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.

Orthodoxy and Demography

Where does this backlash come from?

One possible answer is Russian Orthodox Christianity. Opposition to gay marriage in the West is often linked to traditional religion. This explanation works less well for Russia, however.

While Putin’s government has certainly cultivated links with Orthodox clergy and associated itself with the Orthodox Church, the Church has been ambivalent about this connection. It has opposed some of Putin’s past measures, including a 2005 reform of social welfare benefits and more recent crackdowns on anti-government protests.

More importantly, though, the grassroots influence of the Orthodox Church in Russia is weak enough that it is difficult to see this as a sufficient explanation. Religious commitment in Russia as measured by church attendance is remarkably low. This is true even by the standards of Europe, where levels of religious commitment are much lower than in the United States.

The Russian research center SOVA surveyed church attendance in 2013 and found that in Moscow, 280,000 people attended Christmas services, or perhaps 2-3% of the population. Religion is not a strong enough presence in daily life to explain the recent legal measures.

Putin has maintained some distance from the Orthodox Church on this point, preferring to argue that Russian views on homosexuality are shared with Catholicism and Islam, not Orthodoxy alone.

A second potential explanation is natalism: the desire to increase population growth by promoting marriage and babies. In discussing the new law, Putin himself told journalists on 19 January 2014 that “we must cleanse ourselves of all that which hinders” Russia’s demographic growth.

Certainly Russia does face serious demographic problems. Russia’s fertility rate in 2011 was 1.54 births per woman, well below the 2.1 needed to sustain a stable population. And high mortality and a drop in life expectancy has caused a decline in Russia’s total population, which peaked at 148.5 million in 1993 and has since declined to 141.9 million in 2009.

Laws directed against homosexuality have been associated with laws restricting the adoption of Russian children by families abroad, likewise suggesting a connection with concerns about population growth. At the end of 2012, Russian law banned adoption by Americans. Pavel Astakhov (politician, TV personality, and Children's Rights Commissioner for the President of the Russian Federation) justified the restriction on adoption in part by pointing to Russia’s demographic problems.

However, the demographic worry also seems incomplete as an explanation of Russian laws and attitudes towards homosexuality. Russia’s demographic situation has improved in recent years. In addition, Russia’s birth rate is no worse and in some cases better than West European countries that are moving rapidly toward greater acceptance of homosexuality.

Russian legislators have not addressed Russia’s divorce rates, currently the highest in Europe and 25% greater than in the United States. Neither have they moved on abortions (which outnumber live births in Russia today) either by restricting access or encouraging mothers to carry pregnancies to term. Real concern about demographics would suggest measures other than laws about homosexual propaganda.

A Different Conception of Individual Rights

A perhaps better way of understanding the new Russian policy is to examine the fundamentally different ways of thinking about rights and the individual’s relation to society that exists in Russia, as compared to the United States and many western European countries.

The conception of rights in the West has tended to focus on individual autonomy: on the right of an individual person to decide for him- or herself how to think, believe, and act. The Russian tradition has been very different.

Well before the Russian Revolution put communists in power, Russian thinking about rights emphasized the welfare of the collective over the desires of any one individual. This communal approach, a deep principle of philosophy and social life, has a clear and concrete effect on the issue of homosexuality.

To be sure, this difference shouldn’t be exaggerated: Russian thinking about rights does incorporate the individual, and many thinkers in the West have discussed the importance of communities and groups. The difference is nonetheless real.

One part of the question of rights deals with freedom of speech. Russia’s new law, it’s worth remembering, restricts speech promoting tolerance or equal treatment of homosexuality, but does not at present make homosexual behavior criminal.

Compare that with the United States in the 1950s, where homosexual behavior was illegal in much of the country, but groups such as the Mattachine Society (founded in 1950) and the Daughters of Bilitis (1955) argued for tolerance. To oversimplify, in the United States in the 1950s homosexual behavior was often illegal, but advocating tolerance was not. In Russia today, homosexual behavior is legal, but advocacy on its behalf is not.

The explanation for this seeming contradiction lies in different thinking about the right of freedom of expression. Western conceptions about freedom of speech, and particular American ideas on the subject, tend to see freedom of speech as an absolute value. It is not regarded as a means to an end so much as something good in itself. While free expression might indeed bring benefits to society as a whole, Western thinking has generally defended speech and press freedoms independently of those benefits.

Russian traditions are different. Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union, made glasnost' (openness) an important part of his efforts to reform the moribund Soviet Union, but this “openness” was not the same as freedom of speech. It was instead the idea of criticizing abuses and inefficiencies in order to correct them. Criticism was not good in itself, but only in service of a greater goal.

This idea had deep roots in Russian history. The same term, glasnost', had a long prehistory and had been used under Tsar Alexander II in the second half of the 1800s as part of a wide-ranging series of reforms of Russian society. It had much the same connotation: opening certain aspects of government and society to public scrutiny and limited expression to serve concrete social needs.

From Slavophiles to Anti-Homosexual Legislation

The philosophical roots of Russian policies go deeper still. Much of what Putin and his associates say about homosexuality, and indeed much of their policy in general, reflects a specific historical heritage: a group of 19th-century thinkers, the Slavophiles, who argued that Russia followed its own distinct historical path.

The name Slavophile signifies generally their high regard for the broader ethnic group, the Slavs, to which Russians belong, but the Slavophiles looked to specific historical circumstances, not just ethnic chauvinism, to argue for Russia’s singular and superior culture.

