Russia’s ‘family values’ experiment

The Russian government passed a bill banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations," while the city of Moscow has banned demonstrations by gays for the next 100 years. Above: Gay rights activists protest outside the lower house of parliament in Moscow.
(Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP / Getty Images)

The Kremlin has just issued a 12-year plan to address Russia’s demographic crisis — that is, its high mortality rate and low birthrate. Buoyed apparently by a recent rise in the birthrate — 1.9 million Russian children were born in 2012, compared with 1.2 million in 1992 — the country has announced that it will give bonuses to families that have more than two children and will provide better healthcare, housing and education for families.

In addition to these “carrots,” the government has announced some “sticks”: Divorce will be taxed as an “act of hatred toward children,” and a fixed sum of alimony will be demanded even of those who are poor or unemployed. Abortion is now strongly discouraged and increasingly limited by law.

The state also is ramping up an anti-homosexuality campaign, with plans to commission artwork promoting “traditional moral and spiritual family values,” declared Sergei Ivanov, the Kremlin’s chief of staff. And last week, the Duma passed a bill banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” by a vote of 436 to 0.


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The city of Moscow, meanwhile, despite being told by the European Human Rights Court that its failure to allow gay rights demonstrations was illegal, has banned demonstrations by gays for the next 100 years. The ban is enthusiastically enforced: On May 25, two women were arrested in Moscow for unfurling a rainbow flag, and 30 more protesters were taken in for demonstrating at the Duma. On the same day, 15 gay demonstrators were arrested in Gorky Park.

From the time of Stalin through the collapse of the Soviet Union, homosexuality was illegal in Russia, and many Russians still view it is a disorder. As Vitaly Milonov, the primary backer of the anti-gay legislation in St. Petersburg, announced, “Homosexuality is best cured by fasting and prayer.” A Ukrainian member of parliament expressed a prevalent attitude in Russia when he said: “The spread of homosexuality is a threat to national security because it propagates the HIV/AIDS epidemic, destroys the family and could lead to a demographic crisis.”

The implication in Russia’s recent actions is that homosexuality, divorce and abortion are central factors in Russia’s weak birthrate and high rate of early death. Choosing these targets plays to popular sentiment and reinforces the dogma of an increasingly vocal Russian Orthodox Church.


But will the new measures address the problem? Hardly. The real issues lie elsewhere.

One unaddressed problem central to Russia’s demographic imbalance is the high rate of early death related to heavy alcohol consumption by Russian males. Another is the country’s HIV/AIDS crisis. Russia has more than 2 million men who are HIV positive, and AIDS is the third leading cause of premature death in the country. (In the United States, by comparison, it is the 23rd leading cause.) Most Russians with HIV (about 80%) are intravenous drug users. The stigma attached to drug use and homosexuality is so great that people are afraid to get medical care until they have advanced stages of AIDS and/or drug addiction.

By offering subsidies for more babies and penalizing divorce, Russia might be able to increase its birthrate, but a more fruitful approach would be to try to save men from premature death caused by excessive drinking and drug use. Rather than banning gay propaganda, why not look for ways to combat the widespread image that it’s masculine to drink heavily? Sobriety could result in more men being well enough and living long enough to marry and procreate.

And if, to put forth another long-shot idea, same-sex couples were allowed to wed, some of those Russian orphans that Americans are forbidden to adopt, who lie languishing in orphanages, might find loving, nurturing families.

Patricia Herlihy is a professor of history emerita at Brown University and an adjunct professor at the Watson Institute for International Studies. Her most recent book is “Vodka: A Global History.”