I have long been intrigued at how men who inflict torture and murder on their fellow human beings can consider themselves moral leaders. History is replete with authoritarians of various hues who fit the mould. One who exemplifies the type at the moment is Russia’s very own Vladimir Putin.

One of the president’s moral causes is suppressing gay rights. He began his campaign in earnest after returning to the presidency in 2012. In 2013, the Kremlin adopted the first legislation restricting LGBTQ rights. The “gay propaganda” law banned public endorsement of “non-traditional sexual relations” among minors. In 2020, same-sex marriage was outlawed.

In 2022, propaganda of “non-traditional sexual relations” among adults was banned. Any public endorsement of LGBTQ people became essentially illegal. A law passed earlier this year prohibited gender transitioning procedures and gender-affirming care for transgender people.

Just last week, in response to a lawsuit filed by the Ministry of Justice, the Russian Supreme Court ruled the international gay rights movement an “extremist organization.” The ministry claimed that it had identified “various signs and manifestations of extremist orientation, including the incitement of social and religious discord” in the activities of the LGBTQ movement. Apparently it gave no examples.

The ruling was made behind closed doors, and the LGBTQ community was not heard from—no counter arguments were allowed.

This decision will make the work of all LGBTQ. organizations untenable. Just flying the rainbow flag could put someone at risk of criminal prosecution. Russian sociologist Alexander Kondakov suggest the next step is labelling gays terrorists, and I’m not sure he was kidding.

News organizations could face stiff fines for mentioning the international LGBTQ community. Experts have suggested the ruling is sufficiently ambiguous that it could be used by anyone to denounce a gay person, even a jealous neighbour. Shades of the Soviet Union.

The authorities did not take long to exploit the ruling. Only 48 hours after the ruling came down, Russian security forces raided gay clubs and bars across Moscow.

Putin has long promoted “Russian traditional values” which, presumably, are whatever he says they are. He suggests his war on Ukraine was justified for that reason. The gay community is apparently a tool of the West designed to undermine the moral fibre of young Russians.

Putin is expected to present an image of himself as defender of traditional moral values against the decadent West in the upcoming presidential election in March. I doubt he needs that image to win.

Polls suggest he remains popular, for whatever that means in a country where differing with the government can get you in very serious trouble. People can seem content in a dictatorship and then suddenly it all collapses, as was the case with the Soviet Union.

The president does have the enthusiastic support of the Russian Orthodox Church in his crusade against gays. Oppressed under the Communists, the very conservative organization has returned to favour under Putin. He and the head of the church, Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, are bosom buddies and ardent homophobes.

Many voices have been raised against Putin’s bigotry, including that of the United Nations human rights chief, Volker Türk, who pleaded, “I call on the Russian authorities to repeal, immediately, laws that place improper restrictions on the work of human rights defenders or that discriminate against LGBT people.” I strongly suspect Mr. Türk’s call will go unheeded.

The moralizing of dictators such as Putin is intriguing. He can deny basic freedoms to his people, murder dissenters, wage war on his neighbours and yet present himself as a guardian of moral values. Not being gay is, in the mind and heart of such a person, more virtuous than not killing an annoying journalist. What a strange species we are.

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