On June 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his condolences to the victims of the Orlando shooting. He sent President Obama a telegram declaring that Russia shares “the pain and sorrow of those who have lost their relatives and loved ones as a result of the barbaric crime.”

Whether intentionally or not, Putin’s statement disavowed his state’s own official attitude on gay rights. With these words, the Russian president said publicly that he shares the pain and sorrow of homosexuals, their partners (including partners through the much-maligned institution of gay marriage), their parents (who have been blamed in Russia for failing to raise their children correctly), their friends, and the Western world (with which Russia has clashed specifically over the subject of LGBT rights).

This message of sympathy is reminiscent of the way that Putin responded immediately to the September 11 attacks with a declaration of solidarity with the United States. Yet they do not reflect Russia’s reality when it comes to gay rights. If you read Russians’ comments on the Orlando shooting, you find that many, from the former spokesman of the Russian Orthodox Church to a young businessman with Islamic roots, also share the homophobic feelings of the shooter, if not his readiness to act. 

The fact of an attack on a gay nightclub by a religious fanatic highlights the ambiguity of the Russian government when it comes to declaring its “values” —an ambiguity that has been especially problematic since the start of Russia’s operation in Syria in 2015. 

The Kremlin’s dilemma is that it is tricky to simultaneously fight against the so-called Islamic State and share its key moral tenets. The need to fight against homosexuality appears to be the deepest-held postulate of religious fanatics throughout the world—more important to them even than praying or fasting. Yet this same anti-gay stance has been at the core of recent Russian state ideology. So the Kremlin is both saying that religious fanatics are the biggest threat to civilization and telling the public that those fanatics are essentially correct. It would make much more sense to aver that the fanatics are wrong in every possible way—as Putin did with impressive swiftness after the September 11 attacks.

Naturally, Putin is well aware of the motives of the attack on the Pulse nightclub and the fact that the victims were until recently Russia’s enemy number one, the very embodiment of the amoral West that wants to corrupt Russia and thwart Russia’s fight for “sexual sovereignty.” Until the Ukraine crisis broke out, homophobia was at the heart of Russia’s new state ideology.

Opponents of tolerance in Russia may try to soften the unpleasant (to them) implications of Putin’s telegram by saying that the president was simply offering condolences to the Orlando victims irrespective of their sexual orientation. This explanation is an attempt to factor out the motives of the attack and get back to the habitual landscape of bigotry in which they can say that they feel sorry for the victims while blaming them for not hiding.

One component of this ideology is the notion that the victims of homophobic violence only have themselves to blame—if they had not flaunted their behavior in public and had instead hidden away, they would be fine. This is a line of argument that does not withstand reality: throughout history would-be victims, whether the Christians of ancient Rome, Europe’s Jews under Nazism, or Russian poets under Stalin, have tried to hide away, only to be found and persecuted. The same was true in Orlando. The shooter did not open fire in a public square. He specifically came to the kind of designated private venue where Russian moralists believe “nonconformists” should keep to themselves.   

Russia’s official anti-gay ideology has often been more rhetorical than real in recent years. Putin himself asserts that “Russia is not homophobic” and believes that by doing so he is being extremely tolerant compared to the views of Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko or Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe—or much of the Russian public. 

Russia’s leaders have used their rhetorical homophobia to connect themselves with the general public, while simultaneously suppressing its more extreme manifestations. The government disbanded ideological racketeering groups inspired by the neo-Nazi Maxim Martsinkevich such as “Occupy-Pedophilia” and “Occupy-Gerontophilia,” which used the fight against pedophilia, sexual minorities, and liberals as a cover for extortion. Members of those groups were given prison sentences back in 2013, the same year that the State Duma passed anti-LGBT laws. That investigation was carried out in part under an article on “inciting hatred on grounds of sexual orientation.” 

Putin can argue that he has personally given state awards to certain stars of the stage in Russia who are known to be homosexual. Moscow still has more legally operating gay nightclubs than many cities in truly free countries. They continue to exist and even flourish, as do modern theater and modern art in Russia, both of which are also under attack by state-sponsored ideologues. President Putin may believe that continuing to allow the existence of these phenomena, which most of the public and some members of his inner circle believe should be eradicated, is evidence of tolerance. But by international standards, anti-gay discrimination is alive and well in Russia. Attacks similar to the one in Orlando also take place, even if on a smaller scale. For example, in October 2012 one of the largest gay nightclubs in Moscow was attacked.

