On June 29, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a controversial law aiming to “protect children from information propagating the negation of traditional family values.” Dubbed the “Russian anti-gay law” by its opponents in Russian and Western media, it caused an uproar among LGBTQIA-rights activists around the globe. Despite the numerous protests, petitions, and an impressive assembly of rainbow-clad athletes at the Sochi Winter Olympics, international outrage did little to weaken President Putin’s determination to preserve traditional values or to reduce his sky-high domestic approval ratings. Although Putin’s recent stunt in Crimea took attention away from his “gay ban” controversy, the issue certainly did not disappear.
From my conversations with numerous individuals here in Kazan, it seems that the majority of Russian citizens feel strong support for Putin’s infamous piece of legislation. Official statistics tell a similar story – depending on the source, they will inform you that approximately three-quarters of Russians find homosexuality morally and/or legally unacceptable. In a nation born from the ruins of the Soviet Union, where homosexuality was a criminal offense punishable by up to five years of imprisonment, public opinion about same-sex relationships remains overwhelmingly negative twenty-four years down the line. While there exists a vast network of LGBTQIA supporters and activists in Russia today, there are very few possibilities for an individual – particularly someone going through the public education system – to receive unbiased information about the topic. So, you can imagine my surprise when I turned on the radio one morning to discover Hozier’s familiar “‘we were born sick,’ you heard them say it” flowing from the speakers. Upon further inquiry, it turned out that “Take Me To Church” is in fact an incredibly popular hit that has been playing on Russian biggest radio stations for months.
Now, just follow my logic for a minute–here’s a country that has a law explicitly prohibiting any propaganda of “non-traditional sexual relationships among minors” and they’ve got a song criticizing the Church’s condemnation of same-sex relationships blasting in cafes and taxi cabs. Did anyone even notice? It is a hilariously eye-opening experience to watch your friends badmouth the U.S. decision to legalize same-sex marriages only to lip-sync to Hozier minutes later.
Yet for all their condemnations, it feels to me – based solely on my own experiences and conversations – as though young people are largely indifferent to this issue. Whereas my parents’ friends and virtually every Russian adult over 35 I have spoken to go off on long rants about the need to preserve family values (all sounding like the commentator on Russia’s Channel 1), my friends just shrug.
“I don’t think it’s normal…at least that’s what they say,” an acquaintance of mine reflected when I brought up the Supreme Court gay marriage decision.
My only question is “who’s ‘they?’ “ Any American who had ever followed CNN and Fox News coverage of the exact same story might be familiar with that infamously ‘unavoidable’ bias we encounter in all reporting. Despite the many sins of American media, it does have an important advantage over its Russian counterpart – variety. Imagine a world where your only reputable and accessible source of news was, say, MSNBC (most biased American news network according to the Pew Research Center). You may be well aware of its ideological bias, but because it is the only channel with allegedly thorough and accurate reporting, you watch it anyway. And by and by, you begin to adopt that channel’s dominant point of view. That kind of internalized bias is inevitable if only for the lack of better options. And the options for your mainstream 9 p.m. news report are severely lacking in Russia.
Why? The Russian government owns all the major television networks such as Russia Today (RT) and Russia-24. In the case of Channel 1, the government owns a controlling 51% share, while the other 49% belong to a Russian business mogul Roman Abramovich. And so the government gets to tell its citizens exactly what they want them to believe. Now, I am not trying to insinuate that Putin’s administration purposefully disseminates misinformation (having watched my fair share of Russian news, I can confirm that they are not lying to their viewers), although there is a clear bias present in all news coverage that greatly affects the way people perceive events. Additionally, I want to make clear that Russian culture, traditions, and the overall national experience makes for a perspective markedly different from ours here in the U.S. and so an opposing point of view must never be attributed to a single factor (such as media bias). I do find it remarkable, however, that state-run television networks have met with such huge success in instilling uniform opinions about politics and foreign affairs in its citizens.
Most Russians do have access to (relatively) uncensored Internet after all. Yet they seem to put their trust entirely in Channel 1 and those who don’t (typically the younger demographics) simply do not care for politics or foreign affairs by their own admission. American political parties are guilty of attempting to indoctrinate individuals into their ideologies as well – their tactics are really no different from what Putin does to inspire justified national rage or fuel anti-Western sentiments. So there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in this story. There is only this one interesting observation: it does not often occur to people here that the “gay ban” controversy is a controversy at all. They think dissenting opinions to be marginal, irrational, uncommon, and more importantly ‘unRussian’. Facts and statistics are irrelevant because everyone and their mother agree that homosexuality is wrong, Putin is right, and the world is round. Few of them wonder why. This article doesn’t have to be a story about gay rights; it could very well be a story about Crimea or the treatment of ethnic minorities or religious freedom or anything else in between. Of course, there are myriads of groups, organizations, and individuals who find flaws in Russian policies and its government, who voice their discontent and seek to inform others about the existing problems. But our story is the story of the many, not the few. And the many blindly follow the path laid out by their favorite network in a fashion reminiscent of Soviet days.