Russian National GayLesBiTrans Site
Russian National GayLesBiTrans Site
Home  Feedback/Gay.Ru Team Russian version

Changing Public Opinion
by Professor Igor Kon

The social situation of sexual minorities is everywhere affected by public attitudes, which do not change overnight. Homophobia and discrimination against gay men and lesbians are still conspicuous in present-day Russian sexual and political culture. Soviet society has been characterized by extreme intolerance of any dissident thinking or uncommon behavior, even if entirely innocent, and homosexuals are the most stigmatized of social minorities.

The term "homophobia" itself is inadequate, inasmuch as it is associated with individual psychopathology - with the individual's own repressed or latent homosexuality, with neuroses, sexual fears, and the like. But while homophobia may exist in many such individuals, an adverse attitude toward homosexuality is primarily the result of negative attitudes in the culture and public consciousness - prejudices and hostile stereotypes similar to racism, sexism or anti-Semitism - and we can come to understand it only in that sociopsychological context. Individual predilections are derivative of cultural norms and social interests.

As cross-cultural research shows, the level of homophobia in a given society depends on a wide range of factors.

First, it depends on the overall level of a society's social and cultural tolerance. Intolerance of differences, typical of any authoritarian regime, is ill-suited to sexual or any other kind of pluralism. From the totalitarian standpoint, the homosexual is dangerous primarily because he is a dissident, because he differs from the rest. A society that tries to control the width of trouser legs and the length of hair cannot be sexually tolerant.

Second, homophobia is a function of sexual anxiety The more antisexual the culture, the more sexual taboos and fears it will have. The former USSR in this respect was, as ever, an extreme case.

Third, homophobia is closely linked with sexism, and sexual and gender chauvinism. Its major function in social history has been to uphold the sanctity of the system of gender stratification based on male hegemony and domination. Obligatory, coercive heterosexuality is intended to safeguard the institution of marriage and patriarchal relations; under this system, women are second-class beings, their main - perhaps even sole - function is to produce children. In that ideology, a woman who works outside the home is just as much an instance of sexual perversion as the person involved in same-sex love. Moreover, the cult of aggressive masculinity is a means of maintaining hierarchical relations in male society itself; the gentle, nonaggressive male and the powerful, independent woman are both challenges to the dominant stereotypes. Even some sexually tolerant societies accord great importance to sexual positions: the one who is the inserter is worthy and normal, while the insertee is unworthy and dependent. Hatred of homosexuality is also a means of upholding male solidarity, particularly among adolescents, whom it helps to affirm their own problematic masculinity.

Fourth, much depends on the nature of the dominant traditional ideology, particularly the attitude of religion toward sex. Antisexual religions, such as Judaism and Christianity, are usually more intolerant of homosexuality than are more prosexual religions, such as the Tantra and Buddhism.

Fifth, the overall level of education, in particular the public's level of sexual culture, is extremely important. Education in itself does not obviate prejudices and stereotypes but, other things being equal, it does facilitate the fight against them. To understand Soviet and post-Soviet public consciousness on the subject of sexuality, one must imagine America before Kinsey or even before Freud.

Finally, there are situational, sociopolitical factors. Homophobia, like other social fears and forms of group hatred, is usually exacerbated at moments of social crisis, when an obvious foe or scapegoat is needed.

The level of toleration of homosexuality is historically changeable and varies from country to country. According to the American political scientist and social psychologist Ronald Inglehart, the Netherlands was the most tolerant country in 1980-82, with Denmark and West Germany following behind (22%, 34%, and 42% of those surveyed, respectively, agreed that "homosexuality is always wrong"), while Mexico and the United States were the most intolerant, as 73% and 65%, respectively, condemned homosexuality in all instances.*15 Young people (between 18 and 24) in all societies, however, were considerably more tolerant than their elders - twice as much so as those over 65. This may be due to their greater overall tolerance and level of education; also, they feel themselves more sexually confident and therefore can allow themselves more variation in behavior and attitudes than older people. Soviet society was generally distinguished by extreme intolerance of dissident thinking and uncommon behavior, even when entirely innocent. And homosexuals are still the most stigmatized of all social groups, including even prostitutes and drug addicts (with whom homosexuals were frequently associated, owing to tendentious anti-AIDS propaganda).

