Kissing his boyfriend during a protest in front of Russia's parliament earned Pavel Samburov 30 hours of detention and the equivalent of a $16 fine on a charge of "hooliganism." But if a bill that comes up for a first vote later this month becomes law, such a public kiss could be defined as illegal "homosexual propaganda" and bring a fine of up to $16,000.
The legislation being pushed by the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church would make it illegal nationwide to provide minors with information that is defined as "propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transgenderism." It includes a ban on holding public events that promote gay rights. St. Petersburg and a number of other Russian cities already have similar laws on their books.
The bill is part of an effort to promote traditional Russian values as opposed to Western liberalism, which the Kremlin and church see as corrupting Russian youth and by extension contributing to a wave of protest against President Vladimir Putin's rule.
Samburov describes the anti-gay bill as part of a Kremlin crackdown on minorities of any kind — political and religious as well as sexual — designed to divert public attention from growing discontent with Putin's rule.
The lanky and longhaired Samburov is the founder of the Rainbow Association, which unites gay activists throughout Russia. The gay rights group has joined anti-Putin marches in Moscow over the past year, its rainbow flag waving along with those of other opposition groups.
Other laws that the Kremlin says are intended to protect young Russians have been hastily adopted in recent months, including some that allow banning and blocking web content and print publications that are deemed "extremist" or unfit for young audiences.
Denis Volkov, a sociologist with the Levada Center, an independent pollster, says the anti-gay bill fits the "general logic" of a government intent on limiting various rights.
But in this case, the move has been met mostly with either indifference or open enthusiasm by average Russians. Levada polls conducted last year show that almost two thirds of Russians find homosexuality "morally unacceptable and worth condemning." About half are against gay rallies and same-sex marriage; almost a third think homosexuality is the result of "a sickness or a psychological trauma," the Levada surveys show.
Russia's widespread hostility to homosexuality is shared by the political and religious elite.
Lawmakers have accused gays of decreasing Russia's already low birth rates and said they should be barred from government jobs, undergo forced medical treatment or be exiled. Orthodox activists criticized U.S. company PepsiCo for using a "gay" rainbow on cartons of its dairy products. An executive with a government-run television network said in a nationally televised talk show that gays should be prohibited from donating blood, sperm and organs for transplants, while after death their hearts should be burned or buried.
The anti-gay sentiment was seen Sunday in Voronezh, a city south of Moscow, where a handful of gay activists protesting against the parliament bill were attacked by a much larger group of anti-gay activists who hit them with snowballs.
The gay rights protest that won Samburov a fine took place in December. Seconds after Samburov and his boyfriend kissed, militant activists with the Orthodox Church pelted them with eggs. Police intervened, rounding up the gay activists and keeping them for 30 hours first in a frozen van and then in an unheated detention center. The Orthodox activists were also rounded up, but were released much earlier.
Those behind the bill say minors need to be protected from "homosexual propaganda" because they are unable to evaluate the information critically. "This propaganda goes through the mass media and public events that propagate homosexuality as normal behavior," the bill reads.
Cities started adopting anti-gay laws in 2006. Only one person has been prosecuted so far under a law specifically targeted at gays: Nikolai Alexeyev, a gay rights campaigner, was fined the equivalent of $160 after a one-man protest last summer in St. Petersburg.
In November, a St. Petersburg court dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Trade Union of Russian Citizens, a small group of Orthodox conservatives and Putin loyalists, against pop star Madonna. The group sought $10.7 million in damages for what it says was "propaganda of perversion" when Madonna spoke up for gay rights during a show three months earlier.
The federal bill's expected adoption comes 20 years after a Stalinist-era law punishing homosexuality with up to five years in prison was removed from Russia's penal code as part of the democratic reforms that followed the Soviet Union's collapse.
Most of the other former Soviet republics also decriminalized homosexuality, and attitudes toward gays have become a litmus test of democratic freedoms. While gay pride parades are held in the three former Soviet Baltic states, all today members of the European Union, same-sex love remains a crime in authoritarian Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
In Russia, gays have been whipsawed by official pressure and persistent homophobia. There are no reliable estimates of how many gays and lesbians live in Russia, and only a few big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg have gay nightclubs and gyms. Even there, gays do not feel secure.
When a dozen masked men entered a Moscow night club during a "coming out party" that campaigner Samburov organized in October, he thought they were part of the show. But then one of the masked men yelled, "Have you ordered up a fight? Here you go!" The men overturned tables, smashed dishes and beat, kicked and sprayed mace at the five dozen men and women who had gathered at the gay-friendly Freedays club, Samburov and the club's administration said.
Four club patrons were injured, including a young woman who got broken glass in her eye, police said. Although a police station was nearby, Samburov said, it took police officers half an hour to arrive. The attackers remain unidentified.
On the next day, an Orthodox priest said he regretted that his religious role had not allowed him to participate in the beating.
"Until this scum gets off of Russian land, I fully share the views of those who are trying to purge our motherland of it," Rev. Sergiy Rybko was quoted as saying by the Orthodoxy and World online magazine. "We either become a tolerant Western state where everything is allowed — and lose our Christianity and moral foundations — or we will be a Christian people who live in our God-protected land in purity and godliness."
In other parts of Russia, gays feel even less secure. Bagaudin Abduljalilov moved to Moscow from Dagestan, a predominantly Muslim region in southern Russia where he says some gays have been beaten and had their hands cut off, sometimes by their own relatives, for bringing shame on their families.
"You don't have any human rights down there," he said. "Anything can be done to you with impunity."
Shortly before moving to Moscow, Abduljalilov left Islam to become a Protestant Christian, but was expelled from a seminary after telling the dean he was gay. He also has had trouble finding a job as a television journalist because of discrimination against people from Dagestan.
"I love Russia, but I want another Russia," said Abduljalilov, 30, who now works as a clerk. "It's a pity I can't spend my life on creative projects instead of banging my head against the wall and repeating, 'I'm normal, I'm normal.' "