This post contains spoilers from Season 3 of House of Cards — in particular, episodes 3 (“Chapter 29”) and 6 (“Chapter 32”).
House of Cards’ third season went live on Netflix just a week ago, and like its predecessors, the new season imagines a fantastical political reality where Democratic presidents can preach about cutting entitlements without much scrutiny, debate participants can ignore the rules and spar with each other, and Congress would allow a president to recess-appoint his spouse to a vital ambassadorship. But for all the outrageous things that happen on the show, this season actually got at least one thing borrowed from the real world quite right: Russia’s law banning “gay propaganda” — i.e. any public statements in favor of LGBT rights.
Most of the plot devices House of Cards employs feel more like the politically-bonkers twists found on Scandal — if more sinister, or at least less pulpy — than the “ripped from the headlines” stories on The Good Wife. But for the subplot about Russia’s anti-gay laws, the show even borrowed real-world activists to set things up: Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina of Pussy Riot, who are featured in the third episode.
The “chapter” opens with LGBT rights protesters outside the White House as President Underwood prepares to welcome a visit from Russian President Viktor Petrov, the show’s Vladimir Putin surrogate. “Vicktor Petrov! Fascist jerk-off!” they chant, as a bullhorn-equipped leader implores Petrov to “Stop imprisoning people simply because they’re gay!” Later, as Petrov arrives, the chant has changed to “Two people, in love, will never be defeated!”
These protests mirror real-life protests that took place around the world, largely in 2013 during the lead-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. In New York, for example, gay bar owners dumped out Russian vodka in front of the Russian consulate as part of a planned boycott. When Putin visited Amsterdam, the city council decked the street with rainbow flags. Putin went on to ban all protests and demonstrations near where the Olympics took place.
Though it’s unrealistic that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina would be invited to a state dinner and then pose for friendly pictures with Putin, they do just that with Petrov. During the dinner, however, they (unsurprisingly) stage their own protest in the form of a toast to Petrov, saying among other things that he is “so open to criticism that most of his critics are in prison,” and in a line not translated in the episode, that he is a “commander-in-chief who is not afraid of anyone except gays.” They dump their drinks and leave.
The end credits of that episode feature a Pussy Riot music video, written and filmed just for House of Cards. The video shows LGBT activists wearing “STOP PETROV” shirts as Pussy Riot performs. Though the lyrics of “Don’t Cry Genocide” focus mostly on drones and the patriarchal power structure of Russia, the song does include the line, “Does love make you soft? Will art turn you gay? Would peace make you poor? OK OK OK OK.” This follows the punk feminists’ first English-language song, “I Can’t Breathe,” which was released last month in tribute to Eric Garner.
The toast’s reference to Petrov imprisoning his enemies, aside from clearly referencing Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina’s own time spent in jail because of their protesting, foreshadows the story line that picks up in the sixth episode. The Underwoods fly to Russia to, among other things, secure the release of American gay activist Michael Corrigan, who was arrested in Russia for protesting its anti-gay laws. First Lady and United Nations Ambassador Claire Underwood is tasked with informing him that a condition for his release is the reading of a statement:
I, Michael Corrigan, apologize to the citizens of the Russian Federation for breaking your laws. I regret my part in exposing minors to nontraditional sexual attitudes. I am grateful to President Petrov for the clemency my release demonstrates, and for allowing me to return to the United States.
The statement reflects the very kind of rhetoric that Putin and other Russian officials have used to justify the “gay propaganda” law. During the height of the Olympic-related boycotts, Russian government-controlled media defended the law with the very same claim that it protects minors. Beyond the “propaganda” law, Russian lawmakers have also proposed bans on giving gays and lesbians custody of their own biological children and on using surrogacy to have children — all similarly premised on the idea that children need to be protected from homosexuality. Russia’s highest court actually upheld the law as constitutional because it effectively “protects motherhood, childhood, and family.”
Corrigan refuses to make the statement, despite Claire’s determination not to leave until he can come with her. At one point, he challenges the idea that she’d make the same statement. “You’d thank a man who says you’re dangerous to children?” he asks. “You don’t have to mean it, you just have to say it,” she pleads in return, thinking only of his individual life, not the movement he stands for.
In their own separate meeting, Petrov admits to Frank that he doesn’t actually support the law. “I don’t believe in it,” he concedes, explaining he has gay cabinet officials and family members. “Personally, I don’t care.” (Ironically, despite being seemingly bisexual, Frank refuses to speak out on LGBT rights.) But Petrov insists nevertheless that the “barbaric” law is important to defend in Russia because of the people’s passion for religion and tradition. Indeed, a real-world Pew Poll found in 2013 that 74 percent of Russians don’t think homosexuality should be accepted by society.
It’s impossible to discern if Putin is as two-faced on the bill as Petrov, but there is a similarity in the way his public statements on Russia’s anti-gay laws tend not to focus on their actual merits, but on Russia’s conservative culture overall. He once suggested that “Europeans are dying out” because “gay marriages don’t produce children.” On another occasion, he claimed that his country wasn’t homophobic because they enjoy the music of Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who was gay — and may have committed suicide after being persecuted for it.
Claire fails to persuade Corrigan to agree to the terms, and after his death by suicide using her scarf, she demonstrates that it was he who actually persuaded her. During a press conference alongside Petrov, she speaks on behalf of his cause. “He refused, because he didn’t want to leave until the law was repealed,” she confesses, “until the Russians who were arrested for the same crime were also released. Michael was willing to die for what he believed in. He was brave, and his voice deserves to be heard. If it weren’t for this unjust law, and ignorance and intolerance of your government, Michael would still be with us. Shame on you, Mr. President.” This sets up Claire’s conflict with Frank throughout the rest of the season, and the “gay propaganda” plot line basically ends there.
Washington Post foreign affairs blogger Adam Taylor took issue with House of Cards’ portrayal of Russia overall — and reasonably so — but unfairly dismissed the “gay propaganda” story line as untimely, reflecting “the limitations of lag between writing and airing the show.” But if anything, the show rightfully highlights how the crisis is ongoing for LGBT Russians in spite of the fact that in the wake of the Olympics, the law is no longer receiving the same kind of international intention. During their conversation in his cell, Corrigan tells Claire about how his arrest received a lot of press, but the dozens of Russians who were arrested with him did not. One died after a 28-day food strike, but it was Corrigan’s six-day food strike that got attention.
Besides, Russia continues to advance anti-gay policies, and its “gay propaganda” law still reverberates elsewhere. Just last month, Kazakhstan’s Senate passed its own version of the law, similarly designed to “protect” children from learning about homosexuality. Supporters of LGBT rights continue to experience persecution in Russia, and the country also is attempting to block benefits for the families of gay United Nations employees.
House of Cards not only got the “gay propaganda” story quite right, but it served as an effective reminder that Russia’s anti-gay policies didn’t end with Sochi Olympics.