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Experts see Putin's latest anti-LGBTQ law as another attempt to control Russians

Activists attend a rally as they mark World Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in Saint Petersburg on May 17, 2019.
Olga Maltseva
AFP via Getty Images
Activists attend a rally as they mark World Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in Saint Petersburg on May 17, 2019.

Russian President Vladimir Putin intensified his crackdown on LGBTQ people earlier this month when he signed new legislation making it illegal to spread "LGBT propaganda." Experts see this latest move as a continuation of the government's attempt to control the population and shut out what it deems "non-traditional" values.

In 2013, Russia passed a law banning the "propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia among minors." The new law expands upon that, to include adults as well.

"It also expands the kind of venues in which this propaganda is imagined to be taking place, like on television and advertising, streaming services, the internet, and it ladders a whole series of different penalties for these different venues," said Dan Healey, a professor of Russian history at the University of Oxford.

Under the new legislation, individuals and organizations violating the law can be fined in amounts ranging from several hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.

Angela Stent, a senior non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, said this has had a devastating effect for LGBTQ Russians.

"There are lots of websites in Russia for that community, and people are beginning to close them down because they think that they're going to get into trouble," she said. "You've got much more a sense now of people saying, 'Can we stay in Russia with these laws there?'"

Healey said activists in the country are worried these laws will drive queer communities further underground.

"This is really ... people ceasing to be visible, ceasing to act in organizations, and also to go back to methods of meeting and gathering that resemble the Soviet period, really," he said.

Both Stent and Healey agree that these moves by Putin and his government are connected to the war in Ukraine and the growing authoritarianism in the country.

"This is part, now, of much more repression, particularly since the war began in Ukraine," Stent said. "They [the Kremlin] pass a lot of more repressive laws, you know, throwing people in jail who criticize the war, who criticize the president."

Healey noted that this decree to protect "traditional values" is working alongside the Kremlin's ideology to create an alleged security concern to sell to the Russian people.

"So this war is now being fought for traditional values as much as it's being fought against supposed Nazis who run Ukraine according to the Kremlin narrative," he said.

This new law also reflects Russia's anti-Western propaganda to its citizens.

"What they're saying is that the West is trying to impose these non-Christian, non-traditional views on Russia," Stent said. She cited an interview given by arms dealer Viktor Bout after he was returned to Russia in exchange for WNBA star Brittney Griner.

"He went back there and said, 'Oh, the United States is a terrible place. They have at least [72] genders there,'" Stent recalled.

She said Russian media has also claimed that, in the U.S., people are only allowed to have same-sex parental units, and that people are told everyone should identify as transgender. All of these claims are false and do not reflect the reality of life in the U.S. or other Western countries.

"In other words, they're exaggerating and making up these fables about life in the West," Stent said. "And that's, again, partly to tell the Russian people, 'the West is trying to get us, they're trying to undermine us, and you should be afraid of them.'"

The Russian government's stance on these issues hearkens back to the policies of the Soviet Union, and the targeting of queer people may offer Putin a chance to better align his political supporters.

"[The LGBTQ community] can be raised as a particularly frightening threat to your family in some way that is visceral and that is very emotive, and it motivates a base of support," Healey said.

"And particularly where that base of support is close to religious views, there is a lot of crossover there that works for political opportunists who are using official forms of homophobia to define their political stance."

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Wynne Davis is a digital reporter and producer for NPR's All Things Considered.