Should you boycott Russian vodka?

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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92 Responses to Should you boycott Russian vodka?

  1. Hugh says:

    I’ve been boycotting Smirnoff (which is associated with the Russian government) for twelve years because of Russia’s policy towards its Islamic minorities.

    • matttbastard says:

      I’ve been boycotting Smirnoff because it’s shit vodka [sic].

    • PrettyAmiable says:

      Diageo is associated with the Russian government?

      • Hugh says:

        Indirectly. There was a dispute about who owned the ‘Smirnoff’ brand name – Diageo’s copyright on it is based off a White Russian brewer who left during the Revolution and set up a distillery in the west, but in the 90s, when Smirnoff begun to be sold in Russia, the Ministry of Agriculture claimed that they had copyright on the brand because it used to be a brand owned by the Russian state. The dispute was resolved by the signing of a joint marketing agreement. So, it’s not directly owned by the Russian government, but Diageo’s relationship with the Russian state is very close. Too close for my conscience, anyway.

  2. Thanks for the post, Natalia. It gave me quite a bit of context I didn’t have before.

    I’m curious, though. If the society is generally homophobic, and the laws being passed are extremely homophobic, how is it logical to characterise the government as not homophobic? It’s made from members of Russian society, and is directly responsible for the creation of Russian law, is it not?

    • Russian society is very stratified.

      Russian politicians are very much removed from the so-called “common man.” They move in different circles.

      The Russian political elite is economically privileged, well-traveled, and urbane – even if they must work hard to pretend otherwise on occasion. These people’s kids often study and work abroad (one of Putin’s daughters lives in the Netherlands, allegedly – though the president himself insists they live in Moscow).

      The Russian political elite is also friendly with the Russian pop scene – and the pop scene has tacitly welcomed sexual minorities for decades. Many Russian stars actually become politicians after a few years of singing or acting or whatever.

      There is a sharp divide between the elite and regular people – and these laws are actually a very twisted, but successful, attempt to bridge this divide. “See? We’re just like you. We care about morals. We care about demographics.” (One of the repeated arguments against the normalization of sexual minorities’ lifestyles and the acceptance of their humanity is the wacky but popular idea that this will negatively affect the birth rate)

      This isn’t just callousness and cynicism involved in the decisions to pass these laws. It’s an attempt at social cohesion in a sharply divided society with massive inequality, lack of community, and very few horizontal (as opposed to vertical) ties between people. Sexual minorities are being thrown under the bus because the government sees no other alternative – and this is terrifying, when you think about it.

      • Mm, yeah, no. The “I’m not really a homophobe, I’m just passing homophobic laws for political purposes/my own advancement” excuse does not mean a person isn’t a homophobe.

        When you see sexual minorities as something you can abuse to further your own advancement, you ARE a homophobe. We could play semantics and say “well technically, they’re probably just self-serving sociopaths” or whatever, but I see no reason they shouldn’t be labelled as homophobes, since their actions are homophobic.

      • Elena says:

        I don’t know, I’ve found it useful to distinguish between homophobia and discrimination in my own life. When I was studying abroad, my program director instructed my girlfriend and I to lay off PDA at program functions (when we’d been much more circumspect than straight couples). It was painful, more so because we had a close, personal relationship with her. She was not homophobic; she was worried about appearances. The effect was discriminatory. (We lost that relationship when we protested. We were told we were being culturally insensitive, even though we were at a private program function, and, even if we hadn’t been, the host country had vigorous anti-discrimination laws.) We faced homophobia, yes. But sometimes understanding motivations can help explain social and political phenomenon, which I think Natalia’s analysis does.

  3. Hugh says:

    @mac: I can’t speak for OP but the impression I got was that the members of the government do not personally dislike LGBT people, they’re just cynical and callous enough to pass homophobic laws because they don’t care about the queer community and it wins them political capital.

    I think this is an excessively narrow definition of ‘homophobic’, though.

    • I think this is an excessively narrow definition of ‘homophobic’, though.

      If that’s what OP is going for, then I’m with you. “I’m not a homophobe, I just play one from nine to five” isn’t much of an excuse in my book.

      • Hugh says:

        Yeah, what their actions mean for queer people matters more than what’s in their secret hearts.

      • Agreed.

