On the recent repression of LGBT Russians

Quite rightly, all the progressive minded people of the world are in an uproar over the intensification of the campaigns against the LGBT population of Russia. Although homosexual acts are not as such illegal in that country, Vladimir Putin’s successive governments have done everything they could short of prohibition to make life impossible and miserable for LGBT people in it, especially young and activist-minded ones. (To what degree this extends to trans people in Russia I am not sure; I have not encountered much reliable information about it.) As often with repression against scapegoat minorities, the process of repression has taken place through a series of cumulative harrassments and exclusions. Yuri Luzhkov, longtime right-populist mayor of Moscow, consistently banned any attempt at gay pride celebrations with the active support of the government; then, the government of St. Petersburg passed a law prohibiting ‘propaganda for homosexuality’, meaning effectively any discussion of the subject at all – except of course condemnation; and now this law has been enacted nationally, with a fervent application to any kind of display of LGBT activism or interest whatever where it could catch the public eye. This is applied not just to locals, but to foreigners as well, as a group of gay activists from my hometown of Groningen found out. Of course, the law is officially concerned only with ‘propaganda to minors’, but this means very little – always, everywhere, the condemnation of homosexuality is based on an opportunistic and imaginary concern for ‘the children’, no matter the fact that many of those minors may well be gay or lesbian or bisexual themselves.

What has added fuel to the fire of outrage about this senseless repression are the awful stories of vigilante gangs, ostensibly to hunt ‘pedophiles’, who in practice lure and torment young gay men and expose them, under threat or reality of violence, to the public as gay. Nothing whatsoever is done by the Russian authorities against this; and in the teeth of widespread condemnation (including from conservative politicians in Western Europe), the Russian government has been ambiguous at best about its commitment to the freedom of gay or lesbian citizens or visitors. The Olympic Winter Games this coming round will be held in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, and with Russian legislators threatening enforcement of the law against any possible protest action by visiting athletes, petitions have made the rounds calling for a boycott. There is indeed a precedent for a boycott of Olympic games – not, in fact, the notorious Olympics of Berlin in 1936, to which the Sochi games are somewhat absurdly already compared, but the games in Moscow in 1980, which were boycotted by the United States. In return, the USSR boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Neither of these boycotts achieved much at all, even in terms of ‘making a statement’, so that the effect of such an action can be doubted if few participate; however, a boycott carried out by many nations rather than just one could potentially embarrass the Russian government.

What is less clear is to what extent that is desirable, and how the Western attitude towards Russia in this respect is marred by misjudgement and stereotypes. Firstly, the Russian government has shown little inclination to budge on this issue, especially insofar as it is seen as promoted by foreign pressure. Putin’s government represents the victory of the secret service and bureaucratic clique, inherited from the Soviet Union, over the mafia and oligarchic clique that looted the country’s enormous state assets during the Yeltsin years. It is engaged in a prolongued process of a kind of nation-building, restoring Russian power and prestige in the fact of the disastrous social and economic catastrophe that the restoration of ‘market society’ in Russia has been.

With economic disaster piled upon disaster for the entirety of the 1990s period of ‘shock treatment’, and with Russia humiliated by the loss of much of the power the USSR had had in the international arena (to say nothing of events like the sinking of the “Kursk”), Putin represents a cautious but hard-nosed revanchism and has encouraged a similar attitude among the population. Russia has slowly started flexing its muscle again, as demonstrated by its energy conflicts with Ukraine and Belarus and the military intervention in Georgia. Following on this, the strict laws making the activities of foreign ‘NGOs’ – which Moscow not wholly wrongly suspects of being full of foreign spies and representing foreign interests – almost impossible have been enforced with great vigor. The more LGBT activists can be depicted as following foreign interests and foreign condemnation of Russian policy, the more such nationalism can be wielded against them – as demonstrated by application of the NGO law against the first Russian LGBT film festival.

This is not to blame the victim, but to demand a strategy that neither encourages more Russian nationalism and violent vigilantism against its LGBT population nor bases itself on stereotypes of ‘backwards and hostile Russia’. Indeed, it is easy for many to forget that the USSR (though not yet called that then) was the first nation in the modern era, by my knowledge, in the world to decriminalize homosexuality in 1918. Of course, Stalin’s ‘conservative turn’ changed that: as well documented by David Hoffmann in Stalinist Values, flowing from the perception that the cause of socialism had been won and therefore the period of a ‘socialist’ nation-building had now arisen, Stalin’s new course rebounded similarly on the heads of gays and lesbians in the Soviet Union as nation-building in capitalist Russia does today, and it was banned again in 1934.(1)

But this does not mean that there has been a period of utter darkness, in which neither knowledge of homosexuality nor any pursuit of such love was possible: the Russians of today do not come in from the cold of that period, but of the country’s collapse in the 1990s. As Yevgeny Fiks has documented in his book Moscow, the USSR was full of cruising spots even in the dreary days of Stalin or comrade Brezhnev. Dan Healey, a British specialist in Soviet history, has documented in detail the depiction and treatment of LGBT people in the USSR.(2) Indeed, the 1934 law prohibited only male homosexuality, but the more pervasive attitude on the part of the Soviet government was not a systematic repression but rather an attempt at denying that such a phenomenon existed: what Healey has called the ‘neotraditionalism’ of the Soviet government saw homosexuality either as a remnant of archaic practices in outlying or ‘tribal’ regions, or else attempted to simply wish it away altogether in its promotion of ‘new Soviet man’ as the ideal.

