Some believe the assault on gay rights is politically motivated in the wake of mass protests against Mr. Putin’s election to a previously unconstitutional third term as president.
“The Kremlin is fearful of this public discontent,” says Tania Lokshina, Russia program director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “What they’re trying to do is channel this discontent away from themselves and toward rights groups – foreign-funded enemies.” In other words, she adds, to blame “strangers and foreigners.”
Because so few prominent people are openly homosexual, “80 per cent of Russian people think they don’t know any gays or lesbians,” says Sergei Ilupin, a 34-year-old activist who works at the country’s Nuclear Safety Institute.
Those who dare to go public pay a high price. Last January, when television newsreader Anton Krasovsky came out on air during a discussion of the anti-propaganda bill, he was promptly fired by a TV station that he had helped to launch.
“It’s a closed circle: LGBT people are afraid to be open because of homophobia in society – and there’s homophobia in society because people are closeted,” Mr. Ilupin says, adding that things would be different “if five million Russian gays came out.”
He revealed his own sexuality in stages over 15 years, first telling his closest friends, then his family, then colleagues at work. “My boss said: ‘If I knew you were gay in the first instance, I think I would have rejected your application.”
Sitting in a café sporting a sweatshirt and blue jeans, Mr. Ilupin fits none of the stereotypes many Russians hold. “People are surprised I don’t wear feather boas. [They] ask me if maybe I’m just pretending to be gay, [and,] ‘Are you paid?’
But Mr. Kuzmin, the poet, insists the government campaign is a thinly veiled attempt to distract the masses and not ease unless the economy improves and the Kremlin feels more secure.
“There’s nothing new in it,” he adds, perched in a kitchen chair in an apartment decorated with hundreds of stuffed and ceramic rabbits, and sounding weary of the fight. “The government doesn’t really care about the gays – its challenges lie elsewhere.”
Elsewhere is also where many Russian gays now see their future. “After Putin signed this [anti-propaganda] law, lots of LGBT people sought legal advice about moving to Western countries as refugees,” says Mr. Yablotskiy, the figure skater.
Back in Moscow from a visit to Canada, he describes himself as patriotic and says he wants to remain in Russia – but quietly adds: “In an emergency, I would move to Toronto.” Last summer, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said Canada’s refugee board would look favourably on Russian gays who were being persecuted.
The size of the current exodus is hard to measure, in part because Russia’s gay community has always been so low-profile. For example, Mr. Kuzmin remembers the day, just before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, when he introduced his boyfriend, with whom he still lives, to his parents. At that time, “there was a feeling that things were changing and you could be part of this change.” But now, he says, even the most supportive parents may advise children to keep quiet about being gay.
That, many feel, is precisely what the Kremlin wants. Its goal “is not just to implement this law,” Mr. Yablotskiy says. “It’s populist, meant to depress people and make them get back into the closet like they were 10 years ago.”
Or, he says with a sigh, make them leave.