The telling incoherence of Russian anti-LGBT+ rhetoric

As a little project, I made a bot (or soon to be bot) that collects up the most reacted-to stories from some Russian Telegram channels and posts them to Twitter. The aim is to try and see, via reactions, how Russian society is reacting to the war, something both hard to discern and currently the object of a lot of curiosity (as people wonder whether visa-removal programs targeting 140 million people are right or not.)

I want to discuss a bit more a theme raised by one of them: Russia’s rhetoric towards LGBT+ people and issues; what it might reveal about their propaganda more generally; and what consequences that might have for places like the US and the UK. The reason it’s interesting is because anti-LGBT+ sentiment has been used by some Russian propagandists as a supplement to more straightforward war-mongering, and this weaponisation is noteworthy, as many people warn of the possibilities of the various bills being passed in the US concerning trans people being harbingers of incipient authoritarianism or fascism.

That Russian discourse and indeed policy is often homophobic is familiar. It ranges from the existentially important, such as the repression gay people living in Russia; to the bizarre and disturbing (such as talk of Obama’s ‘black sperm’ (see here footnote 42 — I haven’t chased up the reference so don’t entirely vouch for it)) to the almost humorous, when the someone associated with the government media agency spoke out against furries, or the tendency to speak of ‘Gayrope’ instead of Europe, a pun that works better in the original.

Even the propagandists must admit this isn’t their best work

Let me begin by adding to this catalogue some more recent quotations. The first comes today and is vitriolic even by for the subject. Ramzan Kadryov, head of the Chechen republic and an influential politician and media figure, said this today (it was his most popular post today):

At the risk of stating the very obvious, this isn’t morally neutral. By that I mean something quite specific: we are familiar with the idea of a liberal society, one that lets individuals chose their own values and aims. The ideal of such societies is that people be free to pursue their concept of the good, and the constraint on such freedom is the freedom of others: you can’t, in pursuing your good, infringe on that of others.

This, it seems pretty clear, is not expressing a liberal point of view. Instead, it can arguably be seen to be presenting something that Kadryov should take to be the object of universal contempt.

This universality is a common theme in Russian discussion of LGBT+ issues, and often comes accompanied with the phrase ‘traditional values’. Here, five days again, is notorious presenter Vladimir Solovyov:

We could take more examples from Solovyov but let’s turn to Maria Zacharova, a government spokeperson. Attached to a story about a transgender member of the US navy member, she asks:

Attached to an oddly thirst-trappy selfie, she writes:

Discussing a culture wars story not overly worth recalling, she says:

But note the rhetorical move. I suggested that Kadryov proposes an anti-liberal, universalistic moral viewpoint. As does Solovyov and Zakharova in the first few quotes. But the last passage just quoted instead, read straight;y, proposes liberalism: ‘everyone has the right to give their lives to what they see fit’

This is not a blip. The outrageous Solovyov, for example, quotes Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, talking about realizing he was gay, without editorializing or scorn. A few days later he reposts a message saying (again, the subject is some, this time Russia-located, culture wars bs):

Again, a classical liberal sentiment: live and let live. Arguably this reveals a tension in how Russia talks and thinks about LGBT+ rights. And I think that’s important.

Liberalism vs authoritarianism and the war’s causes

Recall the reasons for starting the war, given in Putin’s February speeches: on the one hand, he was coming to the rescue of the Russian occupied east; but, on the other hand, he was fighting against NATO’s eastward expansion. In a famous speech he gave in 2021, he spoke of the brotherhood of Ukrainian and Russian people in terms of their shared history and culture.

People have puzzled a lot about what the actual reason for the war was. NATO or the Donbas? Nobody had a clear answer. But maybe the unclarity is itself a source of illumination. Maybe it’s the case that Russia is attempting to stitch together an ideology, of finding some way either of incorporating or, more likely, expelling the ‘non-traditional’ values that the above commentators see as so under attack.

That would make sense. Since Putin’s coming to power (not to speak of the 90s) around the millennium, he has famously first courted and then rebuffed (or: was courted and then rebuffed, by) the West. The former subject of encomia in The Economist, whose government website still has a section for kids praising democracy, and this while fiddles with the constitution, oppresses opposing politicians, and perhaps even uses blockchains to rig votes.

But the liberal past lingers, arguably, and arguably it can be seen in the bifurcation of LGBT+ talk. And this is a not only of interest for the current war but also for any country where authoritarianism, often under the mantel of the defence of traditional values, is usurping the liberal society that many of us take for granted. Russia explicitly is perhaps discussing what (e.g.) the US and other societies are implicitly discussing: live-and-let-live, or ‘traditional values’, with all the persecution of minorities the latter entails. And so even if we didn’t care about Russia and its minorities — which we of course should — even for purely selfish reasons we should attend to Russian anti-LGBT+ propaganda.

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