MADRID, SPAIN - AUGUST 23:  A protestor holds up an image representing Russian President Vladimir Putin wearing lipstick during a protest against Russian anti-gay laws opposite the Russian embassy on August 23, 2013 in Madrid, Spain. Gay protestors are protesting Russia's new anti-gay laws and demanding the cancellation of the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics scheduled to be held in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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MADRID, SPAIN - AUGUST 23: A protestor holds up an image representing Russian President Vladimir Putin wearing lipstick during a protest against Russian anti-gay laws opposite the Russian embassy on August 23, 2013 in Madrid, Spain. Gay protestors are protesting Russia's new anti-gay laws and demanding the cancellation of the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics scheduled to be held in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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Story highlights

Images of Vladimir Putin in makeup have been shared online since 2011

Prison and fine among punishments for those distributing, retweeting or sharing images

(CNN) —  

It is now illegal in Russia to distribute any images that depict President Vladimir Putin wearing makeup and implying he is gay.

The Justice Ministry in Moscow has included one of them among a registry of “extremist materials,” along with others such as anti-Semitic and racist pictures and slogans.

The punishment for offenders who distribute, retweet or share the image is 15 days in prison or a fine of 3,000 rubles ($53).

Protesters have used such images of Putin to oppose Russia's anti-gay laws.
Denis Doyle/Getty Images
Protesters have used such images of Putin to oppose Russia's anti-gay laws.

Images of Putin, often with rouged cheeks and eye shadow, have been online since 2011 – and have had much wider circulation since 2013 in protest over what became known as Russia’s gay propaganda law. They are widely known online as the “gay clown” meme – although not all the images resemble clowns.

The law, which describes homosexuality as “non-traditional sexual relations,” bars the public discussion of gay rights and relationships anywhere children might hear it. It has been fiercely opposed by gay rights groups in Russia and beyond as well as by other human rights groups and the political opposition in Russia.

The circulation of the images first came before the courts last year in Tver, a city northwest of Moscow.

A protester holds up an image of Putin wearing lipstick in Madrid in 2013.
Denis Doyle/Getty Images/File
A protester holds up an image of Putin wearing lipstick in Madrid in 2013.

A man called Alexander Tsvetkov was charged with incitement of hatred or enmity for sharing several images on his VK social media page. VK is the Russian equivalent of Facebook.

The images featured hostile postings about immigrants and soldiers in Nazi uniform. But they also included what the court described as “a poster with the image of a man resembling the president of the Russian Federation V.V. Putin, wearing face makeup – painted eyelashes and lips.”

The court added that, according to Tsvetkov, the image hints at “an allegedly non-standard sexual orientation of the Russian president.”

Tsvetkov was convicted but wasn’t ordered to pay a fine or do time in prison. Instead, he was committed to a psychiatric institution, and it’s unknown whether he has since been released.

Referring to the Justice Ministry’s inclusion of the image in its registry, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week: “You know how such things might hurt somebody’s feelings, but the President is quite resistant to such obscenity and learned how to not pay attention.”

It was only in 1993 and the collapse of the Soviet Union that Russia relaxed laws that banned homosexuality.

But it wasn’t until six years later that homosexuality was dropped from a list of psychiatric disorders in Russia.

CNN’s Mary Ilyushina wrote and reported from Moscow and Tim Lister from St. Petersburg, Russia.