The country faces two competing visions of democracy, one that emphasizes majority rule versus another that stresses minority protections.
Russia's State Duma is preparing a bill that will ban "homosexual propaganda," which even supporters admit will effectively criminalize almost any overt public expression of gay sexual identity.
The public battle over the draft law has highlighted two different visions of Russian "democracy" and pitted them against each other.
The bill, which passed its first Duma reading late last month with just one deputy opposing it, will outlaw gay parades and gay-themed events, as well as ban the dissemination of information about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues. It heads into its crucial second reading early next week, with most experts saying it enjoys overwhelming political support and is unlikely to see any major amendments. The draft law would impose fines of up to $165 for individuals who violate the rules, and up to $165,000 for organizations.
Supporters of the bill, which is strongly backed by the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, argue that Russia is a non-Western and "conservative" democracy that defends traditional values and shields the feelings of the majority from the aggressive encroachments of pushy minorities. They say they're not out to persecute gay people, but that they must not be allowed to bring their sexual orientation into the open, where it may influence the attitudes of minors and offend the beliefs of most Russians.
"Duma deputies understand that it's just one step from homosexual propaganda to permission for gay couples to adopt children," says Nina Ostanina, a longtime Communist deputy and expert with the Duma's commission for family, women, and children.
"We see the processes that are going on in European countries, like France and Britain [where same-sex marriages have recently been approved], and we are not going to go in that direction.... With this law the Duma will bar the road to such all-round permissiveness. We have our own traditions. We are a Christian country, where 60 percent of people prefer Christian ways. In our Family Code a family is defined as a union between a man and a woman," she adds.
He argues bluntly that "Russia defines its political system not as a liberal democracy with an emphasis on the rights of minorities but as a democracy that respects the rights and wishes of its majority.... The majority's position is clear: LGBT lifestyles are immoral and sinful, and while individuals have the right to live as they please, they have no right to promote such behavior among others who find it alien and offensive. Obviously, public rallies and attempts to create a positive image of LGBT lifestyles on television would be considered propaganda and would be banned."
But members of Russia's LGBT community say they are working for a different idea of democracy, one that would enable all citizens to live in one's own way rather than letting a conformist majority dictate for all.
"Democracy is not about going along with the majority, but making sure all minorities are protected and have equal rights," says Olga Lenkova, communications manager for Vikhod (Coming Out), a St. Petersburg LGBT group.
"We need to go in the direction of dialogue and public information. In the circumstances of today it's very hard to talk about sexual identities," and the proposed law will make it almost impossible, she adds.
Russia decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, and civil society groups representing the LGBT community are by now a solid fixture on a Russian political landscape that still lacks a strong women's movement or major organizations to defend the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.
"A whole new generation has grown up, and young gay people are not used to hiding their sexual orientation," says Igor Kochetkov, chairman of LGBT-Net, a nationwide coalition of gay groups.
"In this issue the state is clearly siding with the most conservative part of society.... It will lead to the growth of homophobia and hatred. Many people take it as an official signal, and it has already led to a rise in violence against gay people," he says.
Though polls show anti-gay prejudice gradually eroding in Russia, an opinion survey taken last year by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that almost two-thirds of Russians find homosexuality "morally unacceptable and worth condemning." About half thought gay rallies and same-sex marriage should be banned, while almost a third thought homosexuality was "an illness or the result of psychological trauma."
The bill currently before the Duma is a tougher version of one that has been in place in St. Petersburg and several other Russian regions for the past year. Though the main thrust of the St. Petersburg law was to prohibit homosexual propaganda aimed at minors, Ms. Lenkova says it isn't being employed that way.
"We've only seen one case of someone being prosecuted under this law" in almost a year, she says.
"But indirect applications are many. For example, when LGBT groups apply for a permit to hold a legal rally, it is denied on the basis of this law. When people attend other kinds of legal events carrying rainbow flags or other LGBT symbols, they are detained. We find it very hard to rent any venue for our events, because people are afraid of being prosecuted under this law.... It seems obvious that the overarching goal of it is not 'to protect minors' but to force us out of the public space altogether," she says.
One example of how the new Duma bill may already be chilling the wider atmosphere, even before it's been passed into law, is the apparent firing late last month of one of Russia's better-known public personalities, Anton Krasovsky, from Kontr TV, an Internet TV station he helped to found in December.
Mr. Krasovsky had been holding a discussion of the Duma anti-gay bill on his program, Angry Guyzzz, when he made his own first public admission that he was gay. He immediately found himself asked to leave and the link to his show excised from the station's website.
"I had said, 'I'm gay, and I'm just the same kind of person as you are, as our president is.' I added that maybe [after this] I'll be asked to take my work book [which in Russia means termination of employment]," Mr. Krasovsky said in an interview published this week in Snob, a magazine owned by liberal billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov.
"And, indeed, they told me to take my work book," he said.
The controversy comes amid a conservative offensive that has already seen a raft of new laws passed by the Duma to crack down on politically active nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding, tighten up the definition of "treason" so that it might apply to almost anyone who works with foreigners, and lay down an infrastructure for censoring the Internet.
Last summer two members of a feminist performance art group named Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in a penal colony for a brief but blasphemous "punk prayer" performed in an empty church. The case against them was that they had committed an act of "religious hatred" that allegedly offended Russia's Orthodox majority.
"We see this [anti-gay] bill in a wider context. The conservatives are striking back. The Russian Orthodox Church and political power are very intertwined and have a lot of influence just now," says Lenkova.
"The situation is not easy, but we should be optimistic. Other countries have been here before and with dialogue and education they have moved beyond it," she adds.