Russia’s Anti-Gay Laws: Defanged or Doubling Down?

by Matthew Van Meter January 30, 2014

Soviet schoolchildren in 1985. Photo by Anatoly Savin

“There is no sex in the Soviet Union,” said Liudmila Ivanova on a perestroika-era TV show. She meant to continue with, “There is only love,” but she was cut off. Accidentally, she gave a voice to Soviet prudishness and discomfort with human sexuality.

The Putin administration seems to share that fear.

Last Friday, a group of legislators from the Russia’s three largest political parties proposed broadening the language of a much-maligned anti-gay law. The law, passed in July of 2013, bans “propagandizing non-traditional sexual relationships” to minors. World leaders and gay-rights advocates have criticized the law as openly discriminatory and overbroad (what, after all, qualifies as “propaganda”?).

The proposed change replaces the original language with “propagandizing the priority of sexual relationships” to minors. The maximum fine has been raised to one million rubles (about $29,000). The text of the change further emphasizes a ban on depicting or promoting sex in the presence of minors.

Monday morning, the bill advanced to the Parliament’s Committee on Questions of Family, Women, and Children. In fact, the change in language has support from some LGBT advocates in Russia, who see the new language as less discriminatory. While that may be true, it represents a terrible backslide in Russia’s educational system.

Russia has a thorny relationship with sex. On the one hand, it seems an extremely sexualized culture: women often dress more suggestively than in the West, Russian television does not censor depictions of bare breasts, adultery is considered par-for-the-course. On the other hand, Russia shares some prudish tendencies with the United States without any of the U.S.’s emphasis on free speech. Liudmila Ivanova’s famous quip about sex in the U.S.S.R. speaks to a deep-seated embarrassment. They wanted love without sex, procreation without intercourse.

Russia has no comprehensive system of reproductive education—indeed, it actively flouts the sex-ed requirements of the European Social Charter, which the country signed in 2009. That charter demands comprehensive health and sexual education at all schools. Reactionary Russian parent groups like Roditelsky Komitet scream that sex-ed classes will instruct high school students in “soft- and hardcore pornography,” “striptease and its forms,” and “necrophilia.”  Even at the private school where I worked, which could have created its own reproductive education curriculum, there was nothing.

Russians, I came to learn, believe in the golden age of youth. Not only did my school have no sex-ed, we had no protocol for dealing with fighting, drugs, or alcohol. Our students “just didn’t do that.”  This belief is at the heart of the proposed change to the anti-propaganda bill. Russians see children as essentially innocent until corrupted by adults, and the new law appears to prolong that innocence.

For two years, I gave English lessons to one of Russia’s top obstetricians. She told me how she tried to convince a Russian public school to allow her time with the tenth-graders. She wanted to talk about pregnancy. They agreed, as long as she did not mention sex, contraception, male genitalia, or anything else outside the realm of “the physiological process of pregnancy.” She agreed. When she arrived at the school, a guard barred her way. He told her that the school had changed its mind, and that he couldn’t allow her onto the school’s grounds.

I asked her what Russians do for birth control. “Abortion,” she said, and told me how, as a resident at a state-run clinic, her main task had been to preform fifteen to twenty abortions a day. Her experience is not isolated. Russia has the world’s highest percentage of pregnancies ending in abortion. 

Whatever one’s feelings about abortion, this fact underlines the brutal irony of Russia’s attitude towards sex: they pretend that teens aren’t having it, so they won’t tell them how to protect themselves when they do have it. The result is millions of unwanted pregnancies that end with an invasive procedure that could have been avoided with education. This law will demolish even the modest gains of the reproductive education movement in Russia.

My obstetrician client finally talked the principal of the private school where she sent her kids into letting her speak. She met for forty minutes with 10th-grade girls and their parents to discuss potential medical complications of pregnancy. If the anti-propaganda law is changed as suggested, she would not be able to do even that.

The proposed new law arrives suspiciously close to the start of the Sochi Olympics. It is conceivable that the Russian government hopes to defang the anti-gay aspect of the law in an attempt to preclude negative media coverage of the law’s effects.  Ironically, they hope to achieve this aim by doubling down on the law’s strictures.

Matthew Van Meter lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  His work has previously appeared on Russia Profile and in Nomadic Sojourns.  Follow him on Twitter @00mvanmeter