Stoli and sympathy, and the new LGBT public sphere: What to do about Russia

The eternal question

The eternal question

It’s good to go beyond oneself. The world is so full of borders that moral value accrues simply to those moments when thought exerts itself to cross them. In that sense, the worldwide fury against Russia is moving. No cynicism is proof against seeing people experience sympathy for others they do not know.

This is especially true among LGBT people, whose broader solidarities have been troubled and, for all those grating choruses of”We are family!”, pretty rare. “Sexuality poorly repressed merely unsettles some families,” Karl Kraus wrote. “Well repressed, it unsettles the whole world.” But how often does anybody let themselves feel that world-shaking force of resistance? In an article on Russia, Eric Sasson says “the worldwide LGBT rights movement” has “proven to be one of the savviest political and cultural movements in history.” That’s nice flattery, thank you, but the kind in which you can’t possibly see yourself. What he dubs the “movement” is a tiny minority of hunchbacked, monastically dour activists thwarted in their aspirations and alienated from the dancing masses for whom they claim to speak. Any such stunted revolutionary must straighten his back and take a purring pleasure when folks actually show they care about the larger world. And any time the denizens of Sidetrack or some other megabar consider the politics behind their pleasures should occasion some rejoicing. 

I want to go to Sidetracks and drink a certified non-human-rights-abusing Sex on the Beach

There is no “worldwide LGBT movement,” at least if by “movement” you mean something that’s genuinely mass-based and political, that has its own decision-making structures, and that moves. You could say, though, that we’re seeing a worldwide LGBT public sphere emerge. There’s now a common space on social media — even if a virtual one — where queers can carry their concerns and argue them out. In that diverse agora, all kinds of things can happen: many ad hoc movements, hardly embracing the planet but transcending plenty of boundaries, can flourish. That’s no small development.

This makes it all the more important, though, to keep a critical eye on that space’s shortcomings and inequalities.

It’s clear that it’s not yet an adequate arena for coming up with common strategies. For one thing, the sphere and the technologies that power it may be new, but it’s hardly broken free of more archaic prejudices and motives.  You can’t help noticing there’s agitation and panic over what happens in some countries, and not over others. Old geopolitical enmities seem to matter as much as present-day facts in determining which. We carry the whole burden of our fears and fantasies into debate.

He ain't heavy, he's my Big Brother: 1975, Idi Amin forces British businessmen in Uganda to serve as colonial bearers as he enters a diplomatic party. A Swede is holding the umbrella.

He ain’t heavy, he’s my Big Brother: In 1975, Idi Amin forces British businessmen in Uganda to serve as colonial bearers as he enters a diplomatic party. A stray Swede holds the umbrella.

Thus it’s easy to gin up outrage over legislation in Uganda –which a few decades back was a byword in the West for how rebellious the Third World was, and which a sizeable percentage of Americans and Britons of a certain age probably think is still run by Idi Amin. It’s much harder to get anyone to notice a similar bill in Nigeria, though that one has been hanging over its potential victims’ heads for even longer. But then, no post-colonial Nigerian leader ever forced a contingent of white British citizens to cart him on their shoulders.

A tale of two T-shirts: US images of Iran, then and lately

A tale of two T-shirts: US images of Iran, then and lately

It’s easy to rouse anger over mere rumors of abuses in Iran –which is, after all, a favorite foe since 1979, and more recently a bête noire for Israel as well as the rest of us (even though the Likudniks once loved to snog the mullahs in a halcyon, more romantic time).  There was never such intensity of feeling over documented arrests and torture and deaths in Egypt.

Meanwhile, Poland, under its previous right-wing government, prohibited Prides, looked away from skinhead violence, and flirted with bans on speech similar to the Russian one. But anger in the West never spread in the same way over the Poles as over Putin, and isn’t this partly because of how much larger and longer Russia loomed in the Cold War imagination? Even the panic about Moscow’s “anti-propaganda” legislation has coincided eerily with a revival of those Paleolithic, pre-Gorbachev tensions, after the decision to give shelter to Edward Snowden.

Captain America, 2013 style

Captain America, 2013 style

This is far from saying that people should hesitate to campaign against the Russian bill, or the Ugandan one, both intolerable violations of human rights. It’s simply to say that a modicum both of self-examination, and of looking at the larger picture, benefits activism — among other ways by lending it a larger political perspective. Context is good; and if it’s the enemy of urgency, sometimes false urgency is our enemy. The problem is, instead, that those caught up in the moment’s frenzy treat that context as a hallucinatory distraction. The problem is that such intense and atavistic emotions often drive these mobilizations that people resist discussing what’s realistically possible, or how to adjust ends or methods to get anything done. We end up seeming to stagger in delirium toward an unseen, unknown goal.

With Uganda, Western LGBT activists were lucky in a lot of ways. The government was concerned about its reputation, addicted to US support, and just open enough that a working domestic civil society could even dictate terms to its international supporters. Western activists could have a real impact, both by showing solidarity with a Ugandan movement that was vocal on its own, and by prodding their own governments to quiet action. As a result, the odious bill hasn’t passed, and with luck and some sustained pressure never may. Iran shows the opposite extreme. It’s hard to get its government to budge on anything. The “pro-gay” vigils and protests that sprang up in the US and UK seven years ago simply convinced the Iranian regime that this was a foreigner’s and not a domestic issue. They also convinced it that this didn’t involve shared rights like privacy or freedom from arbitrary arrest, but only a “minority identity” which — Ahmadinejad was right in this — didn’t exist in most Iranians’ minds. It’s anybody’s guess, at this point, where on the spectrum of success the Russia campaigns will fall. 

