Laura A. Janda
Reports of serious threats to Russia are piling up in the wake of new legislation banning LGBT “propaganda”. The accused perpetrators include artists, Tolkien fans, and men eating ice cream. The denunciations would be laughable if they didn’t contribute to a growing atmosphere of confusion and mistrust, sometimes with dire consequences.
Over the past decade, Russian lawmakers have been ramping up repressive measures targeting the LGBT community. The trend starts with a 2013 law banning the spreading of LGBT information among minors, followed by a 2020 amendment to the Constitution criminalizing single-sex marriage. In the summer of 2022, it became illegal for doctors to provide transgender care, and in December of the same year the 2013 law was extended to ban all “gay propaganda” and public depiction or mention of “non-traditional relationships”, regardless of the age of the intended audience. In November 2023 the Supreme Court of Russia banned the activities of “the international LGBTQ movement”. But there is no actual organization with that name, and with no clear definition of what constitutes “gay propaganda” and “non-traditional relationships”, the law is open to interpretation by anyone with a political axe to grind. These legal pronouncements are vague and imprecise, probably intentionally so, creating a situation in which no one is safe.
A number of recent incidents are merely absurd. On December 4 it was discovered that the Kinopoisk online streaming service has slapped an “18+” label on the animated film My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. This children’s entertainment series became X-rated viewing in connection with “the new legislative restrictions”, presumably because one of the characters, Rainbow Dash, has a multicolored mane and tail.
On December 15, Aleksandr Tarasov, Chairman of the Novosibirsk Culture Commission, declared that a photograph of men eating ice cream must be removed from a tourism publicity campaign because it suggests “non-traditional relationships”. The actual photograph reveals nothing sexual or even intimate. Two men dressed in t-shirts and shorts stand about 15cm apart facing the camera, each holding a cone. In the background a temperature display reads -33˚ . Clearly the photograph makes jocular reference to a frigid climate that doesn’t deter the locals from enjoying ice cream outside. It is hard to imagine what Tarasov found objectionable in the photograph, and the men themselves, both of whom are married to women, were surprised by the announcement.
On December 16, Andrei Khudoleev, Member of the Russian Presidential Council for Interethnic Relations, declared Tolkien’s Elvish language “a serious threat to Russia”. According to Khudoleev, in the most recent census over 12,000 people self-identified as belonging to the Elvish nation and “in every city I find teachers who say that they have children who are learning the Elvish language”. Furthermore, Khudoleev complained that an online translation app is available for Elvish, but not for many of the languages of real minorities of Russia. To be fair, Khudoleev later walked back his remarks, admitting that no one in Russia is attempting to establish a sovereign State of Middle-earth.
Is Russia’s integrity is so fragile as to be threatened by mythical creatures and innocent entertainments? These dubious allegations might seem merely ridiculous indicators of the weakness of a regime doomed to collapse, if not for the backdrop of brutal repressions of putative outlaws. Perhaps the most striking among these is the case of the openly lesbian artist, songwriter, and poet Aleksandra Skochilenko. In April 2022, Skochilenko was arrested for placing five slips of paper resembling price tags on the shelves of a supermarket in Saint Petersburg. Each faux tag had a price, a bar code, and, in place of product information, a message in tiny print. Here are the entire messages:
- My great-grandfather didn’t serve 4 years in the Great Patriotic War so that Russia could become a fascist state and attack Ukraine.
- Putin has been lying to us from TV screens for 20 years. The result of these lies is our willingness to justify war and senseless deaths.
- Stop the war! 4,300 Russian soldiers died in the first three days. Why are they silent about this on television?
- Russian conscripts are being sent to Ukraine. The price of this war is the lives of our children.
- The Russian army bombed an art school in Mariupol. About 400 people were hiding there from the shelling.
During nineteen months in jail Skochilenko, who has a heart defect and celiac disease, was routinely denied appropriate nutrition and medical treatment, and finally tried in November 2023. The prosecution built their case around the expert testimony of two faculty members of Saint Petersburg State University, Anastasiia Grishanina and Olga Safonova, who cited the above-cited texts as evidence that Skochilenko “publicly and intentionally spread false information about the use of armed forces … motivated by political hatred and enmity”. The defense countered with testimony from a third expert witness, Svetlana Drugoveiko-Dolzhanskaya, a more senior instructor from the same university, who found multiple faults in the prosecution’s charges and furthermore stated that Grishanina and Safonova lacked the linguistic expertise to make such charges. Skochilenko, smiling in a rainbow-colored outfit, told the court in her final statement that she is freer than they are because she says what she believes, and questioned why the state is so afraid of her that they keep her in a cage like a dangerous animal. Skochilenko was convicted to seven years in prison, which, given her health conditions, may cost her her life. Drugoveiko-Dolzhanskaya was fired from her job, considered unfit for teaching after 40 years of service.
In Russia today any person, action, or object can be called into question on the flimsiest of imagined associations. And the outcomes of such inquiries are entirely unpredictable, ranging from public humiliation to termination of employment to incarceration. Aleksandr Voronov, the executive director of Vyxod, a LGBT initiative group, anticipates that persecution is on the rise and that it will be “chaotic and selective”, making life for those who remain in Russia ever more terrifying.