Putin Brings America’s Culture Wars to Russians

The battle against Ukraine, teamed with the rhetoric of religious conservatives in the West, inspires Moscow’s intensifying persecution of gay and trans people

Putin Brings America’s Culture Wars to Russians
An activist at the Russian Embassy in Berlin protests against Russia’s anti-LGBTQ+ laws. (Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty)

At the start of the year, as President Vladimir Putin campaigned — if you can call it that — to extend his rule, he offered his own interpretation of why some Russians who had fled to the West in opposition to his war in Ukraine are now returning: “Shared toilets for boys and girls.” Soon, the Russian internet exploded with memes of various “gender-neutral” toilets, otherwise known as outhouses, which are prevalent across provincial parts of the country.

Such official sentiment was taken further earlier this month, when Russia de facto criminalized the entire LGBTQ+ community, adding the vaguely worded “LGBT Movement” to its list of extremist and terrorist organizations — meaning gay and transgender people are now akin, in the eyes of the Kremlin, to members of al Qaeda and associates of the dead opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The move followed a Supreme Court ruling in November, which has already led to penalties against people for displaying rainbow-colored items. In February, a woman was given a fine for posting a rainbow to her Instagram account, while another was handed jail time for wearing rainbow earrings. On March 20, two nightclub workers in southwestern Russia were arrested in the country’s first LGBTQ+ “extremism” case. They were placed in custody and now face 10 years in prison.

The ban on any queer identity, real or perceived, is essential to the rapid, violent transformation that Russia must undergo to achieve victory in Ukraine, according to the Kremlin architects of this process and their obedient lawmakers and judges. It is also part of a quest by Putin, who claimed another term this month in a predetermined vote, to remake Russia into a piously authoritarian society. And while Russia advertises itself to the right and left in the West as some sort of “anti-woke” Elysium — as evidenced by the pro-Kremlin propaganda apparatus that gave American conservative pundit Tucker Carlson access to Putin in an interview earlier this year — the debate inside Russia, fueled by Western ideological tropes, is a departure from the tone and content of previous discussions.

In a reminder of what real threats look like, some hours after formally designating the LGBTQ+ community on Friday as extremist, the Islamic State group’s Khorasan Province wing murdered over 130 people in Moscow in the deadliest terror attack in the Russian capital in over two decades.

On July 14, 2023, the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament, reviewed a bill that sought to completely ban any and all forms of gender-affirming care and revoke the legal right of transgender Russians to complete their transition and change their identity papers. It passed unanimously and at the first reading without any debate. There were no dissents on the floor. The only objections at the hearing came from the Russian Health Ministry, whose head, Mikhail Murashko, attempted to make a case for people driven to suicide by the incongruity between their medically confirmed gender identity and their official papers. But Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin demanded that the ministry not introduce any amendments aimed at softening the bill’s effect, which would be a pointless nuisance on their path, as he put it, to “eradicating all this smut,” by which Volodin meant a smorgasbord of claimed outrages such as the “fully satanic practice” of pumping American children full of hormones from the age of 8. The executive branch quickly withdrew.

The bill was designed to pass, any token resistance notwithstanding. This was evident from the fact that it was “co-sponsored” by almost the entire Duma, including Volodin and leaders of the ruling United Russia and nominal opposition parties. One of the bill’s most vocal co-sponsors, Pyotr Tolstoy (great-great-grandson of Leo) of the ruling United Russia party, explicitly connected the bill’s importance to Russia’s invasion in Ukraine — so that “our boys defending their motherland with arms,” he said, referring to Russian soldiers in Ukraine, can return to a Russia that is different “from the one before the special operation.”

Ilya Budraitskis, a Russian writer who went into exile following the invasion of Ukraine, views the claim that a tiny minority represents an existential threat in the larger context of the “spiritual war” Russia and its allies are waging against the West. The Kremlin presents itself as the defender of “traditional values” against the anarchy of the West, in which individuals freely choose their own identities.

The alternative approach, represented by the Kremlin, posits freedom as destiny. If you were born a Russian man, Budraitskis explains, then that is your fate. “It might lead you to the front lines, force you to sacrifice your life if necessary. But this choice is made for you, simply based on your birth in this country with its history.” This principle, Budraitskis notes, is even enshrined in the Russian constitution, particularly in its most recent amendments, introduced in 2020, which root Russia’s current legitimacy in its “thousand-year history” and “memory of our ancestors.” The state’s suppression of the rights of trans Russians is thus a battle line in a war to assert the immutability of one’s identity, says Budraitskis, author of the book “Dissidents Among Dissidents: Ideology, Politics and the Left in Post-Soviet Russia.”