Moreover, the spaces where these truncated and emotional discussions about strategy happen are still riven by bias: unequally accessible, far more attuned to some voices than to others. The people most affected find it hardest to get heard.

Lady G as babushka doll: A a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma inside a publicity stunt

Lady G as babushka doll: A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma inside a publicity stunt

Why are celebrities, not Russians, the ones we’re listening to in figuring out what to do about Russia? Why are people taking their cues from Lady Gaga, George Takei, Dan Savage, Harvey FiersteinStephen FrySome of these people are smart; Fierstein and Fry, whom I adore as actor/writers, are especially savvy. But they’re not experts on Russia, or on gays in Russia, or really on anything helpful. (As for Dan Savage: he blogged back in 2002, as Bush and Blair plotted their mass-murdering imperial adventure, “Say “YES” to War on Iraq.” He’s apologized, but I see no reason to listen to him on other international interventions until he does a really comprehensive penance, perhaps by rimming a few gay Iraqi refugees on top of the Space Needle.) 

The blind faith that celebrities know more about anything than us, because we know more about them than anything, is a pathology of modern life. But it’s a particularly pronounced sickness among the gays, perhaps because the long experience of the closet breeds an unthinking fascination with publicity and fame. I certainly see the use of strategically-placed stars to draw attention to crises. There’s a reason the United Nations seduced Angelina Jolie, in the intervals between child-choosing junkets, into being a “Good Will Ambassador.” But they recruited her to publicize what the UN is doing; they don’t let her decide what the UN should do. Only in GayWorld do we so religiously believe that a looney Madonna ripoff, or the ex-pilot of an imaginary intergalactic vehicle, has unique wisdom ex officio; that those paparazzo flashbulbs bursting round them are effusions of inner illumination; that they possess insights into Russian politics completely inaccessible to Russians themselves.

Good will ambassadors, their side

Good will ambassadors, Cold War version

There are now at least two statements signed by Russian human rights activists, urging what to do about Putin’s law. And Russians have been talking strategy in public fora for months now. The most depressing thing is that none of the Western celebrities pontificating about Russia have bothered to mention anything Russians recommend. Not Fierstein, not Fry, not even Dustin Lance Black, who is usually relatively aware. (Dan Savage was a partial exception — he alluded only to a letter signed by LGBT Russians living in the United Stateswhile condemning the ones living in Russia to continued invisibility.) This is disgusting. It’s shameful. It means that probably nine-tenths of those demonstrating and dumping vodka have no idea that, in this situation, Russians have strategic opinions, are not helpless victims, can speak for themselves. It encourages the worst fantasies of Western white-saviorism.

Good will ambassadors, now

Good will ambassadors, today

One result is a parody of intelligent analysis like Time’s recent contribution to Russia news. Their take on the anti-propaganda law is entirely about brave Dutch rainbow missionaries who fell into its clutches while trying to rescue gay Russians from ignorance about Amsterdam’s bars. One of the heroic Hollanders, Time tells us, offered Russian activists

a seminar comparing and contrasting equality in the Netherlands and Russia. … Though bullying is still rampant in the Netherlands, the LGBT movement there is past its adolescence. In April 2001, the Netherlands was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage. But in Russia, the gay-rights movement is in its infancy.

Putin couldn’t ask for a better justification for the law. This bullshit tells the oppressors exactly what they want to hear.

Petition politics: Tremble, puny Putin

Petition politics: Tremble, puny Putin

The other result is that, with no ballast from some sense of what Russian activists think feasible, people’s appeals fly off in all sorts of directions. I can’t even count how many petitions are running riot on the web, each directed at somebody different, demanding something else. Move the Olympics! Boycott the Olympics! Hold the Olympics but protect the athletes! Screw the athletes, let them get arrested! Protest at Sochi! Write to the White House! Boycott Stoli! No, make Stoli give more money to the gays! … and on and on. The most ridiculous, and that’s saying a lot, comes from Wayne Besen, who has a one-man LGBT group called Truth Wins Out. He launched an opportunistic petition aimed at MSNBC, that doyen of brutal homophobic regimes, demanding they name Rachel Maddow their “special human rights correspondent” during the Sochi Games. This has nothing to do with helping Russians. Voting for celebrity journalists is maybe the least likely path for our limited energies to create meaningful change. But it’s a great way for Besen to flatter Maddow into inviting him back on her show. Last time I checked, 10,000 had signed.

Now, let’s be clear: Russian activists don’t have a consensus on what international colleagues should do. The two statements now circulating show the divide. There’s a letter from 33 activists (posted on the website of the revived Queer Nation in New York). It’s brief; it says

We appreciate and support all attempts to let the Russian authorities know that homophobic and inhumane laws will not go unnoticed and that Vladimir Putin’s regime will not get away with antigay violence. We speak out in favor of boycotting Russian goods and companies and the Olympic Games in Sochi.

Then there’s a statement from the Russian LGBT Network, specifically opposing a boycott of the Winter Games.

We believe that calls for the spectators to boycott Sochi, for the Olympians to retreat from competition, and for governments, companies, and national Olympic committees to withdraw from the event risk to transform the powerful potential of the Games in[to] a less powerful gesture that would prevent the rest of the world from joining LGBT people, their families and allies in Russia in solidarity. …

We hope for the support of national organizations in making sure that the athletes publicly take a stance against violence toward LGBT people and stand strong for LGBT equality; that the national houses fill the gap of the banned Pride House and support LGBT athletes, staff, spectators and their allies on their grounds; that sponsors follow through with their policies and visualize their commitment to justice and observance of human rights in regards LGBT people at the Games…

When there’s a divide among domestic activists, international supporters must stop and think things through. You’re going to have to take a side sooner or later (even inaction is a decision), but you need to figure out the different priorities put forward, and the reasons behind them. The fact that there’s a conflict, though, is not an excuse to do whatever you want without thinking things through at all.