Unsanctioned violence, homophobia, and religious extremism are all deeply linked. Religiously motivated homophobia is an area where the government is most likely to lose its monopoly on violence, especially if it demonstrates its antipathy for sexual minorities. The Kremlin had increased the threat of violence by combining—or even replacing—the national concept of the “Russian World,” the ethnic ideology that it preached in 2014 but which was potentially destructive for a multiethnic country, with a vague anti-Western moral crusade. Russia’s television viewers are told that volunteers are fighting Ukrainian nationalists to escape being dragged into Europe, with all its homosexual depravity. 

The horrific shooting in Orlando now provides Russian leaders with a chance to find a way out of the ridiculous homophobic corner that they have painted themselves into. At first, the new emphasis on “spiritual values” was a useful substitute for the material benefits that had earlier constituted the basis of the contract between rulers and ruled. But, even before the Euromaidan, the anti-gay rhetoric soured the global feast that the Kremlin had invited the world to join at the Olympic Games in Sochi. 

After that, Ukrainian nationalists assumed the role of Russia’s enemy number one, before they in turn were replaced by Islamic State terrorists. Since the Syria campaign and Russia’s hope for new diplomatic and economic successes, the anti-LGBT campaign has lost all political utility—if it ever had any in the first place. Russia’s homophobia irritated the West while failing to appeal to the rest of the world, for which it is not a high priority. Now, the horror of Orlando gives the Kremlin a chance to discard the policy completely. 

Continued anti-LGBT initiatives would undermine not only Russia’s cherished new goals, such as creating a new alliance of freedom-loving nations against terrorism and securing a seat on the world’s “board of directors” (so as to end the country’s international isolation). Russians should also remember that they made it through Putin’s first two terms without state-sponsored homophobia and that did not hurt the economy, patriotism, or even prevent their country from winning wars. 

Of course, Russian ideology isn’t good at making volte-faces. The country’s leaders won’t admit their mistakes and apologize. They prefer to let a discredited policy fall into oblivion. One day the ambitious ideological upstart who throws pebbles into the pond discovers that they no longer make any ripples. 

But Russia’s leaders must know that the Orlando attack presents them with both a danger and an opportunity. They will be aware that Russia’s current ideological environment could cause a similar tragedy and it is less likely only because there is not such easy access to weapons in Russia as in the United States and Russia’s Muslim community is more integrated than its American counterpart. Such an attack would be a nightmare for the Kremlin in both foreign and domestic policy. The dangerous fumes from the poisonous cocktail of officially sanctioned homophobia are much more potent for the Russian state than are the benefits of keeping the people united against a common enemy. 

At one level, public condolences by a president for a major tragedy are just part of inevitable diplomatic protocol. But Russia’s reaction to Orlando has been far greater than that. Russia’s state-owned media have condemned the shooter’s motives and sympathized with the victims without concealing the site of the attack—and the pro-Kremlin media have been more tolerant than the Russian Internet as a whole. The speed and apparent sincerity with which these condolences have been offered is reminiscent of September 11, 2001. It suggests that the Kremlin wants to be a friend in need, even as it says, “we told you so, but now let’s fight the common enemy together.”

Russia aspires to be different from other partners of the West in its fight against Islamic State. A regional satellite of the West such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia can get away with bombing IS while simultaneously punishing “sexual deviants” under Sharia law. But Russia cannot and does not want to be a satellite. It is seeking a partnership of equals with the West, and that can only be achieved by not just fighting a common enemy but also subscribing to a list of shared values, which is not so short.

As in the case of 9/11, Russia now has a chance, albeit not in the happiest of circumstances, to prove that it holds the same values as the developed world and to get rid of one of the most odious aspects of its domestic policy, which is impeding its foreign policy. If we want the Kremlin to take advantage of this opportunity, we should not ignore this step forward.

  • Alexander Baunov