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Russia Bans Image 'Hinting' That Putin Is Gay

Protesters wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin wearing makeup pretend to kiss as they take part in a demonstration against what they see as Rusian laws that discriminate against the LGBT community outside the Russian Embassy in London in 2014.

Critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin have long lampooned him with altered photographs that circulate widely on the Internet, many of which mock the macho photo-ops that he is renowned for.

But publishing a retouched photograph of Putin's face made up in drag -- suggesting he is gay -- could now have serious consequences.

Russia has officially banned a photoshopped image showing Putin wearing heavy makeup that authorities say hints at his "alleged nonstandard sexual orientation" and also appears to have included a common slur for gay men.

The Russian Justice Ministry on March 30 included the image in its federal list of banned "extremist materials" based on May 2016 ruling by a court in the central city of Tver.

The ruling stemmed from a criminal case against a man named Aleksandr Tsvetkov, who was accused of stoking hate speech by posting the photograph of Putin in makeup on the popular Russian social-networking site Vkontakte.

Tsvetkov was also charged in connection with other images, including openly racist and anti-immigrant ones, posted on his Vkontakte account, which was later suspended.

Neither the Tver court ruling nor the Justice Ministry specify which image of Putin wearing makeup was posted by Tsvetkov, who was granted relief from criminal liability and later ordered to be placed in psychiatric care.

As noted by the Russian website TJ Journal, the first news organization to flag the Justice Ministry's designation, numerous such images of Putin have circulated on the Internet for years. Some show him together with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is also shown wearing makeup.

The banned image featured a person "resembling" Putin "with makeup on his face -- painted eyelashes and lips, which, as envisioned by the author ... should serve as a hint at the alleged nonstandard sexual orientation of the president of the Russian Federation," the Justice Ministry said in its designation, repeating the language of the Tver court.

The image was accompanied by a caption that appeared to use a homophobic slur to compare Putin's "voters" with LGBT people, adding "they say there are a lot of them, but I don't know any."

The pejorative was redacted in the court ruling, but phrasing in the caption is consistent with an Internet meme that uses a slur against gay people.

Neither the Tver court's ruling nor the Justice Ministry designation indicates whether the photograph of Putin or the caption was the determining factor in deeming the image illegal.

Russian authorities have moved to aggressively squelch what they call "extremist" material online in recent years, according to rights advocates and activists who track hate-speech cases.

Critics of the crackdown say it targets not only racist hate speech but also legitimate political speech that is protected by the constitution.

Putin has also been denounced for signing laws that his liberal opponents call openly homophobic, including a 2013 law that bans the spreading of "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" among minors.

Putin says the legislation, commonly known as the "gay propaganda" law, is aimed at protecting children but does not infringe on LGBT rights.

Rights watchdogs say the law has bolstered a sense of impunity among right-wing groups who carry out acts of violence against LGBT people.

Many ultranationalists accuse Putin and his government of being too tolerant of minority groups. They also frequently espouse views Tsvetkov appeared to endorse with the now-banned images -- including the one showing Putin in makeup -- that he posted on Vkontakte.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.