I have Russian friends on either side here. To generalize: Many pro-boycott signatories strike me as experienced at political advocacy and tied to the human rights community. Meanwhile, the anti-boycott Russian LGBT Network speaks with the voice of activism within LGBT communities. The first statement, I think, comes more from considering what could budge the notoriously impervious Putin government; the second, more from thinking about the safety and political viability of LGBT communities.

You can’t reconcile the two recommendations: either you boycott things, or you don’t. You can try to negotiate between the concerns they represent: between having maximum effect on the Russian regime, and protecting LGBT people from backlash and isolation.

What follows are seven thoughts on how to do this. They are purely my own, but I hope they can provoke some debate.

This aggression will not stand, man

This aggression will not stand

ONE. Protest has a goal, and it’s in Russia, not London or New York. “International solidarity” actions tend to fade into the fake activism of catharsis. The aims you strive for affect others, not yourself; and those Others are too often abstract rather than known. On both grounds, it’s easy to lose sight of concrete ends while flooded with moral superiority, all passion spent. You hear this whenever people talk about “raising awareness” as a purpose in itself — as though, having been on the evening news, they’ve done enough. You can raise a million people’s awareness, but unless you plan to do something with it, it’s a waste of time.

What matters? Actions that will have move the Russian government toward change. Pressuring the IOC is fine if the IOC can then apply pressure on Putin, not just to protect its own brood of tender athletes, but to reform his human rights record. Pressuring a private company is pointless unless there’s reason to think that company can actually influence the regime. You need to keep your eyes on the prize.

Calls for Olympic boycotts past: 1980, 1984, 2008, 2012

Olympic boycotts past: 1980, 1984, 2008, 2012

If you do keep your eyes there, it’s possible to imagine different campaigns, apparently at cross-purposes,  working toward the same end. There’s a case that calling for a Sochi boycott can give Putin’s government some shivers, even if it doesn’t succeed, by casting a pall over his limelight moment. It probably won’t succeed, though. Demanding Olympic boycotts is a political strategy going back almost 40 years. But only three went anywhere: the 1976 boycott of Montreal by (mainly) African countries, over the Games’ lax enforcement of anti-South Africa sanctions; the 1980 boycott of Moscow over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and the tit-for-tat Soviet-bloc boycott of Los Angeles. And only the first had anything to do with human rights, rather than Cold War retaliation. The present calls may “raise awareness” if enough people pay attention.  But they must mesh with a Plan B assuming the boycott doesn’t happen, to channel that awareness into ongoing pressure. The boycott campaign can be just the first stage of a project to embarrass Putin’s government at Sochi — and beyond.

A useful chart of which nations participated in the three main Olympic boycotts in history, 1976, 1980, and 1984

A useful chart of which nations participated in the three main Olympic boycotts in history, 1976, 1980, and 1984

Such calibration of strategies, though, requires Western activists to talk to one another about what they want and how to get there. All the clashing rhetoric lately conceals the fact there hasn’t been much communication between people making different demands.

It also requires talking with, not just about, Russians, to get their views. Among the most vocal Western campaigners, there’s little evidence of regular dialogue with Russian groups, still less that they take strategic advice. Queer Nation in New York has that letter from Russian activists on its website, but mainly treats it as a weapon to be brandished against other campaigners with different priorities. (Indeed, when the Latvian LGBT group Mozaika objected to their assault on Stolichnaya, which is bottled in Latvia and gives Latvians jobs, Queer Nation responded by telling the Latvians, in effect, that New Yorkers know better about the region than they do.)

"Here Lives a Foreign Agent": Banner over offices of Memorial human rights group, November 28, 2012

“Here Lives a Foreign Agent”: Banner over offices of Memorial human rights group, November 28, 2012

TWO. Learn about the context. The human rights crisis is way larger than one law. More’s at stake in Russia — much more — than LGBT issues and the “anti-propaganda” law. There are two reasons for Western LGBT activists to stress this. One is moral: it’s the truth. Many Russians are suffering, and even the new repression against gay people grows out of older patterns. The other is pragmatic. This is the best way to protect LGBT Russians against a backlash over the campaign.

Manifold rights violations have burgeoned under Putin — even overlooking the fraudulent elections, or the torture and mass murder in Chechnya. A few others:

