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.