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No Room for Humor

After protests in 2012, the Russian government launched a full-blown attack on those few pockets of freedom that still existed. Photo ©Pascal Dumont

How one journalist used satire to cover the 2013 Russian law against homosexual “propaganda” — and why he could not do it now

Field Notes

Moscow

On January 19, members of the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, gathered to discuss a draft bill that would make it illegal for two men to hold hands and for two women to embrace each other in public. The bill, which threatens up to 15 days in jail for displays of non-heterosexual public affection, is legally so dubious that it caused controversy even within the walls of Russia’s homogenous parliament.

Those parliamentarians who had backgrounds in law issued a joint statement condemning the bill for lack of clarity and failure to define what it was trying to ban: “public demonstrations of distorted sexual preferences in public places.” But in an interview in the dissident Meduza website, the author of the bill, Ivan Nikitchuk offered to clarify: the bill would stop homosexuals “from displaying their demonic desires, which the West would force on us.”

I did not cover the bill’s passage, but the news took me back to what feels like a distant and unreal past: Moscow in 2012.

The year before, the opposition had organized mass protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Russian middle class, or parts of it, still dreamed of democracy. People came out into the streets demanding fair elections and respect for their rights and freedom. They also wanted the resignations of the corrupt cabinet.

But this newly-mobilized Russian middle class soon understood that the government was not going to make concessions. The protesters grew quickly disheartened by their own inability to influence the regime. The government had outsmarted them by enlisting loyalists in the provinces and members of the working class against the urban intellectuals and launching a full blown attack on those tiny pockets of freedom that still existed in Russia.

And one of the most memorable outcomes in that battle between protesters and the government came a year later in a bill against the “propaganda of homosexuality,” which was passed unanimously by the State Duma and signed into law by Russian President Vladimir Putin in June 2013.

I am not a member of the LGBT community but I took the 2013 propaganda law personally. Such discrimination seemed so humiliating for a normal society that I could not stand aside.

It was obvious that there was nothing we could do to force the government to change its mind, but at least I had a chance to show where I stood. How? I chose satire. It seemed to be the best way. I simply could not find any rational explanation for the insanity of the Russian deputies. I felt uncomfortable giving this legislation any sort of serious assessment. My newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, is very author-led. Reporters often choose subjects themselves and are allowed to find creative ways of covering them. The most important criteria is that the final product is engaging and interesting, and a creative approach like satire is consistent with this mandate.

So together with my colleague, videographer Diana Khachatrian, we decided to stage a little carnival inside the halls of the State Duma. I got dressed into something best described as a cross between George Michael and a drag queen. Equipped with a microphone and a camera, we headed to parliament to troll Russian politicians.

The amazing thing was that none of them saw the irony. We caught them in the corridors, in their offices and in the foyer of the main Duma hall. They seemed sluggish, almost half-alive, but as soon as the camera was on they would liven up, turning from empty dolls into wind-up robots. Each of them would fill their lungs, and seemingly in one breath deliver a speech about how homosexuality could rot our society.

Duma member Tatyana Moskalkova was especially honest. Apart from banning homosexuality, she also expressed her support for bans on Zionism and Americanism. I asked another lawmaker, Tamara Pleteneva, whether we should bring back the Stalinist practice of exterminating everything “foreign”? She used the question to come to Stalin’s rescue. “Don’t you touch Stalin now,” she said, as if protecting something sacred.

Most of the MPs failed to explain to us why representatives of sexual minorities must be officially considered second class citizens, or for that matter what the letters LGBT stood for. They didn’t know. And they didn’t seem to care — it felt like they voted because they had to.

But it was not the only law passed that year. One after another, legislators in the Duma adopted a series of laws that made it virtually impossible for any Russian to be an active citizen: there was the legislation that banned adoption of Russian orphans by foreigners; amendments that made it a criminal offense to participate in any sort of unsanctioned protest; a ban on foreign-funded, non-governmental organizations and new barriers for Russia’s already constrained mass media. The speed of introduction of these legislative changes was dizzying. Many were shocked by the absurdity of the new rules and most of us did not know how to react. We had just been in the streets demanding freedom and instead we got a giant spit into our faces.

The anti-gay “propaganda” law, which Duma deputies labeled a law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values,” effectively banned promotion of culture and the rights of the LGBT community, and signalled the end of a more open, more hopeful liberal moment.

It had been only several years prior to this that Russians had been seriously discussing legalizing same sex unions, giving them a status of official partnership similar to many countries in Europe.

But by 2012 Russia had fallen backwards. You can’t underestimate the power of Russian propaganda. It is the regime’s super weapon, which affects minds with extraordinary speed. Two years was enough to reprogram the public mood, to coax, massage, and finally weaponize public attitudes firmly against homosexuality. It was two years of constant, aggressive propaganda against homosexuality. This propaganda was smoothly layered on top of a subterranean Soviet-Orthodox foundation, according to which homosexuality has always been a Western vice.

Right now, looking back at the year 2012 is to remember a more lax time. It now feels like a historical rupture, when I could take a camera and go to the Duma to make fun of Russian politicians. Back then, getting kicked out of the Duma was the worst case scenario. I wouldn’t try satire today. Russian lawmakers are reaching new levels of absurdity, but these days making fun of them could land me in jail for three years. In Russia, we no longer joke with the government.