  • Suppression of free expression. This year, Reporters Without Borders placed Russia 148th out of 179 countries on its World Press Freedom Index. Since his 2011 re-election, Putin has enacted repressive new laws and policies to restrict access to information. Almost unnoticed in the West, the anti-gay-propaganda bill has a twin: a law that would create “a registry (or ‘blacklist’) of any online materials containing illegal information relevant to children.” That’s any information the State doesn’t like, not just the gay stuff. Meanwhile, most major media are under state control, and bureaucrats bully independent outlets into self-censorship. Attacks on journalists, including murder, are common — and rarely investigated or solved. At least 56 have been killed since 1992. In 2012 alone, “two journalists were killed and 33 were physically attacked in connection with their work.”
  • Persecution of whistleblowers. In 2009, Sergei Magnitsky died in prison after being beaten and denied medical care. He’d been jailed for an attempt to expose interlocking corruption among business magnates and state officials. His death pointed not just to torture in detention, but to the increasing paranoia of a secretive state (a point where the US is ill-poised to offer criticism, given its pursuit of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden). Recently, new amendments to the criminal code have expanded the definition of “state secret” as well as “treason.” The latter now means transmitting a “secret” not only to a foreign government but to an “international organization or its representatives.” (Obama would love this.)
  • Attacks on freedom of assembly. Moscow Pride is hardly the only gathering authorities have banned or broken up under the Putin regime. After the demonstrations against his rule in 2011-2012, Putin pushed through new restrictions on legitimate protest. The two-year sentence meted out to members of the punk band Pussy Riot in 2012 shows the fate of loud dissent. Amnesty reported this year that “Peaceful protests across Russia, including gatherings of small groups of people who presented no public threat or inconvenience, [are] routinely dispersed by police, often with excessive force. The authorities regarded every such event, however peaceful and insignificant in number, as unlawful unless expressly sanctioned, although gatherings of pro-government or pro-Orthodox Church activists were often allowed to proceed uninterrupted even without authorization.”
  • Racism and xenophobia. Recent skinhead targeting of LGBT people originated in a long barrage of attacks against immigrants, guest workers, and non-ethnic Russians (and the more traditional object, Jews). Human Rights First estimates racist violence “claimed as many as many as 470 lives since 2004.” The government condemned these attacks in the past and prosecuted them sporadically, but the Putin administration’s rhetoric against “terrrorist” Others, including Muslims, promoted hate. Just this week, “police and migration officials mounted raids at markets across Moscow, in factories … in the city’s subway system and on the streets. At last count nearly 1,500 foreigners had been detained … That number included 586 people, most of them Vietnamese, who were being held in a temporary tent camp more appropriate for a war zone or the scene of a natural disaster than the center of a capital city.”
  • Destroying civil society. After his faked re-election in 2011, Putin’s parliament began enacting laws to prevent Russian NGOs from functioning. The worst, passed in November 2012 but almost forgotten in the furor over the anti-gay bill, requires groups receiving foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” subjecting them to stigma and constant official oversight. Within days of the law’s passage, the premises of two of the best-known Russian human rights groups, Memorial and For Human Rights, were defaced with graffiti and banners saying “Here Lives a Foreign Agent.” As of June 2013, Human RIghts Watch could identify 62 organizations severely harassed under the law. Prosecutors told the New York Times they had targeted 215 groups. Two LGBT organizations, including Side by Side, a St. Petersburg cultural festival, were among the earliest ones taken to court under this law.

The last instance makes crystal clear that Putin doesn’t need the “gay propaganda” law to shut down LGBT civil society. Nor, as I’ve stressed, would scrapping that law end skinhead violence against LGBT people, or ensure them free assembly, or guarantee they can express themselves without fear. Getting rid of the propaganda ban is one important step, but one of many. Protecting the human rights of LGBT Russians means fighting for the human rights of all Russians.

LGBT activists in Russia rightly fear that the more Western protests focus on gay concerns and ignore other vital issues, the more they’ll be punished in retaliation. If you don’t want to harm the LGBT communities you’re trying to defend, look at the big picture. Stress connections. Talk about all fronts of Russia’s human rights struggle.

THREE. Get ready for the long haul. This won’t be easy. No LGBT campaign of the last decade — not gay marriage, not getting Betty White on Saturday Night Live — can equal the difficulty of changing Vladimir Putin’s mind. And changing the corrupt system that rules Russia would, will, be even harder. LGBT activists in Russia know years of struggle lie ahead. If you really want to support them — if you want to help them tackle the interlocking rights abuses and systems of oppression — don’t expect quick victories. Don’t give up. And don’t return to regular programming if and when one bad law goes down, forgetting the many repressions that remain.

FOUR. Foreigners to the rear, please. God in heaven, I’m begging you, enough of this:

What we did on our summer vacation

Fool Britannia: What we did on our summer vacation

“A British tweeter has unveiled his pink Union Jack in Moscow’s Red Square, outside the Kremlin, to defy Russia’s anti-gay laws. In response to a tweet by LGBT activist and political campaigner, Peter Tatchell, Mathew Benham attached his photo with the words ‘our little gesture’ … Tatchell had nothing but praise for the activist, applauding his efforts for managing to surpass the Russian officials.” Victory! Let the word go forth from Minsk to Pinsk: pink is the new Red! Putin, you’re punk’d!

This kind of stunt activism by tourists, à la Tatchell, is usually naïve but harmless. But in Russia, where xenophobia is rife, and where the law specifically targets groups and movements that can be deemed “foreign agents,” pinning a UK flag on LGBT rights can only hurt Russians. It’s the wrong thing to do.

Why do Russians identity LGBT issues with foreign influence? A least a little derives from the disastrous way the first attempts to hold Pride in Moscow were handled. I was there in 2006 and 2007; non-Russians swarmed the events. The day before Pride in 2006, at a meeting tasked to decide whether to proceed with the march in face of multiplying threats of violence, more than 100 people crowded the room, all but a dozen of us aliens. I suggested politely that we all leave and let the few, overwhelmed Russians decide an issue that disproportionately affected them. The proposal enraged some prominent guests.

Most ominously, the Prides were played for foreign press and foreign cameras, who wanted to film foreign celebrities being telegenically bruised. How Russia media and Russian audiences saw things could matter less. They spread an impression that the whole issue was the hobbyhorse of a few well-photographed tourists with time on their hands.

