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

Gay Russia’s choice: Back to the closet or pack it in Add to ...

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.

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