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The Kremlin’s Othering Russians As Part of Its War on the West

Maxim Trudolyubov
Person waving a pride flag on a busy street
ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA—May 01, 2019. Marchers with a rainbow LGBTQIA+ flag on Nevsky prospect.

The law banning the promotion of “nontraditional sexual relationships” came into force in Russia a few days ago. Together with the new law on foreign agents, this document forms the policy of the Russian state aimed at turning swaths of Russian citizens into legalized “others,” second-class citizens partly deprived of their rights.

The new laws expand previously existing bans and broaden the persecution’s scope. The language the Kremlin uses in its legislation will sow mistrust and violence within Russian society. People partly deprived of their rights can become a target for those Russians who trust propaganda, or those criminals who are simply looking for an easy victim.

It is now against the law to openly declare nonheterosexual orientations, to “celebrate” LGBTQ couples, or to imply that such relationships are “normal.” Anything published on the internet, in media or books, or appearing in movies and ads is now under official scrutiny. Some publishers have started to check published work on “LGBTQ propaganda,” while at least one has asked its authors to rewrite parts of their books.

The new foreign agents legislation (“On the Control of Activities Carried out by Persons under Foreign Influence”) expands the circle of its potential targets indefinitely. Foreign funding, real or perceived by authorities, is no longer required to qualify as a “foreign agent.” It is enough to fall “under foreign influence” while engaging in politics or being a public figure. Influence is defined so loosely as to permit virtually any kind of interpretation (“support and (or) influence on an individual, including through coercion, persuasion, and (or) other means”).

“Foreign agents” are now banned from taking part in political campaigns, holding public office, or teaching. There are around twenty prohibitions in total. They include: being employed by government agencies; being a member of an electoral commission; conducting independent anticorruption reviews, donating to candidates, organizing public events, teaching at schools and universities, and producing any informational content intended for children.

Those who supposedly “promote nontraditional relationships” are facing a similarly broad discrimination list that is implied rather than openly stated in the “LGBTQ propaganda” law.

Discrediting entire swaths of the citizenry as “outsiders” or “abnormal” is not the only goal the Russian authorities are pursuing. By creating “outsiders,” the Kremlin is creating its ideal, imaginary “insiders,” its loyalists of choice. By labeling some as “abnormal,” the authorities are trying to shape ideas about the norm. By labeling some behaviors as “nontraditional,” they are claiming to be the judges of what is tradition.

The principle of strengthening the circle of one’s own by demonizing the supposed outsiders is as old as social life itself. The set of distinctions that leaders and rulers use to build a system of loyalty around themselves is also old. They discriminate against people on the basis of sex, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, and the “wrong” alliances with people and other groups.

In many countries, differences of this kind are still stigmatized and are punishable by social exclusion or outright persecution and prosecution. Some ancient religious norms, when included in civil law, may produce this effect, as is the case in many predominantly Muslim societies. Some legacy norms introduced a century or more ago as part of colonial legislation often affect today’s citizens’ everyday lives. For example, in nearly 70 percent of the countries whose past is linked to British colonialism, the criminalization of homosexual relations persists in one form or another.

Apart from rare exceptions, those are legacies of the past. Over the past decades, the process of repealing discriminatory laws has been ongoing, at differing speeds, in all cultures and on all continents. Russia is among a handful of countries, including Chad and Uganda, where the process is reversed.

Under the Soviet rule most traditions that linked Russia to its patriarchal roots have been destroyed. When today’s Russian politicians present their policies as traditionalist, they manipulate the public. Russia has long been an urbanized, individualistic society, one that is much less religious or conservative than the Russian Orthodox Church officials claim. Russia’s divorce and abortion rates are among the highest in the world.

Under the pretense of “traditionalism” the Kremlin is constructing a quasi-conservative, “normal” and “patriotic” core of loyalists by igniting hatred of “others” and mistrust of “foreign agents.” This is part of the Kremlin’s long-developing war with the West and, by extension, with the West’s stooges at home.

In February 2013, the newly appointed chief of the General Staff, Colonel General (now Army General) Valery Gerasimov, made a speech about how Russian military science lags behind reality. In modern warfare, he said, indirect, asymmetric actions unrelated to combat operations predominate. Physical battles take place only in the last phase of the conflict. As an example of indirect warfare, Gerasimov cited the Arab Spring, noting that with indirect influence from outside, “in a matter of months or even days, a prosperous state can be turned into an arena of fierce armed struggle, become a victim of foreign intervention, and plunge into the abyss of chaos.”

According to Gerasimov, in the political, economic, informational, and humanitarian field, Russia’s enemies use “nonmilitary measures, implemented with the use of the country’s protest potential.” The general called any protests the methods of military confrontation. According to Gerasimov, the internal opposition does not grow all by itself but is “created” and becomes “a constantly operating front on the entire territory of the state.”

At the time, many in the West were frightened by this speech, seeing in it a new Russian military doctrine that suggests waging a “hybrid war” (a phrase that was not in Gerasimov’s speech) against the West. In fact, Gerasimov’s message was that the Russian military and its political leadership fail to understand the dangers of the indirect war the West is waging against Russia.

The protests of 2011–2012 were still fresh in everybody’s mind at the time, and mentioning the Arab Spring was a reference to them. The strategic direction of the fight against any grassroots activism had already been chosen: the search for foreign agents. The first law on foreign agents came into force in November 2012, and in the same November Gerasimov was appointed head of the General Staff. He could not have developed a new doctrine by February of the following year. In line with Russian bureaucratic logic, the general was addressing his one and only important listener, President Putin. He simply developed and supplemented an attitude that Putin had already adopted.

Simply classifying one’s opponent as an external enemy transforms domestic politics into war. It is no longer a dispute in parliament, not a competition between political parties, not a dialogue in the public sphere, but a war. And a war requires a constant mobilization of people and resources that is impossible to stop. The Kremlin’s domestic war of othering has been much more successful than its war of aggression against Ukraine. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more