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.
A 2012 law requires any NGO receiving foreign funding and engaging in political activity to register as "foreign agents," in a country where that term means spy. Any organization failing to do so can be subject to heavy fines and jail time for its leaders. The law places gay NGOs on perilous ground, in particular because many have contacts with fellow groups abroad because of limited funding within Russia.
LGBT rights activists requested permission to hold a protest over the program outside Moscow's television tower, a symbol of state television. The request was rejected by the mayor's office, who said the application violated the gay propaganda law.
Pavel Astakhov, Russia's ombudsman for children's rights, said last week that anyone promoting the rights of single-sex families should be "made outcasts, damned for centuries as destroyers of the family and of human kind."
Statements like these play an outsized role in public perceptions about gays in Russia, where polls show that the vast majority of the population says they don't have a single LGBT acquaintance.
"In order to make people interested in the government, it chose what it thinks are topics close to the people, like this one (the gay issue)," said Anton Krasovsky, a journalist who was fired after he came out as gay on air at a Kremlin-controlled TV station.
At the same time, Russia is trying to win back credit in the international arena ahead of the Sochi Olympics.
"There is always Russia for Russians and then Russia for the West," said Krasovsky. "It's important to look at what (Russian officials) are doing on the domestic market."
The head of the Sochi organizing committee, Dmitry Chernyshenko, has assured American television audiences and members of the International Olympic Committee that there will be no discrimination against gay athletes during the Winter Games in February.
In an interview with Russian daily RBK last week, Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko repeated his support for the anti-gay law, expressing regret only that it had been passed before the games.
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"Perhaps the government ought to have postponed the inclusion of a ban on homosexual propaganda in this law," he said in the interview. "It was easy to predict the resonance it would have in the West, particularly ahead of the Sochi Olympics."
Putin himself has presented conflicting messages on the gay law.
"We should not create any xenophobia in society ... against anyone whatsoever, including against people of non-traditional sexual orientation," he said last week.
But he reaffirmed his support for the law, which he said was designed to protect children.