Ever since Vladimir Putin reassumed the presidency in 2012, championing a conservative, anti-Western agenda, life for Russia’s LGBT community has resembled a ship caught in increasingly turbulent waters.
It may be about to get even worse.
Russia’s Justice Ministry this month requested that the country’s Supreme Court designate something it calls the “international LGBT social movement” as an “extremist” organization, sending fear rippling through the gay and lesbian community.
The court will hear the ministry’s petition on November 30. If it sides with the ministry, as many activists expect, law enforcement agencies will be handed a blunt tool to shut down LGBT organizations and pursue activists operating inside the country, members of the community say.
It would be the latest in a series of measures taken under Putin since 2013 curtailing rights and freedoms of LGBT people.
LGBT organizations will be forced to close down, go underground, or work from abroad if the court agrees with the Justice Ministry, said Igor Kochetkov, an activist who heads an entity called the Russian LGBT Network.
“Legal activity of LGBT organizations and initiatives in Russia will become impossible,” he said in a Telegram post on November 17, the day the ministry filed its case with the Supreme Court. “There should be no illusions.”
‘A Direct Incitement To Hatred’
Under Russia’s extremist law — which was first passed in 2002 shortly after Putin took power — any designated organization is effectively outlawed.
The measure has been amended over the years to give it more teeth. Legal experts say it is now sweeping and ambiguous, possibly by design, and can be used go after anyone deemed a threat for any reason.
Other groups that have been deemed extremist include Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and, more recently, Meta, the parent company of Facebook.
“The actions of the Justice Ministry are direct incitement to hatred and encouragement of violence against people,” Nikolai Rodkin, an activist in Omsk, told RFE/RL.
Daria Yakovleva, a Kaliningrad-based lawyer who offers legal support to the LGBT community, wrote in a Facebook post that her legal colleague would most likely leave Russia and move the whole team abroad.
The Justice Ministry case comes amid a crackdown on civil society and opposition members following Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, an effort that has gone far worse than political and military leaders had predicted.
Authorities have gone after any sign of dissent or opposition to the war under the pretext of a law criminalizing “discrediting the armed forces.” Even public discussion of the death toll or casualties rate suffered by Russia’s armed forces can be deemed illegal.
Last December, authorities expanded the scope of a 2013 law prohibiting the promotion of nontraditional sexual relations. Lawmaker Aleksandr Khinshtein, the bill’s lead author, directly connected the legislation to the war, saying a battle was “taking place not only on the battlefields but also in the consciousness of the people, in their minds and in their souls.”
The Kremlin’s decision to pass such a bill in the middle of the Ukraine war was no coincidence, Human Rights Watch said.
Putin had “mobilized the rhetoric of ‘traditional values’ to legitimize the war in Ukraine,” the U.S. rights group said.
Still, the ministry’s decision to initiate the case took the LGBT community by surprise.
The case comes less than four months before presidential elections that Putin is expected to run in — and win.
Putin is trying to rally his supporters around “an enemy,” Maria Sabunayeva, a psychiatrist who works with LGBT individuals, told RFE/RL, calling it a “beneficial and easy” political card to play.
No More Rainbow Flags
Homosexuality was criminalized during the Soviet Union; only after the Soviet breakup was that changed.
In the years that followed, Russia’s gay and lesbian community grew and flourished to a certain degree.
Still, social attitudes toward gays and lesbians have never been strong. A 2021 poll by the Levada Center found that nearly 60 percent of people opposed equal rights for LGBT people.
In 2013, Putin signed into law a measure widely known as the gay propaganda law, which introduced harsh restrictions against the positive depiction of or raising awareness of homosexuality.
It triggered an uptick in attacks on gays, hate-crime researchers have reported. Many gay Russians have emigrated as a result.
The ministry’s lawsuit this month alleged that “signs and manifestations of an extreme nature” had been identified in the “activities of the international LGBT movement operating on the territory of the Russian Federation.”
The activities, the ministry added, included “the incitement of social and religious hatred” that it said violated the country’s law on countering extremist activity.
Boris Vishnevsky, an opposition politician who himself has been targeted for “discrediting the armed forces,” ridiculed authorities for attempting to designate a so-called LGBT movement with extremism while welcoming to Moscow the leaders of Hamas, the U.S. and EU-designated terrorist organization that seeks to eradicate Israel.
Adding to the confusion surrounding the Justice Ministry’s petition is the lack of any definition of what it considers to be the “international LGBT movement.” LGBT activists say no such thing exists and say it is just a pretext to suppress LGBT activists and organizations.
Maksim Olenichev, a rights lawyer who has worked with LGBT groups, said the ministry’s case is legally weak.
Russian legislation only allows the Justice Ministry to request the court to ban an organization, not a movement, he said. And an organization can only be deemed to exist if it holds a constituent assembly, approves a charter, or selects governing bodies, he said.
Adding further confusion: The arguments before the Supreme Court will be held behind closed doors, Olenichev said, presumably because there may be information deemed to be government secrets. That means the evidence and justification for the petition cannot be reviewed by outside lawyers.
‘Everything Will Depend On Their Imagination’
An extremist designation means the potential for large fines and criminal charges if Russians are found to be financially or publicly supporting such an organization. Or if they’re found to be promoting its symbols online — for example, a rainbow flag, which is often used around the world as a symbol of support for gays and lesbians.
Because the hearing will be held in secrecy, no one will know what symbols the Justice Ministry has assigned to the fictitious movement, Olenichev said.
Moreover, the law gives police broad authority in determining what symbols or drawings are extremist, he said.
“Everything will depend on their imagination,” Olenichev said.
Yakovleva, the Kaliningrad-based lawyer, said her colleague asked her to remove all LGBT symbols from their website as a precautionary step.
Sanubayeva said she would not be surprised if someone is eventually detained for merely possessing a rainbow flag.
Ideas, Not Intimacy
Kochetkov said the state’s goal in pursuing the case is not to prohibit homosexual relations in Russia. Rather the Kremlin is seeking to eradicate organizations whose ideas contradict Kremlin ideology.
In comments made the day the Justice Ministry announced its lawsuit, Putin said LGBT people are “part of Russian society too.” He made no comment on the lawsuit or about the right of LGBT organizations in Russia to exist.
Russian LGBT organizations are largely grassroots groups, with no state support. As such, they clash with the conservative and pro-Orthodox platform that Putin has embraced.
The “gay propaganda” law was expanded last December making it illegal for anyone to promote same-sex relationships or suggest that nonheterosexual orientations were “normal.” That forced libraries and streaming services to pull certain books and films.
This past July, Putin signed additional legislation banning “medical interventions aimed at changing the sex of a person” and changing one’s gender in official documents or public records.
Putin’s ideology “is becoming totalitarian,” Kochetkov said in his Telegram post: “That is, not only criticizing it becomes a crime, but also refusing to publicly support it.”