- LGBTQ Oppression and Activism in Russia: An Interview with Igor Iasine
Two decades ago (ten years earlier than the Lawrence v. Texas decision in the United States) consensual sex between men was decriminalized in Russia. Muzhelozhstvo (man lying with man) had been a criminal act since 1933, when Stalin’s regime reversed the Bolsheviks’ decriminalization of homosexuality after 1917. According to Laurie Essig, the legal prohibition of same-sex eroticism in Soviet Russia pertained to men, whereas women’s same-sex desires were often pathologized and subject to forced psychological or medical intervention.1
Following the collapse of the USSR, Russian queers enjoyed a period of relatively greater freedom from persecution, and a number of LGBT organizations, bars, and queer public spaces, media, and events appeared. At the same time, the fixity of hetero/homo identity familiar to so many in the West did not catch on in a sexual culture both more fluid and less prone to examination and disclosure. Western-style queer politics were greeted by some as liberatory, by others as awkwardly foreign. Queerness had for decades been cast as a Western degeneracy. Actual same-sex lives and desires resisted examination, publicity, and labeling where outing would endanger jobs and safety even after decriminalization. Essig and others have noted the tensions of foreign and homegrown movement paradigms, fixed and fluid sexual identities, and privacy and disclosure about sexuality that have characterized the development of queer culture in Russia since the 1990s.
In the fall of 2001, I gave a presentation at a gender and communication conference in Moscow on gay and lesbian language use in Russian. I was initially [End Page 100] unaware that for many in the audience, it was the first time they had heard the words “gay” and “lesbian” in an academic setting. Although it became clear that a number of people were shocked by my presentation, the feedback I received was supportive, or at least polite. During my months in the city, I felt safe going to gay bars, in spite of the thugs who would occasionally prey on patrons who left after the trains stopped running at night. I felt safe being a queer researcher researching queers. I met out-and-proud queers as well as others who feared outing for family or professional reasons and those who felt their sex lives were none of the public’s business.
When I returned to Russia in 2006, I noticed a change in the climate. From the Moscow City Council’s public opposition to “the imposition of free and non-traditional sexual relations” as a “negative influence” on youth2 to the disappearance of familiar bars and queer spaces, to the debacle that was the attempt to hold a Pride march in Moscow,3 it seemed less safe both to be queer and to research queers. I met fewer out LGBT Russians, and most of the leftist activists I spent time with were disconnected from any fight against sexual oppression.
Indeed, according to public opinion monitors at the Levada Center, homophobia in Russia, on the decline in the 1990s, has grown in the Putin years.4 They single out recent official propaganda as part of the reason for increasing negative attitudes towards LGBT people. Although concrete data are difficult to come by, activists and organizations point to a noticeable increase in anti-LGBT violence, discrimination, and harassment from 2012 to the present.5 The pernicious effects of state propaganda are noted as well by my interviewee, Igor Iasine, with the Russian activist organization Rainbow Association.
In 2013, the Russian parliament, with only one abstention, passed the so-called “Mizulina Law” (after its author, Elena Mizulina) restricting the freedom of expression of LGBT people and organizations under the auspices of “protecting” children against the promotion of “nontraditional” sexual relations. Similar laws had been passed in the regions over the past few years, but passage of this law nationally in the lead-up to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi brought worldwide attention to the struggles of LGBT people in Russia. Activists in the West called for boycotts of the Games and of Russian vodka and other...