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The Battle Over Russia’s Anti-Gay Law


Yelena Mizulina is the chairperson of the Russian Duma’s Committee on Family, Women, and Children. As a champion of high moral standards, she has framed laws and launched legislative initiatives to improve the morality of Russian society.

Kseniya Sobchak is a celebrity, TV figure, and socialite, whose love affairs—up until early this year, when she married a popular actor—were a subject of media gossip. Sobchak, whose late father was mayor of St. Petersburg and, in the early nineteen-nineties, a kind of mentor to Vladimir Putin, is an attractive woman of about thirty known for her audacious, even provocative, talk about any matters from politics to sex.

Last month, Mizulina filed a formal complaint with the prosecutor’s office in which she claimed that acts of libel had been committed against her, and that Sobchak might be one of the offenders. Sobchak’s statements in question appeared on her Twitter account, where she suggested that Mizulina may be “prepared to ban oral sex. I wonder whether we will still be allowed to suck Chupa-Chups [lollipops]. And what do we do about Eskimo [an ice-cream pop]? Should we expect to get arrested?”

In fact, Mizulina has never spoken about banning oral sex—hence her complaint—but she was the key framer of Russia’s notorious new law that bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors” and has already incited aggressive and even violent assaults on L.G.B.T. activists. And once she’d begun regulating such delicate matters, Mizulina found herself immersed in the kind of public discussions that she, arguably, would rather avoid. Some journalists asked her to be clearer about what actually constitutes “nontraditional sexual relations”— whether they are restricted to just gays, lesbians, bisexualism, and transsexualism, or if it might be possible for opposite-sex couples to also practice “nontraditional” love-making. One asked her whether she thinks simply saying “gays are also human” would qualify as illegal propaganda. Along with all that, Mizulina has become the target of endless jokes on social media. Sobchak’s was just one instance, and a kinder one at that, in a stream of scoffing and mockery.

This week, Sobchak was summoned by the Investigative Committee, a rough equivalent of the F.B.I.

“I came to be interrogated,” Sobchak said in an interview with Rain, a liberal cable TV network. “The interrogator was a young man of thirty-two … an earnest-looking man sitting across the desk from me, wearing a blue shirt. [He asked me] about my last name, first name, and place of work. And then his first question, literally was: ‘Where did you learn that Yelena Mizulina takes a negative attitude toward oral sex and is going to ban it? What is the source of this information?’ … I asked the interrogator: Is it that in fact Mizulina is for oral sex? And he said ‘I don’t know.’”

Sobchak described her session with the investigator as “the most sexy interrogation in my life.” (This is not the first time she’s been questioned this way: last year she had several encounters with the Investigative Committee related to her role in anti-Putin protests.) This may sound funny, but the interrogation lasted an one hour and forty minutes, of which, according to Sobchak, about an hour was devoted to “themes related to oral sex.” And Sobchak said she saw some ten other names on her interrogator’s list of people who’ve treated Mizulina disrespectfully and should probably also expect to be summoned by the Investigative Committee. (On Friday, one of those on the list was interrogated; the questioning lasted for three hours, he said afterward.) No matter how ridiculous this case may appear, since it’s filed by a person with political clout like Mizulina, law enforcement is sure to take it seriously.

With Mizulina’s ban enacted, Russia finds itself in the company of more than seventy countries that reportedly practice various degrees of legal discrimination against gays; the list does not cite any other European nations. But Russia’s social conservatism is a complicated, controversial issue. The country may appear to be fairly conservative, if one looks at its widespread homophobia or public condemnation of irreverence toward Russian Orthodox Church. Yet when it comes to other social habits, such as divorce, abortion, or birth rate, the picture is very different. Russia has one of the world’s highest rates of both divorce and abortion, and some of the most liberal laws on the latter. Russia’s birth rate is not dissimilar from that of secular cultures of western Europe. Premarital sex and single motherhood are fairly common; in one survey, a mere fourteen per cent of respondents said they believed a single parent can’t raise a child properly. And while a large majority of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, the proportion of those attending services or observing religious rituals in Russia is not dissimilar from many European countries.

A partial explanation of this discrepancy can be found in Soviet history. The early Soviet period involved a radical rejection of the ancien regime, a forced modernization by the Bolsheviks that included universal literacy and suffrage (along with the elimination of political choice, of course), as well as brutally imposed secularization, among other things. But the Soviet Union mostly missed the later, post-war stages of the Western social modernization, and especially the gay-rights movement. In the U.S.S.R., it was a crime to be a gay man. The atmosphere grew much freer for gays in the post-Communist period, yet gay rights have not become a nationwide issue until now, as the government has abruptly moved toward social conservatism.

The Mizulina-initiated ban is fast becoming a diplomatic problem for Russia. In a matter of just a few days over three hundred thousand signatures were collected internationally protesting against what the signatories see as discrimination against gays in Russia. This week the International Olympic Committee demanded that Russia explain how it will implement the law and what impact it may have on the Winter Games in Sochi next year. Olympic president Jacques Rogge, in Moscow this week, said the Committee has asked for written confirmation of the reassurances made by a Russian official in charge of the Sochi Games. Rogge said something was not quite clear in the English translation of the ban and “we are waiting for this clarification before having final judgment.” Rogge declined to specify just what exactly needed to be clarified, and it seems that there is probably more to this misunderstanding than a language problem.

And within Russia, the modernized minority’s primary weapon remains mockery. “My husband and I … are thinking of filing our own suit against Mizulina for insulting our private family life,” Sobchak told Rain. “The phrase ‘oral sex’ is so firmly associated with Mizulina now that we no longer feel like having it any more.”

Kseniya Sobchak during a fair-elections demonstration in 2012. Photograph by Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters.