Op-ed: Russia's Other New Oppressive Law

In Russia, it's essentially against the law to hurt religious people's feelings.

BY Vera Kichanova

October 18 2013 5:00 AM ET

Russia's parliament passed a bill to protect religious believers’ feelings this summer. Its passage means a person can go to prison for up to three years for “public actions expressing open disrespect for society and committed in an effort to offense the religious feelings of believers.”

It will probably go down in history as the “Pussy Riot Law” since the Orthodox Church declared it was necessary after the band's high-profile court case. Still, the government managed to put those girls in prison without it.

It’s likely not a coincidence that President Vladimir Putin signed into law an antigay bill punishing people for homosexual “propaganda” on the exact same day the Pussy Riot Law passed. Now we can see how these two laws work together.

The Moscow department of regional security has warned LGBT rights activists planning a rally that they could be arrested for “promoting nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” The planned rally’s location, in a square near the Church of Christ the Savior (now famous as “Pussy Riot Church”), according to an official letter, “could provoke unlawful actions from people who do not share the views of its participants.”

It is reasonable to expect that in any city, especially such a big and multicultural one like Moscow, there are people who do not share the same views. There are thousands of nationalists unhappy about Muslims conducting their religious ceremonies; there are thousands of atheists angry about the blocking of roads for yet another Orthodox procession. There are communists, liberals, patriots, Russians, Jews, Caucasians, and many other people who sometimes hate each other. And there are the police, whose are responsible for protecting everybody’s right to express his or her views in a nonviolent way.

But the police refused to do that job for everyone. They do not want to protect LGBT activists from possible threats. The actual meaning of that official letter is this: You cannot protest. Not because your action is unlawful, but because you might provoke unlawful actions from other people.

Why not punish the people who attack peaceful rallies? The authorities made it clear — it's because they are a social base for President Putin. Constitutionally, there is no state ideology in Russia. But in 2013, when we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Russian constitution, that’s not the reality on the ground.

“Throughout the entire history of Christianity, the Orthodox church has recognized the traditional family, while homosexual relations have been interpreted by Christianity as a sin,” the letter said. “Traditions” and “traditional” are the most popular words among Russian officials now. Nobody explains what is traditional, though it’s essential because soon they are going to punish people for “nontraditional relationships.” A new bill, already published on the State Duma website, would make the “fact of nontraditional sexual orientation” a basis to deny parents’ custody of their children (other grounds include alcoholism, drug use, and abuse).

People are beginning to realize that antigay hysteria negatively affects even heterosexual people. And I’m not even talking about me and my friends who have been attacked for “looking gay” lately. At least we are fairly involved in human right activism.

I’m talking about people who are not at all involved in the activist front. Last week a man accused his straight ex-wife of having sexual relations with her roommate, another unwed woman, so she would lose custody of their child.

These pieces of legislation are expressly aimed silencing people whose views don’t align with those held by favored constituencies. The easiest thing for people on the fence or those who passively disagree is to stay silent. But caving to that pressure will lead us to a day when there’s no one left to speak up for us.

 

VERA KICHANOVA is a Young Voices Advocate. She is an elected local council deputy in Moscow. She works for Slon.ru as a journalist and has been published by The New York Times and Der Spiegel. Vera won the 2013 Democracy Award.

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