong resistance from the Russian public, violating the right to freedom of assembly and association. Resistance has been seen in the form of skinhead violence, beatings, rallies, and counter protests.  This was prevalent during the Sochi Olympics, which came at the onset of the Mizulina law. The Games were met with international uproar at videos of LGBTQ+ persons being beaten and harassed in the streets. Overall, while international opinion appears to side with the LGBTQ+ community in Russia, the Russian public remains firm in its commitment to traditional values and morals, and violence ensues while the Duma continues to pass legislation oppressing LGTQ+ citizens.

Violence: Vigilantes supported by the Duma

“Elena Mizulina, Chairwoman of the Duma Committee on Family, Women and Children Affairs, explains the shaming of the LGBT community by highlighting the demographic priorities of the Russian nation”, and the family, as discussed above: ‘‘Regarding same-sex couples… How can they have kids? They cannot reproduce themselves. So, they need orphans. They are interested in orphan-hood. Keen in the existence of orphanages. It is impossible to refute this thesis’’ (Mizulina 2013) (Soboleva and Yaroslav, 2015, 281). “Such officially mandated or tolerated discrimination reflects deep currents of social prejudice against sexual minorities” and is reflected both in legislation and in the statements of political figures like Mizulina (Donnelly, 1999, 12). Putin has also come out in support of these types of legislation, justifying them to the international community. During his international trip to Finland in June 2013, Putin stated: ‘‘As for prohibiting homosexual propaganda, this is not about imposing any kind of sanctions against homosexuality … This is about protecting children from this type of information … we will be imposing restrictions in our nation, as the State Duma deputies have decided. We ask you not to interfere in our regulations’’ (News conference 2013). As can be clearly seen, Putin is not only hinting at the presence of state sovereignty, by asking the international community to not interfere with domestic affairs, but is also creating a thinly veiled disguise for the violations of the right to freedom of expression, right to assembly, right to privacy, and freedom from discrimination.

One example of these sanctions, The Mizulina Law, named after the Chairwoman, is a federal codification of many of the regional policies already in place throughout Russia, and was created to protect minors from propaganda pertaining to the "imposition of free and non-traditional sexual relations (Feyh 2015)." In the federal law, propaganda is defined as: “distribution of information that is aimed at the formation among minors of nontraditional sexual attitudes, attractiveness of non- traditional sexual relations, misperceptions of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations, or enforcing information about non-traditional sexual relations that evokes interest to such relations . . . .(Global Equality, 2014) ” What constitutes non-traditional relations has been informally defined as relations that cannot reproduce, thereby encouraging a heteronomative agenda. This law states citizen violators can be fined or arrested, with most violators actually being mass media corporations and news organizations. Foreign violators can be fined, detained for up to 15 days, or deported immediately (Global Equality, 2014).  This law, passed in June 2013, provides the government with the authority to terminate the parental rights of individuals raising children with same-sex partners, as well as to deny prospective adopting parents the rights to adopt based on same-sex coupling (Global Equality, 2014).  A later-released document clarifies that the law would punish the promotion of homosexuality to minors and not a person’s homosexual orientation directly, therefore not directly violating the constitutional right of protection from discrimination and freedom of expression. However, this law has been used to arrest and/or fine citizens for waving pride flags, posting about their sexual orientation on social media, and engaging in flamboyant demonstrations of homosexuality, because it influences minors (Moroz 2012). This explanation continues to explore the justification for adoption prevention measures stating that adopted children had to be protected “from possible unwanted influence, such as artificial forcing of non-traditional sexual behavior and the suffering, complexes and stresses that, according to psychological studies, are often experienced by children raised in same-sex families” (Vneseny Izmeneniia 2013). “Thus non-heterosexual citizens, both in Russia and abroad, are constructed as both morally deviant (and therefore as a negative influence on children and young people) and as unfit, and biologically unable, to parent” (Stella et al, 2015, 29).

Another example of policy stripping rights from LGBTQ+ citizens is the Concept on the Demographic Policy of the Russian Federation until 2025 (CDP 2007) and the Concept on State Family Policy (CFP 2013). These papers “set out government policy priorities and preferences, which are reflected in new policies and legislation in the areas of reproductive health and family policy” (Stella et al, 2015, 21). Among family values deemed worthy of state protection, CFP explicitly mentions marriage, understood “solely as the union between a man and a woman [. . .] and undertaken by the spouses with the aim of perpetuating their kin, birth and joint upbringing of children” (CFP 2013). “The case made in CFP for traditional family values is both pragmatic and ideological. Pragmatically, heterosexual nuclear families are presented as both more fertile and as a better environment for children’s upbringing than other types of households” (Stella et al, 2015, 21). Furthermore the document emphasizes that birth rates among married women are higher and that children from non-heterosexual nuclear families lack a model of “harmonious relations between a man and a woman on which they can orient themselves in future” (CFP 2013). These types of legalized oppression is removing the right of LGBTQ+ people to exist and engage with society, their right to privacy, and reinforces their status of subclass Russian citizens, thus encouraging violence and further rights violations.


Under President Putin, LGBTQ+ citizens have experienced greater violence and oppression from a legal standpoint as well as an increase in vigilante violence encouraged by the government’s traditionalist ideology. The Russian government’s propagation of traditionalism, the vigilante violence movement, and the refusal of the Russian government to bend to international pressures and norms has resulted in increased violations of the right to freedom of expression, right to assembly, right to privacy, and freedom from discrimination. These violations have taken the form of vigilante skinhead violence, beatings, rallies, and counter protests, as well as legislative measures like the Mizulina Law and the Concept on State Family Policy. While the international community has spoken out against these blatant violations; Russia chooses to deny the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals legally and the public carries out physical and emotional violence against these citizens.


Mikaela Schaller is a senior at Bucknell University where she studies International Relations and French.


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