Propagating Equality

One of the most noticeable trends in legislative thought in the summer and fall of this year concerns various prohibitions on propaganda. Russian parliamentarians are passionately discussing what kind of “propaganda” they should ban: Article 280 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, which prohibits “public calls for extremist activity,” is now expanded and supplemented by a ban on “public justification or propaganda of extremism.”

Not everyone understands how to distinguish “calls” (already prohibited) from propaganda, which, according to the legislator, consists of “forming a conviction about the attractiveness or permissibility” of this very extremism. In other words, it will no longer be necessary to prove that the accused under Article 280 called on someone, say, to pray with Jehovah’s Witnesses; it will be enough that he considered this case permissible. Or maybe he didn’t even think that it was acceptable to behave this way, but he found it somehow attractive.

Many noted that the ban on “propaganda of extremism” is identical to a similar ban already in force in Article 205.2 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, which prohibits terrorism.

A ban on promoting the permissibility of violence and violent crimes, however, is not the same as a ban on everything that the authorities do not like (which today includes completely peaceful religious movements, political opponents, self-government bodies of the Crimean Tatar people, and other different entities added to the list of extremists). In many countries, attempts to create an attractive image of racial violence are suppressed (for example, see the recent case in Germany). Of course, the fight against the ideology of violence looks especially convincing in cases where it is proven that supporters of this ideology commit real crimes, for the sake of which they try to involve people in their communities. The connection between words and actions is difficult but important to prove; the opinions of linguists alone (and more often than not, forensic experts who are far from even linguistics, whose conclusions form the basis of many convictions in the Russian Federation) are not enough here. We need real facts, a convincing cause-and-effect relationship between the crime (racial violence or even humiliation, which is also a type of crime against the individual) and the activities of the ideologists of such violence.

It’s a completely different matter to “form a conviction about the attractiveness” of the Jehovah’s Witness faith, which does not pose any threat to the life and dignity of a person or a group of people. And here, it seems to me, it is more appropriate to draw an analogy not with the charges under Article 205, but with an also relatively new legislative idea – the ban on LGBT propaganda and “gender change” on the Internet. The order of Roskomnadzor on the criteria for this propaganda came into force on September 1, 2023 (for some reason, these criteria are valid for 6 years). “The idea of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relationships, preferences and attitudes,” is now recognised as propaganda, as well as the idea that in terms of such preferences “it helps to change a negative attitude [towards LGBT] to a positive one.” In relation to gender reassignment, one cannot form “a positive attitude… including presenting the argument for or justification for the admissibility of this.” Here, obvious discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity has been elevated to a legislative principle. Moreover, for a hundred years now, the permissibility of “sex change” by transgender people, recognized by doctors, turns out to be prohibited, just like “sex change” itself (alas, in the summer of 2023, Federal Law No. 386-FZ completely banned the legal registration of a transgender transition, and at the same time abolished all rights of families already created by transpeople).

The fascination with the prohibition of “justification of admissibility” and “social equivalence” in modern Russian law is not limited to the persecution of religious and sexual minorities. In Mordovia, they figured out to ban “information about the social equivalence of abortion and childbirth” and also did not forget to recognize as a violation of the law “the formation of an attitude towards abortion as a social norm” (they recognize all this, of course, as “abortion propaganda”). Now in Mordovia, people are punished for “providing pregnant women with information classified as propaganda,” that is, again, any hint of admissibility [of abortion] entails administrative (for now) responsibility.

At the same time, abortions themselves are not prohibited – only their propaganda. Obviously, abortions are acceptable, they are performed in government clinics and even free of charge, but talking about this “social norm” (especially in the presence of pregnant women, but who knows who is not pregnant?) is strictly forbidden. As for the “social equivalence of abortion and childbirth,” I would like to simply understand what kind of “information” this is. What kind of equal – or unequal – social value can these different medical procedures have? Will the legislator’s thought now go further and will it be prohibited to promote the equivalence of the prevention and treatment of caries (or something else)? Although one should not try to invent a rhetorical “reduction to the absurd,” it is still impossible to come up with a better idea than that of modern Russian thinkers, who equated the “refusal of childbearing” and vegetarianism (!) with suicide and “cult of death,” an idea found in the RANEPA textbook “Fundamentals of Russian Statehood” for humanitarian universities.

It is possible to prohibit “propaganda of equality” and other positions, as the experience of Iran shows, where they are just passing a law “On Hijab and Chastity”, toughening the punishment for women who do not want to wear a headscarf. A special punishment – up to 10 years in prison – is provided for those who “promoted the rejection of the hijab in collaboration with foreign or hostile governments.”

The paranoid fear that gender and other “equality” is being imposed by the West and its “hostile” supporters dominates dogmatic consciousness everywhere. Thus, recently “Anna Starobinets, who fled Russia”, was attacked by pro-government Russian bloggers for a children’s book in which “one of the main characters is a cat who considers himself a badger and is trying to break his instincts.” According to the Z-critic: “It is difficult not to notice in this the calls for sex change and gender reassignment, as well as the promotion of such behaviour.”

Although it must be admitted, it is not only those who are considered associated with Western countries that are being persecuted. Films by Yakut directors are removed from distribution either for an insufficiently positive image of a Russian policeman, which turns out to be “contrary to the principles of the unity of the peoples of Russia” (“Aita” by Stepan Burnashev), or for LGBTI+ propaganda, expressed allegedly in a man dressing up as a woman (“The Candidate” by Dmitry Shadrin). As the head of Yakutia, Aisen Nikolaev, said, “If this is the case, the films “Gentlemen of Fortune,” “Hello, I’m Your Aunt,” and “Only Girls in Jazz” should be banned tomorrow. Not only did they begin to respect us, not only did they begin to praise us, but some began to fear us. And they began to try to take certain steps to limit the field of activity of Yakut cinema. This includes through such, let’s say, supervisory actions.”

Stefania Kulaeva,
first published on the Radio Liberty blog