Trigger warning for prejudice against sexual minorities and mentions of violence. Also, please note that I’m specifically using the phrase ‘sexual minorities,’ because in Russia, a lot of people shy away from acronyms such as LGBTQI, etc. Just letting you know!: So, um, hi everyone. First of all, this is a personal blog post of mine – I am not speaking for my employers or colleagues here – and it is not meant for Russians under 18 to read. I have to make this clear, or face possible repercussions. Yep, just putting that out there!
Now, a quick re-cap: this summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a highly controversial ban on “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” into law.
We have also seen horrific murders and hate crimes committed toward sexual minorities in recent months – including a social networking page showing young boys humiliated and beaten for calling themselves gay (the page has since been taken down).
A boycott of Russian vodka is currently gaining momentum in the West. There have been calls to boycott the Sochi 2014 Winter Games as well.
Is a vodka boycott going to change things? Personally, I think that a boycott of Russian vodka may be a powerful symbolic gesture, but I doubt it will change anyone’s mind over in Russia. Here, business is subservient to government – not the other way around (I’d argue that we have a reverse deal going on in the States). Also, Stoli in particular is not affiliated with the Russian government, so keep that in mind.
What about a Sochi boycott? Something like that would be noticed, though it’s not likely to happen – particularly after Beijing (and yes, I would agree with Russia-watcher Mark Adomanis on this one: you can’t compare Russia and China as far as human rights go. Russia is miles ahead here – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise).
The Sochi games are the most expensive in history. I believe it was President Putin’s dream to bring the Olympics to Russia in his lifetime. Obviously, Russia very much wants people to come to these games. Now, the International Olympics Committee has already said that it has been assured “at the highest level” that no athlete or spectator at the Games will be subject to the new law. So on this one I actually agree with Dan Savage: for people who are concerned about the situation around sexual minorities in Russia, it may be more helpful to come and express their views at the Games, rather than staying home. That this would make a greater impact. Yet this is a tough call to make. Safety and dignity are obviously of great concern here – I cannot emphasize that enough.
Is the Russian government homophobic? You know, all of the evidence I have points to “nope.” The government was initially just trying to ride the wave of popular sentiment directed against sexual minorities – and it expected a Western backlash, because a Western backlash actually makes Russian officials seem tougher and more courageous (you can blame this on the disastrous 1990s, when the Russian economy and society suffered tremendously, when many people died, when there was no hope – and economic liberalization a la the West was blamed).
Most Russian politicians are pragmatic and don’t care about your orientation one way or another. But it can be argued that the government’s actions have made hatred more acceptable – simply because in a country with a top-down management structure, this is how these things tend to work.
So what’s the deal with Russian society being homophobic? Russian society is growing more homophobic, not less, according to the recent polls. In The Moscow News, the paper that I edit, my colleague Anna Arutunyan has argued that most Russians don’t hate sexual minorities per se, they hate pride parades. Here’s a good quote:
And that may reflect an underlying conservatism that’s not about God and guns, but something deeper and more unique: the deep-seated, possibly acquired distrust of provocation and conflict among Russians. There’s a reason for that distrust: Russians know how their society and government functions, and they know that by raising your head and causing a ruckus you risk being destroyed.
Basically, it boils down to this: “But sexual minorities are… different. Different makes you vulnerable. Why would you want to do that?!” Older Russians especially fear for their children to turn out… different – hence the majority support for the propaganda ban.
For my part, I have argued in Moskovskiye Novosti (in Russian, so I won’t link here), that there is another reason: identity.
A lot of Russians, not just urbanites, really like the idea of living in a country that was more European. They like the idea of better infrastructure, more transparency, and more social equality for all. But according to data coming in from smaller urban centers and rural Russia – most people around here are also pessimistic. They don’t believe these goals are achievable in their lifetime.
So what do gays (and others) have to do with it? Well, faced with the possibility that they’ll never be European, Russians seize on things that they believe are seriously wrong in Europe. As one guy told me, “They might have good roads over there, but f**** walk on those roads without fear.” See how that works?
Russia was an isolated country for a long time, but it’s not isolated anymore. There are more people on the Internet in Russia than anywhere in Europe. The older, more conservative generations are losing ground. Russians are growing increasingly well-traveled – and not just Muscovites, I mean people out in Samara and Vladivostok. Identity crises are a natural part of these changes that are taking place. But even I couldn’t have predicted how dramatically gays and other folks – and their very status as human beings – would figure into this latest chapter. It makes the blood run cold.
What can be done? From the outside, not much. If you’re living in the West, you can certainly petition your public officials to keep discussing this one with their Russian counterparts – but do note that bowing to Western pressure makes Russian officials look weak, and they can’t allow that.
I recently wrote about the case of gay activist Nikolai Alexeyev, and how he is now being investigated for “insulting a government official” – so if you care about these issues, it would be good to keep up with how his case unfolds.
There is also the issue of the actual “propaganda” law as well. It is vague. And it quite possibly dooms young people to total isolation – now no adult can talk to them about their orientation. It is very likely that the European Court of Human Rights will be getting involved with all of this at some point. Once again, if you care about these issues, it’s a good idea to to keep up.
Remember: there is way more to Russia than vodka. Russia is a very diverse country. And the gay community here in particular is also quite diverse. There has been sharp division about pride parades in the past, to give an example. There has been sharp division in recent weeks on whether or not it is prudent to stage kiss-ins in downtown Moscow and be beaten up by homophobes. A lot of people here believe that it’s dinnertime conversation and personal relationships that can help defeat prejudice – not any kind of public displays.
Either way, the news cycle will go on – while the people will remain. It’s hard to predict what will happen next. And Russian politics don’t work like U.S. politics, to give an obvious example. If you’re going to get involved, please remember that there are more than symbols at stake here.
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