Russian Orthodox Church Supports Referendum on Sodomy Laws

There are few bright spots in LGBT issues in Russia today. A recent media hubbub over the (as yet remote) possibility of recriminalizing “sodomy” may in fact be an indicator that things are getting even worse. The most recent buzz began when entertainer and anti-gay provocateur Ivan Okhlobystin published an open letter to Putin calling for the question of sodomy laws to be put to referendum.

Since that time, a major representative of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, has spoken out in favor of the idea of a referendum, using the same tactic and rhetorical strategy favored by US opponents of gay marriage who suggest that such matters should be decided by the people.

Unlike the possibility of the state revoking parerental rights and removing the children of same-sex couples, however—a legal initiative that is currently on the backburner but that may yet be considered in the State Duma—early indications from those associated with the government indicate that the reinstitution of sodomy laws, particularly by referendum, is unlikely to be considered.

That the possibility has even been raised publically, however, and supported by a leading representative of the ROC, cannot be good. Okhlobystin, who is known for his recent statement that he would burn LGBT rights activists in ovens, has for some reason taken down the open letter to Putin from his blog. There remains, however a petition at Onlinepetition.ru calling for a referendum on sodomy laws.

Meanwhile, there are several petitions against Okhlobystin on Change.org as well as efforts to get Apple CEO Tim Cook to cut ties with the Russian company Euroset, for which Okhlobystin—an ordained Orthodox priest on indefinite hiatus from service in the church—serves as creative director.

As Global Voices Online’s Kevin Rothrock has pointed out, many in the liberal Russian blogosphere had until recently tended to regard Okhlobystin as only a charlatan and provocateur making outlandish statements as a form of performance art. His recent actions, however, are causing some of them to change their views and to see the man as a genuine fascist. It says something about the state of the ROC that leading hierarchs are willing to associate themselves with the likes of Okhlobystin and other radical conservatives.

Chaplin, who, as Chairman of the Synodal Committee on Church-Society Relations functions in many respects as the public face of official Orthodoxy, exhibits a pattern of such behavior. He has praised the radical Orthodox activist known as Dmitry Enteo, for example, and even joined with Enteo in a prayer service for the passage of laws against abortion, ‘propaganda of homosexuality,’ and blasphemy.

Chaplin’s is a prominent voice among Orthodox Russians, and the message he consistently sends is that the absolute worst, most violent and oppressive elements and tendencies within Russian Orthodoxy, even when their demands go beyond what the (hardly liberal) Russian state will countenance, have the moral high ground.

It’s a reprehensible message, and, while a referendum on the reinstitution of sodomy laws—they existed in the Soviet Union and Russian Federation from 1934-1993—is highly unlikely, Chaplin’s support for the idea throws a bone to the most rabid Russian homophobes, some of whom, as we know all too well, are willing to take matters into their own hands.

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Christopher Stroop holds a Ph.D. in History and Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities from Stanford University and is currently a Senior Lecturer at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration in Moscow. The author of several articles and essays on Russian religious and intellectual history, he is also an editor of the open access electronic religious studies journal State, Religion and Church (first issue forthcoming December 2013). He blogs at Sacramentalities

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