Vladimir Putin insists that there is no anti-gay discrimination in Russia. Yet after Russia introduced some of the worst anti-gay laws in Europe (without actually criminalizing homosexuality, unless administrative fines count as a criminal penalty), we're now told that those laws will apply to athletes and spectators at the Winter Olympics in Sochi next year. Advocating homosexuality in front of children (whatever that means) is now forbidden as "propaganda." Russian officials have justified the law on the grounds of a supposed decline in the birth rate and an increase in divorce, although the judge in a recent case against Madonna rejected these arguments and wondered why the authorities hadn't targeted alcoholism instead. The law is an assault on free speech, but it's also led to the sort of state-sponsored gay bashing we thought had been relegated to the past in the democratic world. As someone recently put it, "it's open season on gays." LGBT organizations, already under fire as "foreign agents" because of their funding from abroad, are effectively gagged, and any attempt to challenge the new law would itself be deemed "propaganda." What I'm about to write wouldn't be publishable in Russia -- a minor might read it, after all.
So in order to divert attention from its plundering of the Russian economy, Putin's government has turned on a tiny minority of its people and rewritten history in the process. In the run-up to the passing of the anti-gay law, Putin invoked the heroics of Russia's most famous war when he marked the bicentenary of the 1812 Napoleonic invasion: "We are a victorious nation," he said. "This is in our genetic code." Self-seeking perhaps, and it's all a very bear-wrestling, bang-bang-you're-dead sort of history, but take a peek at Russia's past and you'll find a remarkably tenacious queerness in Russia's "genetic code." That queerness has informed society, even defined revolutionary causes, and it once made Russia the most sexually tolerant place in Europe. For Putin to do justice to Russian identity, he should be embracing its rich sexual diversity.
There's the story of Nadezhda Durova, a young woman who joined the army as a boy and pursued a dashing career against Napoleon. Her chosen gender identity was fêted: The tsar rechristened her with a man's name (his own), and she lived out the rest of her life in trousers, insisting that her son address her as "dear Parent." In St. Petersburg the Hermitage's spectacular 1812 gallery includes hundreds of portraits of all the major figures from the Napoleonic campaign. Nadezhda isn't there, but there is at least one gay hussar: Prince Peter Volkonsky, companion and aide to Tsar Alexander I, as well as his Chief of Staff, his Imperial Minister, one of the most decorated officers in the Russian army and, according to the pseudonymous K. K. Rotikov, partial to a fair few of his fellow officers. Even Alexander could be drawn into Volkonsky's enthusiastic slipstream, once tearfully proposing that they retire together to a villa on the Black Sea.
Proponents of the new anti-gay law in Russia claim to be upholding "traditional Russian values," yet there was a time when everyone from tsars to innkeepers, it seems, was at least sexually ambiguous, enough to constitute a tradition. A German ambassador in the 17th century felt compelled to comment on the amount of man-on-man action he encountered in Moscow. Russia has had more than its fair share of gay cultural icons too: Tchaikovsky, Gogol, Mussorgsky, Diaghilev, Eisenstein -- even Tolstoy confessed to his diary his attraction towards other men. Nineteenth-century St. Petersburg must be the campest capital in Europe, with its Hollywood stage-set smirk and tutti-frutti church domes. Nevsky Prospekt, the city's principal drag, offered prime cruising. Typically, plenty of evidence of male homosexuality in Russia survives, but there's precious little about women, although Durova's autobiography offers a glimpse at a marvelous hinterland. In the 1830s poet Mikhail Lermontov described gay sexual shenanigans in a notorious poem called "Ode to the Lavatory," the scene of nightly encounters between fellow military cadets: "[H]ere the shirt is lifted, revealing a silky bum and thighs ... 'Hold me! I am melting! I'm on fire!'" At about the same time the writer and diplomat Philip Vigel was so "out" that Alexander Pushkin once tried to entice him to visit Odessa with the promise of his pick of a trio of handsome young brothers: "What they get up to really makes the whole place shake."
Outside a little-used military law, Russia had never criminalized sodomy or other same-sex activities. One young Frenchman, Hippolite Auger, described in memoirs of remarkable frankness how he followed the Russian army back to St. Petersburg in 1814, officer by officer, relishing what was then Russia's liberal sexual mores, until he encountered a dashing, reckless 26-year-old guard's colonel, Mikhail Lunin: "[T]hat sweet look, the playful mouth, the fire of animation ... offered whatever you were looking for." It was love at first sight. They decided to head west to South America to join Bolivar's Libertadores, but they only got as far as Paris, where they shared a tiny garret, Lunin penning a novel about a 17th-century gay pretender to the Russian throne, Auger introducing him to an assortment of quivering Jesuits, Saint-Simonians, and thespian bonbons.
So given this rich narrative of sizzling same-sexiness, it's a pity that Putin apparatchiks have chosen a distorted and, frankly, duller version of the national story. With the rise in appalling violence against LGBT people as a direct result of the discrimination fostered by the "propaganda" law, it may be naïve to suggest that the conscience and sympathy of the Russian people will correct their government's illiberality before the European Court of Human Rights steps in. Yet Mikhail Lunin, dying a persecuted political exile in Siberia, still believed in the essential goodness of his fellow Russians, writing, "[T]he Russian mind may, for a while, be led astray, but Russian popular sentiment is not to be deceived." Reminding ordinary Russians of their past tolerance may counter the chronicles of population decline, divorce and whatever other ills are being laid at the door of Russia's gay community.