home Europe, GLBTQI, Human Rights The Past Lives On: Russian Homophobia and the Gulag

The Past Lives On: Russian Homophobia and the Gulag

Russian actor Alexei Panin used to be mostly famous for overturning tables in restaurants when he’s in a bad mood. Or for the ugly custody battle he had with his ex-wife over their daughter. Or for his drinking.

A few weeks ago, however, Panin visited a Ukrainian game show where he stated that he has had sex with men. Russian bloggers had a field day with the shocked faces of the largely middle-aged audience, and the slightly annoyed expression of his current girlfriend.
Pop culture fanatics then swiftly pointed out that about a year and a half ago, Panin had already told a Russian television show that he is bisexual – stating that he’s mostly after publicity. After all, it’s not as if Panin is A-list, they reasoned – he needs to shock people in order to retain their attention.

“I think few people could say that I’m not masculine, or that I’m not a man,” Panin told the Ukrainian game show host. “I don’t court men, I don’t date them, I don’t give them flowers… But in the company of swingers, during group sex, I had sex with a man. This doesn’t mean that I’m in love or that I chase after men with flowers. It’s just engaging in sexual variety [and] gaining experience.”

“I think the first time it was just random – but then I consciously engaged in it,” Panin went on to say. “It’s not a bad sexual [experiment].”
“Would you do it again?” The host asked.

“I already do!” A smiling Panin replied.

In light of Russia’s recent adoption of a controversial law that bans “propaganda of untraditional relations” to minors, Panin’s admission was interesting to analyze. So far, I have yet to see any serious journalist demanding that his daughter be taken away – even as a Russian lawmaker, Alexey Zhuravlev, has submitted legislation to the Russian Duma that would effectively strip people of their parental rights should they publicly admit to any “gay-type” behavior.

On his Facebook page, prominent journalist Oleg Kashin theorized that what makes Panin’s so-called coming out exceptional is the fact that he’s apolitical. “[Panin] is a moronic, alcoholic actor, who didn’t [protest] in Bolotnaya Ploshchad…He’s practically the face of Putin’s Russia,” Kashin wrote, referencing the Moscow square popular with liberal protestors in recent years.

Most of Russia’s liberal opposition could not afford to do what Panin is doing. They couldn’t calmly sit in a chair, grin for the cameras, and talk about any “untraditional” sexual activities they have engaged in. That’s because the moral panic over the LGBT community is largely being used as a cudgel – it’s just one more instrument the authorities, or individual officials with a particular axe to grind, can be used against someone who stands in their way.

But why is homophobia in Russia so easily weaponized? And why does the LGBT community irk the mainstream Russian public so much? Panin can get away with a lot of things because he is an actor, and actors are generally allowed their little indulgences (though it should go without saying that no A-lister could afford to do what Panin has done) – but the average person in the street faces a serious risk of violence should they publicly admit to having had same-sex relations.

There are many reasons why Russian homophobia is so entrenched – and why it’s on the rise today (according to polling agency VTsIOM, 42 percent of Russians said that homosexuality should be a punishable crime in June of 2013 – that number stood at just 19 percent back in 2007).

I have argued before that the search for Russian national identity figures heavily into this – as Russians see Europe growing more and more accepting of so-called “sexual minorities” (a popular, catch-all term in Russia), they struggle to define themselves against that. Many Russians don’t feel that their country will ever be anything like most EU nations; they feel that they will always be a nation apart.

The already marginalized LGBT community, in that sense, serves as a convenient foil for a “true” Russian identity. “We’re not like those whiny, tolerant, effeminate Europeans! They may have less corruption and better infrastructure – but at least we don’t have gays kissing in public!” I’ve seen variations on that argument too many times to believe it is marginal.

Yet what the Western press often glosses over in its exploration of Russian homophobia is also the GULAG factor. The Soviet Union’s notorious prison camps were places where both same-sex relationships between prisoners and sexual violence reigned supreme. A lot of the memoirs of the GULAG and documentaries and so on mention same-sex relationships there in a negative way – as well as point out that sexual violence was encouraged as a way for inmates to “police” one another and establish hierarchies. Often, any kind of same-sex relationship is conflated in recollections of the GULAG with violence and shame.

As Russian political expert Pavel Svyatenkov recently noted that Russia’s current struggle against homosexuality is not a war between heterosexuals and homosexuals, “It’s a conflict between two versions of homosexuality – the Soviet version and the Western version.”

The Soviet version was created in the GULAG, Svyatenkov argues, where the word “petukh” (literally: rooster) was first used to delineate a prisoner who was penetrated – such prisoners where the laughingstock of the entire camp, they were the lowest of the low, dehumanized and scorned. It was OK to rape in prison – it just wasn’t OK to be raped, it was OK to dominate – not to be dominated.

The idea that it’s not OK to be dominated has persisted in Russia today – and has spread far and wide beyond prison. This idea, Svyatenkov argues, is what makes the Russian establishment so resistant to comparatively tolerant Western European ideals on sexuality.

Svyatenkov sites the larger idea of the need for a strict power vertical in Russia as evidence that the entire system of power in Russia is understood in terms of “Soviet homosexuality,” where there are “real men” who dish out abuse, and weaklings who must take it. You certainly can’t help but notice it whenever it is that some official is dressed down by the president on state TV. Humiliation is part of the game – even when the game is political in nature.

The Western model, in this light, is seen as intolerable because it demands recognition for the humanity of the dominated party, Svyatenkov says.

It should be noted that it’s gay men in particular that appear to concern the mainstream Russian public the most. The so-called “standard” gay relationship, featuring a dominant and submissive party, is seen as most unacceptable – because it is associated with abuse and humiliation.

It’s an interesting theory and I think the thing that really lends it weight is the fact that Russia has yet to deal with the oppressive aspects of its Soviet past. Hysterical arguments over Stalin’s legacy erupt on a daily basis among regular citizens. At the top, the GULAG is rarely mentioned, the horror of it rarely addressed. Schoolchildren aren’t encouraged to dwell on it. And nobody wants to upset Russia’s dwindling WWII generation with emotional discussions about Stalin’s Terror and the camps.

The GULAG taught an entire generation shame, hatred and fear – and that knowledge has been passed on and on. Considering the conditions in many of Russia’s modern penal colonies one can say that the GULAG culture is surviving quite nicely in the 21st century. Obviously, things are better than they were under Stalin (this often needs to be pointed out – if only because comparing today’s Russia to Stalinist Russia is an insult to Stalin’s victims, I believe) – but the country is not out of the woods yet. Some demons, after all, take a little more exorcising than others.

Natalia Antonova

Natalia is a writer and journalist. She's the associate editor of openDemocracy Russia and the co-founder of the Anti-Nihilist Institute.