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The decline of Gayropa?

How Russia intends to save the world

As the winter Olympics opened in Sochi amid controversy over Russia's anti-gay laws, Tatiana Riabova and Oleg Riabov showed how official discourse in Russia brands "European sexual deviancy" a natural result of western democratic development; and Russia as the last bastion of "normalcy".

In recent years, the civilizational identity of Russian citizens has undergone a palpable change. They have ceased to think of themselves as Europeans, or of Russia as part of Europe. In 2011, according to research conducted by the Sociological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, just 13 per cent of Russians considered themselves Europeans. A mere seven per cent of respondents supported the idea of Russia "stepping into the common European home" (a decade ago this figure was twice as high). Over a third of respondents shared the view that Russia is a unique Eurasian civilization. In 2012, in an address to the Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin called Russia a "state-civilization" which would never merge with the surrounding world. To all intents and purposes, this sense of civilizational identity underpins Russian nationalism.

Gayropa as geopolitical weapon: Ukraine torn between European depravity and the traditional values defended by Russia.

Katherine Verdery has suggested that nationalism is a classifying discourse in which the nation is understood as a basic operator in a widespread system of social classification. Russian nationalism is a form of discourse shaped by an overriding concern with the distinction between Russian and non-Russian. Collective identity is defined not only by representations of "us", but also of "them" – and by the symbolic boundary between the two. Images of men and women, as well as depictions of the gender order of national communities, function very effectively as "symbolic border guards". For Russia, Europe has traditionally held a distinctive place among significant "Others", who help define what it is to be Russian. And the representation of different gender orders applying to Europe and Russia respectively serve to draw the symbolic borders between the two.

Focal point

This article is part of the focal point Russia in global dialogue, which is a cooperation with the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM). The focus is related to a corresponding fellowship programme at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna.
In recent years, the concept of "Gayropa" has become increasingly visible in Russian Internet sources and is used to characterize the European gender order. The word gei (from the English "gay") appeared in the Russian language only in the early 1990s and is used together with goluboi, to refer to homosexual men. Goluboi also means blue and one can therefore often read about "blue Europe" or the "blue lobby" in politics. The notion of Gayropa has become a means to define Russia's place in the modern world and plays an important role in geopolitical discourse and to legitimize the powers that be.

A degenerate European civilization

In 2013, a complete picture of allegations branding Europe as sexually deviant started to emerge from discussions on same-sex marriage in France, on the possibility that Russian children might be adopted by same-sex couples in the US and Europe and, finally, on the law banning the "propagation" to children of non-traditional sexual relations. The allegations were made by politicians, journalists, bloggers and commentators on Internet forums. There is nothing especially original about Russian invective on the sexual deviancy of Europe. The concept of the "decadent West", which can be traced back to the works of the Slavophiles, includes claims about the superiority of the Russian family and of Russian gender norms. Criticism of the bourgeois gender order that featured in Soviet propaganda during the Cold War acts as another ideological source for the rejection of Gayropa today. In fact, allegations about the decadence and effeminacy of western civilization are an important component of anti-Western discourse generally.

Today, the gender dimension has become one of the most important aspects of allegations levelled against the West. The destruction of the "normal" gender order in Europe is associated with the legalization of same-sex marriage, the growing influence of feminism and the destruction of the traditional family unit. It is alleged that these processes are bound to lead to a very real decline in European civilization, primarily because they pervert human nature itself and destroy the foundations of human communities. An article by the pro-Kremlin journalist Maksim Shevchenko is indicative of this line of thought. He writes – perhaps not entirely seriously – that Russians and most westerners belong to different categories of humanoid, which are externally similar but internally radically different.[1] One of contemporary Russia's most prominent conservative thinkers, Alexander Dugin, uses the terms "trans-human" and "post-human" to describe the development of European civilization, as he sees it. According to Dugin, the logic of liberalism presupposes the destruction of all collective identities, from the state and the nation to gender and humanity. Once gender has been dismantled, humanity will take a similar course: "If we do not apply the brakes just a little, we will hurtle on to the bitter end, until we're asked to baptise a chimaera, a bio-robot, a cyborg or to marry a fly to a human being."[2] Chairman of the State Duma foreign affairs committee Alexei Pushkov has assessed changes to the gender order in European countries "as an attempt to alter the very foundation of human civilization".[3] In articles and commentaries, same-sex marriage is often mentioned alongside zoophilism, necrophilia or paedophilia, all of which are also invoked to denote a tendency leading to the decline of human civilization.