        And it’s a class issue as well, I think. It’s co to be a rich gay dude with powerful friends, to give an obvious example. Your equally rich friends won’t shun you. There is a lot of “let them eat cake” about the current situation, because it disproportionately affects people who are already struggling.

        (I should note that any new law in Russia tends to affect poorer people way worse)

      • Hugh says:

        @Natalia: I believe Marx wrote something about how elites are usually extremely tolerant of ‘deviant’ (however that is defined) behaviour by other elites.

      • Hugh says:

        Come to think of it, this might even moreso in a society like Russia, where it’s comparatively easy for elites to evade the law as long as they maintain contacts with the right people. No gay media icons or businessmen are likely to get prosecuted for ‘homosexual propaganda’, I think we can all agree. (It doesn’t help that the law’s so vaguely worded, but that’s only part of the reason)

      • Alexandra says:

        @Hugh – I think you’re wrong. I would expect that some pop singer, actor, entertainer, or businessman who plays his or her cards wrong or winds up saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, who attracts the attention of the Orthodox Church or another popular institution trying to demonstrate its power, is going to get burned, maybe in a bad way. Protection of elites is not absolute, particularly in nominally democratic societies with populist leaders, and gay elites are more vulnerable than others.

      • Hugh says:

        @Alexandra: Well, it’ll be interesting to see which of us is right.

  4. foxy says:

    The role of orthodox church should not be ignored.Also during communist era gays are believed to be bourgeoise parasites and severely persecuted.

    • Yep. But we should note that the government – and not the church – sets the agenda. The church has been subservient to the government for all of its history – you can see the way this played out under the czars.

      You’re right about the communist era. Just like now, anti-Western bias, which is a major cornerstone of Russian politics, came into play. Even though for most of the 21st century, you obviously saw a lot of persecution of sexual minorities in the West.

  5. A4 says:

    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.

    I don’t buy this one single bit.

    • You don’t think that being perceived as “different” in Russia makes you especially vulnerable? Or that Russian parents fear that their children will be at best ostracized and at worst murdered should they openly come out as gay?

      • antiprincess says:

        or that someone who is living in Moscow, who sees this every day, who has been seeing it for years, could know better than you?

      • antiprincess says:

        er, I meant to reply to A4. I totally respect Natalia’s opinion on all matters Russian, is what I meant.

      • The gay propaganda law is meant to sweep sexual minorities under the carpet, essentially. It’s meant to reassure parents that gayness (or anything that’s “untraditional”) is not openly talked about in schools, that it’s hidden, that it’s kept under lock and key.

        And a lot of people think that’s a good thing. Because it’s categorically not safe to be out.

        Talk to anyone about it – aside from the foaming-at-the-mouth extremists, who are a vocal minority – the attitude is: “Be whoever you want, just keep it secret. Keep it safe.”

        I’m not saying that this is RIGHT, mind you. But it is what it is.

      • A4 says:

        I don’t blindly accept the explanations of straight people for homophobia, especially when it’s this level of apologist bullshit for some extremely brutal, public, and institutionally approved violence.

        This article included one sentence about that violence, and a whole lot more sentences explaining how Russians aren’t actually homophobic.

        Fuck all that.

      • So I said that Russia was growing more homophobic and provided examples and possible explanations for this trend. Clearly, I’m an apologist for violence. That’s brilliant.

      • A4 says:

        I don’t believe that homophobia comes from concern for the well being of gay people.

      • You don’t get how totalitarianism works, do you? Or what it does to people on a psychological level over time?

        It’s not about well-being, it’s about falling in line.

        Obviously, it’s different for people with children, who have to consider the possibility that their child will come out one day – and possibly have their life destroyed. But that really ought to go without saying.

      • A4 says:

        You don’t get how homophobia works.

      • I get how homophobia works in Russia.

      • Natalia, I can believe you about the cause of it “fear of being perceived different = very dangerous” as the motivator. Lord knows even the little I know of Russia’s contemporary history shows a good reason for people to develop an especial desire to keep their head down.

        It still reads as really apologetic though? It’s not a valid excuse, and whether you meant to or not, it sounds like you were saying it is one. And if it IS one–it’s in the most selfish, short-term way.

        Keeping your kids safe from violence–by making them spend a lifetime in hiding, shame, and second-class citizenry, instead of actively opposing the people and laws that support the violence/oppression?

        Few people here are going to be sympathetic to that mindset.

