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The revolution and its bastards Why invading Ukraine and scapegoating ‘foreign agents’ and the LGBTQ community are two sides of the same coin: the Kremlin’s flight from accountability
Just before the curtain would finally drop over the whole macabre spectacle of 2022, Russia adopted two new openly repressive laws: one about the so-called “foreign agents” (whom the law defines as “persons under a foreign influence”), and the other criminalizing most communications about the LGBTQ community, lifestyle, and sexual health as “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.” Maxim Trudolyubov, Meduza’s ideas editor, explains why these discriminatory laws are likely just the first harbingers of repressive legislation yet to come — and also why this legislation goes hand-in-glove with the Ukraine war, stubbornly continued by Putin’s regime (apparently regardless of military failures and the increasingly obvious futility of the “special operation”). Be it discrimination at home or war abroad, “traditionalism” or outright fascism, the Kremlin will run with it, desperate to escape accountability for its policy blunders and mounting crimes, explains Trudolyubov.
Over the past 20 years, Russia has seen it all. Terrorist acts with staggering numbers of civilian victims. Fires and floods, to which the state responded with little more than washing its hands. A pandemic with a record rise in mortality over the birth rate. Failed reforms, including the reform of the military. Finally, a war of aggression that exposed the brutalization of Russian society and the degradation of the country’s public institutions. This list of dismal failures would have been enough to dethrone most regimes, enough to cost most politicians their careers, to get most parties out of power. But not in Russia, where the federal government spent the same two decades buttressing itself against being held accountable for its own misdeeds, in any shape or form.
This escape from accountability is carried out by means of cancelling elections, limiting access to public office, and transferring the state’s responsibilities to the regional and municipal administrations. Meanwhile, it is a key objective of Russian propaganda to glorify the president — and to blame other people for his failures. The group that’s now in power has staked its survival on the destruction of political alternatives to itself, on maximally insulating itself from society and from being answerable to citizens, and on disempowering the public itself in all matters of public interest. If the Russian model of governance has a “secret of success” (which is certainly a big “if”), that secret lies in the maximal disenfranchisement of the Russian people.
And yet, this model has reached a dead end: the war unleashed by Putin has confronted him with the inconvenient fact of needing the citizens after all. He needs them as his soldiers, workers, and volunteer helpers in outfitting the threadbare Russian army, robbed blind by corrupt officials. But persuading a disempowered society that it should suddenly feel empowered to serve the country is rather problematic. Hence, the constantly changing “reasons” for the war — that kaleidoscope of “denazification,” resisting Satanism, pushing back against “non-traditional” sexual relations and values, and the urgent necessity of new territories. None of these motives alone could be enough to mobilize society, and so a continuous supply of new motives becomes essential. But what’s even more essential is the supply of ever-new enemies, the menacing “others” who can help consolidate society in the framework of “us versus them.”
Military defeats and domestic policy blunders accelerate the process of finding and scapegoating those who must be responsible. By manipulating society and carving it up into “us” and “them,” the regime tries to convince the population that it’s on their side. The government and the people are “us.” And then, there’s “them”: the “non-traditional,” “foreign,” oppositional, and otherwise alien collective Other who must be resisted at all costs.
By persecuting the supposedly “non-traditional” pockets of society, the system positions itself as the custodian of tradition — falsely, it must be said. But the laws that discriminate against “non-traditional” people and “persons under foreign influence” have come into effect. The former presents the state as a guardian of something it calls “tradition,” while criminalizing non-heterosexual relations in the manner of the crumbled empires of old. The latter is modeled on the Soviet persecution of “enemies of the people.” By adopting both kinds of legislation, today’s Russia presents itself as at once revolutionary and traditional. This has been done in the past — by the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany.
‘Tradition’ as forgery
If there is any such thing as a “traditional” lawmakers’ attitude towards non-heterosexual relations, it’s probably a lukewarm attitude verging on indifference, along the lines described by the historian Devdutt Pattanaik when writing on homosexuality in ancient India: “Though not part of the mainstream, its existence was acknowledged but not approved.” “Unnatural” sexual relations were only criminalized in India in 1861, under British colonial rule. In 2018, that discriminatory law was repealed by the government of an independent India.
In colonial Asia and Africa, the criminalization of homosexuality (and its later decriminalization) followed a similar pattern. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe used to speak of homosexuality as a Western invention that had come to Africa to disrupt its social fabric. The former president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, spoke about the laws discriminating against LGBTQ people as reflective of “traditional values.” What those figures never talked about was the fact that, prior to the Westernization of their legal codes, their countries did not make a crime of homosexuality.
This doesn’t mean that the persecution of the LGBTQ community was itself a “Western invention.” What’s crucial, though, is that the character of discrimination was moral and religious, not legal or official. In Russia, same-sex relations were considered “sinful,” but this was a matter of morality, not law. If people were punished for homosexuality, this took the form of refusing the sacrament, obligatory repentance, and fasting. Only under Peter I did the religious rejection of homosexuality get codified in the law, and that was limited to the military codes of conduct adopted from Saxony and translated from the German. Civilians only became subject to punishment for homosexuality under Nicholas I. Yet Russia would never see a court case like Oscar Wilde’s in England.