Furthermore, it is maintained that European civilization is condemning itself to geopolitical defeat. Europe is failing to compete with its main rival – Islamic civilization – principally in the demographic sense.[4] In the not too distant future, the majority of people living in EU countries will be Muslims.

How do Russian commentators account for these transformations in the gender order within Europe? One explanation draws on the internal dynamics of European development. Alongside the prosaic argument that "Europe is too well off", some commentators refer to tendencies noted by Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West: the idea that "culture" has given way to "civilization" being among them. Another kind of explanation suggests links with conspiracy theories. In an article entitled "The New World class – a challenge to humanity", Vladimir Yakunin, plainly an ally of Putin's, calls the promotion of non-traditional sexual relations "part of the process of transforming the human community into an compliant herd, to be led by the new global financial elite, a class of "global oligarchs".[5] One indispensable component of conspiracy theories is the idea that the "blue lobby" stalks the corridors of power. In connection with this, writers and commentators use phrases such as "the blue plague" or "gay fascism".[6] A programme screened on a major Russian TV channel entitled "The repressive minority"[7] had participants discussing "gay totalitarianism".[8] The influential politician, ideologue and head of the European section of the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, Natalia Narochnitskaia, said in a radio interview on the Voice of Russia that western European decisions on same-sex marriage totally ignored the views of the majority of the population.[9] And on 12 December 2013, in a widely publicized address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, President Vladimir Putin emphasized that the "destruction of traditional values 'from above' not only brings negative consequences for societies, but is essentially anti-democratic, since it is implemented [...] against the will of the majority of people".

In this way, European civilization is perceived to have lost an intrinsic attribute: democracy. The other crucial characteristic, which Europe is being deprived of today, is its Christian roots. Victor Erofeyev rightly remarks that, for a Russian conservative, it is crucial that Europe has long lived in a state of metaphysical inertia, that it has lost any sense of God and forgotten that human life can have any meaning beyond the social. The West is being transformed from a teacher with expertise in successful formulae for the attainment of civilization and comfort, to an arrogant student with poor results and an unsatisfactory vision of the world.[10]

Gayropa and the new messianism

By putting a label on European civilization, the concept of Gayropa helps to support the collective identity of Russians. According to many authors and commentators, current differences in the gender order of Europe and Russia emerge from the very essence of these civilizations. The essentialization of these differences is achieved by appealing to cultural traditions. When explaining his personal, negative attitude to legalizing same-sex marriage in Russia, Putin referred to a need to respect the traditions of Russian society.[11] The title of Shevchenko's article cited above, "So we're not Europe? Thank heavens for that!", demonstrates the compensatory way in which the European concept is approached in Russia. The Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov has said: "Unfortunately a significant number of Russians want to be on an equal footing with Europeans, and their way of life although, on the whole, Europeans possess neither culture nor morality [...] They welcome all that is subhuman. To them, same-sex marriage is normal. It is awful even to talk about it. Personally, I would never want to be a European".[12] On Internet forums, analogous ideas are expressed more unequivocally. For example: "How are Asians inferior to Europe with their homos, their hypocrisy, their colonial disdain for the rest of the world [...] Be proud that you're Asian; there is no point begging for recognition from Europeans".[13] Paraphrasing a famous line from Alexander Blok's poem "Scythians" of 1918, in which the poet contrasts the notion of Russia as a sphinx with Europe as Oedipus, the author of another commentary writes: "Yes, we are Scythians, yes – we are straight!"[14]