According to a national survey in November 1989 by VTslOM, which used a representative sample of 2600 people from all over the Soviet Union, attitudes toward homosexuals were considerably more hostile than toward all other negatively evaluated social groups, including prostitutes and drug addicts, with whom homosexuals are frequently linked through tendentious anti-AIDS propaganda. Among responses to the question: "How are we to treat homosexuals?", 33 percent were in favor of "liquidation," 30 percent for "isolation," 10 percent for "leaving them alone," and only 6 percent for "helping them."1 The degrees of intolerance varied with educational level (38 percent of those with incomplete secondary education favored "liquidation," compared with 22 percent of those with higher education) and also with age, the most intolerant being those over 50. Intolerance was virtually unrelated to gender. Old-age pensioners, housewives, and military personnel exhibited maximum homophobia, while small-scale entrepreneurs ("cooperators") were the least intolerant, with none for "liquidation" and 25 percent for helping. Regionally, homophobia was strongest in Uzbekistan, where 54 percent were for "liquidation," followed by Georgia and Armenia, with 45 percent for "liquidation." Muslims seemed to be less tolerant than Christians, but much depended on the size of the local community, Muscovites being more tolerant than villagers or residents of far-flung towns.

Another sociological survey, undertaken in July 1990 by the Youth Institute in 16 regions of Russia, with a sample of 1500, of whom 26 percent were under 30, again revealed homosexuals to be the most hated group: 62 percent of answers were sharply condemnatory, 20 percent were neutral, and only 0.6 percent were positive, with 8 percent declining to answer (Rylyova, 1991).

It used to be difficult for Russians even to discuss these issues. In analyzing the results of the VTslOM survey, sociologists identified two extreme groups of respondents, tolerants and rigid repressers, who were opposites in virtually all their opinions, including those about homosexuality. One group favored social assistance for homosexuals; the other wanted extermination. The only point on which they agreed was that the problem of homosexual relationships should not be debated in the press (Gudkov, 1991).

In 1990, the Russian Academy of Sciences Sociology Institute and the International Center for Human Values surveyed people in the European part of the USSR (a sample of 4,309 people) on their attitudes toward various ethnic, political, and social groups, including homosexuals. Evaluated on an 11-point scale, from "I do not like at all" to "I like very much," homosexuals now took third place in terms of hostility, after "neo-Nazis" and "Stalinists"; 68.7% of men and 69.4% of women took the most extreme negative position. In terms of age, the most intolerant were people between 41 and 50 (accounting for 75.2% of the extreme negative replies) and those aged 31 to 40 (72%). In this sample, education did not reduce homophobia but intensified it: people with a secondary professional training showed maximum hostility, with those with a university education in second place (70.4%).

In 1992, an investigation involving scholars from the Political Science Department of Houston University - James Gibson and Raymond Duch - and covering the entire territory of the former USSR, produced similar results: homosexuals took second place in hostility after neo-fascists. Some 58.2% of men and 58.6% of women put them in the "don't like at all" category. True, the age dimensions of homophobia were slightly different here: people born between 1921 and 1960 were the most intolerant, while youth responses were 4 to 6% more tolerant.

In the June 1993 Russian survey by VTslOM, with 1665 respondents, the question was put: "How would you evaluate, on a scale from I to 5, the behavior of people having homosexual contacts?" The negative pole was chosen by 69.4 percent of men and 71.6 percent of women. The positive pole (nothing bad) was taken by only 8.8 and 7.8 percent, respectively. The oldest age group (55 - 84) was the least tolerant, with 82.6 and 4.8 percent being at the negative and positive ends of the scale, respectively. However, the youngest age group (16-25) was less negative, with corresponding percentages of 54.3 and 18.5, respectively. Women of this age were the most tolerant, 22 percent seeing "nothing bad," compared with only 13 percent of males of similar age. The degree of polarization of opinion was less among the better educated. Whereas 16 percent of the general population endorsed the second or third points on the scale (that is neutral or only mild, conditional censure), a quarter of the more socially advanced, young, and better educated people did so, as did almost 30 percent of students. Attitudes were not so much related to political views (those supporting economic reforms were only slightly less censorious than the average for the whole sample) than upon principles of evaluation. For some who were not censorious, "normal" was not what is demanded by society, but what is good and acceptable to the participants in any interaction.

The VTslOM survey of July 1994 (1771 respondents) asked "What is your attitude to homosexuals?" Negative expressions were endorsed by 56 percent, neutral by 30 percent, and positive by only 9 percent. To the question "Should homosexuals have equal rights with other people?" the percentages saying "yes," "uncertain," and "no" were 38, 21, and 41, respectively. Seemingly, even some who dislike homosexuality are ready to accept the principle of equal civil rights.

