A homophobia campaign linking gays to child molesters as well as a series of “pedophilia” defamations relativize the abuse of minors in Russia

Whoever had the opportunity to observe, in Russia, debates on controversial social or political issues may confirm 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-theorizing, and heavy stereotyping in their presentation of domestic and foreign news. At the same time, some quasi- or semi-taboos have been shielding not only the Soviet, but also 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. This concerns not the least the public discussion of complicated sexual issues—above all of homosexuality. When, in recent years, the topic finally came up as a social issue, it was—like other novel themes before—treated with considerable aggression and ignorance.

To be sure, Russian and non-Russian critical assessments of the current wave of homophobia in Russia have been comprehensive. In particular, a recent St. Petersburg city law, as well as similar regional and federal Russian law projects against “propaganda” of homosexuality among children, have raised the concern of many human rights groups or such institutions as the European Parliament. What has received less attention in such critique is the frequent equalization of pedophilia with homosexuality in Russia’s homophobic legislation. The term “pedophile”, moreover, is increasingly used as a curse in public confrontations, or as an accusation in order to settle private conflicts, in Russia. Inflationary references to cruelty against children in discussions on LGBT issues have become common. Some groups play with pedophilia accusations to blacken political opponents.

Treating the abuse of minors in one breath with homosexual practices, Russia’s homophobic lawmakers and political commentators not only tally indiscriminately gays to criminals. By way of equalizing “propaganda” of homosexuality to the promotion of pedophilia, Russian homophobes, at the same time, belittle pedophilic crimes. Their treatment of sexual minorities along with child abusers not only stigmatizes gays in impermissible ways, but also lessens public concern for the horrible experience and grave consequences which sexual mistreatment entails for molested children.

According to opinion polls, most Russians are to one degree or another homophobic. Notwithstanding the wide spread of such sentiments, many Russians would still not want gays to be put in prison merely because of their sexual orientation. Moreover, a majority of Russians would probably agree 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 eventually harmless disorder. The popular weekly TV comedy show “Nasha [Our] Russia” has a special series where “Ivan Dulin” from Chelyabinsk, the world’s “first turner with a non-traditional sexual orientation,” makes funny attempts of homosexual harassment. Dulin, in each installment of the series, tries to seduce or/and rape his demonstratively heterosexual colleague-metallurgist “Mikhalych.” These TV episodes, as well as other comical 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 non-offensive public satire may be harmless or even causing empathy for the fate of homosexuals in Russia. A federal-level law project against the propaganda of homosexuality has been recently put on hold in the Russian State Duma, and may never receive parliamentary approval. It thus remains to be seen what exact consequences the current homophobic campaign will have for the day-to-day treatment of homosexuals in Russian public discourse, state policy, and social life.

What seems clear already, however, is that the recently adopted regional anti-homosexual/anti-pedophile regional laws are indirectly subverting the prevention, detection and persecution of child-abuse. The St. Petersburg city law No. 108-18 of March 2012, treats “propaganda” of homosexuality and pedophilia among children, to be sure, in two separate paragraphs. However, the law uses similar formulations in both paragraphs, and establishes similar fines for these two “crimes”: 5,000 rubles for citizens “propagating” both homosexuality or pedophilia, and 50,000 rubles for officials who do so, in each case. People who advocate same-sex marriages and criminals who defend sex with minors are, according to this law, to be treated equally. There is only a difference in the fees that organizations have to pay in case they “propagate” among children homosexuality, on the one hand (250,000-500,000 rubles), and pedophilia, on the other (500,000-1,000,000 rubles). The latter seems to indicate that even St. Petersburg’s homophobic lawmakers who adopted the law sensed that there is a difference between non-traditional sex among adults, and molesting children. However, by way of establishing a fine of only 5000 rubles, i.e. $150, for individuals who promote pedophilia among minors, the St. Petersburg law trivializes the endorsement of child-abuse, and treats such crime as if it were a form of hooliganism.

Such legislation and similar law projects are paralleled by a proliferation of pedophilia accusation in, among other spheres, political confrontations. For instance, shortly after his arrival in Moscow this year, the new US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul became the victim of an unusual defamation campaign on YouTube. In February 2012, an obviously anti-American group published a video about a presumed opinion poll taken in various European cities. The film shows reactions of random pedestrians who were shown portraits of McFaul as well as of a convicted multiple child-molester. The respondents were asked whether either the US Ambassador or the child-molester looks more “like a pedophile.” In the published 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 shortly after its appearance taken off YouTube, later copies of the video, in addition to dozens of written comments, appeared in the public domain. As of now, the phrase “McFaul pedophile” in its Cyrillic version (“makfol pedofil“) produces hundreds of text and video hits on Google.

Earlier, I had become the target of a similar campaign. On the basis of a 2008 Cambridge PhD on the notorious Russian right-wing extremist publicist Alexander Dugin, I published a number of articles detailing Dugin’s various affirmative references to Nazism, the SS, and fascism in general. In reaction to these publications, Dugin’s Eurasian Youth Movement started a defamation campaign via various websites accusing me first of russophobia, spying for the US, etc. and later also of homosexual harassment and pedophilia. A number of announcements on various “patriotic” Russian websites claim that I have been under investigation for molesting an underage girl in Ukraine, and am in Germany wanted for child pornography trading. According to these publications, I have been on the run from both Ukrainian and German law enforcement agencies for several years now (while, in fact, was and am teaching in Ukraine, with a German government-supported academic exchange scheme).

Such play with the pedophile label in politics has its parallel in the impertinent connection of homosexuality with child abuse in recent Russian regional legislation, and public discourse. These tendencies and the inflationary use of pedophilia accusations 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 for one of the most abhorrent types of crime. The post-Soviet activists subvert early identification of putative real pedophiles. The looser Russians publicly use child abuse allegations, the less alert Russian society will be concerning those incidents were real pedophilic crimes may have been committed. Russia’s patriotic bigots make Russian children the hostages of their homophobic propaganda and political defamation campaigns.

An different version of this article was earlier published by the Prague-based web journal Transitions Online.