The concept of Gayropa not only creates symbolic borders between Russia and Europe, but contributes to the definition of a new national idea. It is well known that the crisis of collective identity that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union prompted an existential search for Russia's significance and its fundamental values. More recently, there has been a noticeable tendency to define the country's place in the contemporary world by counterposing gender orders in Russia and Europe. For example, the director of the Institute for Political Research, Sergei Markov, has noted that "in postmodern Europe, deviations such as homosexuality are considered the norm. Russia is taking a different route. It sees itself as the conservative wing of Europe and, as such, [...] it is finding a way of overcoming its identity crisis".[15]

Russia seems to be on a global mission to save humanity from the degeneracy that threatens it in the wake of the gay revolution. Initially, this idea was expressed mostly by representatives of conservative organizations, although subsequently leading Kremlin ideologists also supported it. Putin himself declared in his address to the Federal Assembly that "there are a greater number of people in the world who support our position on the defence of traditional values", including "traditional family values". In articles and forums, such views come to be expressed in familiar terms: "Heterosexuals of the world – unite!"[16]

In this way, the concept of Gayropa is bound up with a traditional, perceived opposition between Russia and Europe. But it also includes another element, with deep historical roots, that is bound to affect the positioning of the country. While accusing Europe of degeneracy, the discourse refers back to the notion of "two Europes" postulated by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It sees Russia as the successor to the real, authentic Europe. In the post-Soviet period, this school of thought re-emerged in the early 2000s. Today, say the propagators of this idea, many Europeans look to Russia with hope, as the protector of Christian and hence genuinely European values. A vital role is assigned to Putin in this context. Russian commentators emphasize that, according to international surveys, sympathy for the Russian leader is growing because "he defends fundamental European and Christian values".[17] Sergei Markov asserts that, today, Russia is "a citadel, a fortress and a lighthouse for conservative Europeans".[18] A comment on this from a Russian Internet-user is illustrative: "Europe, too, is applauding Putin. After all, only he can save the world from the blue inquisition."[19]

In this way, a negative assessment of Europe helps to give a positive sense of one's own identity. The de-masculinising of "Others", forms part of a process of re-masculinizing Russia – that is to say it is an aspect of the identity politics that also marked Russian society in the 2000s. This has two dimensions: the creation of attractive models of national masculinity, and of an image of Russia with masculine connotations (strength, independence, rationality and so on). In particular, the cult of strength largely supports the image of Russia built up through the symbolic politics of the Putin presidency (this has found expression in the appearance of the "Russian bear" as a national symbol, for example). Gayropa as a factor in the legitimation of power in Russia To grasp the full significance of this situation for Russia, one must take into account not only processes associated with establishing national identity, but the logic behind internal political conflicts as well. The Gayropa narrative comes to affect internal politics because transformations in Europe are reported in terms suggesting that they pose a threat to Russia. This view is not only clearly expressed in forums and public addresses given by conservative authors. It has also become a feature of official discourse. In March 2013, minister of foreign affairs Sergei Lavrov criticized the EU for promoting western values – and the defence of the gay community in particular – as universal standards, and for imposing them on Russia.[20] In September 2013, a representative of the Russian foreign ministry accused western countries of seeking to impose their "neoliberal values as a universal foundation for living" which "is particularly noticeable in their aggressive promotion of the rights of sexual minorities".[21] These accusations were repeated in a lecture to the Russian foreign ministry about the human rights situation in the EU during 2013.[22] The problem was even considered by the security council of Russia. In April 2013 the secretary of the security council, Nikolai Patrushev, proposed giving special attention to "the strengthening of national security in the sphere of spirituality and morals", adding that the issue of same-sex relationships featured importantly among threats to national security.[23] This discourse allows supporters of the powers that be to present the argument as a guarantee to preserve the heterosexuality of the country. In an Internet forum, one of these supporters writes about same-sex unions in the following way: "Looking at this vile abomination, you understand that there can be no alternative to Putin!"[24]

Crucially, an astute exploitation of this narrative gives the opportunity to parry any allegations about infringements of human rights. In the interview mentioned earlier, Narochnitskaia writes that the West's "bullying of Russia does not flow from any state of 'super-sinfulness' but from the fact that Russia "has dared to challenge the mainstream and say that it will stand up for traditional Christian values".