Despite the prevailing negative attitude toward homosexuals, there have been some positive trends in public consciousness in the last 5 years. When, in November 1994, VTslOM replicated its 1989 survey, it appeared that Russians had become somewhat more tolerant of all stigmatized groups, including homosexuals. Those wanting to "liquidate" them dropped from 27 to 18 percent and those wishing to "isolate" them from 32 to 23 percent, while those wishing to "help" them rose from 6 to 8 percent and those opting "to leave them to themselves" rose from 12 to 29. (These figures are not for the whole of the USSR, which were quoted in the 1989 survey, but for the Russian Federation only) (Levada, 1994). In this latest survey the demographic differences were slightly changed. Gender differences were small, but women appeared a little more tolerant than men. Age differences were strong. In the youngest group (up to age 24) the percentages for "liquidation," "isolation," "helping," and "leaving to themselves" were 17.5, 14.7, 14.8, and 40.8, respectively. The corresponding figures for the oldest group (over 55) were 32.1, 28.7, 5.3, and 12.3. Educational level was another important factor. Among those with a completed or unfinished university education, II percent were for "liquidation" and 43.3 percent for "leaving to themselves"; the corresponding figures for those with less than secondary school education were 28.9 and 20.4, respectively. By occupation, managers and professionals were the most tolerant, pensioners the least tolerant. Place of residence and degree of urbanization were also important correlates. In Moscow and St. Petersburg only 16.6 percent were for "liquidation" compared with 21 percent in other cities and 27 percent in rural communities. Siberia and the Far East were the most intolerant areas.

The attitudes of youth have been also surveyed (Chervyakov, Kon, & Shapiro, unpublished data). In a 1995 survey of 2872 16- to 19-year-olds in Moscow, Novgorod, (a medium-sized city), and Borisoglebsk and Yeletz (two small towns in central Russia), the question was asked: "What is your attitude to homosexuals of your own sex?" The option "no attitude, never thought about this topic" was chosen by 29.5 percent of males and 37 percent of females. "I regard them with sympathy and understanding" was chosen by 2.6 percent and 9.3 percent, respectively. The neutral option, "I regard them tolerantly, don't see anything extraordinary in them" was chosen by 19.2 percent and 32.5 percent, and the negative option "I feel aversion to them" was chosen by 48.4 percent and 21.2 percent.

In a more impersonal question on social policy, 28.3 percent of males and 35.6 percent of females strongly agreed with the statement: "At present same-sex intimacy should not be condemned." The percentages responding "rather agree than disagree" were 15.2 and 22.1, while 32.3 and 21.3 expressed strong or moderate disagreement, and 24.2 and 21.1 were unsure. Young men were generally less tolerant than young women and less willing to acknowledge having experienced some same-sex contact, attraction, or even attention. This may be related to the general adolescent male machismo complex and the difficulties of male gender socialization. Nevertheless, according to opinion surveys, Russian male adolescents appear to be less intolerant than their U.S. counterparts.

In the context of Russian politics, the social groups that are ready to accept a market economy and welcome political democracy are the ones who promote ideas of tolerance. In the context of a broad international picture, the trends identified in Russian cohorts are quite similar to those found in Western countries (Inglehart, 1990). But public opinion polls need to be interpreted with caution. The VTslOM surveys of June 1993 and July 1994 suggest that the general level of homophobia in Russia is much the same as in the United States (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michael, 1994; Smith, 1990). Considering that as recently as 1993 any homosexual behavior was a criminal offense in Russia, that for 70 years the topic had been unmentionable, that Russia had no scholars comparable to Kinsey or Freud, and that Western sexological ideas are still unknown even to professionals, the similarity of opinion trends is remarkable. Yet, despite the similarities, American and Russian mentality and behavior are different. Americans may express moral disapproval, but it is unlikely that one-third or even one-sixth of Americans would vote for the extermination of their fellow citizens. A liberal American intellectual may privately despise gays and lesbians but hesitate to express such feelings, knowing that they have become politically incorrect and open to challenge. Some people are even ashamed of their true feelings.

In contemporary Russia, antisemitism, homophobia, and xenophobia are unconcealed, even fashionable. The chauvinist mass media (e.g., Sovetskaya Rossiya, Zavtra, Russkoye voskresenie, Nash sovremennik, Molodaya gvardia) deliberately incite and actively propagate homophobia. The fascist press methodically and consistently lumps together Bolshevism, Zionism, democracy, and homosexuality. The newspaper Russkoye voskresenie, for example, ran an article under the title "Let us defend Russian orthodoxy against the Yids." "Both the Bolsheviks and democratic leaders are of foreign extraction. Both are sexual perverts. You will recall that the first decree issued by the Soviet Government was to revoke punishment for homosexuality. Now it's the democrats who are after the same thing" (Deutsch, 1991, p. 8).