        I think different cultures will have different ways/tactics of fighting homophobia, different mindsets to overcome, and I think that is what you’ve been trying to show here–not to excuse that homophobia.

        I think it’s hard for people who haven’t been around Russians very much to realize just how different their society is from other Western ones. It isn’t like talking about Canada, or Germany.

      • These people are likely to become complicit in whatever persecution their children will face down the line.

        But they don’t see it. Seeing it would be too much. It’s a defense tactic, like the good ol’, “Rape only happens to sluts and whores – so why worry about it? Why talk about it? Why should it be an issue?” It’s a stick-your-head-in-the-sand mentality. The idea that bad things will ultimately happen to Other People – and won’t happen to you and yours as long as you don’t stick your neck out and behave in a “correct” fashion.

        And I don’t have an answer on what is to be done about it at this time. I don’t think anyone does.

        Anton Krasovsky, who came out on state-funded television – and was promptly fired – thinks that all of this controversy is a good thing, that it has exposed society’s festering wound. I don’t know. Maybe he’s right.

    • Echo Zen says:

      I sure do. After the fall of the Soviet government, we began running health surveys in Russia, and wasted a lot of money with questionnaires where Russians were asked to rate something on a scale of “0 | negative” to “10 | positive”, “5 | neutral” being middle.

      Without fail, every Russian answered every question with “neutral”, because as our informants later informed us (after the fact), the culture at the time frowned on strong opinions or thoughts that could disrupt the existing fabric of society. As a result, we had to re-frame every question so nobody could answer “neutral” — they had to state an opinion either way. I have a hunch that, 22 years later, things haven’t changed much. It seems the culture still frowns on anyone trying to do or voice anything different.

      • A4 says:

        Yeah? What about beating the shit out of gay people in broad daylight in front of cops? Isn’t that doing something different? Expressing strong views? Isn’t that also illegal?

      • number9 says:

        The people who are beating the shit out of gay people now used to beat the shit out of people for other ways of being “different” in the 80s and early 90s. Back then, they’d target men with long hair, or punks, or people from the Caucasus. They have always been around, only their targets change. This kind of nationalistic violence has always been tacitly approved by Russian totalitarian state. What they are doing might be theoretically illegal, but it is very useful to the state because it keeps the rest of the populace in line and not wanting to do anything to attract attention.

        You keep trying to apply Western logic to a country that has never been Western, and will never be Western, despite the best efforts of its many despotic rulers to drag it into Europe. Your frame of reference just does not apply.

      • Echo Zen says:

        Since violence against gays is the prevailing norm in most conservative societies today, assaulting LGBT people would constitute life as usual. There might be ebbs and flows, but backlash quickly makes up for any lapses in oppression.

    • Well, it’s certainly how homophobia works in India, I’ll tell ya. Ordinary folks don’t give a shit about gay people in the abstract, but every person I’ve come out to has FREAKED OUT for my safety. I’m talking hysterical tears. And I’m pretty privileged (in terms of perceived class, caste, liberal parents etc) as Indians go.

  6. A4 says:

    I cannot even with all these apologetics for “I don’t mind gay people as long as they act straight in public, oh and also I’m going to beat the shit out of teenagers and videotape it and post it online but it’s not homophobia, it’s just because of totalitarianism.”

    I’m out on this one. Y’all can listen to the nice straight lady explain why these people aren’t really homophobic and then be condescending to gay people about it.

    • Um, I said that these people aren’t really homophobic? Where? I’ve engaging in apologetics? Where?

      Without getting into too much detail, I do have a personal stake in these issues. Much more than someone like you will realize (I assume you’re living in the West, of course. If that’s not the case, I apologize). But go ahead. Tell me I’m wrong and just want to “apologize” for violence, all on account of your theories not fitting in with the general picture.

      • Jamie says:

        I dunno, Natalia. This post felt like it soft-pedaled the homophobia to me. It just did. It felt defensive of Russia somehow. I can’t point to anything specific for you. It’s a vibe.

        “But why would you do that?!” — I can’t read that as anything other than protective. “I just don’t want you to be hurt by the State!” Then what’s going on in the minds of the people doing the hurting, the literal gaybashing?

        And “they have a problem with Pride, not homosexuality itself” — you’re saying because they’re calling attention to themselves, but we hear the same thing in the US… “Hey, I don’t care what you do in the privacy of your own home, just don’t flaunt it.” Can you definitively prove it’s just not the same?

