But in Russia’s consensual autocracy, the government is careful to only advance initiatives which it is sure will meet with popular approval. Nor is Russian society in the grip of especially conservative sexual mores — premarital sex, adultery and prostitution are as much a fact of daily life as they are in the West. Rather, homophobia is a psychological coping strategy, modeled on patterns of behavior from the Soviet period and which responds to a distinct trauma: the long-ago disintegration of the same “traditional values” that the homophobes profess to be defending.
Much like the phenomenon of pain from a phantom limb, the yearning for the values of a supposedly more pure epoch is a reaction to the catastrophic state of gender and domestic relations inside Russia. Widespread domestic abuse is only the most extreme end result of a deeply patriarchal society in which a woman’s energies are supposed to be dedicated to finding and keeping a husband, no matter how poorly he treats her. Although the Russian government keeps no official statistics on victims of domestic violence, the authorities have estimated that anywhere from 10,000 to 14,000 women are murdered every year by their husbands or partners; by comparison, in the United States, a country with a population twice the size of Russia’s, 1,000 to 2,000 women a year are murdered by partners or family members.
The situation for the other pillar of the household trinity, the children, is hardly less bleak. The horrific plight of disabled and abandoned children in the country’s orphanage system is all too well-known. But substance abuse, poverty, and violence haunt many other young people. As recently as 2013, the government acknowledged that Russia had Europe’s highest rate of teenage suicide; this year, the head of Moscow’s anti-suicide hotline stated that the number of calls for help regarding adolescents had not changed since then. If the situation in Moscow is serious, one can imagine the conditions that prevail in more depressed areas like southern Russia or the Urals.
Finally, the extent to which the restoration of “traditional values” is a fairy tale totally out of touch with the reality of Russian society is evident in the grim figures from the country’s HIV epidemic. The number of people infected with HIV has doubled to almost 1 million since 2010 and could reach 3 million by 2015. These are increases that Vadim Pokrovsky, chief of Russia’s Federal AIDS Center, attributes mainly to unprotected heterosexual sex.