How Russia reacted to Orlando
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The day after Omar Mateen massacred 49 people on June 12 at the Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, Florida — the worst terrorist act in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001 — Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a telegram with condolences to President Obama and "all Americans," much as he did after 9/11. Putin stressed, according to the Kremlin, that the Russian people "share the pain and sorrow of those who lost their loved ones as a result of this barbaric crime and hope for a speedy recovery of the wounded."


But what was the response in Russia? Alexei Pushkov, for one — the State Duma's foreign affairs committee chairman — decided to criticize Obama's foreign policy. Beyond the usual Kremlin anti-Americanism, however, some in Russia highlighted state-driven repressions of the LGBT community. The Orlando attacks, noted Alexander Baunov, chief editor at, "revealed the uncomfortable position in which ... the Russian leadership finds itself at minimum since the beginning of [Russia's] Syria operation [in September 2015]. It is difficult to fight ISIS (banned in Russia) and share its basic tenets."

Soon after Putin assumed his third presidential term in 2012 (despite the largest protests since the break-up of the Soviet Union), he began a massive and broad crackdown on Russia's civil society. Among his targets was the LGBT community, portraying homosexuality as an example of Western moral decline. According to Freedom House, "[a] 2013 law banned dissemination of information promoting 'nontraditional sexual relationships,' putting legal pressure on LGBT activists and encouraging violent attacks." Since then, abuse and harassment of the LGBT community in Russia has been well-documented.

In his article, Baunov suggests that Moscow could use the Orlando attack to improve relations with the U.S. "and at the same time get rid of the odious and dangerous features of state ideology." He explains that the attack "could provide good reason if not to condemn the former homophobic state policies, then to quietly forget and stop the incitement of some citizens against others."

Opposition leader Alexei Navaly praised Baunov's article but noted that his suggestions will not materialize. "Public and deliberate homophobia — is the only thing that gives the Kremlin grounds for asserting some kind of Russian conservatism and the 'decline of Europe.' This mythical conservatism does not present itself anywhere else."

If the Kremlin were to reverse its policies toward the LGBT community, it would need to "fundamentally change the mechanism of social mobilization," writes Navalny. But the Kremlin has no reason to do so. Russian state-controlled television works hard to distract the Russian citizens from the country's real and problems by pointing to fictitious enemies that come from the West and aim to destroy Russia. Members of the LGBT community have been among such "enemies." If the Kremlin were to reverse its policies, wrote Navalny sarcastically, TV talk shows would need to discuss "not a bearded woman from Austria that bodes death to us all, but the property of [senior Russian officials] Vladimir Ivanovich Yakunin and Yuri Yakovlevich Chaika and methods by which it was earned." Navalny had previously alleged corruption from both these individuals.

Far from everyone in Russia has fallen for its government propaganda, yet the Kremlin can point to tangible results. Commenting on Russia’s response to the Orlando shooting, Alexei Naryshkin, correspondent for liberal Echo Moskvy, wrote, "[s]omething very strange is happening." It is standard practice, he continued, to bring, on your own free will, flowers "in large amounts" to an embassy of a country after it becomes victim of a terror attack. But after tragedy struck the U.S., "Flowers at the [American] Embassy on Novinsky Boulevard are there too, but there is less of them. Much less than usual. The human mechanism has broken." Naryshkin observed that when LGBT activists came to the American embassy to commemorate victims of the Orlando shooting, they were scared. One, he writes, asked to be walked to the metro. Otherwise, he would get beaten up "as it usually happens." He had reason to worry because, as Naryshkin describes, homophobic spectators complained to the police, and "tightly clenched their fists."

The Russian police, meanwhile, arrested a gay couple, both of whom are now facing fines for lighting a candle and leaving flowers in front of the American embassy. The police are charging them with "unauthorized demonstration." In 2014, Putin signed a law that criminalized "unauthorized protest," which included fines and a jail sentence for repeated violation of the law. The definition of a "protest" is vague.

"Horrifying," concludes Naryshkin, "but here is what happens: we [those who take the Kremlin view on LGBT] sympathize with the Europeans ... but we feel no pity for these 'rainbows'  — it's their own fault, the overseas sodomites."

Borshchevskaya is the Ira Weiner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.