But there is a major impediment to the national transformation in question: Every year about 3,000 Russians — according to statistics Tolstoy presented to make his case — have been undergoing gender-affirming surgery and changing their identity papers.

Before this new law, these procedures were regulated by the state and available only to legally competent adults who had to obtain a special permit before starting on surgeries, hormone therapy and applying for a legal change of name and new identity documents. It was a long and arduous bureaucratic journey that involved being diagnosed by a special medical panel with “transsexualism” — an outdated concept contained in the 10th version of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10), which Russia still uses, refusing to update to later ICD revisions because of their incompatibility with Russia’s supposed “traditional values.”

Only a few clinics, in the largest of Russia’s metropolises, held such panels and had the surgeons and endocrinologists trained and equipped specifically to cater to trans patients. Despite the pervasive claims by pundits on Russian state media, mirroring those of some Western conservatives, that a secret medical cabal was indoctrinating Russia’s youth en masse into ungodly degeneracy and self-mutilation, only a few hundred people each year embarked on this journey, according to Russian Interior Ministry data.

This is a truly minuscule number, about two-thousandths of 1% of Russia’s population. Moreover, there was never any emergency in Russia that would justify such an all-encompassing ban. The first-ever full female-to-male surgical transition in the world was completed by a Soviet doctor in 1972 — a Latvian known for creating penile prosthetics — and modern Russians have been able to transition and change their identity papers for almost three decades without it ever becoming a national issue. It was never brought up in campaign promises or speeches by Putin or anyone else until after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which serves as both the origin and the goal of Russia’s supposed “spiritual” transformation.

“You take an issue which is not particularly important, or a collection of people who are not particularly significant in the population, but they symbolize something that you want to focus on,” explains Jenny Mathers, a Russia scholar and senior lecturer at Aberystwyth University in the U.K. She described the anti-trans bill as part of a moral panic: an imagined or exaggerated sense — often whipped up by the media and exploited by politicians — that your society is under threat from a nefarious group of people. “In this case, trans people symbolize a loss of the way society supposedly should be ordered.”

Even before the ink dried on Putin’s signature under the bill’s final draft — as is required for all new laws — 10 days later, in late July 2023, many trans Russians had already braced for their lives to suddenly become even more difficult than before. Danil, a trans man from Siberia, told New Lines that he had to take a loan of around $1,500 (about three to five times the average monthly salary in his region) and rush through his surgeries before the bill’s passing, which he saw as inevitable. Now he is burdened with debt. But “being himself” was worth it, Danil says.

The sense of urgency in the community was palpable, and not without reason: Even during the final bureaucratic steps before the bill came into effect, one of the very few medical clinics in Moscow that hosted medical panels for approving gender reassignment procedures announced that it would no longer be taking new patients. That meant that people like Danil, who were hoping to get last-minute appointments before the final curtain fell, would not make it in time. Rika, a trans woman who managed to change her identity papers and undergo hormone therapy but missed the deadline for completing her surgeries, is now stuck in Russia. She doesn’t have the means to immigrate to a country that would accept her and is reluctantly considering seeking refugee status.

This comes with its own costs. Some European Union states, like Germany in December last year, have said they would accept refugees from the Russian LGBTQ+ community, categorizing them as politically persecuted. But this means such refugees would still have to spend months, if not years, in legal limbo in camps, with scant access to even basic psychological support. Last November, LGBT World Beside, an Amsterdam-based organization supporting asylum-seekers from Russia and other countries with large numbers of Russian speakers, announced that a 24-year-old queer Russian refugee, Mikhail, committed suicide in a Dutch refugee camp. It was the third suicide by a Russian LGBTQ+ asylum-seeker in the Netherlands that year.

When the Supreme Court decided to label the LGBTQ+ community extremist, the session was closed without “representatives” of the defendant being heard from, on account of such organizations not existing in Russia. Immediately after the ruling, the few remaining LGBTQ+-friendly organizations left in the country, like Delo LGBT (LGBT Mission), announced that they would be ceasing all activity in Russia indefinitely. A number of LGBTQ+-friendly bars and clubs across Russia, including some of the oldest, like Tsentralnaya Stantsiya (Central Station) in St. Petersburg, either shut themselves down or were pressured to close by the authorities revoking their leases. When asked by New Lines for comment, the Supreme Court’s press office said it does not discuss the details of closed-door proceedings. Tolstoy did not reply to a request for an interview.

