ST. PETERSBURG — The anti-Western rhetoric that dominated Russia’s recent elections has a new focus, with gays targeted as symbols of Western permissiveness in a wave of laws being adopted across the country.
Here in St. Petersburg, a city that prides itself as the most European in Russia, the lawmaker behind a new local ban on gay “propaganda” has said that he is defending traditional Russian values against an onslaught from the West. Gay activists — two of whom were the first to go on trial this week on charges of violating the new law — counter that the rules will legitimize homophobic attitudes and aggression even as Europe and the United States move toward acceptance.
St. Petersburg’s parliament was the latest to enact such a law, which imposes fines of up to $17,000 for spreading “propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality or transgenderism among minors,” and the national parliament in recent weeks has taken up similar legislation. In a country where a 2010 poll by the respected Levada Center found that 74 percent of Russians deemed gays and lesbians “morally dissolute or deficient,” advocates for gay rights worry that the laws could rapidly become more common.
“The homophobic mood is growing in society, and minorities are getting more and more afraid,” said Igor Kochetkov, the head of Coming Out, a gay rights group in St. Petersburg. This week, he appeared in a cramped courtroom to defend himself against charges that he spread gay propaganda to minors when he unfurled a sign on a crowded street corner that said, “No to crimes against gays and lesbians.”
“State homophobia always existed,” he said. “Now it is becoming open.”
Two other provinces in recent months banned spreading “propaganda” about homosexuality to minors, but St. Petersburg’s law has had the biggest impact, because the city is the second largest in the country and has long been regarded as the most tolerant. In the past, St. Petersburg has allowed gay pride parades, unlike Moscow.
The man responsible for St. Petersburg’s anti-gay law, local legislator Vitaly Milonov, a member of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, said he was taking a stand for his Orthodox Christian faith — at a time when even conservative European politicians such as British Prime Minister David Cameron are pushing to legalize same-sex marriage.
“We cannot change the Bible just because it’s fashionable in Europe,” Milonov said in his St. Petersburg office, a series of rooms stuffed with gold-leaf Orthodox icons that is housed in a palace built by Czar Nicholas I. “Now is the time when Russia wants to show everybody else where its moral values are.” The Russian Orthodox Church has expressed support for the new law and called for a similar measure to be adopted on a national level.
During Russia’s presidential campaign, which ended with Putin’s victory March 4, anti-American rhetoric rocketed to heights reminiscent of the Cold War, with attacks on the new U.S. ambassador, Michael A. McFaul, suggesting that he was promoting revolution in the country. Putin said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signaled that opposition activists should take to the streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
And shows of manliness still hold political resonance in a country where traditional notions of gender roles retain power.
Putin’s elaborately staged shows of virility are the stuff of legend in Russia, as he has at various points gone diving to “discover” ancient amphorae at the bottom of the Black Sea that his spokesman later conceded were planted there; ridden horses bare-chested, displaying his sculpted pecs; and offered to do judo training with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Now Putin’s allies across the country are pushing for laws restricting the dissemination of information about gay men and lesbians targeted at minors, “including information forming misrepresented conceptions of social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional marriage relations,” which is part of the law passed in St. Petersburg.
But Milonov said nothing in that law restricted the human rights of gays and cited his appreciation of British singer Elton John as evidence that he had nothing against gay people. Instead, Milonov said, he had more specific risks in mind.
“If a teenager who is 13 has a girlfriend and they split, in a traditional country, this boy will be looking for another girlfriend,” Milonov said. “But in a neoliberal country, some activists might tell him, ‘You know, you split. Maybe you should try a boy.’ ”
Gay rights advocates say the laws are so vague that virtually any action, such as two men holding hands, could be interpreted as propaganda by an overzealous police officer.
This week, in a stuffy St. Petersburg courtroom, Officer Valery Afanasiev stood on a raised platform, struggling to explain how the activists had been spreading propaganda when he arrested them.
“With the help of his sign,” he said. “There were minors around.”
Judge Oksana Azizova postponed her ruling, saying she needed to hear from another witness next week before she could decide the case.
The laws are “a cheap way to gain political support and political popularity,” said Dmitri Bartenev, a St. Petersburg lawyer who has fought for gay rights at the European Court of Human Rights. “Many legislators across Russia realized this is such a nice issue.”
National legislation has been proposed in Russia’s parliament several times in recent years, and it has been voted down every time. Now, Bartenev said, “I think there’s a chance it would be adopted.”
On the international stage, Russia has recently fought efforts to give more prominence to gay-rights issues.
Last week, Russia kept its signature off a declaration at a Group of Eight meeting that said that “human rights and fundamental freedoms are the birthright of all individuals, male and female, including lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals,” objecting that gay men and lesbians do not have separate rights under international law.
“It is unacceptable to use the protection of so-called sexual minorities as an excuse to aggressively promote a certain way of conduct,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, according to a report by the Interfax news service.
But opponents of the new laws said they set a dangerous precedent.
“How can we qualify what propaganda is?” asked Maxim Reznik, the head of St. Petersburg’s opposition Yabloko party. “I’m a history teacher. If I tell my students that homosexuality was very widespread in Rome, does that mean that I’m involved in propaganda?”