In this respect, it showed itself more a follower of the masculinist ethics of purity common to 19th century liberal ‘improvers’ than of the more nuanced thought of Marx and Engels on sexuality, limited as that was – but as Healey rightly notes, it was no worse during the postwar period to its LGBT citizens and treated them no more harshly than most Western governments did. That this regime of denialism turned into a denial of the very existence of the phenomenon in the late USSR is not too different from Ahmadinejad’s equally preposterous claim that homosexuality is unknown in Iran. But in both cases, it seems propelled more by the need to maintain an ideological front abroad than by any kind of ‘intrinsic’ or ‘cultural’ history of hostility towards homosexuality, which indeed probably no culture anywhere in the world has ever uniformly demonstrated.

As Western critics of Russian revivals of these kind of practices, not as denialist but much more overtly violent for the fact, we should be wary of misjudging a Russian response to such critiques. Not because we should pander to the alliances of nationalists, fascists, and Orthodox reactionaries that dominate much of the discourse of the ‘free’ Russia of today, but because local LGBT people, activist or otherwise, are not helped by lecturing from abroad when this is based in ignorance of the country’s conditions. As with all politics, strategy and principle must unite. Boycotting Russian products abroad, for example, will be totally useless, as this is both impractical and far too indirect and diffuse to constitute any kind of effective support for the LGBT people of Russia. (Indeed, a popular target, Stolichnaya vodka, is actually manufactured in Riga, as Latvian LGBT organizers are keen to point out.) Indeed, LGBT organizations and activists in Russia seem divided over a boycott of the Winter Olympics; while initially a number supported boycotts, the Russian LGBT Network says it opposes such a move, preferring visibility for LGBT contestants.

The courage and persistence of LGBT activists in Russia cannot be denied – despite government repression and continuing violence throughout the country against any visibility for LGBT people, they have persevered, sometimes standing alone against a hostile crowd. They deserve a strategy of support that is both principled and effective – one that should hit the regime where it hurts without merely co-opting ordinary Russian gays, lesbians, and other victims of the law into struggles against Russian nation-building – however perverse and reactionary this nationalism is, appearing as agents of the West in opposing it can do them only harm.

Much more effective would be to recognize the origins of this neo-neo-traditionalism, and the accommodation of and support for fascists and the religious right it has entailed. This lies not in debates about Russia’s ‘culture’ or whether Putin is an autocrat or not. It means recognizing the deep and abiding damage the imposition of a liberal market economy has done to the fabric of Russian society, pulling the rug from under the population’s feet and depriving them of 83% of their GNP and throwing millions out of what had been dreary but secure jobs. The life expectancy of the average Russian, a telling indicator if ever there was one, has dropped by several years as a result of ‘shock therapy’; fittingly the Russian architect of its implementation, Yegor Gaidar, died at the none too ripe age of 53. But the impetus for this came from the Western ‘advisors’, who after the demise of the USSR finally had their chance to remake Russia in their image. (Indeed, as recently as 2009 Jeffrey Sachs still defended the privatization in principle, arguing it was insufficiently supported by the West.)

None of this is to cling to the hoary form of vulgar Marxism that has no time for ‘secondary’ questions like LGBT freedoms because of the state of affairs of the economy. But it means that if in the West we want to understand the situation, and lend strategically meaningful support to the cause of Russian LGBT activists, we should not forget the origins of the new Russian nationalism nor the culpability of Western power – including the power to reconstruct Russia itself – for the present situation. What we can do is lend a voice to Russian LGBT people here; to support LGBT causes there insofar as this does not render them even more suspect in the eyes of ordinary Russians; pressure our own governments to take LGBT refugees seriously when they apply for asylum, and not just Russians, but from anywhere; and most of all, provide visibility for LGBT people and champion the cause of our freedom wherever we find ourselves.

1) David Hoffmann, Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity, 1917-1941 (Ithaca, NY 2003: Cornell University Press).
2) Dan Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia (Chicago, IL 2001: University of Chicago Press). The role of transgender feelings and identity was somewhat different both in pre-revolutionary Russia as in the Soviet Union; in this domain, the attitude was not so much hostile as bemused and medicalizing, and generally mirrored Western practice in both cases. The first gender reassignment surgery was undertaken in the USSR in the 1960s. Healey, p. 321n41.

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