Although the Olympics are intended to celebrate unity through sport, they have always been used for political purposes.

Adolf Hitler showcased his Third Reich at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and Jesse Owens’ four gold medals were hailed as a repudiation of Nazi racism. African nations boycotted the 1976 Montreal games over the issue of South Africa’s apartheid policies.

The United States and many of its allies refused to participate in the 1980 Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; the Soviet bloc retaliated by boycotting the 1984 games in Los Angeles.

A number of controversies have dogged the February 2014 Sochi Winter games in Russia. A series of recent suicide bombings in Volgograd (located like Sochi in southern Russia) have pointed out the security risks of holding the Olympics in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus.

The breakaway region of Chechnya, where Russia fought two bitter wars from 1994-1996 and 1999-2009, is only 300 miles from Sochi. While Chechnya is relatively quiet today under the authoritarian rule of the pro-Moscow Chechen Ramzan Kadyrov, neighboring regions are wracked by widespread violence.

In Kabardino-Balkaria, even closer to Sochi than Chechnya, dozens of police, civilians, and Islamic militants were killed in 2010 and 2011. In Dagestan on the Caspian Sea, the toll reached into the hundreds. Islamic militant Doku Umarov has called for mujahedin to attack the Sochi Olympics.

While the threat of terrorism presents a risk to athletes and spectators, endemic corruption in the construction projects at Sochi also generated widespread criticism inside and outside of Russia.

Russia spent at least $50 billion on sports venues and supporting infrastructure for the 2014 Winter Games, well ahead of the approximately $40 billion that China spent on the much larger 2008 Summer Games and the $7 billion that Vancouver spent on the 2010 Winter Games. Russia’s final bill will be at least four times the initial estimates of $12 billion. Boris Nemtsov, a leader of Russia’s political opposition, has asserted that more than $25-30 billion of Russian spending has been embezzled.

Despite these very real concerns, neither terrorism nor corruption generated any movement towards a boycott. The issue that raised the greatest concerns around the world is instead quite different: Russia’s policy toward homosexuals. Some analysts have gone so far as to draw parallels with the 1936 Berlin Olympics, hosted by Germany despite its extensive discriminatory laws against Jews.

Leading up to the Olympics, a growing number of individuals and groups in the West called for staying home from Sochi. Some European political officials announced that they will not attend Sochi, contrary to their past practice. U.S. President Barack Obama did not attend the games, and named two openly gay members to the U.S. Olympic delegation to Sochi.

Inadvertently, the Sochi games have become the gay games.

Homosexuality in Russia Today

The controversy was sparked by a new Russian law. In June 2013, the Duma (Russia’s legislature) passed a bill subsequently signed into law by President Vladimir Putin that banned the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations.” While the law did not specify homosexuality, and might equally apply to, say, polygamy, Russian debate about the law made it clear that the primary focus of the legislation was homosexuality.

The precise text of the law bans “propaganda directed at minors in favor of non-traditional sexual relations, expressed by the distribution of information directed at the formation of non-traditional sexual orientation, the attractiveness of non-traditional sexual relations, a warped presentation of the social equality of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations, or the promotion of information on non-traditional sexual relations which excites interest in such relations.”

Much about the law remains unclear, including what precisely constitutes propaganda and how vigorously Russian prosecutors will enforce it: must statements be directed specifically at children to fall under the law, or are statements to a broad public audience grounds for prosecution? What exactly is a “warped presentation” of social equality?

For the moment, however, Russian legislation applies only to expression, not behavior. Homosexual conduct remains legal, a point Putin has stressed in defending Russian policy.

The law’s restriction on advocacy, however, has certainly enabled and legitimized much more radical views. Anecdotal evidence suggests that harassment and violence directed against gays—both official and street-level—has worsened since the law’s passage last summer. Some Russian legislators have argued for further laws that would restore criminal penalties for homosexual conduct.

Until quite recently, many Western observers would have found nothing unusual about Russia’s new law. In the United Kingdom, homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1967. Two recent Olympics have been held in cities where homosexual conduct was illegal: Salt Lake City (2002) and Atlanta (1996).

To be sure, prosecutions for homosexual activity in Utah and Georgia were quite rare, but those laws were on the books nonetheless. This fact enables Russian observers to accuse the West of hypocrisy when Western critics attack Russian practice, an accusation that always plays well in Russian society.

The new Russian legislation is striking in large part because it underscores the diverging paths of Russia and Western countries when it comes to homosexuality. Russian public attitudes are increasingly hostile towards homosexuality while views in the West are moving quickly in the opposite direction.

Attitudes towards gays and lesbians have changed in the West with remarkable speed. A substantial number of voters in the West remain opposed to same-sex marriage, but polling data and election results alike in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe suggest that opinion is shifting quickly towards greater tolerance.

Russia looks quite different (albeit in line with views outside the Americas and Europe). A universally respected Russian polling agency found that 88% of Russians approved of the new law banning gay propaganda, and 54% wished to see homosexuality itself made criminal.

The percentage of Russia’s population that viewed homosexuality as the private concern of the individual dropped from 34% in 2005 to 15% in 2012. Support for gay marriage over the same period dropped from 14% to 4%.

Searching for Sources of Russia’s Anti-Gay Legislation

What’s happening in Russia to make public attitudes there so different from those in the West? How can we explain the mutual incomprehension between the Russian government and its American and European critics?

Part of the answer is Russian public attitudes toward sex and sexuality.

Late Soviet society was quite prudish. In 1986, a woman famously remarked on a U.S.-Soviet joint talk show that “there is no sex in the Soviet Union. We are categorically against it!” Her reference was actually to sexual material in the public sphere: both sexually oriented programming and concrete information about sexuality were quite rare.

Since the fall of communism, Russia has had much better access to pornography, but not necessarily to mature and objective discussions of sexual issues in mass media. As a result, popular perceptions of homosexuality in Russia associate it to pedophilia much more strongly than in the West. Discussions of the new legislation, and Putin’s own remarks about visitors to Olympic Games, have focused on pedophilia as a crime particular to and predominant among homosexuals.

On the opening day of competition at the Olympics Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak linked homosexuality and pedophilia in a news conference. “Any adult has his or her right to understand their sexual activity. Please do not touch kids. That’s the only thing.”

Historically, the legal position of homosexuality in Russia was much like the rest of Europe. While the law generally didn’t have anything to say about female homosexuality, male homosexuality was a crime on religious grounds.

By the beginning of the 20th century, though, that was beginning to change. A legal reform in 1903 made male homosexuality only a misdemeanor, and after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 put communists into power and created the new Soviet Union, homosexuality was decriminalized entirely.

By 1933, however, Soviet law shifted back again. For reasons not entirely clear, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s new criminal code made homosexuality a crime as part of a general shift toward imposing order, hierarchy, and traditional values on Soviet society. No one is certain just how many people were jailed for homosexuality in the Soviet Union; perhaps a thousand people a year between 1933 and 1991 is a reasonable estimate.

When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Russia embarked on a series of political, economic, and legal reforms. As part of those, homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993. In recent years, though, the pendulum seems to be swinging back the other way: witness the June law against homosexual propaganda, and a subsequent July measure against homosexual adoption.