When the First Couple of the United States traveled to Moscow to secure the release of an American activist jailed under Russia’s gay propaganda laws, the campaigner upset their plans. He hanged himself in his cell rather than publicly apologize for protesting, though not before he told the First Lady about dozens of incarcerated Russian comrades on hunger strike.

That, at least, was how the scriptwriters of Netflix’s “House of Cards” portrayed the impact of anti-gay legislation in Russia.

The 2012 law, which is ostensibly aimed at protecting children from “gay propaganda”, became a cause célèbre in the US and Europe. Coupled with the jailing of members of the punk band Pussy Riot, it left little space for anything else in the Western media’s coverage of Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meanwhile initiated a crackdown on organized political dissent, quietly but effectively suppressing the protest movement that had flared up in December 2011.

The Union of Solidarity with Political Prisoners lists 59 people currently in prison or under house arrest, and 297 who have been subject to politically motivated prosecution under criminal law since 2008. The list of prisoners includes nationalists, left-wingers, liberals, Islamists, pro-Ukrainian activists, environmentalists, bloggers and many others, but no one has yet been prosecuted specifically for LGBT activism.

Russia’s LGBT activists have undoubtedly suffered under Putin. But rather than helping them, media hype in the West might have helped the Kremlin to obscure the broader picture of political repression.

Nikolay Kavkazsky is that rare breed — an LGBT activist who has seen the inside of a Russian prison. He spent 12 months in a remand cell with three other inmates in 2012, and was declared by Amnesty International to be a prisoner of conscience. Yet there have been no profiles of him in the Western media, because it was not Kavkazsky’s sexuality that incurred the wrath of the state.

Kavkazsky took part in the Bolotnaya movement — a series of massive protests in Moscow that began in December 2011, prompted by Putin’s decision to run for president for the third time. The demonstrations came to a head on May 6, 2012, the day before Putin was due to be inaugurated.

The May 6 march was heading for Bolotnaya Square, which sits on a river island opposite the Kremlin. Reflecting the fact the anti-Putin opposition encompassed a broad spectrum of forces, the protesters divided themselves into columns, each representing a specific political flank. There were left-wingers waving red flags, nationalists clad in black uniforms, anarchists wearing balaclavas and the considerably more numerous liberals, sporting white ribbons, which became synonymous with the protest.

Kavkazsky joined a small column that went under rainbow flags at the rearguard of the march. It was comprised of LGBT activists, feminists and supporters of Pussy Riot, who had been arrested two months earlier. Russia’s small LGBT movement was divided at the time. Its most prominent leader, Nikolay Alekseyev, chose not to participate in Bolotnaya movement. But other, mostly left-wing LGBT activists, such as Kavkazsky, were enthusiastic.

House of Cards, scene in Russian prison.

Shortly before they started moving, the march abruptly stopped. They were stuck for a good hour. Kavkazsky eventually went to investigate. When he made it to Bolotnaya Square, he saw riot police brutally dispersing the crowd and detaining people in the dozens. “They started beating people up,” he recalls. “I could not watch it idly, so I approached the police and asked them to stop their illegal actions.” A riot policeman responded by hitting him with a baton. Kavkazsky claims that at this point he raised his leg to protect himself, an episode that was captured on police camera and later used to charge him with attacking the police.

The suppression of the May 6 demonstration was extensively reported on by the Western media, but they were less good at covering what happened next. For Kavkazky, life continued as normal until July 25, when he went shopping and got arrested by agents from the Interior Ministry’s Centre E Directorate (the E stands for “extremism”).

According to Kavkazsky, the man who arrested him was agent Aleksey Okopny, a legendary personality known to virtually every full-time opposition activist in Moscow for his thuggish, heavy-handed style. “He didn’t threaten me directly, but he told me how he had beaten up and tortured people,” Kavkazsky says. “Guess he hinted that I was facing the same if I didn’t cooperate.” The list of prisoners includes nationalists, left-wingers, liberals, Islamists, pro-Ukrainian activists, environmentalists, bloggers and many others, but no one has yet been prosecuted specifically for LGBT activism.

