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'In Russia, rabble-rousing specifically targets homosexuals'

Elina Ibragimowa
May 17, 2017

May 17 marks the International Day against Homophobia. In a DW interview, historian Irina Roldugina explains the origins of homophobia in Stalin's Russia and how it is exploited under President Putin.

Berlin LGBT Demonstration gegen Übergriffe auf Schwule in Tschetschenien
Image: picture-alliance/Zuma Press/J. Scheunert

Deutsche Welle: Ms. Roldugina, what are the origins of the intolerance towards homosexuals that is so widespread in Russia today?

Irina Roldugina: Homophobia is a very complex phenomenon. It has a number of root causes and depends on various factors. If we compare the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age in Russia to what was Europe at the time, we find that Europe was a lot more homophobic. In addition, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries Russia saw neither death sentences over sexual intercourse among males nor any big scandals and spectacular trials as did Europe.

However, concluding that Russia is particularly tolerant would be wrong. Due to the enormous size of the country, it simply didn't have the means to exercise a great deal of control over its population. In my view, today's form of homophobia in Russia developed since the era of Joseph Stalin [between 1924 and 1953, ed.]. It is closely linked to prison camps and hierarchies established behind barbed wire. At the time, the people who ended up in Stalin's prison camps were, for the first time on a larger scale, exposed to same-sex contacts which were, for the most part, of a violent nature.

What kind of policy did Stalin pursue with regard to homosexuals?

In 1934, Joseph Stalin reintroduced a law according to which sexual intercourse among males was punishable. At that time, other measures included banning abortions and establishing higher hurdles for divorce. Interestingly, in contrast to the anti-abortion campaign - which was conducted publicly and vociferously - the law that put a ban on sex among males was introduced almost unnoticed. In Moscow and Leningrad, homosexuals were arrested in droves by the Soviet secret police. 

However, neither during the 1930s nor afterwards did the Soviet state aim at annihilating all homosexuals or putting them away in camps, as did Nazi Germany. People's homosexuality gave it just another opportunity to put them under pressure. The Soviet regime, including the KGB, made extensive use of that opportunity, blackmailing or expelling foreign diplomats and students. A law that punished women did not exist in the Soviet Union. However, homosexuality among women was viewed as an illness. Lesbians received forced treatment and were excluded from society.

Historikerin Irina Roldugin
Historian Irina Roldugina takes a stand for the rights of homosexuals in Russia Image: DW/E. Ibragimova

After the end of the Soviet Union, Russia legalized homosexual acts between adults in 1993. President Vladimir Putin did not introduce penalties for sex between males - even so, do you see parallels between Putin and Stalin?

Although Putin did not make homosexuality a punishable offense, he is guided by a similar logic. The current law against "gay propaganda" is based on the concept that homosexuality is a criminal offense and something abnormal - something that you must be ashamed of, that you have to hide. According to openly accessible sources, crimes with a homophobic background are on the rise.

However, comprehensive statistics detailing such criminal acts don't exist in Russia. Firstly, such acts are rarely reported to the police; secondly, the police often don't see a "motive of hatred." The purpose of the law is to polarize society and stigmatize "inferior" social groups. The lowest human instincts - under the guise of "traditional values" - are directed at the most vulnerable parts of the population. Homophobia is used by the state authority as a practical tool with which it can incite hatred within the country.

On 17 May 1990, the World Health Organization (WHO) decided to remove homosexuality from its list of psychiatric diseases. Why is homophobia still so widespread in Russia?

The main feature of homophobia is that it breeds hatred, sometimes in very appalling ways. But it is possible to combat it. No one is "born with it." In the Netherlands, homosexual encounters used to be punishable by death. In the US, where people belonging to the same sex get married, there are no indications that the country is facing an abyss of hellfire. On the contrary, its society is more vibrant and more liberal.

I believe that, if Russia did not have rabble-rousing that specifically targets homosexuals, if the police were more professional and less corrupt and the schools were more open to sex education, we would not be talking about homophobia in Russia's society. We would be talking, instead, about homosexuality as something that is completely natural. In Russia, we have a specific state authority. It considers hatred an ideal means that enables it to hold on to its own positions.

Irina Roldugina is a Russian historian. She teaches History at the Higher School of Economics University in Moscow, one of the largest Russian universities. One of her main areas of research is gender history.

This interview was conducted by Elina Ibragimowa.