It is worth noting that European sexual deviancy in particular is often seen as a natural result of western democratic development. In this context, the political opposition in Russia is branded as a group guilty not just of betraying the nation, but of sexual perversion. The masculinity and femininity of people within the Russian protest movement – "the creative class" – are viewed as deviant. They therefore lack political legitimacy, and their opposition is often explained away in terms of sexual abnormality.

Identifying political opponents of a non-traditional sexual orientation is commonly used as a technique to encourage political mobilization. During the Cold War, it became an integral part of American political discourse in the McCarthy era. Political mobilization is achieved by appealing to gender identity, in the course of which a connection is made between models of masculinity and femininity on the one hand, and individual political behaviour on the other. In the context of Russian political culture, these techniques are far from new. Under perestroika and during the first post-Soviet decade, democrats in Russia were often accused of introducing alien standards with respect to sexuality and gender. This included "spreading all kinds of sexual perversions".[25]

Such political methods were widely employed during the Moscow Mayoral election in Autumn 2013, when one opposition leader, Aleksey Navalny, launched his campaign. His opponents claimed that essentially, Navalny wholly depended upon gay activists for support.[26] One article characterized Navalny as an "LGBT candidate". It gave details of his public defence of the rights of gays, lesbians and transgender people, observing that LGBT representatives had gone on to assure the blogger of their support and sympathies.[27] Navalny's opponents were energetic in publicizing a poll on the portal showing that 70 per cent of the gay community were willing to support him in the elections. To understand the processes surrounding political mobilization, it is important to be aware that negative attitudes to homosexuals are not only used to discredit not only politicians but voters too – so as to alert the electorate as to what constitutes "correct" political behaviour. One contributor to the forum gives particularly acute expression to this thought: "Does this mean that if you support Navalny, you're gay?" In other words, opposition to the current regime comes to be equated with sexual deviancy.

Supporters of the Russian liberal opposition aspire, in turn, to represent the authorities and their supporters as retrograde, disconnected from progressive human development, and alienated from the spirit of a European civilization founded on human rights and freedoms. They defend European gender norms and values by arguing that the "patriarchal tradition" and "homophobia" lie at the heart of the current political system. This gives the liberal opposition the opportunity to build up support among LGBT voters – who were among the most active participators in the 2011 and 2012 protests.

Equally, representatives of the opposition are bound to be taking account of the mood in Russia; far from all their supporters are prepared to accept the European standpoints discussed here. As a poll conducted by the All-Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) showed in June 2013, the vast majority of Russians (88 per cent) support the idea of introducing a ban on the promotion of homosexuality; 42 per cent believe that non-traditional sexual orientations should be punishable by law.[28] According to a survey run by the Levada Centre in June 2012, 43 per cent of respondents share the view that gays and lesbians suffer from a defective moral sense, while 32 per cent suppose that they are mentally deficient. A different survey by the Levada Centre showed that most Russians (86 per cent) are proud of their gender (89 per cent of men; 84 per cent of women). In this context, 58 per cent of men and 54 per cent of women agree that the sexes have different social obligations. Feminism, which raises questions this stance, is regarded "with respect" or "positively" by just 5 per cent of men and 12 per cent of women.[29]

Gayropa in geopolitical discourse

The image of Russia as the last bastion of "normality" also feaures in geopolitical discourse. When discussing the geopolitical choices of central and eastern European states, Russian commentators often resort to this image, arguing that the import of European values by these countries represents a path to degeneracy. Izvestiia cites Alexei Pushkov's comment that Moldova "was instructed to organize regular gay-pride parades" as a condition of signing its agreement on association with the EU.[30]

The role of the Gayropa concept as a geopolitical argument which sheds light on ongoing events in Ukraine is also indicative. The concept was widely used even before the Euromaidan wave of civil unrest began. On 7 November 2013, Pushkov wrote on Twitter: "The release of Timoshenko will provoke EU demands that Ukraine should broaden the reach of gay culture. Instead of victory parades, Kiev will be holding gay-pride marches."[31] The spread of gay culture is seen as a threat to fundamental values and sacrosanct ideals; it is represented as a challenge not just to the gender order of society but to national identity.

