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Clerk Danil Morozov, outside the country’s only gay shop.Olga Kravets/The Globe and Mail

Down an alley across from the building where Moscow's city council meets, an understated purple sign points the way to Indigo, the only gay-themed store in all of Russia.

To find Indigo and its colourful shelves stuffed with literature and clothing, as well as sexual aids, you need to know where to look. The store is allowed to advertise only on the Internet and, even there, has to post an "18-plus" warning to avoid violating Russia's repressive new law that bans "propaganda promoting non-traditional sexual relations" to minors. (In a Russian newspaper, this article would require such a warning as well.)

Fewer and fewer people come looking for Indigo these days, the staff say. Some regular customers now order online, fearful they'll be recognized or even attacked if they come in person.

Many others have simply left Russia in the six months since President Vladimir Putin signed the "anti-propaganda" legislation, seeing it as a clear signal that Russia is about to become – with the government's encouragement – an even tougher place to be gay, lesbian or bisexual.

"Many of our main customers, people who spent a lot of money here, have emigrated," explains clerk Danil Morozov, 29, adding that he thinks "a lot" about doing the same.

"Some of them were planning to go abroad anyway, but after this law was passed, they said, 'We can't live here any more.' "

Russia's treatment of gays and lesbians fits uncomfortably with the image of a modern, successful country that Mr. Putin wants the world to see next month when the Winter Olympics are held in the southern city of Sochi. The international furor over the anti-gay-propaganda law has spurred boycotts of vodka and other Russian products, and raised questions about whether foreign leaders should be seen standing beside Mr. Putin at the opening ceremony Feb. 7.

U.S. President Barack Obama made his feelings apparent by announcing that he will send not only a low-level official delegation to Sochi, but one stacked with openly gay athletes such as tennis legend Billie Jean King and figure skater Brian Boitano.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, like French President François Hollande, won't be in Sochi. He has not said why, but last August, when Mr. Putin declared that visiting Olympians would not be affected by the anti-gay law, Foreign Minister John Baird made it clear Canada didn't think that was enough.

"This mean-spirited and hateful law will affect all Russians 365 days of the year, every year," he said. "It is an incitement to intolerance, which breeds hate. And intolerance and hate breed violence."

But this isn't just about Mr. Putin – or the skinheads, church activists and often-hostile police who show up at Moscow's occasional gay-rights demonstrations. Opinion polls show that 80 per cent of Russians support the new law – in fact, many want the Kremlin to go much further.

For centuries, Russia's treatment of same-sex relations has risen and fallen with the whims of the leader. In czarist times, homosexual acts were outlawed, but prominent gays close to the royal family were protected, as the monarch was head of the body pushing the hardest for harsh treatment of gays: the Russian Orthodox Church.

With the rise of official atheism following the Bolshevik Revolution, homosexuality was decriminalized by Vladimir Lenin, alongside abortion and no-fault divorce. But gay sex was restored to the criminal code by Joseph Stalin in 1933, as his murderous purges gathered momentum. In his paranoid war against perceived enemies, someone declared to be gay was ensured a trip to the gulag.

Six decades later, homosexual acts were decriminalized again after the fall of the Soviet Union, but gays and lesbians remained unsure of their place in society and, according to veteran activists, missed an opportunity when Boris Yeltsin was president to join the mainstream.

"Prominent figures had a chance in the 1990s to create a good example for the common people, and almost everybody missed it," laments poet Dmitry Kuzmin, who in 1996 published Russia's first anthology of gay literature.

"Now we have the results of this shyness" – as Mr. Putin, weakened by popular protests against his rule and anxious to appease a church that has regained much of its former clout, pushes the pendulum back again.

The Kremlin's latest narrative blames Russia's weakness over the past two decades on its attempt to Westernize instead of sticking to traditional values, such as the social conservatism and pan-Slavism that have replaced getting along with the liberal West as Moscow's ideals.

Figure skater Konstantin Yablotskiy expects things to get worse before they get better. The 30-year-old co-founder of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation (which organizes tournaments for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered athletes) believes that the Kemlin, just as it has issued high-profile pardons for jailed Greenpeace protesters, dissident popsters Pussy Riot and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in advance of the Games, has relaxed its anti-gay campaign. But once the spotlight moves on, "we could see criminal cases directed against LGBT people, just like in Soviet times."

One law proposed by a member of the Kremlin-backed United Russia party would see children taken from gay parents to prevent "harm to the child's psyche." International outrage caused the bill to be withdrawn shortly after it was introduced in September, but many expect to see it resurrected.

Another proposed law would ban gays from having children using a surrogate mother. As well, Mr. Putin has already signed a law preventing the adoption of Russian children by foreign gay couples, or – just to make sure no gay parents sneak through the adoption system – by unmarried individuals living in countries that allow gay marriage.

Polls show that most Russians endorse the anti-propaganda law and, perhaps because many accept the link the Kremlin makes between homosexuality and pedophilia, one survey showed 40-per-cent support for making it a crime once more.

Such statistics greatly please Vsevolod Chaplin, an Orthodox archpriest responsible for relations between the church, which feels gays are ill and in need of divine forgiveness, and the Kremlin. Very influential because of his job, Mr. Chaplin becauses that, after two decades of spiritual as well as economic decline, Russia is finally rejecting "immoral" Western influences. (The church sees another victory in a ban on advertising abortion services that Mr. Putin signed in November.)

As Mr. Chaplin sees history, gay rights and abortion were both forced on Russia by foreign powers intent on keeping it weak by shrinking its population – a crippling demographic problem the country now faces. Gay-rights groups, he claims, are funded by Western organizations (often true, if only because their own government denies support). Now, under Mr. Putin, the country is pushing back, he says.

"Our society, which 10 or 15 years ago was dependent on Western opinion, is finally learning how to stay calm and stay focused on our own convictions, even when someone is criticizing every move and every step."

Mr. Chaplin speaks of Mr. Putin respectfully, but suggests that he has changed: "When he came to power many years ago, he was more oriented to the ideology that was propagated in the 1990s – that economic and political freedoms will solve all the problems. Probably, as he is becoming older, he is listening to trends in society. I'm very happy he is now speaking about the moral dimensions of society."

Mr. Chaplin sees gay propaganda as "a text, a play, a picture that is consciously oriented toward children and adolescents and aimed at involving them in homosexual activities." Or, he adds, anything that makes gay life look normal and happy.

To follow the rules and attract state funding, the script for a new biopic of Pyotr Tchaikovsky has been rewritten five times. The film now will portray the composer of the 1812 Overture and Swan Lake as a man who lived alone, tormented by unfounded "rumours" about his sexuality – even though Mr. Putin has held him up as proof that Russia is tolerant. "Tchaikovsky was gay," he said in September, "although it's true that we don't love him because of that, he was a great musician and we all love his music. So what?"

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.