Trans Russians, being an especially small community, had an unimposing political profile even before the full-scale repression began. Whatever small advocacy groups existed, such as Tsentr T (Center T), were quickly shut down, their activist founders hounded out of the country under threat of severe repercussions. As Mediazona, an independent Russian news website in exile, reported in January 2024, several trans Russians have been summoned by the police, who have accused them of forging their ID papers — essentially pressuring them to detransition.

Such excessively harsh policing can be explained, according to Mathers, by seeing trans Russians as an ultimate example of something that goes against this traditional idea of society, of how the family should work and who should be in a marriage, who should be in a family, what men’s and women’s roles are. “When you have someone who says, actually no, I can step outside all of those because I was a man and now I’m woman, or I’m neither of those two things, I’m something else,” she says, “That raises the questions about, well, then what is society based on, after all, if people can step outside these kinds of norms about gender roles?”

Queer Russian activists and their allies tried to warn Russian society that the state would not stop after finding such an easy target in them. Reproductive rights and personal liberties would be next, medical professionals such as Anastasia Shimanova, a psychiatrist at a private mental health clinic in Moscow, said in an interview with Russian magazine Afisha on the eve of the law’s passing — but the warnings went unheeded. Not that members of the “LGBT movement” could get much airtime, or any at all, or expect much solidarity in a society already beaten into submission, with most forms of protest effectively outlawed.

New and more expansive bans and clampdowns soon followed, beginning with a steady onslaught on Russian women’s reproductive rights: By late 2023, local parliaments in some Russian regions, as well as occupied Crimea, introduced legislation restricting abortions to government-owned clinics, while others have been targeting medical professionals first by fining them for “inciting” women into performing abortions.

In the public sphere, any public displays of sexuality, no matter how innocent, are now suspect by default, as guests of the now infamous “Almost Nude” party in Moscow learned last year. Just days before the new year, scantily clad Russian celebrities and socialites gathered to party in a Moscow nightclub. But in the new wartime environment, they were quickly targeted and humiliated in a vicious smear campaign by loyalist media and blogs, leading many to record tearful messages of regret. For wearing, for example, nothing but a penis-covering sock, some suffered legal consequences and punishments such as being drafted into the army.

Ordinary Russians were also targeted. In Volgograd, an anchor at a local TV network wore a “sexy nun” costume to a New Year’s Eve party; it cost her, and two of her colleagues in similar attire, their jobs. It’s now open season on any private gatherings that feature cross-dressing, revealing outfits or anything a nebulous “morality police” — including the numerous pro-Kremlin channels naming, shaming, doxxing and harassing anyone from national celebrities to random guests at a private party — find outrageous. Last month, masked riot police stormed a private party in a cottage in the St. Petersburg region, where they beat up revelers and detained them in stress positions for hours, on the grounds that there were gay people in attendance. In its coverage of the incident, the pro-Kremlin channel REN TV described it as an “LGBT party” against Russian military operations in Ukraine. From now on, parties will operate more underground and hold invitation-only events which are not publicized, wrote the St. Petersburg journalist Anastasiya Chastitsynax, who chronicles Russia’s glamorous nightlife scene in her blog.

The most peculiar aspect of this relentless assault on basic freedoms, with an emphasis on outlawing “undesirable” communities, is how much of it has been inspired by right-wing religious forces in the West, predominantly the United States. Consider, for example, the recent proposal from a conservative Orthodox archpriest of promoting “chastity pledges” among Russian teenagers, ostensibly to reinforce their “traditional values” against Western sin. Such pledges, which were popularized by U.S.-based Christian groups in the early 1990s, have no basis in Russian or Orthodox traditions.

They do, however, in the United States. Russia’s push to outlaw all trans people roughly coincides with a spike in anti-trans bills in various local American legislatures, which went from 174 introduced and 26 passed (according to data from the Trans Legislation Tracker) in 2022 to 600 and 87, respectively, in 2023. In his speeches and public statements, Putin has repeated claims made by American advocates of restricting gay and trans rights, such as hints at the supposed existence of a powerful secret cabal indoctrinating children in immoral Western societies into “gender ideology.” At his annual press conference in December 2023, Putin claimed Russians were morally immune to “Western gender-based bigotry” and invoked his pet causes to support his theory: the supposed unfair advantage of trans women in sports and a rapist who allegedly claimed to be a trans woman to be transferred to a women’s prison, both shared with American conservatives.