Even the earliest reports from Kiev featured the term "Gayromaidan" (instead of Euromaidan; a conflation of words suggesting "Gay Europe demonstrating at the Maidan").[32] Russian press correspondents used this as a thematic focus in many of their publications.[33] One article in Komsomolskaia pravda concerning the visit of the German minister of foreign affairs to the Maidan appeared with the headline "Gay fuel in the Maidan fire: Ukraine called to join Europe by nationalists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and homosexuals".[34] Thereby, a typological sequence was created.

In the Euromaidan context this issue appears alongside a number of assertions in the media. Primarily, it is said that some of the most active Ukrainian supporters of closer ties with the EU are representatives of the gay community fighting for their own privileges. Next, in the event of an opposition victory, same-sex marriages would be legalized in Ukraine and, in the future, the country can expect to be subjected to all the "delights of Gayropa" discussed above. Further, within the EU, the "blue lobby" is particularly active in attempting to get its own back on Russia for the passing of "anti-gay laws". Lastly, it is suggested that there is nothing coincidental about Ukraine's aspiration to join Gayropa. Over the course of the past ten years Russian political rhetoric has referred the de-masculinization of Ukraine in terms that make it an integral part of the re-masculinization of Russia. In Putin's rhetoric as well as elsewhere, the former Ukrainian Soviet republic has frequently been represented as a grasping paramour, or flighty mistress cum bride.

Leaders of the Euromaidan protests have also been examined in these terms. On the one hand, the sympathy of some towards gay culture has been used to suggest that their aspiration to join Europe is not only evidence of their betrayal of the Slavic brotherhood and the shared history of Russians and Ukrainians, but of their sexual deviancy. News that the brothers Klitschko were photographed by a journal for sexual minorities a decade ago has been widely disseminated in the Russian media. On the other hand, it has been emphasized that Ukrainians have a long way to go before they achieve modern European standards and that it is far too early for them to join the EU. A significant proportion of protesters on the Maidan are, it has been said, "nationalist cavemen" from far right groups who have no conception of European ideals, including tolerance towards sexual minorities. Such use of the Gayropa image in Russian accounts of the Euromaidan protests was intended not just for the Ukrainian public but for domestic consumption. The idea that Ukraine's interest in European integration is bound to lead to the country's downfall obviously allows the Russian authorities to demonstrate to the Russian public that, in Russia, it is the authorities themselves that are the sole guarantors of normalcy.[35]

To conclude: change in the gender order within EU countries has acquired great significance in Russian discussions about about demographic politics, Russia's political regime and its place in the contemporary world, as well as its relation to other countries. Influential politicians and experts speak out on the issue, leading publications are publishing articles provoking a huge response among commentators on the Internet. Russian nationalist discourse presents European civilization as degenerate, and "the perversion of the normal gender order" in the EU serves as clear evidence of this. With its negative assessment of the EU, the "Gayropa" narrative offers a compensatory boost to Russian identity, not only in terms of helping to rehabilitate Russianness but by offering a new version of the messianic idea. As a stronghold of Christianity and a bastion of traditional values, Russia will save Europe and the world. Further, "Gayropa" assists in the legitimation of the existing political order (although radical nationalist discourse also uses the concept to delegitimize the current authorities, accusing them of being overly "pro-Gayropean").

But the Gayropa narrative has also become a factor in the legitimation of gender relations within contemporary Russian society, since it helps to establish the gender norm and to identify what should be regarded as deviancy. "Others" in terms of gender identity are branded "Others" in political and national terms as well. Russian nationalism presents non-traditional sexual union as a threat not just to the traditional gender order, but also to national identity, national security and political stability. The West's defence of sexual minorities is interpreted not as an issue related to the shaping of the gender order, human rights and freedoms, but as a "hypocritical western intrusion into Russian internal affairs": an attempt to weaken or destroy the country.

One can only assume that, in the foreseeable future, the attitude of most Russians to sexual minorities is likely to be defined very significantly by their attitude to the West.


Published 2014-02-05

Original in Russian
Translation by Irena Maryniak
First published in Eurozine

Contributed by Transit
© Tatiana Riabova / Oleg Riabov
© Eurozine

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