        On a less contentious note: I had a classmate that did an exchange student thing in Russia maybe five or so years ago, and she said the gender roles were really traditional and stratified. Is that true or is that outdated? If it’s true, that seems like it would factor into the homophobia. If it’s bullshit, then, never mind.

      • llamathatducks says:

        I believe the point of the post was to explain the mentality of the people promoting, enforcing, and supporting all the anti-LGBT shit going down in Russia. Explaining the mentality well requires going a lot deeper than just condemning what’s going on (which Natalia did do as well). The parts you quote are clearly examples of other people’s thought rather than Natalia’s own opinion.

        Besides – did you see the governmentally required disclaimer up top about how this post is not for Russian minors? Note that Natalia is writing from within a country with a, well, problematic freedom-of-the-press situation. It may be necessary to soft-pedal things.

      • Jamie says:

        @llamathatducks, re: freedom of the press & soft-pedaling: Good point.

      • amblingalong says:

        This response to her peice kinda reminds me of when academics in the US try to explain the motivations that drive terrorist groups, and the right-wingers howl them down for supposedly trying to justify those groups’ actions.

        There’s a difference between trying to understand why someone does something wrong, and saying that their motivations or actions are correct.

    • Also, what exactly is it that you want to hear? That Russian society is overrun by bloodthirsty extremists and that they are somehow representative of general society? Because that would not be the truth.

    • Revolver says:

      I’m not sure where you’re getting this from. The OP is using a really narrow definition of homophobia, yes, but she’s not excusing the behavior, it seems like she’s highlighting the nuances of the issue that aren’t apparent to those of us in the West. It doesn’t seem like she’s advocating for the status quo, but rather advocating for us not to White Knight our way into the issue without understanding that it’s about a lot more than simple hatred of a minority.

      I would personally say, based on this post, that the government IS homophobic, because homophobia isn’t just active opposition. So I’m not sure if the semantics are the cause of what you believe is at issue?

      • Hugh says:

        I think part of it is that, if you have a broader definition of homophobia – a definition that’s more in accord with the common usage – then it follows that if you say something is not homophobic, you’re saying it’s OK. So when people here “this isn’t homophobic” they often do hear “so you shouldn’t have a problem with it”.

        It seems the OP is saying that the actions of the Russian elite are not homophobic but just as bad. I get where she’s coming from, and I think it is important to know the motivations for the passage of these kinds of laws, which don’t always boil down to the personal prejudices of lawmakers (although they can). But I think the broader definition is more useful.

        It’s similar to the whole “only white people can be racist” thing.

      • Revolver says:

        Oh definitely, and I understand taking issue with calling it “not homophobic.” A turd is a turd, even if it smells like a rose. I’m not trying to dismiss the importantance of semantics, because words ARE really important…just pointing out that that can be called out without labeling the whole article bullshit and the author an apologist.

      • Revolver says:

        See? Semantics are so important that it gets its own word made up for it – importantance.

      • The Russian elite, on this instance, is worse than homophobic. They’re not motivated by “Jesus thinks gays are bad”, for example. Instead it’s calculating and shrewd. People who have died since this whole thing started are collateral damage – which is the worst part.

      • Jamie says:

        So when people here “this isn’t homophobic” they often do hear “so you shouldn’t have a problem with it”.

        I think that’s where my circuit-break happened.

    • XtinaS says:

      Assuming that Natalia is straight is not the worst part of your comment, but it sure is the funniest.

    • Radiant Sophia says:

      A4, it’s nice that you get to erase people’s lived experiences. Again.

    • Are we having an allergic reaction to nuance again?

      Also, to hell with your American universalising of how homophobia works and where it might come from. My parents grew up being hit with rocks by passersby for being south Indian and existing in north India. Their first thought (once they got past “anime made you gay didn’t it, just stop watching anime”) was that I was going to wind up having rocks thrown at me too, just for a different reason. I understand exactly what Natalia’s getting at re: ordinary people and the angle on their homophobia. She isn’t saying they’re not homophobic, she’s pointing to the mechanics and motivations, which, fyi, don’t need to be exactly the same as those of the US of Fucking A in order to be legit. Or, for that matter, in order to still be homophobic.

      Oh and IIRC Natalia isn’t straight either.