We need to talk about Putin, and then talk some more: Tilda Swinton's PR man urges retweeting her photo

We need to talk about Putin. Then tweet. And retweet. Tilda Swinton’s PR man urges retweeting her photo

It’s too late to unmake that impression completely, but at least you shouldn’t add to it. An embargo on flag-bearing foreigners in Red Square would only be a start. Maybe we also need to voice a bit less indignation over the prospect of our sexy visiting athletes getting arrested at the Games, and more over what might happen to Russians themselves.

More than that, though: Russian voices must be heard. The fact that the Russian law targets “propaganda” gives extra impetus to the idea that silenced Russians don’t need supporters, but ventriloquists — that we must “use our voices to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.” Nonsense. Russians are not cowards (the grandparents of these gays survived Stalin) and, law or no law, they can speak for themselves perfectly well. It strikes me that the Western protest organizers are very good at using Facebook and Twitter to promote their own proclamations — but somehow haven’t figured out how to give space to others. Why not Skype in Russian activists at meetings, rallies, press conferences?  Why not retweet what Russians are saying? Why not lend your Facebook pages to Russian movement leaders, to share their opinions?

FIVE. Drop the comparisons. Is Russia South Africa? Yes.

South Africa had institutionalized racism through the discriminatory laws enacted by Parliament which became known as Apartheid. Well now Russia has institutionalized homophobia through discriminatory and prejudicial laws enacted by its Parliament … I think that that a boycott must be called and the United States, and all concerned about homophobia and LGBTI equality should refuse to set foot on Russian soil to participate in any sport whatsoever. … And then what about the matter of principal? [sic]

That’s by Melanie Nathan, who as a white South African living in the US unquestionably has a proprietary claim to apartheid-as-metaphor. (It’s odd, though, that a single law in Russia justifies the comparison in her view, whereas if you use the simile for the whole battery of laws, regulations, and policing that Israel deploys against West Bank Palestinians — denying them political rights and free movement, enforcing segregation, seizing land, destroying homes — she finds it “anti-Semitic.”)

But wait: Russia’s worse. Is it … Nazi Germany? Well, guess.

Consider the stain on the Five Rings that occurred when the 1936 Berlin Olympics proceeded under the exultant aegis of a tyrant who had passed into law, two years earlier, an act which singled out for special persecution a minority whose only crime was the accident of their birth. In his case he banned Jews from academic tenure or public office, he made sure that the police turned a blind eye to any beatings, thefts or humiliations afflicted on them, he burned and banned books … The Olympic movement at that time paid precisely no attention to this evil and proceeded with the notorious Berlin Olympiad, which provided a stage for a gleeful Führer … Putin is eerily repeating this insane crime, only this time against LGBT Russians.

I think the first sentence has something to do with Tolkien. Didn’t an exultant aegis swoop down and save Frodo from Mount Doom?

I'm furious at this Führer: London anti-Putin demonstration, August 2013

I’m furious at this Führer: London anti-Putin demonstration, August 2013

These analogies don’t aid in understanding what’s happening in Russia. They prevent it. A law attacking freedom of speech isn’t the same as a sweeping denial of citizenship. (Nor did a minority of invading Russian heterosexuals colonize the East European plain and rob the gay majority of its land.) And Putin has not passed the Nuremberg Laws. Even amid the current manic carnival of emotion, the writers should flinch in embarrassment from the implications of what they’re saying. Will Putin launch a new blitzkrieg against Poland so its gays can be carted off to extermination? Don’t go there — but unfortunately these guys do. Hitler’s Olympics “gave him confidence,” Stephen Fry warns, and of course we don’t want to make Putin cocky, because “what [Hitler] did with that confidence we all know.” Another writer’s even clearer about the coming storm:

 In 1935—as in 2013—the International Olympics Committee was keen to pretend that sporting events could wash a clearly politicized setting of its politics, or wipe a dirty city clean. … In this Faustian bargain, Hitler hid the most obvious signs of what would later become his Final Solution. … And then, once the international community had left, Hitler and his willing minions invaded neighboring countries and incinerated every fucking Jew, queer, or dissenter they could get their hands on. 

Help.

Alex Gabriel argues that this death talk makes us feel good about ourselves. “Fry’s recourse to anti-Nazism enlists [Great Britain] in helping ‘save’ sexual minorities in Russia, as Britain loves to remember it saved European Jews, replaying on memorial loop its empire’s one moment of apparent heroism.” That’s a grotesque comment on our moral self-image.

The Holocaust against the European Jews was a genocide that slaughtered millions. (I’m not sure why I feel the need to say this, except that some of these folks talk so casually it’s as though Hitler didn’t kill people, just film Schindler’s List.) Comparing some other serious human rights abuse to the extermination of a people doesn’t make the former more urgent, it makes it trivial. For some strange reason, a lot of gay (not so many L or B or T) intellectuals over the years have taken the Holocaust as a standard by which the undoubtedly awful persecutions inflicted on dissident sexualities over the years can, and should, be measured. (Gore Vidal, Larry Kramer, ACT UP, many more.) Maybe it’s because silence didn’t just enshroud the latter persecutions — silencing was part of them. To identify with the most condemned and public atrocity of modern times promises that some of the dignity of visibility can be regained. It doesn’t work that way, though.

San Francisco demonstration against Putin, August 2013: http://bit.ly/14147ub

San Francisco demonstration against Putin, August 2013: http://bit.ly/14147ub

The extreme talk is getting out of control. A new slogan’s all over the Internet, based on the unconfirmed stories that skinheads have killed young gays: “YOU SPILL GAY BLOOD WE SPILL RUSSIAN VODKA.” The quid doesn’t quite fit the quo; vodka’s not equivalent to blood – even in Russia, where the latter may well be 40% composed of the former. But you can easily imagine the menacing sentence spun around, spoken by the skinheads themselves: “YOU SPILL RUSSIAN VODKA, WE SPILL GAY BLOOD.” The lunatic register of revenge would be the same. Any time we start mimicking the mad rhetoric of neo-Nazis, we’re on the wrong road.

