Russia's intolerance of gays and lesbians did not begin with Vladimir Putin and the Sochi Olympics. Before the Russian leader decided to besmirch the Games with his anti-LGBT legislation and pronouncements, regional cities and provincial parliaments across the vast steppes of Russia had already enacted draconian laws of suppression.
It was in the provinces that political leaders first formulated what are now called "anti-propaganda" laws -- prohibitions against any discussions of LGBT issues in front of minors. The laws were adopted in at least 10 Russian cities in 2012, demonstrating an increasingly anti-gay Russian culture.
According to an annual assessment of human rights prepared by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (known as DRL), the laws were part of a nationwide pattern of increasing "social stigma and discrimination" against LGBT communities. "The majority of LGBT persons [in Russia] hid their orientation due to fear of losing their jobs or their homes as well as the threat of violence," the DRL report stated.
Putin, as he moved toward increasingly authoritarian government and prepared for the Olympics, adopted the idea of the anti-propaganda law and pushed it through both houses of the Federal Assembly, causing understandable consternation and anxiety among LBGT athletes and advocates planning to participate in the Sochi Olympics.
The anti-propaganda law is the most notorious of the Russian anti-gay measures, but it comes on top of a ban on adoption of Russian children by gay couples and by any couples residing in a nation that permits same-sex marriage, a vaguely stated prohibition against any statement supporting homosexuality and a law that allows Russian police to arrest any foreign national whom they suspect of being homosexual or pro-gay and to detain them for up to 14 days.
For gay and lesbian athletes and their fans and advocates, Russian culture and Putin's laws present significant peril. A pro-gay statement on television would violate the law against discussion of LGBT issues in front of minors, and the wearing of any pro-gay pins or paraphernalia could result in arrest, incarceration for 14 days and a fine of as much as $3,100.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the chairman of the European (including Russia) Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has studied the situation and told ESPN.com, "The Russians have said they will not use these laws to crack down during the Olympics, but I would not counsel my gay and lesbian friends to go to the Olympics. We don't know what the Russians will do."
Murphy also notes that Putin and the Russians have "blurred the lines that define what behavior will be viewed as criminal. We cannot determine with any certainty what conduct they will deem criminal."
The Russian anti-LGBT culture is particularly alarming to athletes and activists because Russia's laws and policies equate homosexuality with pedophilia, a position that comes as a complete surprise to Americans and others whose cultures and laws have moved toward increasing acceptance of gays and lesbians, their lifestyles and their rights to marriage and other benefits.
For Murphy and the DRL, it is the Russians' claim of a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia that is both wrong and potentially dangerous.
"Putin is being totally and completely irresponsible when he connects homosexuality and pedophilia. He shows this when he tells gay people to stay away from children," Murphy said.
The combination of endemic cultural bias and Putin's attacks linking homosexuality and pedophilia have produced a pattern of violence and lax law enforcement, according to the State Department's report on human rights in Russia. The DRL report documents numerous incidents throughout the 83 Russian provinces in which police were "unable or unwilling" to protect gay activists who were protesting regional laws that "criminalize the propaganda of homosexuality," including two incidents in Putin's home city of St. Petersburg.
In one incident in St. Petersburg, skinheads and antigay protesters disrupted a demonstration against homophobia even though the city had approved the demonstration. A homophobic counter-demonstration broke through a police line and attacked the LGBT activists, causing serious injuries.
In addition to the failure of law enforcement, physicians and other medical professionals frequently refuse to treat gays and lesbians, according to the DRL report.
Dmitry Bartenev, an attorney and law professor in St. Petersburg who has been at the forefront of litigation over gay rights, does not expect Russian police to use the Russian anti-gay laws to arrest or to detain openly gay athletes and activists during the Olympics.
"They will attempt to stop any statement or demonstration, but I do not believe they will arrest or prosecute anyone in Sochi," Bartenev said in a "webinar" on LGBT issues in Sochi produced on Thursday by the LGBT Bar Association, a national group of lawyers affiliated with the American Bar Association and located in Washington.
Although he does not expect arrests or prosecutions, Bartenev warned that Russian courts at all levels have supported anti-gay laws and prohibitions and would provide no refuge for anyone who is arrested. "The Constitutional Court [Russia's highest tribunal] has rejected all attacks on these laws and is not concerned with any suppression of gay rights," he said.
Relying on the Russian cultural bias against gays and lesbians, Putin has "demonized gays and lesbians as part of his move toward more authoritarian government," Murphy said.
"To distract the Russian people from their economic problems and from the continuing erosion of their own human rights, he creates an enemy of gays and lesbians. When times get tough for you politically, you try to focus the blame on someone else. He is exacerbating a situation that was already bad."
Bartenev agrees. "As he moves toward a more and more authoritarian government, he relies on traditional, orthodox values and attacks any non-orthodox views of any minority," he said. "Gays and lesbians are a convenient target for him in these efforts."
Statements and a "travel alert" issued by the U.S. State Department warn of the "disturbing trend of legislation, prosecutions, and government actions aimed at suppressing dissent and groups that advocate for human rights."
Aaron Jensen, a spokesman for the DRL, states that the department is "concerned by the treatment of LGBT persons in Russia. We fundamentally disagree with the idea that anyone needs protection from LGBT individuals or from those advocating for the human rights of LGBT individuals."
Murphy spreads the blame for the LGBT issues in Sochi beyond Putin and Russian culture, suggesting that "this has been a PR disaster for both the Russians and for the International Olympic Committee."
When the IOC makes a decision to hold Olympics in China "with its brutal history of repression" and in Russia, it is "ignoring its own charter and its ban on discrimination," Murphy said. If a potential venue has a bad record on LGBT and human rights issues, it "should be disqualified from consideration," he added.
Murphy and Bartenev agree that despite the toxic atmosphere for gays and lesbians in Russia, it is important for sponsors, athletes and activists to use the Olympics as a forum for demanding that the Russian leaders and Russian people begin to show respect for gays and lesbians.
"The sponsors [Coca-Cola, McDonald's, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, Samsung, Panasonic, Visa] have a lot of leverage and must do what they can to exert pressure on the Russians," Murphy said.
"At a major event like the Olympics, it is very important to raise the issues of Russian intolerance. Any gesture will have tremendous impact," Bartenev said.
The Russians have made it difficult to stage any form of protest or demonstration during the Olympics. The anti-propaganda law makes any gesture or any demonstration in support of LGBT rights a crime, but the Sochi authorities have designated the village of Khost, located seven miles from the Olympic venues, as the place where any demonstrations must occur. But anyone who wishes to demonstrate must, according to Russian rulings, obtain permits from two Russian government agencies, the Ministry of Interior and the Federal Security Service.
In addition to the cumbersome Russian procedures for approval of demonstrations, the IOC Charter states "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas."
If Putin's goal was to produce uncertainty and anxiety in the minds of LGBT athletes and advocates at Sochi, he has succeeded. Anyone planning to make a statement has difficult decisions to make.
Sochi offers anyone planning to protest against Russian suppression of LGBT rights a dramatic and global opportunity, but it also subjects them to the whims of the Russian police, the uncertainty of Russian courts and the possibility of confinement in a Russian jail.