In the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the Kremlin is getting torched.
An international chorus of critics has assailed Vladimir Putin’s government for enacting a law that bans any discussion of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) relationships, rights and issues wherever children might be present. Many protesters are calling for a global response.
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, vanden Heuvel writes a weekly column for The Post.
In a New York Times op-ed, actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein argued that a boycott of the Sochi Olympics would pressure the Russian government into reconsidering its treatment of gay men and lesbians. British actor Stephen Fry wrote an impassioned letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron, urging an Olympic boycott as well. American author Dan Savage launched a popular #DumpRussianVodka campaign.
There is a reason that everyone from Lady Gaga to President Obama has spoken out against Russia’s new anti-gay law: It is discriminatory and inhumane, and many people are desperate to do something, anything, to show solidarity with Russia’s LGBT community and help get the law repealed.
Yet it’s not all that clear whether today’s clamor, however well-intentioned, will improve the lives and human rights of gay people in Russia. Unless we take the time to understand the reasons behind the ascendance of hyper-conservative traditionalist values in Russia and then develop a more strategic response, we may instead strengthen the already powerful nationalist forces in the country.
Russia is a deeply divided, complex land. While the LGBT community has, to varying degrees, enjoyed increasing acceptance in the country’s cosmopolitan areas — homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993 — there is still entrenched support for the anti-gay policy and homophobia. The anti-propaganda legislation was passed by a unanimous parliament. The independent Levada Center found that almost half of Russians believe that gays should not have the same rights as heterosexuals, and 85 percent opposes same-sex marriage.
Reform within Russia is already an uphill battle, yet it will become downright Sisyphean if waged from outside without a careful understanding of that country’s social and cultural history.
Moreover, America’s minimal leverage over Russia is further limited by the fact that, as reporter Julia Ioffe has noted, many there already see homosexuality as a “Western import,” part of an “international cabal” imposing its will on Russia. A powerful wing of Russia’s political class, in alliance with a rising Orthodox Church, is forging a politics that rejects the supposedly corrupting influences of the United States and the West in favor of traditional conservative values largely, but not only, rooted in the heartland. This same anti-Western politics was behind the December ban on American adoptions of Russia’s orphans. The anti-gay sentiment is embedded in this broader shift toward social conservatism; it’s also a tactic to brand modernized Russians — usually ones in the major cities who have opposed Putin’s authority — as a threat to traditional values.