As the Ukrainian revolution continues, the spectre of “The Jew” has once again reared its head. Rather than on the streets of Kiev, though, it is being seen a bit more subtly in Putin’s official homophobia. It has been made especially obvious by Russian-language assertions that the Euromaidan revolt was part of a larger “international gay conspiracy.”
It isn’t hard to tell what that’s really about.
Yale University Professor Timothy Snyder has written about the propaganda that has been surrounding the country lately. When he discusses the internal propaganda being used by the Russian and Ukrainian status-quo, the gay conspiracy is named as being used very precisely. While Ukrainian riot police were instructed that there was an international Jewish conspiracy, which is more conventional, the gay conspiracy line was used by Russians. Why the gap here?
There are broader trends at play. Homophobia is increasingly playing a critical role in Vladimir Putin rallying a cropto-Soviet nationalism around his rule. This serves two purposes. One is that it successfully builds a new form of right-wing Christian nationalism that helps the Russian Federation emerge from the uncertainty of the 1990’s. Putin has antagonized other groups for this purpose before, most infamously Chechen Islamists.
The second is more complicated. It is true that Putin is scapegoating homosexuals, and legitimizing wider violence against them to ease social tensions. Russia is in a prolonged state of crisis, and its citizens need the cathartic release that irons out wider anxieties. However, he is also scapegoating them in a very specific way: by exchanging state homophobia, for state anti-Semitism.
Readers should remember that for centuries before the Nazis, anti-Semitism was circulated by states primarily as a cynical way to distract people from their real problems. Since anti-Semitism can’t be used in public discourse anymore, at least not in the West, other groups have taken the role. They are exchanged like planks, because the only requirement is that the Other seems a bit alien and “icky.”
Putin knows what he is doing. Personally, I wonder if he is even homophobic himself. He is simply intelligent enough to know that Russians’ pent-up anger and resentment will either blow up against the state, or be channeled against another population. Before the Holocaust, he could have simply stirred up anti-Semitism to fix the problem in the tradition of Stalin and the Tsars.
However, he has to adapt to new conditions, hence the issues with those who identify as queer, and also Muslim Chechens. It’s a substitute anti-Semitism: a representation of a representation.
It seems to be working so far. However, we’ll have to see how Putin continues to approach this. Many of these conspiracy theories cannot sustain themselves in the long-term without some argument that Jews are the real “hidden hand” at play. These substitutions are frequently just proxies for a more private anti-Semitism that becomes increasingly difficult to conceal. The gay conspiracy could eventually become a Jewish conspiracy after all.
Photograph courtesy of Ben Leto. Published with a Creative Commons License.