    • Willemina says:

      I work with a lot of Hmong and Vietnamese people and there are echos of how life under a regime like that shapes one’s opinions toward authority, exposure and relationships. Certainly one woman is classically religiously homophobic, but I have heard the “why would they ever do that?” sort of homophobia Natalia mentions.

      It’s all homophobia in the end to me, but pretending it all comes from the same source and that it needs to be the argle-bargle rawr kind we get mostly in the US is seriously blindered. There’s a point where yes, the outcome is homophobic, but the motivation is way more complicated and systemic than simple hatred. The article was interesting and terrifying, as is most of the news I see coming out of Russia.

      • It’s all homophobia in the end to me, but pretending it all comes from the same source and that it needs to be the argle-bargle rawr kind we get mostly in the US is seriously blindered.

        Yeah. It just feels bizarre to me, like saying “this homophobia is caused by X and looks like Y through the means of Z” is somehow saying that there is no homophobia at all. Indian homophobia doesn’t work at all like US homophobia, but it is still homophobic… cultures are different, of course they’re going to perpetrate the same isms differently… I mean ffs that’s Cultural Studies 101. 100, even.

  7. JBL55 says:

    Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a highly controversial ban on “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” into law.

    “Propaganda?” Funny — I’d call it “educational material.” But then again, I accept the burgeoning scientific evidence that sexual orientation is, as The Royal College of Psychiatrists puts it, “is biological in nature [and] therefore not a choice.”

    This whole thing makes me glad I buy Maine-made Cold River Vodka and Absolut (made in Sweden and owned by a French company).

  8. Ms. Kristen J. says:

    Natalia,

    You mention that homophobia in some instances is rooted in totalitarianism and the need for conformity. Would you be willing to expand on that or point me to other sources? I’m not sure I’m getting it!

    In particular, I’m wondering how this compares/contrasts to bigotry against sexual minorities in the US where often it seems (IMO) to be rooted in a disgust/fear/hatred of difference as a threat to existing power structures and a mechanism to maintain existing power structures (by creating an “other” that everyone can agree to hate).

    Is it the same phenomenon playing itself out in different social structures or is there something fundamentally different going on?

    • I don’t think it’s rooted in it – but that it’s part of this large, overwhelming matrix of problems in a society that’s both rapidly changing and stagnant at the same time. If that makes sense.

      You talk about it to people – and you find out what they really think – and when they start getting honest with you, the answers are surprising.

      In the U.S., I see this broad, ideological base of support of homophobia. “You’re making Jesus cry due to your deviant ways,” etc. That kind of thing exists in Russia (see deputy Milonov) – but it’s not in the mainstream.

      The mainstream is full of people who are just trying to survive – and their logic is, “But why do that to yourself?! Why be openly gay?! Clearly, you think you’re special! Well, buddy, you are not! Better fall in line with the rest of us – or suffer!” Of course, people suffer either way. That should go without saying.

      There is this brilliant Russian play out there that explores homophobia in small, depressed factory towns. It’s hilarious and heart-breaking. Very gradually, it reveals how a factory worker with an ugly life has ugly thoughts about an anonymous “gay admirer” who is sending him love letters. A lot of the conversations in it are actually documentary. You see the town for what it is – there is no community, there are no real bonds between people, unless you count drinking (and the author doesn’t really make it count per se). And everyone is lonely. And afraid.

      There is so much horror at being thought different, at having the so-called Eye of Sauron suddenly pick you out and see you for what you are. Traditionalist thinking figures into it as well – but so much of it is a holdover from the Terror. There is a lot of PTSD in the way Russian society operates – psychologist Lyudmila Petranovskaya has written brilliantly about it. I only wish there were translations of her blog in English.

  9. Brigid Keely says:

    Thanks for sharing this, it was an interesting read.

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  11. Donna L says:

    Natalia, I’m curious as to how much you think there’s an overlap between the people in Russia who demonize sexual minorities and the people who still demonize Jews. And between those who use sexual minorities as a scapegoat, and those who do the same with Jews, regardless of their personal opinions. In other words, how much of this is very old wine in a relatively new bottle?

    • Observers have pointed out that “the gays are the new Jews” – multiple times by now.

      Popular journalist Oleg Kashin recently argued that high-level anti-Semitism in Russia is now over, as both the ethnic Slavs and Jews have united in fear and hatred of the Muslims from the North Caucasus and Central Asia (racism, contradictory migration policy, terror attacks, class issues, the drugs coming in from Afghanistan via former Soviet republics are said to figure into this, etc.)