As if to drive the point home further, Russian Supreme Court Judge Oleg Nefedov, who signed the ruling banning the LGBTQ+ movement, apparently borrowed a peculiarly worded passage from the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The passage in question, which appears in a slightly clumsy word-for-word translation into Russian in Nefedov’s ruling, was lifted from Scalia’s dissenting opinion in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas case, in which the conservative jurist condemned “homosexual activists” whose actions are “directed at eliminating the moral opprobrium that has traditionally attached to homosexual conduct.” The Russian version, however, pins the blame for the supposed degeneration of moral values on “foreign policy pressure” exerted upon Russia.

Meduza, the independent Russian news outlet that brought attention to this in January 2024, contends that it could be a coincidence or even the result of a ChatGPT request that absorbed Scalia’s assault on gay rights from a news story and employed it in its response.

Whether by accident or design, Putin’s great pivot toward (largely invented) “traditional values” has been consistently inspired by some of the most conservative Western, and specifically American, religious activists. This demonstrates, Budraitskis says, the colonial Western-centrism of Putin’s elites, who crave recognition precisely from the West — and not from China or Iran, countries they have relationships with but do not consider equals.

Russia has a long history, predating Putin’s rule, of building links with the Western far right. Consider, for example, the pro-war, far-right, ultranationalist philosopher Alexander Dugin. Although he has been dubbed “Putin’s brain,” the exact nature of his relationship with the Russian leader and the Kremlin remains a mystery — but his fascistic politics, once fringe, have been visibly seeping into the Russian mainstream. In the 1990s and early 2000s Dugin aimed to enlist Russia in the “Black International” alliance of far-right parties and movements. One of the most vocal outlets supporting the anti-trans bill is Tsargrad TV, an ultraconservative television network co-founded by a former Fox News executive and funded by the U.S.-sanctioned “Orthodox oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev, another power player on the Russian far right. New Lines previously covered leaks of emails exposing Malofeev’s extensive network of contacts among European right-wing extremists.

Until the early 2010s, these forces lurked in obscure corners of Russian politics, while the Russian mainstream embraced a deceptively liberal, pro-Western course. But in 2011 Putin, apparently spooked by the Arab Spring, and especially by the horrific fate of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi — according to the Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar in his book, “All the Kremlin’s Men” — declared that he would be running for president again for the third time. Dmitry Medvedev, the only other president Russia has known in the past 24 years, was humiliatingly pushed aside as a mere seat-warmer (at the time, Russia’s constitution only allowed two consecutive terms). In 2012, Putin reclaimed the presidential reins and made a sharp U-turn toward religious conservatism.

Then, the existing links between the Russian Orthodox Church’s influential flock in Putin’s circles and American religious conservatives came in handy.

Budraitskis notes that in the U.S. such rhetoric is aimed at very specific groups of voters — conservative evangelicals — and is part of their extensive religious worldview; in contrast, institutionalized homophobia is imposed top-down in Russia without any real organic cultural connection. There is, he says, a popular prison-inspired mindset in which homosexuals are considered untouchables. It has cultural influence in Russia, but there is no constituency or social movement advancing this view at a political level. The Putin regime is attempting to combine mass but unorganized homophobic prejudices with ideological framing borrowed from American conservatism.

Although few, if any, Kremlin-friendly ideologues have admitted this on record, there is ample empirical evidence to suggest that these episodes are not just a string of coincidences. The victims of this game of smoke and mirrors are members of one of the most persecuted and invisible minorities in Russia. People like Rika and Danil have next to no recourse, trapped in a state that actively demonizes and persecutes them for what they are, burdened by debt from their hurried transitions and often rejected by their families.

“Struggle” is how Danil describes his life between the passing of the anti-trans law and the time of this writing. It’s hard to reconcile oneself to the fact that your own country doesn’t consider you a fully human being, Danil confesses.

“I’d rather just be a normal 21-year-old guy,” he says.

Become a member today to receive access to all our paywalled essays and the best of New Lines delivered to your inbox through our newsletters.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy