(CNN) -- Russia will host the Winter Olympics in Sochi in six months. But what should be a good news story has instead thrust Moscow's recently passed anti-gay propaganda law into the headlines.
Gay rights campaigners have drawn parallels between Moscow's actions and Nazi Germany's persecution of Jews or apartheid in South Africa.
Protests have ranged from bars dumping Russian vodka to calls from some quarters for a boycott of the Games themselves.
U.S. President Barack Obama has even stepped into the fray, saying on Friday at a White House news conference that "nobody's more offended than me" by anti-gay legislation "you've been seeing in Russia."
Meanwhile, Russia insists that its law barring "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors" is not discriminatory but is intended to protect children.
So what is behind what critics say is a concerted crackdown on Russia's lesbian, gay and transgender community?
Boris Dittrich, who leads Human Rights Watch's advocacy efforts on LGBT rights around the world, points to a combination of factors -- with political expediency, ignorance and religion all in the mix.
"There are always elections coming up in Russia and it makes politicians popular to look for a scapegoat," he said. "LGBT people are a scapegoat because people don't know much about LGBT -- they mix it up with pedophilia, bestiality or even think it has something to do with the devil."
'Paying the price'
The situation is not helped by the Russian Orthodox Church, which spreads misinformation about the gay community, Dittrich said.
Added to this, "there are not many openly gay or lesbian people in Russian society, so there's not really role models" for people to judge by, he said.
As for Russia's president, Dittrich considers that Vladimir Putin makes use of the issue to differentiate himself from the West.
While there is a growing acceptance toward the LGBT community in the United States and other countries, Dittich said, "this is something he uses to say 'Russians are different' and the LGBT people in Russia pay the price for that."
The anti-gay propaganda law, passed overwhelmingly in parliament and signed off by Putin, bans the public discussion of gay rights and relationships anywhere children might hear it. Those found in breach of it can be fined and, if they are foreign, deported.
Critics say the law is so vaguely defined that it can be used to prosecute someone just for wearing a rainbow T-shirt or holding hands with someone of the same sex in public. Amnesty International has condemned it as an "affront to freedom of expression and an attack on minority rights."
Polls: Widespread homophobia
There's no doubt that protest efforts against the law are gaining international traction.
Gay rights campaign group All Out presented a 320,000-signature petition calling for repeal of the law to the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland this week -- and pressed their case with senior IOC staff.
Speaking Friday in Moscow, IOC President Jacques Rogge said the committee had received a written assurance from the Russian government that the anti-gay propaganda law would not be applied to visitors to Sochi -- but that "there are still uncertainties" which need further clarification.
"We are waiting for this clarification before having final judgment on these reassurances," he said.
"The Olympic charter is very clear: it says that sport is a human right and it should be available to all, regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation and the Games themselves should be open to all, free of discrimination. So our position is very clear."
But within Russia, debate on the issue of gay rights is muted -- and barely heard outside the big cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
This may reflect what polling indicates is a wide rejection of homosexuality within Russian society.
Almost three-quarters of Russians said homosexuality should not be accepted by society, while just 16% said it should be accepted, a recent Pew Research Center survey of global attitudes revealed.
By comparison, 33% of people surveyed in the United States said homosexuality should not be accepted by society, while 60% said it should. In Britain, only 18% did not favor accepting homosexuality, with 76% saying it should be accepted.
Professor Dan Healey of Oxford University says Russia's modern homophobic attitudes have their origins in a Stalinist-era law -- but that today's politicians seem happy to exploit them for their own ends.
"It's Stalin who recriminalized male homosexuality about 80 years ago and that created a kind of atmosphere where first of all at least 26,000 and probably more like 50,000 gay men were arrested over the lifetime of that law -- and it lasted 60 years," he said.
Stalin's gulags also played a part, Healey said. "Because of the forced labor camps that 20 million Russians went through, a lot of people witnessed or experienced coercive same sex relationships and that has had a kind of cumulative effect on people's views of homosexuality," he said.
Under the law brought in under Stalin, "even voluntary male homosexual relations were punishable by between five and eight years in prison -- that's without the use of force or the abuse of a minor."
Male homosexuality was only decriminalized in Russia in 1993, under former President Boris Yeltsin, Healey said. But the problem was that no public discussion was held about the scrapping of the law, done to bring Russia's legal systems into line with European standards.
At the time, the public was more worried about the economy, Healey said. But since Putin first came to power in 2000 and with a return to economic growth, there's been "a turn towards conservative nationalism to try to stabilize the Russian state."
Against this backdrop, the broad vein of homophobia running through Russian society becomes a powerful political tool.
"Official homophobia is being used by the Putin leadership as a way of distracting public attention away from the fact that the economy is actually slowing down drastically," Healey suggests.
"Growth has dropped from about 4% per annum to only 1.5% this year and the ruble is dropping against world currencies, so there are concerns about dissatisfaction in the public. I think this is one way of distracting people from this -- by engaging in a kind of culture war."
Like Dittrich, he believes that Russia's leaders are trying to tap into this homophobic sentiment in order to differentiate Russia against Europe and the West, and strengthen their own hold on power.
"It's kind of a deliberate strategy to define Russia against Europe and against the West more generally, as a repository of 'traditional values,'" he said.
Putin has also brought his power base closer to the Russian Orthodox Church, Healey said, allowing conservative nationalists to harness the language of religion for discussion of political issues.
All this means that campaigners who seek to bring international pressure to bear on Russia over gay rights at the Sochi Olympics may risk playing into Putin's hands.
But, Healey said, there are powerful people within Russia who are more liberal and will seek to counter this push away from Europe and its values.
So far, Moscow has shown no signs of giving way to outside pressure. Russia's government rejects the view that the anti-gay propaganda law, as well as another law barring adoption of Russian children by gays in any country, are discriminatory.
Minister for Sport Vitaly Mutko, speaking in Moscow Thursday, insisted visitors to Sochi had nothing to fear from the anti-gay propaganda law, which came into force only a few weeks ago.
"I'd like to calm everyone down," he said. "There's a constitution of the Russian Federation apart from this law that guarantees the citizens the right for a private life and guarantees noninterference in private life.
"This law is not designed to violate people's rights no matter what country they are from, whatever their religion or their sexuality. This law is designed to ban the propaganda among minors."
But gay rights campaigners cite the ugly reality of the abuse inflicted on Russia's LGBT citizens, with the authorities apparently turning a blind eye, as a counterpoint to that argument.
Dittrich recalls attending a Gay Pride march in Moscow in which the participants were beaten up by neo-Nazis and others, some of them paid to disrupt the event. "Russian grandmothers there were throwing eggs, there were swearing priests with crosses and hooligans, neo-Nazis," he said. "The Russian police didn't interfere."
When they do, Dittrich added, it's usually to arrest the demonstrators, not their aggressors.
While it's too early really to assess the national impact of the anti-gay propaganda law, Healey said, the debate around it has "mobilized and animated homophobic groups like skinheads and vigilantes who associate themselves with Russian Orthodoxy to actually violently assault and otherwise harm LGBT people physically."
And Human Rights Watch is not just concerned about the impact of the recent legislation on the gay community in Russia.
"Russia is very influential," said Dittrich. "We see these laws are being copied in Africa now." He cites moves made in Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria and Zambia as being of concern, as well as in former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Moldova.
So will all the vodka boycotts and calls for Russia to lose the Winter Olympics have any effect on this rising tide of homophobia?
Maybe, says Healey.
This is because the Olympics carry a special symbolism -- in part because of the role they played in the fight against apartheid. Many Russian businessmen also have large financial interests in the Sochi Games.
"I think the outcry, and the targeting of Sochi, is probably giving the Russian government pause and they are thinking about how to deal with this issue in the longer run," said Healey.
"I hope they are trying to think about the prospects for LGBT citizens in Russia. They have LGBT citizens in Russia and they have to live with them -- they can't really expel them all unless they really want to imitate Nazi Germany."
By contrast, the World Athletics Championships, staged by the International Association of Athletics Federations, start Saturday in Moscow but have not attracted the same level of protest -- despite IAAF president Lamine Diack saying Thursday that Russia's anti-gay laws are "no problem whatsoever."
With the symbolism of the Olympics in mind, some gay athletes insist the Games must go ahead in Sochi.
"I'm fully against a boycott," New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup told CNN. "The Olympics have been very important to me and I know that a lot of people like myself have worked very hard for these Games.
"It's very important for the world to show up in Sochi and be united in this issue, to bring light to and start a conversation about what is going on."
U.S. figure skater Johnny Weir, who is married to a Russian-American man, says the flamboyant nature of his sport means that he can make a stance in Sochi.
"I'm quite well known in Russia, so my sheer presence is a big statement against this anti-propaganda law," he told CNN.
Even Obama doesn't think a boycott is a good idea.
"One of the things I'm really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which would, I think, go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we're seeing there. And if Russia doesn't have gay or lesbian athletes, then it'll probably make their team weaker," he said.
'I weep anew'
Meanwhile, rights groups and activists are unlikely to let Russia's treatment of its gay community fade from the spotlight.
Some of the most powerful words have come from British actor Stephen Fry, who wrote an open letter to his country's prime minister David Cameron, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge and London 2012 chief Sebastian Coe asking for the Olympics to be taken away from Russia.
Putin, he says, "is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews. He cannot be allowed to get away with it ... I am gay. I am a Jew. My mother lost over a dozen of her family to Hitler's anti-Semitism.
"Every time in Russia (and it is constantly) a gay teenager is forced into suicide, a lesbian 'correctively' raped, gay men and women beaten to death by neo-Nazi thugs while the Russian police stand idly by, the world is diminished and I for one, weep anew at seeing history repeat itself."
CNN's Gary Morley and Tom McGowan contributed to this report.