Nearly three-quarters of Russians believe that homosexually is morally unacceptable, more than disapprove of other hot-button issues such as extramarital affairs, gambling and abortion.
The numbers come from newly released data from the Pew Research Center, which surveyed Russians on their moral attitudes in spring 2013. Russian attitudes toward homosexuality have been at the forefront given the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Just eight months before the games, Russia's governmental body, the Duma, passed a law making it illegal to distribute homosexual "propaganda" to minors, which includes staging gay pride events and advocating for gay rights.
The law also bans foreign same-sex couples from adopting Russian children.
On the opening day of the Olympics (Feb. 7), police arrested at least 14 gay rights activists in St. Petersburg and Moscow, according to news reports. It's unclear what charges the activists may face, as Russia also bans unapproved protests. [5 Myths About Gay People Debunked]
History of anti-gay attitudes
Understanding Russia's widespread gay sentiment requires a look back, said Tatiana Mikhailova, a senior instructor of Russian Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Russia's October Revolution of 1917 threw Russian society into upheaval, Mikhailova told Live Science. Traditional gender roles fell to revolutionary ideology, and the family structure was seen as outdated, she said.
Before the revolution, Czarist Russia was hardly friendly to gays. In 1716, homosexuality among military men was made punishable by flogging, rape and forced labor, according to Dan Healy, a professor of Russian history at Oxford University. In 1835, Czar Nicholas I extended the ban on male same-sex relationships to civilians.
The revolutionaries threw out the Czarist legal code and drew up their own, which did not criminalize homosexuality. It's not clear why, Healy said, but it's possible Russia's new leadership was following a tradition set by the French Revolution that dumped religion-based laws. [Dictator Deaths: How 13 Notorious Leaders Died]
This progressive approach to homosexuality did not last long. Joseph Stalin, who consolidated power over the 1920s, and his secret police appointee, Genrikh Yagoda, drafted a new law penalizing homosexuals, whom they portrayed as spies and scoundrels. By 1934, homosexuality was again illegal in Russia, with a minimum sentence of three to five years in prison. Prison often meant the Gulag, where convicts were forced into hard labor, Healy said.
Stalin's anti-sodomy law was repealed in 1993, one of many Stalinist laws removed in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR.
But acceptance has not come easily. One reason, Mikhailova said, is the popular tendency to conflate erroneously homosexuality with pedophilia and rape.
"For a long period of time Russian men and Russian women who were kept in prisons were subjugated and sexually assaulted in order to keep them complacent," she said. Men who were raped were known as "roosters," a term that is still one of the "most painful words" to call a man in Russia, Mikhailova said. [Understanding the 10 Most Destructive Human Behaviors]
With rape and homosexuality equated, it's easy for leaders to insult gay people unapologetically. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill I, said in July that gay marriage is a "very dangerous apocalyptic symptom." And church leaders regularly link homosexuality with pedophilia.
"Where gays are allowed, pedophilia will soon flourish," says Russian Orthodox priest Sergei Rybko in a new BBC documentary, "Hunted," released this month, that explores violence toward Russian gays.
The Russian Orthodox Church is a major driver of anti-gay public opinion, Mikhailova said, but there is a paradox at play.
In most countries, religiosity is linked to anti-gay attitudes. Among Americans, 74 percent of nonreligious people approve of gay marriage, compared with only 23 percent of white evangelical Protestants, according to a Pew survey. Likewise, the most religious countries tend to be less accepting of gay rights, Pew has found.
Russia (along with China) is an outlier. Few Russians say religion is central to their lives; the country scores on par with many Western European countries in terms of lack of religiosity, but only 9 percent of Russians say homosexuality is acceptable in the new survey. Another 9 percent say homosexuality is not a moral issue, and 72 percent say being gay is unacceptable.
In comparison, 69 percent of Russians say extramarital affairs are unacceptable, 62 percent disapprove of gambling, and 44 percent say abortion is immoral. [6 Things Russians Think Are More Acceptable Than Being Gay]
While the average Russian may not attend church frequently or pray fervently, the Orthodox Church still holds sway over public opinion, Mikhailova said.
"The church is taking a more and more prominent place in Russia, and Putin and his government constantly talk about spiritual values," she said. "Traditional" values are portrayed as what makes Russia strong.
"The rhetoric of sin is an important rhetoric right now for Russians," Mikhailova said.
Homosexuality and the Olympics
The international organization Human Rights Watch warned last week (Feb. 4) that harassment and violence against gays, lesbians and bisexual and transgender people in Russia is widespread and may be on the rise.
An anonymous survey by The Russian LGBT Network in St. Petersburg found that 50 percent of gay and lesbian respondents had been harassed for their sexuality, and 15 percent had been physically attacked. On Feb. 3, a court in eastern Russia sentenced three men to between nine and 12 years in prison each for the beating and stabbing death of a man they believed to be gay, one of several recently reported crimes allegedly motivated by anti-gay sentiment.
Historians warn that despite international outcry, it will take time and "patient engagement" to turn Russia into a more tolerant place. In the U.K., an anti-gay propaganda law nearly passed as recently as 1987, Healy said in a talk given in the U.K. on Saturday (Feb. 8). The national conversation at the time was vicious, but England, Scotland and Wales will celebrate their first same-sex marriage ceremonies this year.
"There was no effective national conversation about the status of LGBT citizens in the new Russia until very recently," Healy said in his speech. "What people knew about homosexuality came from the legacies of the Stalin era and the Gulag camps."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.