A campaign equating gays to child molesters, and a series of “pedophilia” defamations, diminish the abuse of minors in Russia.by Andreas Umland 16 July 2012
Anyone who has observed recent debates in Russia on controversial social or political issues knows that post-Soviet Russian public discourse is still problematic.
While mass media reporting can be biased in other countries, too, Russia's major and state-controlled TV channels are especially fond of using political polarization, conspiracy theories, and stereotypes in their newscasts. At the same time, some quasi- or semi-taboos have kept the post-Soviet Russian public from seriously discussing a range of difficult social topics. As a result, 20 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, certain sections of Russian public discourse remain relatively unreflective, introverted, and provincial. That is especially true for public discussion of complicated sexual issues – above all, homosexuality.
In recent years, the topic has finally surfaced as a social issue. But, like other novel concepts before it, homosexuality has been treated with considerable aggression and ignorance.
To be sure, Russian and non-Russian critical assessments of the current wave of homophobia in the country have been comprehensive. In particular, a recent St. Petersburg city law, and similar measures in other regions, against “promoting” homosexuality among children have raised concerns among human rights groups and institutions like the European Parliament.
What has received less attention is the frequent equating of pedophilia with homosexuality in Russia’s homophobic legislation. The word “pedophile,” moreover, is increasingly used as an epithet in public confrontations or as an accusation in order to settle private conflicts. References to cruelty against children have become common in discussions on lesbian and gay issues. Some groups play with pedophilia accusations to blacken political opponents.
Speaking of the abuse of minors and homosexual practices in the same breath, Russia’s homophobic lawmakers and TV commentators indiscriminately liken gays to criminals. More than that, by equating the “promotion” of homosexuality to the promotion of pedophilia, Russian homophobes minimize pedophilic crimes. Their lumping of sexual minorities with child abusers not only stigmatizes gays; it also lessens public concern for the horrible experience and grave consequences that sexual mistreatment entails for molested children.
According to opinion polls, many Russians are to some degree homophobic. But this does not mean they want gays to be imprisoned merely because of their sexual orientation. Most Russians would probably express the view that as long as gays or lesbians do not display their affection in public, they should be left in peace. Homosexuality is often seen in the post-Soviet world as an embarrassing but ultimately harmless disorder. The popular weekly sketch comedy show Nasha Russia (Our Russia) has a recurring character named Ivan Dulin from Chelyabinsk, the world’s “first milling-machinist with a nontraditional sexual orientation.” In each appearance, Dulin tries to seduce and/or rape his demonstrably heterosexual colleague Mikhalych.
These skits, and other comic depictions of encounters between hetero- and homosexuals in mass media, have raised little concern in Russia. While some public irony of this type promotes homophobic stereotypes, other mild public satire may be harmless, or even generate empathy for sexual minorities.
In addition, a proposed federal law against homosexual “propaganda” has been put on hold in the Duma and might never see the light of day. It thus remains to be seen what consequences the current homophobic campaign will have for the day-to-day treatment of gays and lesbians in Russian public discourse, state policy, and social life.
What seems clear already, however, is that the new regional anti-homosexual/pedophile laws are indirectly subverting the prevention and detection of child abuse and the prosecution of abusers. To be sure, the St. Petersburg law treats promoting pedophilia and disseminating homosexual “propaganda” to children as different offenses, in separate paragraphs. But the paragraphs are similarly formulated, and establish largely identical fines for these two “crimes”: 5,000 rubles ($154) for citizens “propagating” either homosexuality or pedophilia, 50,000 rubles for officials who do so. People who advocate same-sex marriage and those who defend sex with minors are, under this law, treated the same. There is only a difference in the fees that organizations have to pay if they are determined to be promoting homosexuality to children (250,000 to 500,000 rubles) or pedophilia(500,000 to 1 million rubles) – some evidence, at least, that even St. Petersburg’s homophobic lawmakers sense there is a difference between nontraditional sex among adults and the abuse of children.
Such legislation and similar proposals are paralleled by a proliferation of pedophilia accusations in, among other spheres, political confrontations. For instance, shortly after his arrival in Moscow this year, the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, became the victim of an unusual defamation campaign on YouTube.
In February, an anti-American group posted a video about a presumed opinion poll taken in Moscow and various Western European cities. The film shows reactions of supposedly random pedestrians who were shown portraits of McFaul and of a convicted serial killer and child molester. The respondents were asked whether the ambassador or the child molester looked more “like a pedophile.” In the video, all respondents identify McFaul as looking "more pedophilic" than the real child abuser – an obviously doctored pattern. Although the first version of the video was taken down shortly after it appeared, later copies, and dozens of written comments, appeared in the public domain. As of now, the phrase “McFaul pedophile” in its Cyrillic version produces hundreds of text and video hits on Google.
A video posted on YouTube, titled “McFaul pederast: Europeans’ opinion,” presents two pictures supposedly shown to respondents of an opinion poll: "Michael Anthony McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia, vs. Pedro Alonso Lopez, pedophile, killed 300 people."
Earlier, I was the target of a similar campaign. On the basis of a 2008 Cambridge doctoral dissertation on the notorious Russian right-wing extremist publicist Alexander Dugin, I published a number of articles detailing Dugin’s various approving references to Nazism, the SS, and fascism in general. In response, Dugin’s Eurasian Youth Union started a defamation campaign via various websites, accusing me first of Russophobia and working for the U.S. government, among other things, and later of homosexual harassment and pedophilia. A number of announcements on various “patriotic” Russian websites claim that I have been investigated for molesting an underage girl in Ukraine and am wanted in Germany for trading in child pornography. According to these publications, I have been on the run from Ukrainian and German law enforcement agencies for several years. (In fact, I have been teaching in Kyiv, through the offices of an academic-exchange program supported by the German government.)
Such loose play with the pedophile label in politics has its parallel in the pernicious connection of homosexuality with child abuse in recent Russian regional legislation and public discourse. This linkage, and the cry of pedophilia to defame political or other opponents, have larger repercussions. By their indiscriminate exploitation of pedophilia in dealing with unrelated matters, such as homosexuality or political battles, Russia’s bigots contribute to lowering social awareness of one of the most abhorrent of crimes. The post-Soviet “activists” thwart early detection of real pedophiles. The more loosely Russians publicly use child abuse allegations, the less alert Russian society will be concerning those incidents in which real pedophilic crimes may have been committed. Russia’s patriotic bigots thus make Russian children the hostages of their homophobic propaganda and political defamation campaigns.