There is strong opposition in Russia to the legalization or "normalization" of same-sex love and relationships. In a television interview on June 28, 1993, the former vice president, Alexander Rutskoy, said with a squeamish gesture, as if pushing something away from him, "In a civilized society there should be no sexual minorities." Valery Skurlatov, a leader of the extreme nationalistic Vozrozhdenie Party, said at a press conference in August 1993 that "70 percent of the men in Yeltsin's cabinet are homosexuals" who pose a danger to state security because of their "hostility toward healthy citizens" and "their links to foreign homosexuals." He proposed forming a parliamentary commission to investigate the sexual preferences of government officials. "Russians have never stood for homosexuality," he said. "We have decided to campaign actively to bring the truth about homosexuality in the government to the people" (Filipov, 1993, p. 1).

Reactionary politicians are supported in such views by police officers and by some representatives of the medical profession. In 1988, the eminent Russian epidemiologist, Professor Valentin Pokrovsky, expressed his utmost distaste for the views of a group of medical students who wanted the extermination of AIDS sufferers and homosexuals. Not long after, however, as a member of the Gorbachev presidential commission for combating pornography, he said that in his opinion AIDS was "a moral sickness in society" and that demands to legalize homosexuality were absurd. When the interviewer mentioned that homosexuality was a disease he replied, "That's exactly the point. There are people who are genetically predisposed to that kind of sexual contact. It is ridiculous to call that normal. It is even more so to regard as normal and healthy people who get mixed up in homosexual affairs and seduce young children in their sexual excesses. It is not a disease, it is dissipation that must be combated, particularly through the courts" (Likholitov, 1991, p. 14). Professor Pokrovsky did not explain by what criteria or by whom - doctors or police - the sick and the dissolute should be differentiated.

Dr. Mikhail Buyanov (1994), a well-known Moscow psychiatrist who had been during perestroika a vocal critic of the former Soviet "repressive psychiatry," published a newspaper article entitled "Pathology Should Not Take Hold of the Masses," which was full of hatred toward homosexuals and their sympathizers and advocated strong, repressive measures. He claimed that homosexuality had always been alien to Russia and that its current popularity was the result of Western, mostly American and British, ideological expansionism. A St. Petersburg doctor, B. Irzak (1993), unlike Buyanov, supports decriminalization and is against society's interference in private life, but is worried about "normalization" and "popularizing" of same-sex love: "As a biological phenomenon, homosexuality is in need of research, and as a social phenomenon it should be put under strict control" (p. 4).

The unholy alliance of ignorant medics and prejudiced police and legal experts deprived sexual minorities of human rights and all prolection - medical, social, and legal. The repressive Soviet law on combating AIDS and the USSR Health Ministry's August 25, 1987, instructions on its application were formulated so vaguely that practically any citizen accused of homosexuality - by anyone, and even without evidence - might be liable to compulsory HIV testing and other offensive actions.

AIDS is also often used as a pretext for an anti-gay stance. Dr. Vadim V. Pokrovsky (1995), head of the Russian state AIDS prevention center, several times supported the decriminalization of homosexuality. Nevertheless, in a programmatic article about AIDS prevention strategy, including work with sexual minorities, he talks about the "moral degradation of the population" that manifests in particular in the "homosexualization of the culture". Same-sex love is for him as undesirable as sexual promiscuity, drug addiction, and prostitution.

Even some liberal and prodemocratic Russian intellectuals, who reject fascism and antisemitism, talk publicly about the existence of a dangerous international homosexual conspiracy. At the meeting of leading Russian intellectuals with the presidential administration, famous Russian writer Fazil Iskander suggested introduction of a moral censorship against the "invasion on TV of the aggressive strata of sexual minorities" (Polevaya, 1996). This idea was supported by pianist Nikolai Petrov and mildly opposed only by Mstislav Rostropovich. Such statements sometimes reflect a psychological overreaction against the excessive, noisy, sensationalist, and exhibitionistic presentation of homosexuality in the mass media.

Russians are unaccustomed to such display. Especially for the strongly normative and repressive Russian psychiatry, a pluralistic attitude toward sexual orientation is also unacceptable. This intolerance may have serious practical consequences. Should the country take a radical turn towards a new authoritarian regime, gays and lesbians and their sympathizers, along with Jewish intellectuals, could be the first candidates for concentration camps and liquidation.

Because not all VCIOM data from this and later surveys have been published, VCIOM's Director, Professor Yury Levada, generously gave me permission to quote directly from the tables. Some of the data can be found in Levada (1994, 1995) and Bocharova (1994).

© 1998 Professor Igor Kon


Previous chapters:

Next chapters:

Home  > Russian Gay History  > Moonlight Love

Gay.Ru is the project of Russian National GLBT center "Together"
Mailing address: PO Box 1, 109457 Moscow, Russia
E-mail: together@gay.ru