Ivan Kireevskii (1806-1856), the most important of the Slavophiles, suggested that Russia had been fortunate to escape falling under the Roman Empire. As a result, Russia was not contaminated by Roman ideas of rationality and individualism. Instead of prizing individual autonomy and cold calculations of personal interest, Russia instead inherited a more organic and spiritual approach to life, one that emphasized the unity of society as a whole (sobornost’), not the particular goals of competing individuals.

Aleksei Khomiakov (1804-1860), the other leading light of Slavophile thinking, stressed the Orthodox Church as central to the communal nature of Russian society and, as a result, its superiority to the West.

Taken as a group, the Slavophiles expressed a remarkably coherent set of beliefs. The highest value for them was the integrity and communal spirit that united their community in a sense of common belonging based in traditional institutions that had grown organically over centuries. They opposed their values to those of abstract rationalism, individual autonomy, and cold materialism, all of which they identified with the West.

(The Slavophiles did not have Russian intellectual life to themselves, of course; many in Russia then and now saw Western rationality and individual rights as worthy goals.)

Still, the Soviet Union, while rejecting the religious and spiritual foundations of Slavophile thinking, maintained a view of rights that emphasized collective rather than individual identity. Soviet constitutions routinely included language defending the individual rights that Western societies recognize, but Soviet practice just as routinely violated them.

Marxism as an ideology emphasizes classes as collective units with collective interests; individuals are secondary to the class to which they belong. All societies have some pressure to conform, but Soviet society in particular seemed to condemn subcultures and personal conduct outside of Soviet norms, particularly anything that might be associated with the West.

Strikingly, the arguments around Russia’s ban on homosexual propaganda echo quite closely those 19th-century Slavophile ideas while maintaining Soviet preference for collective thinking over individual autonomy.

In the West, the argument in favor of same-sex marriage and more generally for a greater place for homosexuality in society draws on two ideas: that individuals have the fundamental right to live their lives as they choose, and that homosexuality does no harm to others. For Putin’s government, by contrast, the right of individual choice comes in well below the interests of society as a whole, and homosexuality is regarded as unacceptably corrosive of traditional values, demographic trends, and the perceived safety of children.

In listening to what Putin and his officials have to say about their policies, it is easy to detect echoes of the Slavophiles.

Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin’s former close associates, coined the term “sovereign democracy” for the concept that Russia’s values are not those of the West. While it’s easy to dismiss “sovereign democracy” as simply a way of justifying authoritarian rule (and there’s much truth to that), it also reflects a different way of seeing society and how it ought to work.

In October 2013, Sergei Ivanov, the former defense minister now holding the immensely powerful post of Putin’s Chief of Staff, explained Russia’s policies to the World Russian People’s Council, a group claiming to represent Russian populations from around the globe. He argued that Russia had to maintain its values: “these are the values of family, social morality, kindness, nobleness and charity; these values are the spiritual pillar of not only Orthodoxy but also of Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.”

His choice of those religions was not arbitrary: they are the four religions recognized in a 1997 law as truly historically Russian. The list leaves out both Protestantism and Catholicism, faiths perceived as uniquely Western, contaminated by individualism and abstract rationality, and hence alien to the Russian experience.

The central concept for Ivanov is the idea that society is a collective whole, not simply an accumulation of individuals. “We will be unable to move on,” he said, “if society is disconnected, if we lose our moral pillars and the feeling of solidarity, if egoism, mutual mistrust, the principle of ‘every man for himself’ and the primitive logic of prospering at any cost, even with immoral methods, come to dominate.”

Social solidarity threatened by individualism: a clearly Slavophile concept.

Pavel Astakhov (Putin’s envoy for children’s issues) appealed to tradition over abstract notions of rights in November. Stressing the importance of defending traditional families, he argued that “the entire historical experience, thousands of years of human traditions, and the fundamentals of law” cannot be sacrificed for the sake of something “artificial.”

Vladimir Putin himself expressed the matter in a very similar way. In a yearly state of Russia address on December 12, 2013, Putin described his ruling ideology as “conservatism.” He meant by this something very specific—there were little of American conservative ideas about small government or strict constitutionalism in what he had to say. Instead, he saw himself as defending Russian traditions.

He declared his certainty that people throughout the world would support his position on “the defense of traditional values, which have for thousands of years served as the spiritual, moral basis of civilization … the traditional family, genuine human life, in particular religious life, life not merely material but spiritual.” He condemned “abstract ideas” which lead to “the revision of norms of morality and ethics and erase national traditions.”

Russia, Olympics, and Homosexuality

Russia’s law on homosexual propaganda is thus best understood as the result of a way of thinking dating back to the nineteenth century which puts a much smaller emphasis on individual autonomy and a much greater emphasis on social solidarity and the importance of tradition than Western society.

Understanding the roots of the Russian government’s policies, whether on homosexuality, adoption, or still broader issues of political dissent, will not end the very real disagreements between Putin’s regime and many in the West. But it might help the two sides stop talking past one another.

For Russia in 2014, much like China in 2008, the Olympics are meant to be a celebratory party, a means of showing national power and prosperity through shining new stadiums and athletic triumphs.

The glittering image that Putin wishes to display to both domestic and foreign audiences has already been tarnished—for Russians, by extensive corruption and for the West, by laws targeting a persecuted minority. The ever-present threat of terrorist attacks on the Olympics themselves, or indeed anywhere in Russia, makes Putin’s predicament far worse.

Seeking to avoid anything resembling the political turmoil in neighboring Ukraine, Putin hopes for an uneventful two weeks in Sochi and a solid showing by the Russian Olympic team to salvage some glory and win an Olympic victory. So far, so good.