Homosexuality is not a criminal offence in Russia — since 1993. In 1999 it ceased to be regarded as a mental illness. Indeed, Russian history has many famous homosexuals — the poet Alexei Apukhtin; Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes; and of course the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The younger brother of Tsar Alexander III, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich Romanov, was famous for his homosexual exploits while serving as Governor of Moscow from 1891 to 1905.
Homosexuality was legalised following the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. But in 1933, under Stalin, Article 121 of the Criminal Code made male homosexuality a crime punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment with hard labour. This anti-gay law, like the prohibition of abortion at the same time, was strongly supported by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), which began to revive following the enactment of the 1936 USSR Constitution, Article 124 of which declared freedom of religion. The Church was fully rehabilitated by Stalin in 1943, to play a decisive role in the Great Patriotic War. The ROC is to this day a fierce opponent of gay rights.
In 2006 gay activists attempted to organise the first Gay Pride march in Moscow, but this was banned by the Moscow City authorities, and marchers were forcibly dispersed. Applications to hold a Gay Pride march in Moscow have been rejected every year since. On 21 May 2015 the City once again rejected an application to hold a march on 30 May 2015. The RIA Novosti agency quoted the Mayor’s spokesman Alexey Mayorov as saying.”We have warned the organisers that the demonstration will not be authorised,” and told them of the risks should they ignore the ban. No reasons for the ban were given.
The gay rights activist Peter Tatchell was present with other foreign observers in 2006 and said: “We were immediately set upon by about 100 fascist thugs and religious fanatics who began pushing, punching and kicking us.” In 2007 Tatchell and the German parliamentarian Volker Beck were punched in the face by anti-gay protesters.
In 2007, 2008 and 2009 the leading Russian gay activist Nikolay Alekseyev applied to the European Court of Human Rights complaining of a violation of his right to peaceful assembly on account of the repeated ban on public events he had organised in 2006, 2007 and 2008. He also complained that he had not had an effective remedy against the alleged violation of his freedom of assembly and that the Moscow authorities’ treatment of his applications to hold the events had been discriminatory.
He argued that his right under Article 30 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which provides that everyone has the right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, had been violated. Article 55 (3) provides that rights and freedoms may be restricted by federal laws for the protection of constitutional principles, public morals, health and the rights and lawful interests of others, and to ensure the defence and security of the State. The 2004 Federal Law “On assemblies, meetings, demonstrations, marches and picketing” should, if applied properly, permit Gay Pride marches where application has been made beforehand.
On 21 October 2010 the Court unanimously — including the great Russian judge Anatoly Kovler — concluded that the ban on the events organised by Mr Alekseyev did not correspond to a pressing social need and was thus not necessary in a democratic society. Furthermore, he had been denied an effective legal remedy, and he had suffered discrimination.
This resounding judgment did not lead to a change in the policy of the Moscow authorities. Many more complaints to the European Court of Human Rights are pending. It is highly likely that the Court will adopt a “pilot judgment” against Russia, setting out detailed instructions designed to resolve what is clearly a systemic issue.
On 13 December 2010 the Federal Law “On protection of children from information leading to harm to their health and development”, promoted by Yelena Mizulina, came into force, and has been amended – and made more severe — by amendments in 2012 and 2013. The 2013 amendment added “propaganda” promoting “non-traditional sexual relationships” as a class of harmful content under the law. The Code of Administrative Misdemeanors (KOAP) provides by Article 6.17 for punishment of violation of the Law by large fines. Yelena Mizulina is the chairperson of the Russian Duma’s Committee on Family, Women, and Children. She is the Russian Mary Whitehouse, a champion of high moral standards, and promotes legislative initiatives to improve the morality of Russian society.
Nevertheless, there have been few prosecutions to date. Here are examples. In December 2013, Mr Alexeyev and Yaroslav Yevtushenko picketed outside a children’s library in Arkhangelsk holding banners that read, “Gays aren’t made, they’re born!” The two were fined 4,000 roubles and their appeal was rejected. The activist Dmitry Isakov protested the law in Kazan. Several months later, he was summoned to court after a teenager in Arkhangelsk had seen photos of his protest online and filed a complaint. Isakov was fined 4,000 roubles in January 2014. The newspaper editor Alexander Suturin was summoned to court after he published an interview with an openly gay schoolteacher in his weekly paper in Khabarovsk. Fines are much higher for those accused of spreading propaganda with the help of media or the Internet, and Mr Suturin was fined 50,000 rubles in 2014. In the interview, the teacher, who was told his school contract would not be renewed after he came out publicly as gay, defended LGBT rights. The teacher’s dismissal has been upheld in court.
17 May every year is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. That date was chosen to commemorate the decision to remove homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1990.
On 17 May 2015, various events devoted to the International Day took place all over the world. In Russia, applications to hold LGBT pickets or demonstrations are highly likely to be rejected by the local authorities. Activists have therefore organised “rainbow flashmobs”, and these and other events took place in 16 Russian cities — in Arkhangelsk, Voronezh, Ekaterinburg, Krasnodar, Moscow, Nakhodka, Novosibirsk, Murmansk, Samara, St. Petersburg, Omsk, Perm, Tolyatti, Tomsk, Tyumen and Khabarovsk. Most rallies took place without serious incidents.
Bill Bowring is Professor of Law at Birkbeck College, Barrister, Fellow of the Essex Human Rights centre, founder and chair of the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC), author most recently of Law, Rights and Ideology in Russia: Landmarks in the Destiny of a Great Power (Routledge, 2013). Follow Bill on Twitter @BillBowring
This article also published in Society for Co-operation in Russian and Soviet Studies, Digest No.2, Summer 2015