Boycotts and Vodka Dumps Won’t Change Russia

Outside protests will be ineffective if Russian anti-gay attitudes remain.

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Western criticism of Russia and President Vladimir Putin is making headlines in a big way, from drinkers pouring Stolichnaya out on the streets to calls for boycotting the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in response to Russians harboring Edward Snowden and clamping down on LGBTQ rights. Indeed, anti-Russia sentiment has brought together some unlikely allies. Who would have thought we'd see conservative Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has called for boycotting Sochi over Edward Snowden, and liberal sex columnist Dan Savage, who initiated the #dumpstoli boycott over Russia's new anti-gay laws, on the same side of an international issue?

Unfortunately, the media attention has come too late. Russia's poor treatment of the LGBTQ community is, or at least should be, well known by now. It's only been 20 years since homosexuality was officially decriminalized. Gay pride events were effectively banned for 100 years in Moscow. Hate crimes have been steadily on the rise. There's a plan in the works to create a nationwide survey for HIV, which singles out gay people and prostitutes. It's no good to be gay in Russia, even if it's not technically "illegal," and it certainly doesn't seem to be getting better.

Starting an international movement like a vodka boycott to make it clear to Putin that the West doesn't appreciate his government's stance on LGBTQ rights may seem like a good idea, perhaps even an effective one. However, a grassroots gay rights movement against Russia's treatment of such minorities is missing its most important ally, the Russian people.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

Starting a protest in the West is not enough plant the seeds of change abroad; such motivation has to come from within. Initiating change requires overcoming a number of barriers, namely the public's view of homosexuality, an examination of the links between church and state and an end to Putin's iron-fisted "majority" rule.

First, a majority of Russians do not view LGBTQ rights as "human rights." When asked by a recent Pew Research poll (June 2013), "Should society accept homosexuality?" 74 percent of Russians said no. In fact, acceptance of homosexuality has dropped, oddly enough, since 2007, when 20 percent of those polled believed homosexuality should be accepted.

Much of this comes from a total misunderstanding of what homosexuality actually is. A large percentage of Russians believe it is a disease, and an even larger percentage views it as a "bad habit." Even more bizarre was the 8 percent of Russians that decided, yes, gay propaganda could change their sexual orientation. It's no wonder that the Duma voted unanimously in favor of the anti-"propaganda" law and 76 percent of Russians, according to the Levada Center, support the legislation. 

Second, Putin's attempt to appease the more conservative wing of the Russian Orthodox Church and to return to the tsarist-era dogma of "Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality" will inevitably continue to be a roadblock to progressive activists. The church – once weakened and fractured by decades of Communist rule – has been on an upward swing, both in terms of membership and in terms of its relationship with the state. In Putin's words, "we have a separation of State and Church. … But in the people's soul they're together." Orthodoxy may not be the state religion, but it's naturally intertwined with Russian politics and "Russianness."

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Gay Marriage be Legal Nationwide?]

Unfortunately this close relationship has resulted in extremely conservative legislation. Back in 2012, the Russian Orthodox Church called upon the Duma to ban"homosexual propaganda" among minors after St. Petersburg enacted a similar law. The motive? Keeping the youth from viewing "public manifestations" of a way of life that is "unacceptable for the majority of society," as Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Moscow Patriarchate's department of coorperation with society, told Christian Science Monitor.

In a similar vein, Patriarch Kirill I, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, recently said during a service at Kazan Cathedral in Moscow that the push to legalize same-sex unions was a way of "approving sin and codifying it into law," which was a clear "apocalyptic symptom." Preventing such "sin" by limiting so-called propaganda would, by his logic, be in the interest of not just the church, but also the state.

Most importantly, however, Putin's attempt to consolidate power through a tyranny of the majority needs to stop. Last year's street protests, as the New York Times noted in November 2012, pushed Putin to take new measures to consolidate his rule. Tapping into strongly held biases against gays ought to be seen in this light, as should the decline of the Medvedev-era mentality of modernization and pro-Westernization. While such rallying cries may work in the short term, Putin and other Russian leaders cannot continue trampling on minority rights without further delegitimizing their regime.

Hannah Gais is assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association and editor of ForeignPolicyBlogs.com. You can follow her on Twitter @hannahgais.

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