SIX. Chuck the Tchaikovsky talk. I don’t like Tchaikovsky that much, but even if I did, I would be tired of you people talking about him. Western activists hold him up incessantly as proof positive that Russian culture contained and was shaped by queers. O Kremlin hypocrites, attacking your very heritage! “Tchaikovsky. Genius. Gay. Outlawed” was a sign at one New York protest.  “All Out Tells St. Petersburg Governor Not To Tarnish Tchaikovsky’s Legacy With Anti-Gay Bill,” a headline reads (they even handed him a video set to the camp chords of Swan Lake). Has anybody heard of a Russian musician, or writer, or artist other than Tchaikovsky? Didn’t I see Tolstoy the other night at Sidetrack?

Hero of the Homintern: Tchaikovsky worship at London anti-Russia protest, August 2013 (http-/www.flickr.com/photos/zefrog/9479752671/in/set-72157635017804350)

Hero of the Homintern: Tchaikovsky worship at London anti-Russia protest, August 2013 (http-/www.flickr.com/photos/zefrog/9479752671/in/set-72157635017804350)

No homophobe was ever persuaded by these appeals to Great Gays in Your History. In my experience people hate few things more than having folks who know nothing about their culture explain it to them. (Imagine a Russian telling you that Obama has betrayed the rich heritage of Negro obsequiousness in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.) Moreover, the diehard supporters of the “gay propaganda” bill, if they listen to classical music at all, most likely hate Tchaikovsky. They’d see him as the effete creature of cosmopolitan St. Petersburg who turned away from healthy Russian tonalities toward Western decadence. In his one unequivocally patriotic piece of music, the 1812 Overture, he even dared to insinuate the heathen Marseillaise, which is like finding a dead rat in your blini. If these people think about high culture at all, they’re the heirs of nineteenth-century Slavophilia: ultranationalism in art. They’d listen not to the Nutcracker but to the narodnik notes churned out by The Five (true, one of that circle’s members, Mussorgsky, drank himself to death in unrequited passion for young men, but there’s one poison mushroom in every Russian dish, right?). And probably even that would be too highfalutin. As Putin’s own deputy culture minister said last spring, “Who needs Tchaikovsky?”

They don't call it the Nutcracker for nothing: #FuckyeahTchaikovsky tweets

They don’t call it the Nutcracker for nothing: #FuckyeahTchaikovsky would be a nice hashtag

What’s interesting is that Western LGBT advocates describing Russia instinctively treat “culture” as their friend: a reserve of enlightened values and liberal tolerance, regrettably sidelined by the uncultivated thugs who happen to rule the country now. They would never blame the new legislation on Russian “culture” or “tradition,” though in fact those are exactly the terms that Russian right-wingers use to justify it. Contrast how these activists talk about Africa. There “culture” is the enemy, a monolithic blob of primitive practices that no enlightened idea can penetrate without either missionaries or soldiers to escort it.  (When the US President travelled to three diverse countries at different corners of the continent this summer, a headline read, “Obama to Visit Homophobic Culture.”) Newspapers doing the obligatory stories on homophobia in Africa hardly ever bother to mention politics or politicians; they come and go, but the magma of tradition remains.

Yet all this measures the degree to which Russia, despite those decades of enforced Cold War enmity, remains like us in our minds: a country of white people and European values. Out of racial solidarity comes an affinity transcending historical difference. In fact, talking about “culture” can’t tackle a political problem; it’s a bankrupt strategy. Appeals to “Russian culture” won’t help us change a single Russian mind, any more than condemning “African culture” has changed a single African one. They only show that we’re still unable to disentangle our advocacy from our darker fantasies.

SEVEN. Think gas pump, not Stoli dump.  Boycotts are such an easy form of activism, except for the ones that work. It’s looks so simple just to sit back and not buy things!  Of course, once you actually start to figure out where your target’s vulnerable and how to exploit that, things change. When facts enter, the work gets hard.

ACT UP disrupts Stoli promotion, New York, July 2013: The upside-down poster is a signal of distress

ACT UP disrupts Stoli promotion, New York, July 2013: The upside-down poster is a signal of distress

The campaign to punish Putin by abjuring Stolichnaya impresses me as one of those extremely easy boycotts that nobody thought through first. The point isn’t so much that the vodka’s actually bottled in Latvia — a fact that has only prodded boycotters into Jesuitical arguments over what it means for a vodka to be “Russian.” (Note to campaigners: when the dispute sinks to this level, you’ve lost.) The point is that the brand is owned by a private company, not the State. As several people have noted, the boycotters assume that Russia is like the US, where corporations tell the government what to do. But in Russia’s crony capitalism, most private companies bow and tremble before government clerks, begging to hang onto the last shreds of their independence. Putin’s State has been trying to wrest back control of Stolichnaya for some while; arguably the boycott, if it actually weakens the owners, will only speed the takeover. I have zero sympathy with the corporation or its “support” for gay rights in the US — read: its bribes to LGBT institutions in order to keep the community profitably soused. But vodka dumps in San Francisco are unlikely to make Putin tremble. 

