During the recent Sochi 2014 Olympics, a lot of the focus was on the countries’ anti-gay laws. The Russian law outlaws pro-gay “propaganda” that could be accessible to minors. Critics say it is so restrictive and vague that it deters almost any public expression of support for gay rights. What was missing from the reports was the historical reasons for this decision. The attitudes and legislation in Russia against Gay and Lesbians is unfortunately not new.
An article from the Calgary Herald dated June 1993 proclaimed, “Russia: Anti-gay law wiped from books”. In 1993, Russian legislators had formally lifted the Soviet era law declaring male homosexuality a crime. The law, Article 121, was a holdover from the criminal code and made Russia one of the few countries in Europe that considered male homosexuality a crime punishable up to five years in prison. Ten men were sentenced in 1992 for the crime, while in 1989 some 500 men were sent to jail for being homosexual.
One of the fall-outs from criminalizing gay people is the increase in AIDS and lack of treatment in Russia. Many gay men “were very scared they would be thrown in jail if they went to the doctor for a STD,” said Dima Lychev, editor of the gay newspaper, One In Ten. Such restrictions had cast doubt on official stats on AIDS in Russia at the time, saying 650-700. Activists have said the actual number is at least 10 times higher.
Around 1.4 million people in Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia were living with HIV at the end of 2011, representing an HIV prevalence of 1 percent. Around 140,000 became infected in 2011 and 92,000 died from AIDS related illnesses; there was a 21 percent increase in AIDS-related deaths between 2005 and 2011.
The other question is how did Russia make such a political and social about-face from 1993 to today’s sense of intolerance? Many blame it solely on Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President for this change. Actor and playwright, Harvey Fierstein in an Op-Ed in the NY Times writes the whole thing is scapegoating, used by politicians to solidify their bases and draw attention away from failing policies. This is a campaign of distraction, where a minority is attacked and the population is given an outlet for their anger at the system. Firestein likens it to the tactics used by the German Nazis against the Jews pre-1939. And he may be correct: recent moves into the Ukraine as well are part of a smoke screen like anti-gay laws to put the focus away from a poorly performing economy, social injustice, and political corruption in Russia. And the people appear to have fallen for it.