Many of the May 6 protesters were arrested around the same time. The selection of the prisoners seemed quite random. There were activists of all shades as well as those who had never attended a protest before in their life. Charges were almost entirely based on police video and contradictory testimonies by riot policemen, who often appeared to see the defendants for the first time in their lives.

Kavkazky says the agent who arrested him threatened to have him put in to a so-called rooster cell, where the victims of prison rape are cloistered “since I was a gay activist.”

But this never came to pass, and the interrogators he subsequently dealt with didn’t seem to have had a problem with his LGBT activism, which he discussed with them.

“They sometimes argued with me, sometimes agreed. They were respectful and didn’t threaten me in any way,” he recalls. Almost as surprisingly, his fellow prisoners didn’t give him any problems for his LGBT activism.

34 people were prosecuted in the Bolotnaya Square case, of which 21 spent between one and three years in prison.

Kavkazky has since been released on amnesty, but seven Bolotnaya prisoners are still serving sentences or awaiting trial. The investigation is far from over — the last arrest in the case took place last December. One of the Bolotnaya prisoners, left-winger Leonid Razvozzhayev, was kidnapped in Ukraine and brought over to Russia, where he claims he was tortured.

The gay propaganda laws, by contrast, have sent no one to prison. While the “House of Cards” scriptwriters were busily spinning hunger-strike scenarios, the most any individual faced from the law was a fine of 5,000 roubles (around $67). For legal entities, such as TV stations or cinemas, it is one million roubles ($13,300).

According to Andrey Obolensky of Rainbow Association, which monitors anti-LGBT discrimination, only a handful of activists have even been fined so far, though the laws have been used to shut some organizations down as well as to fire several school teachers involved in LGBT activism.

Sporting long hair and a flamboyant, multicolored scarf, Obolensky appears to be celebrating rather than concealing his identity. But even he must be cautious. He doesn’t like people to know where his office is.

Obolensky says that rather than unleashing a wave of repression from the authorities, the adoption of the anti-gay law altered the atmosphere in society, prompting more homophobic rhetoric, discrimination and violent attacks on pro-LGBT protesters by thugs from organizations linked to the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.

“Hatred is being incited and the attitude of society has changed to worse,” he said.

Real though these concerns are, they have had a disproportionate influence on Western media coverage. Over a thousand stories were published on the New York Times website including the words “Russia” and “gay” between 2011 and the time of writing, while items featuring the word “Bolotnaya” number just 67. The ratio is 945 against six on CNN’s website. Certain issues, Putin has learned, can bump the suppression of dissent off the news agenda no matter how marginal their actual impact.

It’s doubtful that those who first started playing the LGBT card realized the extent of its usefulness. The first anti-gay initiatives emerged in September 2011, when Putin decided to run for president for the third time. His popularity was at a record low. He was expected to engage the socially conservative part of the electorate at the expense of the liberals, who didn’t want him back.

A law banning gay propaganda was adopted in the northern Arkhangelsk region four days after Putin announced he was running. On November 16, the city of St. Petersburg adopted a similar law, which caused an angry reaction in the Western media. But it took another few tumultuous months before the Kremlin made the LGBT issue a cornerstone of its domestic political strategy.

In November 2011, Putin’s long-time ally Vladimir Yakunin, who headed Russian Railways at the time, took an ancient Christian Orthodox relic known as the Virgin’s Belt and kept in a Greek monastery on Mt Athos, on a tour of Russia. As it reached Moscow, around a million people braved the bitter cold weather, queuing for up to eight hours only to spend a few seconds marvelling at it inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

The parliamentary election took place just a few days later, on December 4. Monitors representing anti-Putin groups uncovered gross violations, including ballot stuffing and people being bussed from one polling station to another in order to vote multiple times. The outcry on social networks sparked a series of rallies, most of which took place in Bolotnaya Square (where Kavkazky would find himself in the midst of a crackdown six months later).