For a decade now, no international pressure has been able to make Putin tremble.  As long as the West was slavishly dependent on the country’s vast natural gas and oil resources, the President could pretty much do as he liked. Russian politics run “on conventional oil and gas,” the Economist says, and “Vladimir Putin is in essence the CEO of Russian Energy Inc.” Recently, Russia’s fuel exports have been declining, and with them the profit machine. Why not exploit this weakness? Why dump vodka, when Russia’s engines run on more precious liquids?

Running on empty: Problems of a petro-state

Running on empty: Problems of a petro-state

The Russian economy is slowing down. Growth has gone from 7% a year in the heady mid-2000s, to under 4% in 2012, to only 1.6% in the first quarter of 2013. One word explains a lot of the slippage: shale. The “revolution” in shale oil and gas may not be “changing the geopolitical and economic map of the world,” as its boosters bray. But new (environmentally disastrous) ways of extracting fuel from recalcitrant soil have turned the US from a dependent energy importer to a power source, in fact the world’s largest producer of natural gas. And they’ve given formerly Russia-addicted buyers new energy sellers to choose from.

Fuel exports run the Russian economy. A few facts:

  • Russia is the most oil-dependent of the world’s 10 largest economies;
  • Oil and gas account for more than half of federal government revenues;
  • They make up nearly 20 percent of gross domestic product (GDP);
  • They account for 50% – 60% of Russia’s exports;
  • Nearly 50% of Russian energy production is for export.
Oil outlflow. Source: http://www.turkishweekly.net/columnist/3782/rosneft-the-new-star-of-russian-energy.html

Outlflow: Russia’s oil production vs. export since 2000. Source: http://www.turkishweekly.net/columnist/3782/rosneft-the-new-star-of-russian-energy.html

Lots of the exports run through three giant corporations: the State-run duo Gazprom and Rosneft, and the crony-controlled Lukoil. (The oil industry was imperfectly privatized under Yeltsin, though it’s heading back into Putin’s hands, but natural gas remained mainly under State management). Gazprom’s activities alone make up 8% of Russia’s GDP.

But oil and gas flowing from the US have shaken Russia’s market position — and its political power. It’s been forced to make unprecedented concessions to its consumers. In Asia, where Beijing claims even larger shale reserves than the US, “Russia has had to agree to the majority of China’s demands in recent purchase negotiations of crude oil and natural gas.” In Europe, it’s even worse. The Economist explains,

The shale revolution is changing the balance of power between the Russian bear and its European customers. In the past Russia was so confident of its producer power that it felt able to bully clients: it cut off gas supplies to Ukraine in both 2006 and 2009 during contract negotiations. But America’s shale-driven transformation … is pushing down the price of gas on the world market. Supplies of Middle Eastern liquefied gas that America no longer wants are now being offered to Europeans. This week a consortium was chosen to pipe gas from Azerbaijan to western Europe, further reducing dependence on Russian supplies. Europeans are finding they have bargaining power: Bulgaria recently negotiated a 20% price cut in its new ten-year contract with Russia.

Putin’s pals at Gazprom are especially suffering. The company draws 40% of its revenues from sales to Europe, and those are no longer pliant customers. Russia’s share of Europe’s natural gas purchases dropped from 45% to 31.8 % between 2003 and 2010; with some ups and downs, it’s still dropping. As a result Gazprom’s value fell from $369 billion in 2008 to less than $77 billion this June. “Russia is shooting itself in the foot,” Lithuania’s president recently remarked.

Russian_gas_exports_pie_chart

I’m not particularly thrilled about LGBT rights drawing advantage from the despicable practice of fracking; but let’s face it, there’s a window of opportunity here.

The Gazprom logo on these shirts in no way indicates tolerance for this homoerotic behavior: From the Gazprom Germania Sport website

The Gazprom logo on these shirts in no way indicates tolerance for this homoerotic behavior: From the Gazprom Germania Sport website

LGBT activists in Europe have a particularly ripe chance to press for change. Now is the time to demand their governments buy less Russian gas and oil. There’s a pragmatic reason: energy diversification is good. There’s a moral reason: Russia’s whole human rights record — not just its oppression of LGBT people. You can protest, demonstrate, make the case. You can hurt Putin in his bulging wallet, which is also the padded seat of his political power. (Germans, Italians: look at the chart above! Repression fires your stoves. Here’s the website of Gazprom’s German branch: and here is the page of “Gazprom Sport Germania,” its football-sponsoring PR side, an Olympic-sized irony just calling out for a nice demo.)

US activists’ options are more complicated. We don’t import so many Russian hydrocarbons. But look: Lukoil has moved into the US market. They bought Getty Oil some while ago; they own a bunch of former Mobil gas stations in the Northeast, including dozens scattered across New Jersey, right under Queer Nation’s nose. (Those stations created a local furor last year for price-gouging, by the way.) Here, too, is a sitting target: a chance to hit Putin in his petro-power, where it just might really hurt.

A light at the Frankenstein place: Lukoil station in New Jersey

A light at the Frankenstein place: Lukoil station in New Jersey

 

13 thoughts on “Stoli and sympathy, and the new LGBT public sphere: What to do about Russia

  1. brilliant piece – u are an amazing writer and thinker and everybody should read your work. where can we expect the next big public crisis in lgbt rights to be?

  2. Thanks again for taking the time to write in depth on these issues! I’d only make two small corrections (they certainly don’t detract from your ideas): nesting dolls are “matrioshki”, not “babushka dolls”. The Soviet-era poster you have on the left with the bombs is from the war era, and reads “All for victory! To the front from the women of the USSR!” If your readers don’t know this, labeling it a Cold War era poster makes it look as if those bombs are intended for the West ; as you wrote previously, be careful with images!

