MOSCOW - When a gay group held a film festival in Moscow in April, there were the usual anti-gay protesters. But this time, there was an unexpected visitor: a policeman armed with a Kalashnikov, checking ID’s.
Later this month, Russia’s Duma is expected to give final approval to a vaguely worded bill that would ban "homosexual propaganda" accessible to minors.
Despite protests, the bill won nearly unanimous approval in a preliminary vote last January.
Last month, France became the ninth country in Europe to legalize gay marriage. But in Russia, the trend is going in the opposition direction, away from tolerance.
Manny de Guerre, a long-term British resident of Russia, helped organize “Side by Side,” the gay film festival in Moscow.
“The impact of the law is that it creates fear in society,” said de Guerre who attended the festival with her partner. “It gives the green light to Orthodox activists, to nationalists, that it’s OK to beat up lesbian and gay people, that it’s OK to discriminate against them.”
With Russia increasingly standing out in isolation to the liberal trends of Western Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin faced gay protesters when he visited Holland last month.
Back in Moscow, Putin was defiant when asked about European criticism.
"How can they demand that we introduce their standards?” he demanded in a nationally televised call in show. “Or maybe we should demand that they instill our standards in that country? Let's not demand anything from each other. Let's treat each other with respect."
Putin’s conservatism is backed by a nationwide Levada poll conducted in February. Two-thirds of respondents backed laws banning "gay propaganda." And large majorities said that gay propaganda could mean banning books, films, protests and parades.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, an opposition politician, says Putin is in step with Russian public opinion.
“It’s not like everyone wants a gay parade and Putin is against it,” said Ryzhkov, co-founder of the liberal Republic Party of Russia. “In this case, his point of view is exactly the same as 90 percent of the population.”
At the offices of Young Guard, a Kremlin support group, Ekaterina Stenyakina, gives voice to mainstream Russians' distaste for homosexuality.
“We have traditional religions in which family values are among the most important of all,” said Stenyakina, a leader of the group. “That’s why our country, our state, is not ready for this kind of manifestation - gay parades on main squares.”
Oleg Grannikov, a Moscow gay activist, says that in this environment most Russian gays keep their personal lives in the shadows.
“In Moscow, of course, the situation is better than in the regions,” he said during a break at the film festival. “But still, while people may be open with their friends, very few are open with their parents or at their job.”
And Russia’s new legislation seems designed to keep Russian gays firmly in the closet for years to come.