The Russian anti-revolution
My feature article from last edition of Concrete Global. Even more pressing given the start of the games is tomorrow.
Russian politics has recently been increasingly splashed across UK media. There are a host of reasons why Russian politics are relevant to us here, not least because Russia represents a significant global power in our corner of the world. Vladimir Putin, the president who has faced significant resistance at home and abroad, is infamous for his virulent homophobia, corruption and surgical attitude towards opposition activists. Themes emerge from recent events, mainly rooted in the traditional, conservative agenda that is pushed by both the state and the Orthodox Church.
It is apparent that those who challenge the values of the state, church and Russian ‘society’ are repressed and detained. Things have come to a head with the catalyst of the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics, which has triggered an outward shift in government PR from the image of ‘Vlad the Impaler’ to something marginally more softened. This change of heart, which has granted the “selective amnesty” of high-profile political prisoners such as Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, as well as members of the ‘Arctic 30’ Greenpeace team, has no doubt been spurred by Putin’s desire that the Winter Olympics must go ahead without further hitch. It is already a scheme that has run afoul; the Sochi games are the most expensive ever, at $50bn, and Putin has been forced to defend himself and his government against allegations of systemic corruption in construction of the facilities.
Pussy Riot were two years ago convicted of hooliganism and inciting religious hatred for performing an anti-Putin song (‘Punk Prayer’) in Christ the Saviour church in Moscow. Two members, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were released on the 23 December (the other, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was released earlier in 2012) in an act of what seemed to some like storybook Christmas absolution, but which was called a “disgusting and cynical act” by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, disparaging the blatantly politicised move made by the government. She added that “selective amnesty was not an act of humanism. It was only aimed at reducing tensions with the West. It happened because Putin is afraid that the Olympic Games in Sochi will be boycotted.” They say their time in prison has made them stronger, and Alyokhina spoke dismissively of the president: “we didn’t ask for any pardon. I would have sat here until the end of my sentence because I don’t need mercy from Putin”. The two recently released singers attended court hearings of other political prisoners arrested at riots in 2012 over Putin’s third inauguration, in what they called a “gesture of solidarity with people who have been in pre-trial detention for over a year although they are innocent”.
Political motivation was again evident in the release of 30 environmentalists. The release of the Pussy Riot protesters was in timely conjunction with the release of the ‘Arctic 30’ Greenpeace activists who were detained without bail for their part in protesting against Russia’s Arctic oil drilling operations. Both groups faced trumped-up charges aimed at instilling fear in them, and in other potential dissenters; were incarcerated in degrading conditions (in the case of the Pussy Riot members, in Siberian work camps disturbingly close to Stalinist gulags); and denied basic rights. Their release is designed to look merciful on the part of the Russian government, to negate their despicable treatment of their citizens, particularly those who do not conform to their conservative societal values. This is perhaps most apparent in their behaviour towards LGBT+ groups in and out of the country.
Regardless of their position on political dissidents, what seems to trouble the Russian government most is homosexuality, which they consider to be an assault on their values and ideology. It is obvious that the Russian government cannot handle opposition, neither to their political ideology, nor their theology, nor particularly to their ‘traditional’ values. The incredibly homophobic ‘anti-gay propaganda’ law, as it has been called, came into force amidst much protest, in June 2013, making it illegal for individuals or organisations to ‘promote’ homosexuality, or “non-traditional sexual relations”. Bizarrely, it also equates homosexuality with paedophilia, a repugnant sentiment further compounded by Putin’s recent comments that homosexuals are welcome at the Winter Olympics, but that they should “leave children alone, please”.
There has been significant concern internationally that LGBT+ people are likely to face discrimination, violence and arrest at the games, with many leading figures, including ex-athletes and well-known figures calling for their boycott. Despite Russian remonstrations about how Putin is “not prejudiced” and how much the citizenry love gay performers like Elton John, the Canadian Foreign Minister rightly “remains concerned” about the regressive propaganda law, and is afraid that LGBT+ athletes and tourists might be targeted.
This concern is well founded, given that only recently a gay man, Pavel Lebedev, was arrested at the Olympic Torch relay for doing nothing more than unfurling a rainbow flag. Unjust arrests such as this are part of a continued media campaign against LGBT+ people that seeks to demonise, criminalise and alienate people that break the rigid standards of ‘normality’. Sadly it is working; many people have been beaten and attacked at gay pride rallies and demonstrations against new legislation, victims of institutionalised homophobia.
Igor Kochetkov, the head of LGBT network, spoke about how the government was pushing people that don not prescribe to their conservative agenda and ideology to the margins of society: “They are making enemies of us – not just LGBT society, but any group in society that doesn’t agree with their politics.”
‘Kissing rallies’ were held outside Russian embassies across the world, demonstrating the sheer scale of international disgust at such regressive policies. Large-scale boycotts of Russian vodka were encouraged amongst the gay community in 2013, and high-profile figures like Stephen Fry have advocated a total boycott of the winter Olympics. Amongst the sporting community, however, there has been considerable debate about this. Many gay athletes feel that boycotting is pointlessly damaging to athletes who have trained tirelessly to compete, while the real focus should be on the host city being unfit, and having discriminatory laws. Outside the sporting world, more people seem to advocate a boycott; Alyokhina of Pussy Riot is calling for “a boycott for honesty”, which she says is “because the current measures are totally insufficient”. Barack Obama has refused to boycott the games, suggesting that he does “not think it’s appropriate”, though America is not sending any highly ranking officials, and none of his nor Joe Bidens’ family members will be attending, in a clear, yet unofficial, statement of disapproval.
In addition to the threat to LGBT+ people at the games, terrorist threats made against athletes of various countries have further called their safety into question. Germany, Hungary, Britain and Italy have all received threats to their Olympic Committees. Although they have been dismissed as “not credible”, the level of security has been stepped up, particularly in the aftermath of suicide bombings in December.
The insanity and homophobia seems to be infectious; in the UK, UKIP councillor David Silvester was quoted to have said that the extensive flooding seen at the end of December was due to David Cameron’s legalisation of gay marriage, which he considered acting “arrogantly against the gospel”. His highly controversial views, which also link the holocaust with abortion laws, have resulted in his suspension from UKIP, in a last-ditch attempt for the party to rescue its deflating image. While Vladimir Putin and David Silvester may believe that gay people are suffering from a “spiritual disease”, most people will recognise that they are at the very least incredibly misguided. Even Nigel Farage, who is rarely known for his moderation or liberalism, has suspended Silvester in an attempt to exorcise “extremist, nasty or barmy views” from UKIP.
At UEA there will be a series of events to celebrate LGBT+ history month, beginning on 31 January with an opening ceremony reminiscent of the Olympics in the Hive at 8pm. Talks and lectures will be happening throughout February, including one from veteran activist Peter Tatchell on 25 January, and no doubt the conversation will continue as the games creep ever closer, at UEA and across the country.