August 27, 2013

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.

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people are desperate to do something, anything, to show solidarity with Russia’s LGBT community and help get the law repealed.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.

Russian politics scholar Mark Lawrence Schrad recently wrote that “a perceived threat, even symbolic, from the liberal West would be a blessing for Mr. Putin, who can portray himself as the defender of the traditional Russian family, Orthodox Christian values and national pride all at once.” A boycott, in the end, may be a prize, not a punishment.

Furthermore, as my Nation colleague David Zirin has pointed out, boycotting the Games in Sochi would hurt all the wrong people — such as the athletes who have spent lifetimes training for this event — and deprive the West and the United States of the opportunity to showcase the talents of LGBT Olympians. And to what end?

It is equally unlikely that refusing to buy Russian vodka will have any desired effect. For one, vodka is no longer a substantial source of revenue for the country. For another, Stolichnaya, one of the pariah brands, is bottled in Latvia, not Russia, and the owners of the company are avowed supporters of the LGBT community. This is more than an inconvenient fact; it exposes the boycott as a rather blunt, and ineffective, instrument for change.

That’s not to say that Western agitation around Russia’s oppressive law is not important. As Russian journalist Masha Gessen (an openly gay mother of three) recently argued, “The reason that Russia has done as much as fast, as hatefully, as violently is because it felt like nobody was watching.” The fact that the world is paying attention is undoubtedly causing Putin and the Russian political class to take notice.

But in our rush to deplore this horrible anti-gay law, are we asking the right questions? Perhaps a fundamental one, as blogger Mark Adomanis asked, is: “What do you say to ‘be heard’ in a country with a culture that is very different from America’s?”

Doesn’t a truly effective fight for LGBT rights need to be waged in Russia by Russians?

At the very least, to try to impose changes on Russia without taking the time to understand the country’s political and social realities may well put at risk the very cause for which people are fighting.

Much of the Russian LGBT community understands the need to build its own movement; it and its allies already are on the streets, holding protests, collecting signatures and laying the groundwork for broader change.

They deserve our solidarity. They deserve our support. And they deserve constructive international attention to help grow their domestic efforts, and a thoughtful strategy that aims to fortify those inside Russia leading the fight to improve the lives and human rights of Russia’s LGBT community.

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