      Perhaps he’s right – and perhaps this somehow figures into the government’s obsession with TEH GAY. Because, as you might notice, officials really, truly shy away from trying to antagonize the North Caucasus in particular. But sexual minorities? Why, they’re fair game. (Saying this last part with extreme sarcasm and derision, obvs)

  12. All Cats Are Beautiful says:

    Natalia,
    as a queer woman from Russia I really think you should reconsider your personal definition of homophobia. Just because many Russian politicians have gay friends or know gay people doesn’t mean they’re not homophobes when they make anti-gay laws. “I’m not a homophobe, but sexual minorities are not normal” is still a homophobic sentiment. Being fine with sexual minorities as long as they don’t show it in public/celebrate Pride is still hateful and phobic.

    While the history homophobia stems from is very different in Russia compared to western countries (or most other countries in general), it’s expressed so similar in many places of the world.

    Since I moved to Germany I got the impression that just like in my home country, most people really think they’re not homophobic when they say shit like “I’m not a homophobe, but I don’t want my child to be gay because AIDS/bullies/grandchildren” or whatever. I’ve been told this myself from Russian as well as German friends and family members. It seems to me that you want to convince people here that in Russia, these sentiments aren’t considered homophobic by the vast majority of people so it would be wrong to approach this topic by applying a ‘western’ definition of homophobia. But I never got the impression that this wider definition of homophobia and other *isms is accepted by e.g. the majority of people in Germany. That doesn’t make the phobic shit they say less phobic, though, because it’s not the majority that gets to decide what is and isn’t phobic.

    • As I said earlier, I don’t believe that “oh, they’re not homophobic – because they’re the good guys.”

      I believe that homophobia is ultimately very irrational. What these people are engaged in is something entirely different – it is rational, calculating, and, in the long run, I’m pretty sure it’s even worse than what the haters out on the sidewalk by the State Duma have done.

      With great power comes great responsibility. Russian statesmen and women believe it is their prerogative to throw certain groups under the bus, “for the greater good.”

      I don’t think that’s homophobia. I think it’s kinda worse, truth be told – but I can see how that didn’t necessarily come through in the OP.

      • All Cats Are Beautiful says:

        I believe that homophobia is ultimately very irrational. What these people are engaged in is something entirely different – it is rational, calculating, and, in the long run, I’m pretty sure it’s even worse than what the haters out on the sidewalk by the State Duma have done.

        With great power comes great responsibility. Russian statesmen and women believe it is their prerogative to throw certain groups under the bus, “for the greater good.”

        But it isn’t really rational or good for any country as whole in the long run to discriminate against gender/sexual and other minorities, even if the majority of people think otherwise and politicians present it that way. The reason they get away with it and people buy and perpetuate it is because of *phobias and *isms, IMO.

        Nevertheless, I don’t want to come off as if didn’t appreciate your blog post. I think you’re spot on for the most part and just disagree with this one thing.

      • Hugh says:

        I would quibble that the 1917 revolution didn’t occur due to the government’s failures at minority management. But you’re right, rational = / = good. To call a policy rational is not to praise it.

      • I think I pretty much see it the way Mister Nomad sees it (obviously, many factors contributed to the 1917 Revolution – but I see this as one of the factors).

        The kind of realpolitik that Russian state regularly engages in, I think it’s rational from their perspective, sure. I’m not calling it moral.

      • Hugh says:

        In both 1917 and 1991 the main push against the regime came from ethnically Russian working class people – the majority in almost every conceivable sense. In 1917, with the exception of Poles, minorities were quiescent until centralised authority had already broken down. In 1991, it’s a bit more complex, but it’s still basically the same story.

  13. DragonBreath says:

    My late mother would agree with everything Natalia has said. She grew up in Nazi Germany.

    • Donna L says:

      My late mother also grew up in Nazi Germany, as a Jewish child (most of whose family was ultimately murdered), and I’m curious as to what you see as the parallel. Because most if not all of the Nazi leadership was, in fact, virulently and personally anti-Semitic, rather than simply using anti-Semitism as a scapegoat tactic, or following orders as a mindless bureaucrat. (See all the latest research re Eichmann.) I don’t see this situation as the same at all.

      • TMK says:

        I think the parallel is to the existence of prelevant fear.