Unprecedented though they were, these rallies were drawing no more than 100,000 people — a far cry from the conservative crowd that lined up to see the religious relic just across the river. It was immediately evident which ideological paradigm served as a better tool of mobilization. A war of values was born. Real though these concerns are, they have had a disproportionate influence on Western media coverage. Over a thousand stories were published on the New York Times website including the words ‘Russia’ and ‘gay’ between 2011 and the time of writing, while items featuring the word ‘Bolotnaya’ number just 67.

Putin set the narrative for his propaganda machine by hinting that all of the people in Bolotnaya Square were gay activists. During a live broadcast on December 15, he mentioned the white ribbons which became the movement’s insignia: “I thought it was some kind of an anti-HIV campaign, that they were contraceptives.”

Pussy Riot crystallized Putin’s strategy. The previously obscure all-female collective shot to fame in January 2012 by directly insulting the president in a song called “Putin Wet Himself,” which suggested that the protests made him panic. The government chose to ignore it.

But in February, Pussy Riot stormed the cathedral the Greek relic had been displayed in and sang a song called “God’s mother, get rid of Putin.” The authorities decided to arrest them. The stunt created reams of outstandingly rich material for the Kremlin’s public relations war.

Images of one of their earlier protest actions, in which they imitated sex inside a museum, were splashed across the pro Kremlin tabloid media. Words like “sacrilege” and “blasphemy” interspersed with juicy images filled TV broadcasts and newspapers. A poll conducted by the independent research organization Levada Centre at the end of the same month showed that 46% of Russians approved of them being jailed for anything between two and seven years, as envisaged by the Russian criminal code.

It was at that time that a federal law banning gay propaganda was introduced in Russia’s State Duma, prompting an uproar in the West that rendered the standoff between Putin and democratic opposition insignificant by comparison. The wording of the draft and the very notion of gay propaganda seemed so vague that many at the time wondered how the law would even be enforced after adoption.

Kirill Petrov, a Russian political expert who works at Minchenko Consulting, a group that advises many pro-Kremlin clients, describes such laws as “heat flares” — the infrared devices that warplanes fire to avoid being shot by missiles. “It’s a routine practice,” he says. “A law comes up, which on the face of it makes no sense and can’t really be implemented, but it helps to cover up something more significant, such as an unpopular economic measure or a political protest.”

Photo by Pascal Dumont

Not all of the pro-Kremlin MPs saw the point of the law. “We are discussing issues that provoke mass interest because they have to do with physiology. I don’t think they should be our priority,” MP Vladimir Ovsyannikov said during the debates.

The mass interest only grew. It took almost a year for the Duma to pass the anti-gay legislation (infinitely more than other repressive laws), with every new step in the discussion creating furore in both Russian and Western media. Public figures from Madonna to Elton John joined in the chorus condemning Russia’s treatment of gays. Media coverage of the issue reached its peak in the run up to Putin’s showcase 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Such was the fervor of the atmosphere that some Western gay athletes feared for their safety, much to the bemusement of Russians.

Political protests carried on throughout this time, but seemed to be losing momentum. People were intimidated by a whole host of new laws clamping down on political dissent. The trials of the Bolotnaya prisoners played out unglamourously.

Maria Baronova, once an unofficial spokesperson for the protest movement who narrowly avoided imprisonment in the Bolotnaya case, says the fuss over the gay propaganda law was largely spurred by domestic agendas in the US and Europe. “Putin fitted neatly into the image of the bad foreign guy who hates the gays,” she says. Baronova is pro-LGBT and was actively involved in defending Pussy Riot.

The relationship between Putin and gay rights advocates in the West is a piece of political theater worthy of “House of Cards”.

Left out of the script are the real political prisoners, people like Ildar Dadin. Last December, Dadin was sentenced under the new draconian law on public assemblies to three years in prison for a series of one-man protests against the war in Ukraine and suppression of the opposition. He also happens to be an LGBT activist, but this is irrelevant to his imprisonment. Will Madonna and Elton John speak out for him?