    In all seriousness, you raise points of utmost importance. I’ve written AllOut with similar concerns. I also think it is naive for people to think that Russian-speaking Americans (and this includes my self) can speak for Russian citizens. We can’t and shouldn’t. In fact, immigrant communities often have distinct views about socio-political issues from their home countries.

  3. Great. Easily the best thing written on this issue so far.

    One point of minor disagreement – or not so much disagreement as rounding it out in a more complicated way – is the “Tchaikovsky was gay” argument. I agree with much of what you have here, but note that local Russian orgs have used this argument, too: Vykhod put out a whole series of advertisements showing famous Russian LGBTs and their statements about same-sex attraction. Now, that was specifically targeted at St. Petersburg, and it didn’t stop with “Tchaikovsky was gay”, so there’s some room for nuance here.

    But the key point of their ads was to oppose the widespread assumption that Russia (like Iran) had no gays until recently, and only started getting his movement as part of a CIA psychological warfare technique, which I’m sorry to say, you hear a LOT of people claiming. There is a necessary campaign of historicizing queerness in Russia. Unfortunately the reason Westerners default to Tchaikovsky is that they don’t know anything else, which is why it reeks of platitude. So on the whole, I agree with you there.

    (Also, I think your summary of Tchaikovsky and musical nationalism may be a little out of date: outside a few ideologues like Stasov, no one ever treated Tchaikovsky as a Westernizer, including most of the kuchka. He did write more unequivocally patriotic music than 1812 (hard to get more explicitly patriotic than the ‘Marche slave’, after allQ) and applied a far more widespread use of Russian folk music than anyone on the Slavophile front. But more to the point, by listeners, he was and is still embraced as the most complete distillation of the Russian genius. Heck, everyone knows the story of Tolstoy bawling during Tchaikovsky’s string quartet because of its national spirit. Even as national myth, the whole kuchka v. Tchaikovsky thing died a long time ago. I don’t think there’s a living Russian who still subscribes to the idea of Tchaikovsky as a Western composer, or as anything but THE national composer.

    Now, you’re right about the image of Tchaikovsky as the effete cosmopolitan, but I think you might be overstating the attitude that even Russian politicians have toward him. After all, it was Putin who declared 2015 “The Year of Tchaikovsky”, and there’s a ton of stuff in the works for that jubilee. Laptev’s dismissive comment came on the heels of a pretty nasty, and still ongoing, funding battle.)

    Sorry for the ridiculously long comment. Thanks again for what’s probably the best summary of the situation that I’ve read in English.

    • Also, I don’t want to overstate this, either. It’s not like Maxim Martsinkevich is going to stop what he’s doing because he hears a Tchaikovsky quartet on the radio. Which I think ties into your broader point.

  4. that’s a really excellent analysis! thank you! it also reminds me a lot of what happens around the pussy riot case and the western celebrity-like wave of support, that often ends up with statements like: “russia needs to learn what feminism means”, as if the three-wave-NGO model of liberal feminism is the only one… as for listening to the activists themselves and the gas/petrol issue I recommend listening to this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOM_3QH3bBw.

  5. Damn,. my previous comment did not get through, so will try once again.

    This is defo the best piece that i have encoutered so far. And surely one of the few which tries to analyse things, not to just incite some emotions.
    But i will make one correction: any boycott of anything would not work. The govt would just cut the pensions or the number of hospitals in Siberian remote villages and then explain to those 50-60% who watch state-run Tv channels that America and gays are to blame. Guess, who will be hit by this boycott at the end of the day…
    The problem is that it is true that 80 % of Russians are quiet homophobic – not as much as thoe Nazis – but still they think of homosexuality as abnormal. So fighting this law or fighting Putin would not change society and the plight of LGBT people. Some Western LGBT media tried to link the anti-gay violence to this law. Maybe, there is a connection, but as a gay teen grown up in Russia i have seen this pics or heard such stories all my life. The issues is not as much political as social.
    Homophobia and misogyny have been on the rise ever since 1991, when USSR collapsed. The Russian sociologists already in late 1990 started to talk of “Patriarchical Reneissance”, i.e. the growing polarisation of gender norms and related cult of musculinity and physical strength. The women became so ridiculed that even quiet conservative Soviet society of 1960s-1980s seemed like a feminist paradise.
    And these issues can not be understood without remembering that “transition to democracy” was a huge social disaster. Political, social, economic, ideological and other pillars of the society were instantly destroyed. According to the UN, in 1989 there were 2 million who lived in poverty, in 1998 – 74 million. That was way more horrible than Thatchersim. I spent my childgood surrounded by adults asking what the hell is happening in the country and the whole spitir of it was absolutely apocalyptic. Now, there was no suprise that after all of that, people decided to stick to “tradition” and “normality” – just to feel some ground under their feet. And now it will take Russian society decades to overcome that trauma but so far nobody produced any reflections on how that period affected the society.
    Instead of antagonism and more economic hardships which can be caused by boycotts, this society needs healing and reconciliation. Today, people just hate each other and all together they hate gays. More antagonisms, boycotts will produce more hate. This society is a box of powder and one does not jongle with fire torches next to it. What really should be changed is the strategy of the Russian LGBT activists. It went in the wrong direction back in 2006 with these “gay prides”. Before having this kind of events there needs to be a lot of work done. Even if govt would allow prides, those who see it on TV would react with fury – and again it will hit back the LGBT people. The whole discourse and approach should be changed and maybe only the next generation of activists can do it.
    Producing movies or literature about the plight of LGBT people is one of very good ways – Russians like drama :)

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