Text by:Lou ROMÉO
Russian MPs this week updated, and expanded, an anti-LGBT law – the latest in a series of measures aiming to highlight “traditional” family values. Against a backdrop of conflict in Ukraine, Russian political and religious leaders are ramping up an internal identity war.
Russian MPs on Thursday voted to extend a law banning all forms of LGBT “propaganda”. When it was first introduced in 2013 the law purported to prevent minors from seeing content that framed LGBT relationships in a positive light. Nine years later it has been expanded to include adults, forbidding “the promotion of non-traditional sexual relations” in all media, books, films and online.
This is the latest move in a shift towards conservatism from Russian authorities that dates back to the early 2000s. At the heart of messaging from the Kremlin is the defence of so-called traditional Russian values against “harmful” Western influence.
Finding a national identity
“Russian society has been searching for its identity since the 2000, since the failure of liberal values that it was inclined towards at the end of the Soviet Union,” says Viatcheslav Avioutskii, professor of international relations specialising in Russia and Ukraine at ESSCA School of Management in Angers. “Today Russia is pursuing this with even more intensity. Lacking unanimous support for its war in Ukraine, Russian leaders have launched a conservative initiative of ‘ideological purification’ as it sees the Russian population as being at risk from harmful Western influences.”
It is in this context that Vyacheslav Volodin, the president of the legislative branch of the Russian Parliament, the Duma, on Thursday presented the update on the law banning LGBT “propaganda”. “We have our own traditions and our own values,” he said, adding that the new legislation would “protect our children and the future of this country against darkness spread by the US and European countries”.
This is the latest step towards eroding gay rights in Russia, counterbalanced by encouragement to live by “traditional” family values.
In a speech on September 30 in the Grand Kremlin Palace, President Vladimir Putin asked, “Do we really want here in our country – in Russia – a ‘parent number one’, ‘parent number two, ‘parent number three’, instead of mum and dad?”
“Russian authorities use the idea of the traditional family to oppose Western values,” says Lukas Aubin, research director at the Institute of strategic and international relations, IRIS, in Paris. “Anti-LGBT propaganda is present in children’s school books, as is promotion of the traditional nuclear family with a father, mother and at least two children.”
Beyond anti-Western propaganda, encouraging traditional families – with plenty of children – has practical motivations. Despite pro-natalist policies, since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has been experiencing population decline that recently reached record rates. The Russian population is expected to fall to 130-140 million people by 2050, compared with 148.2 million in 1991.
This is something Putin sees as a “historical challenge” to Russia’s strength. “The destiny of Russia and her historical prospects depend on how many of us there are,” he said in a 2020 speech.
Consequently, pro-birth messaging is flourishing. Since being annexed by Russia from Ukraine, anti-abortion posters have become a common sight in Crimea. In the capital Simferopol, Aubin says Russian authorities have financed adverts showing a baby pleading with its mother not to kill it.
“The discourse coming from Russian leadership can seem ultraconservative to the point of being ridiculous, but it is also linked to practical concerns,” says Aubin. “The discussion over anti-LGBT propaganda is highlighting the necessity for people in Russia to have children. They are not yet at the point of banning abortion, but there is a very strong pro-birth message.”
Building an ideology
A third aspect of promoting conservative values involves enlisting the religious bodies.
From the Orthodox Church, the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who is close to Putin, has increased references to a “holy war” in Ukraine. He is not the only one. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov referenced “shaitan” – evil spirits or devils in Islam – in an attempt to help mobilise the Muslims that make up 10% of Russia’s total population.
In October, Aleksei Pavlov, assistant secretary on Russia’s security council called on the Russian military to carry out an urgent “desatanisation” of Ukraine.
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Conservatism is an attempt to unite the different religions – Christian Orthodox, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism – and the 193 ethnic groups that make up Russian society, and gather society together under a common goal and identity.
“Putin is the leader of a country that has never become a nation state,” says Avioutskii. “Russia has remained an imperial state, inherited from the Tsars and the Soviet Union. As such it is, by definition, fragmented into regional identities. By putting immense pressure on society through propaganda, Russian authorities seek to construct a united conservative base that will encompass society as a whole.”
In 2020 the Russian constitution was even rewritten to add a reference to belief in God being an integral part of the “thousand-year history” that unites Russian society.
There is no guarantee, however, that Putin’s strategy will work. “These conservative attitudes towards identity are an attempt to build an ideology and create consensus,” says Avioutskii, “but it will not really achieve that. Putin won’t be able to unite the whole population behind him and, in pushing so hard to homogenise the country, he risks doing the opposite and exacerbating differences.”
This article has been translated from the original in French.