After the 1917 revolution, laws discriminating against gay men were repealed. But the Soviets brought them back in the 1930s, possibly because of their fear of sexual pleasure divorced from childbearing and raising future Soviet citizens (as suggested by the Anglo-Canadian historian Dan Healey).
Another historian, Irina Roldugina, points out that the Soviet anti-abortion campaign was highly publicized, while homosexuality was criminalized covertly by amending the Soviet Criminal Code. The reason for this is clear: the point of the Soviet anti-gay law was not so much to persecute homosexuals at home as to blackmail and get rid of inconvenient foreigners. But the discriminatory law nevertheless impacted society by extending the norms and hierarchies of prison subculture to everyday civilian life.
The Messiah complex
The Roman idea of a “public enemy” was popularized by the French revolution. Since then, the phrase has smacked of counter-revolution and conservative sabotage. The revolution itself, in this framework, belongs to “the people,” while its opponents are viewed as enemies and outsiders. Russian revolutionaries inherited this binary: once they emerged from the underground and became the ruling party, the Communists adopted a revolutionary approach to politics. Their previous, underground experience taught them to promote ideas not through open debate but by insisting on the purity of their doctrine, while constantly looking for and eradicating infidels and heretics. The entire history of Russian Social Democrats, and later Communists, was made up of fierce battles against apostates, spies, saboteurs, and traitors. It began before the revolution and continued long after. As a result, the USSR enriched the English language with the word “gulag.”
The Communist Party insisted on being treated as infallible, and its leaders did not admit their mistakes. When natural disasters, famines, or technological catastrophes happened, all of this had to be blamed on the “enemies” — on spies and saboteurs, impregnated with alien values and possibly working for alien governments. Any dissent inside the country had to be packaged as if it had actually come from the outside. Why? So that, instead of having to compete with alternative ideas, the ruling party could simply eradicate them.
The Soviet political system revolved around a claim to a universal scientific understanding of humanity, its development, and its ultimate destiny. This inevitably led to a messianic sense of the USSR’s role as the world’s leader towards global communism. Although the Russian leadership has since given up on communism, it hasn’t abandoned that messianic sense of Russia’s special destiny. What bolsters this tendency even more is the elites’ rejection of accountability and fair competition, and their preference for messianism and fatalism — to put it simply, a preference for being right at any cost.
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The Kremlin would like to convince everyone that its mission is to preserve and promote the traditional Russian way of life. In practice, traditions that have been under attack for decades are very difficult to resurrect. Russia’s urbanization patterns and individualism levels are not all that different from what you might find in Western countries. While 81 percent of Russians consider themselves Orthodox Christians, only 6 percent of the population (or 8 percent of the self-described Orthodox) attend church on a regular basis. Russia also has the world’s highest per-capita abortion rate and one of the highest rates of divorce to boot. This might be why the authorities decided to scapegoat something less common, like homosexuality.
Revolutionary tradition, traditional revolution
The revolutionary approach to politics — that is, scapegoating one’s opposition as public enemies — was widely practiced in the world about a century ago. Communist regimes liked to subtract the tradition from the revolution, demolishing the real or imaginary canons to usher in the new world. Some regimes — notably, the fascist ones — used the formula “revolution plus tradition,” reconstructing past greatness (either real or imaginary) as a gateway to making “the great Rome,” “the great Germany,” or whatever else had supposedly been great in the past, “great again.” A century ago, Russia tried the communist route. This time around, it’s trying the fascist one.
The mixture of revolutionary intolerance and traditionalism is the basic recipe for fascism. The Russian authorities claim to be defending stability, but their method remains the method of revolutionary terror. They claim to be the custodians of tradition, but the only well-rooted traditions left in Russia are the late-Soviet “traditions” that make a pastiche of the claims to some venerable ancestral heritage.
Of the whole traditionalist repertoire — Orthodox Christianity, family values, subservient women, social conservatism (including the war on abortion and divorce), patriotic art and architecture, and so on — Putin’s regime has chosen to persecute the LGBTQ. The probable reason is that it banks on a society already permeated with the moral and social norms borrowed from the prison subculture. Still, given enough time, those in power can expand their pursuit of traditionalism, to include the whole array of the options just mentioned. Paradoxically, this is all the more likely since the regime has no special interest in tradition as such, with its inherent ideas and ideologies. Instead, its ideological choices are a byproduct of its greatest wish: to get away with its crimes unpunished, and to be forever free of responsibility. Whatever ideas will best aid this goal will be the ideas promoted by the state.
Escaping from accountability — be it accountability to the Russian public or to international institutions — has been Putin’s main concern for the past two decades. This guiding priority gradually swallowed up all others. As soon as war appeared to be the only remaining means of clinging to power and escaping accountability for past crimes, war became reality. The same motives now stand in the way of ending this war, since peace would inevitably depend on making those responsible for war crimes in Ukraine face the consequences. And while the war rages outside of Russia, repressions will continue within.
Translation from Russian by Anna Razumnaya
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