Nearly 1 in 5 Russians want to “eliminate” gay and lesbian people from society, according to a new survey, a finding that has incited fear and anger among LGBTQ activists in the country.
“There is this feeling you are targeted, and that 18 percent believe I should be eliminated is just awful,” said Svetlana Zakharova, an out lesbian living in St. Petersburg. “It was very emotional.”
The survey, published this week by the Levada Center, a nongovernmental research organization based in Moscow, also found that 32 percent of respondents wanted to “isolate” gay men and lesbians from society, compared to 9 percent who wanted to “assist” them.
"A lot of people in Russia would not want to see gay people existing ... Not necessarily to kill them but to have a society where this does not exist as a phenomenon.”
Ekaterina Kochergina, Levada Center
One of the researchers, Ekaterina Kochergina, said she and her team wanted to measure the “social distance” — which in this context is unrelated to the global pandemic — between the Russian population and groups considered by some to be “deviant.” In addition to sexual minorities, the survey looked at how ostracized feminists, pedophiles, terrorists and people living with HIV/AIDS are from Russian society.
“The more unfavorable, the more social distance between us and them,” Kochergina explained.
Kochergina acknowledged moral concerns about the phrasing of the questions and the selection of identities included in the survey. She said the use of the word “eliminate” in the survey means “to make something disappear from your reality,” not to physically destroy people, and that the questions were about identity groups as “phenomena.”
“A lot of people in Russia would not want to see gay people existing,” said Kochergina. “Not necessarily to kill them but to have a society where this does not exist as a phenomenon.”
The survey, which polled over 1,600 people from 50 Russian regions in face-to-face interviews, was part of the Levada Center’s ongoing research for its “Soviet Man” project. Started in 1989, Soviet Man aims to document the changing social perspectives of Russian people since the fall of the Soviet Union.
“The idea is to try to understand what is the ‘Soviet person,’” Kochergina said. “It’s an archetype.” She said that while perspectives on social issues are evolving, some Russians still harbor negative opinions of people who are different. “Other means dangerous,” she explained.
Zakharova, who serves as a board member and the communications manager for the Russian LGBT Network, the country’s largest LGBTQ organization, said the Levada Center’s survey was damaging and could trigger more hatred in a nation where “the level of hatred and violence … toward different groups” is already “very high.”
“These questions published read ‘how to deal with those people,’ and there is the answer: ‘liquidate,’” said Zakharova, who thinks the language used should be illegal. “It’s not about phenomena for me; it’s totally about social groups.”
Kochergina chalked the 18 percent up to Russians “who are very aggressive toward anyone who is marked as ‘the other.’” These people, she said, would vote to “eliminate” or “isolate” anyone different from themselves.
Zakharova, however, fears that the wording of the survey questions, particularly the “eliminate” one — even if it was not intended to mean physical elimination through violence — will lead Russians to believe that this is in the realm of possibility.
“It is very scary and very worrying,” she said, adding that there are anti-LGBTQ Russian “groups that are very active and very aggressive and very visible, and they feel supported by the government.”
Russia passed a law in June 2013 that bans distributing information on LGBTQ relationships and issues to minors. Under the legislation, also known as the “gay propaganda law,” any act or event that authorities deem to promote homosexuality to children is punishable by a fine. After the law passed, the country saw an increase in anti-LGBTQ violence, according to a 2014 Human Rights Watch report.
In a 2019 Russian LGBT Network poll, more than half of the LGBTQ people surveyed reported experiencing at least one type of violence or abuse due to their gender identity and/or sexual orientation: 56 percent reported experiencing psychological abuse, 12 percent reported physical violence and 4 percent reported sexual abuse. Over the past several years, there have also been a number of disturbing reports of state-sponsored detention, violence and torture against gay and bisexual men in Chechnya, a semiautonomous Russian region
“The state gives the signal that LGBT people are not real people, that they are second- or even third-class citizens,” Zakharova said. “This is scary.”
Despite reports of increased violence and the enactment of the “gay propaganda law,” Kochergina said the situation has improved over the past three decades, when the Soviet Man project first started.
“Things from a political point of view have become worse, but still somehow Russian consciousness tries to be better,” she said, noting that in 1989, the survey’s first year, 35 percent of those polled wanted to “eliminate” gays and lesbians, compared to 18 percent in the latest findings. This year’s Soviet Man survey also found 79 percent of Russians want to “assist” people with HIV/AIDS, an increase from 53 percent in 1989.
“It’s nice to see that actually the willingness to see homosexuals, to accept them, is actually rising,” Kochergina said.
She pointed to a separate survey released by the Levada Center last year that found Russian attitudes toward LGBTQ people — while still predominantly negative — have improved, especially among young, educated women. Twenty percent of last year’s participants said they completely agree that gay men and lesbians should have equal rights in Russia, compared to just 7 percent in 2013 when the “gay propaganda law” was passed. The 2019 data also found that those with gay and lesbian acquaintances have more positive attitudes toward sexual minorities.
While Zakharova said the situation for the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community is indeed dire, the Russian people are “not as homophobic as authorities or federal mass media try to portray them.” While the government may be treating the community worse, she added, the situation on the whole “is slightly changing for the better.”