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The Week In Russia: Blaming The People For The 'Regime's Ideology'

People wave rainbow flags at a gay pride rally in St. Petersburg in 2017.
People wave rainbow flags at a gay pride rally in St. Petersburg in 2017.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

The Russian state ratchets up what Human Rights Watch calls its "perverse persecution" of LGBT people. The Kremlin gets a wartime "gift" from a divided U.S. Congress. And a new presidential election draws closer.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

'Perverse Persecution'

Since the Soviet Union's collapse, Russian leaders have repeatedly sought to blame their policies on the Russian people, warning the West that the country would be more conservative, more recalcitrant, and harder to deal with if not for the officials acting as a filter on the moods and mores of citizens.

Kremlin opponents and analysts, however, say the opposite is far more often true: Policies are imposed on the people by the government and propaganda is used to bring the views of the people -- or at least, the opinions they are prepared to state publicly -- into step with the state and in line with the law.

A broad range of evidence indicates this is the case when it comes to what Human Rights Watch called "Russia's perverse persecution" of LGBT people, a phenomenon the state ramped up dramatically with a November 30 Supreme Court ruling labeling what it called the "international LGBT social movement" an extremist group.

There is no such thing as the "international LGBT social movement," of course, and that's one of the many aspects of the ruling that worries a wide range of people. The wording sparked suspicions that the Russian state is trying to paint all LGBT people as part of what President Vladimir Putin has portrayed as a U.S.-led effort to impose Western values on Russia and erase its own culture.

That portrayal fits in with Putin's increasing attempts to cast the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine as a purely defensive battle to save Russia and, as he put it in a speech on November 28, to fight "for the freedom of the whole world" from "the dictatorship of a single hegemon" -- clearly a reference to the United States, though he almost always avoids naming any specific country.

The wording of the Russian Supreme Court ruling also raised fears it would pave the way for persecution of LGBT people regardless of whether they are involved in public activism. Those concerns quickly proved well-founded: One day after the decision was handed down following a closed-door hearing, police raided several LGBT-friendly clubs and other establishments in Moscow.

"How quickly the power machine moves: On November 30, they designate LGBT people in Russia ‘extremists' and on the night of December 1-2 -- police raids on Moscow queer parties and saunas, where they photograph passports, among other things," Facebook user Konstantin Kropotkin wrote in a post. "This is a ‘Sic ‘em' command to all scoundrels, those with power or without it…. It's an end-times feeling."

'Homophobic State Policy'

Many analysts agreed that the Supreme Court ruling, which satisfied a request from the Justice Ministry to impose the "extremist" designation, was an example of top-down policymaking and by no means a move by the state to respond to popular demand. It is Putin who rails on about gender identity in his diatribes against the West, while surveys and studies suggest these matters are low on the list of concerns for the majority of Russians.

Sociological research and opinion polls indicate that "if it were not for the endless homophobic, anti-trans, and gender-conservative messaging from the center, Russians would barely give a thought to these issues and would likely score lower on scales of traditionalism/social conservativism than the [United States], Poland, and even Ukraine," Jeremy Morris, a researcher at Aarhus University in Denmark who focuses on the former Soviet Union, wrote on his blog. He suggested Russia currently has an "active homophobic state policy."

"Recognizing LGBT as extremism is Russia's first step towards criminalizing deviations from the regime's ideology," political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya wrote on Twitter.

The Supreme Court ruling is inseparable from the context of Russia's war against Ukraine.

Abbas Gallyamov, a political analyst and former Kremlin speechwriter, had this explanation for the police raids and the ruling: "They are unable to defeat the Ukrainian armed forces, but they need victories -- so they went and found a foe they can handle."

At this particular moment, though, Putin may not be too worried about the war.

As winter sets in, a much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive is sputtering six months after it started, struggling to the point where The Washington Post feels comfortable stating as fact that it has "failed."

Ukraine's top military commander, General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, hasn't gone that far, but he made waves in Kyiv and beyond by saying that "like in the First World War, we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate."

Winning And Losing

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has pushed back against such assessments. On Armed Forces Day in Kyiv, he told the country that "victory is ahead" and suggested that "against all odds" Ukraine will restore control over its borders.

But he was speaking hours before Republicans in the U.S. Senate blocked the advance of a spending package that includes tens of billions of dollars in military and economic assistance to his country in a move that U.S. President Joe Biden called a "gift" to Putin.

"We can't let Putin win. It is in our overwhelming national interest," Biden said.

Putin is almost certain to win one thing in 2024: a new six-year term as president, in an election that is also inseparable from the context of the LGBT ruling.

The upper parliament house formally set the main date for the vote, March 17, and Putin is expected to confirm his candidacy this month. Given the tight state control over political levers and the media, the systematic crushing of the opposition, and the scope for cheating, if he does run, he cannot lose.

But in an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, David Ignatius, an associate editor and foreign affairs columnist at The Washington Post, said Putin should not be too confident about the war.

"I think if you're Putin, you have to be pretty careful about making bets. He seems to think things are going his way. And…obviously, if you read Zaluzhniy's analysis, they haven't been going Ukraine's way," Ignatius said. "But there are a lot of problems ahead for Putin."

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site, or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

About This Newsletter

Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

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