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Ahead of Olympics, Russia's mixed message on gays

By Laura Mills

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 27 2013 6:36 a.m. MST

In this Saturday, June 29, 2013, file photo, riot police guard gay rights activists who were beaten by anti-gay protesters during an authorized gay rights rally in St. Petersburg, Russia. With the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi set to start in February, Russia has trotted out well-groomed representatives to tell the West that a law passed this summer banning homosexual “propaganda” does not discriminate against gays. Meanwhile, the Russian government has doubled down on the anti-LGBT rhetoric at home, unifying its fraying electoral base with a popular refrain of traditional values.

Dmitry Lovetsky, File, Associated Press

MOSCOW — Anyone who switched on Russian TV recently might have been forgiven for thinking the Kremlin was relaxing its hard line on gays: Images of rainbow flags and a happy same-sex couple looking adoringly at their child flashed across the screen.

But the show, with its horror film music and juddering camera work, was another swipe at the gay community — not a gust of tolerance. The force behind it is one of Russia's top propagandists, whose programs have helped to bring criminal charges against others on President Vladimir Putin's unofficial black list.

The primetime broadcast on state television points to the double-game the Kremlin is playing on gay rights.

To the West, Russia has sought to extend reassurances as it prepares to host the Winter Olympics that a law passed this summer banning homosexual "propaganda" does not discriminate against gays. To its domestic audience, the government has ramped up the anti-gay rhetoric, unifying its fraying electoral base with a popular refrain of traditional values.

The TV show by Arkady Mamontov — who made his name by taking a hatchet to punk rock group Pussy Riot and other opposition activists — is the latest example of Russia's unwillingness to back down from its legislative crackdown on gays. Champions of the law melted away when Western outrage reached a peak over the summer — but they are now back in force on national airwaves.

Mamontov told a live studio audience that the scenes he filmed should be a warning "that we have to save the family, traditions, traditional love, or otherwise we'll be hit by something bigger than the Chelyabinsk meteorite" that fell on Russia in February.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists filmed for the show were carefully edited to make them seem alternately corrupt, subversive, demonic or laughably inept. One shot created an awkward juxtaposition of a gay activist with a poster of Che Guevara, a none-too-subtle attempt to portray the activist as a trouble-maker.

Mamontov uses their stories to drive home a sinister message: Gay organizations, funded almost exclusively by money from abroad, are Trojan horses that will give the West control over Russia from within.

One scene shows behind-doors recordings of Igor Kochetkov, chairman of the Russian LGBT Network, in which he thanks Western sponsors for their support in what is supposedly a closed meeting for groups supported by the Open Society, a foundation established by the U.S. philanthropist, George Soros. Mamontov's crew spins the bland speech as evidence that the LGBT movement is funneling vast funds from the West, with very little indication of how the money is being spent.

The thesis is simple: Much in the same way Jews in Soviet times were portrayed as pawns of foreign capitalist culture, gays are being presented as spreading homosexuality — in what Mamontov dubs the "LGBT-zation" of Russia — in a drive to push a foreign agenda.

"I believe that an influential (gay) minority is holding the governments of Germany, France, England and Holland by the throat and telling them: Do this, do that," he said at the program's opening. "Normalcy is already in the opposition."

But Mamontov isn't just an ordinary pundit: The material dug up for his shows has in the past landed people in jail.

A member of a leftist opposition group was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison, while two other group members each face up to 10 years behind bars, after a 2012 program showed what it claimed to be footage of the three men accepting money from a foreign government official.

LGBT groups could come under similar legal fire.

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