There is a lesson for all of us in Russia’s dramatic repression of gays and gay advocacy, and it isn’t necessarily the lesson we think.
For readers who may have spent the last few weeks on an ice floe in Antartica, here’s the quick-and-dirty: Russia strongman Vladimir Putin suddenly (at least it seemed sudden from an American vantage point) announced what amounted to an official war on homosexuality. The Russian legislature unanimously rubber-stamped a measure imposing huge fines on people found to have engaged in “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” which has increasingly been used to harass, fine and imprison anyone expressing pro-gay sentiments.
Although same-sex relationships are not criminal in Russia, anti-gay sentiment is very strong there, and support for Putin’s vendetta against the GLBT community is high.
Putin is engaging in a time-honored tactic employed by autocrats when things aren’t going so well. His personal prejudices or lack thereof are irrelevant. His goal is distraction, and his tactic is to identify the most useful “shiny object”—a group sufficiently powerless and unpopular to guarantee that a high-profile campaign against its members will shift citizens’ focus away from what’s wrong with the country.
Eventually, history suggests that the group won’t just be used as a distraction; it will be made the scapegoat for all the things that are wrong with the country. Hitler blamed Germany’s problems on the Jews; in other countries, it has been communists or Muslims or Shi’ites. An academic paper on scapegoating explains why it works:
A strong advantage in scapegoating is that the whole society or a whole social group is raised in status against the targeted minority or individual, and any societal behavior is at the same time legitimized (“Of course we are full of defects, but we do not act like them”).
In order to reap the political benefits of scapegoating, however, it is first necessary to dehumanize members of the targeted group. So gays are promiscuous pedophiles, Jews are scheming, rapacious businessmen, lazy black men lust for white women, Muslims are obsessed with jihad…. Whoever they may be, “they” aren’t people like us. History provides us with a long list of convenient and available stereotypes for almost any group you might want to target.
Scapegoating as a political tactic almost always arises in times of national stress—times when things aren’t going well, and those in charge need someone to blame.
What is happening in Russia right now is a textbook example. The dissolution of the Soviet Union did not bring nirvana to the long-suffering people of Russia—far from it. Russians have struggled to form democratic governing institutions in a country that has never had them, a country without a culture of self-rule. Much the same upheaval—for many of the same reasons—is occurring in the Middle East, in the wake of the Arab Spring. For that matter, there is unrest in many other parts of the world, including much of Africa.
These are profoundly dangerous times for people who belong to marginalized groups. The temptation to “pull a Putin” will be very great in many of the countries experiencing upheaval. (And yes, if we don’t address America’s growing inequality, it can happen here.)
Gay people are at risk in Russia. We must bring political pressure to bear, and we must work to moderate and reverse Putin’s discriminatory policies. But the real lesson to be learned from this is that we are all in this together. In a dangerous world, we are all vulnerable.
When I was director of Indiana’s ACLU, I constantly reminded people that rights are indivisible. If everyone doesn’t have them, no one really does. A country that can pick on gay people today can pick on Muslims or Christians—or redheads—tomorrow.
As a friend of mine once put it, “Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.”