      • TMK says:

        For example – if you watched the movie Europa Europa, there is a scene where the protagonist boy reveals himself to be Jewish to the mother of his German colleague, and they both cry and talk, its quite clear that she has to supress her views, and likely she would be similarily horrified if her child would somehow appear to be Jewish in the way Natalia describes reaction of Russian parents to the potential gayness of their kids (or just of friends).

        In that movie she does not have that reaction, but its understandable why, but the similarity of these two totalitarian systems is real, here.

        (All that does not mean that these people could not be at the same time homophobic in the usual sense of disgust/fear/whatever)

      • Donna L says:

        Sorry, I think that’s a very strained comparison. It simply isn’t remotely analogous. Aryan parents weren’t generally afraid that their children would somehow turn out to be Jewish when they grew up. Please.

        It’s one thing to compare the Russian government’s use of homophobia as a scapegoat tactic with the long history of previous Russian governments’ using anti-Semitism for similar purposes, whether it was the Czars or Stalin or anyone else. (Although I don’t think anyone should delude themselves into believing that Nicholas II or his father, or Stalin, didn’t genuinely despise Jews.)

        It’s entirely another thing to try to compare the present situation of gays and lesbians in Russia (as truly horrible as it is) to the situation of Jews in Nazi Germany, from Hitler’s ascension to power going forward. It borders on being both appropriative and inappropriate, and I wish you wouldn’t.

      • TMK says:

        Aryan parents weren’t generally afraid that their children would somehow turn out to be Jewish when they grew up. Please.

        No, of course not.

        It’s entirely another thing to try to compare the present situation of gays and lesbians in Russia (as truly horrible as it is) to the situation of Jews in Nazi Germany, from Hitler’s ascension to power going forward. It borders on being both appropriative and inappropriate, and I wish you wouldn’t.

        But.. huh? That was not the comparison at all – I mean, that comparison would be absurd. The comparison is between both societies – the population of Nazi Germany and the population of Soviet Union – and how the later legacy impacts today typical reactions of Russians to the social issues, of which homophobia is one (the lack of trust on above-family level is well-researched topic in Eastern European sociology).

        Living in both totalitarian regimes meant different fears, but the existence of the fear was the similarity – and that was what i thought was the basis of the comparison. If you think it is not analogous, ok. I did not read dragonbreath as comparing today gays situation in Russia to Nazi Germany Jews, and certainly i am not making such comparison myself.

        Btw, i dont think you can equate Tsars with Black Hundreds and pogroms to the Stalin and Soviets. USSR wasnt the best place to live, to put it mildly, but for Jews it was huge improvement, the late Stalin Jewish doctors paranoia nonwitstanding.

    • Fat Steve says:

      My late mother would agree with everything Natalia has said. She grew up in Nazi Germany.

      Are you calling Natalia a Nazi or saying that her views are similar to someone who would have grown up in Nazi Germany? Or do those two sentences have nothing to do with each other?

      • DragonBreath says:

        Totalitarian governments and fear, { TMK and LemomDemon } “Thank you” did a good job of saying what i was saying in a very few words.

    • LemonDemon says:

      Hell, I agree with everything Natalia’s said, and all I did was grow up in a totalitarian, abusive home. It played out the same damn way. Don’t stick your head above the parapet or they’ll shoot you for it. Makes sense to me. There’s a mindset that goes with that, a particular kind of cynicism when that’s all you’ve experienced and it’s all that’s in your history.

      I would consider the government homophobic but my definition of homophobia has nothing to do with irrationality. Which is either here nor there, really.

  14. Kyosuke says:

    Natalia, can you post the link to your argument in Russian? I can’t read Russian, but a friend of mine in Media Studies who teaches quite a bit about intersectionality is Russian-Canadian, and might be interested in the original Russian.

  15. McMike says:

    Have some grappa instead.

  16. Peter says:

    Thank you for providing nuance and perspective.

    That said, I make very little distinction between people who actively hate homosexuals, and people who enable them or give them safe harbor.

    • My take on it is like this:

      I believe that most homophobia is based on these irrational and/or unacknowledged fears and ideas. I think that most homophobes (not counting the truly hateful ones), will often change their mind about other people when they are given a chance to interact with people they so fear.

      Russian officials aren’t acting out of fear, however. They are coolly pragmatic. That, to me, is ultimately scarier.

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