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

 

Truths behind the gay torture images from Russia

Abuse of an "Uzbek": From Mikhail Solovyov's page at vk.com, http://vk.com/id162104250

Abuse of an “Uzbek waiter”: From Mikhail Solovyov’s page at vk.com, http://vk.com/id162104250

Russia now is a story told in pictures, still and moving. Everybody knows about Putin’s anti-gay law, because it’s been at the top of the news, gay and straight, for two weeks running; and if you’ve been following this even slightly, you’ve seen images like these — of homophobes brutally abusing Russian queers.

But what do they mean? Clips and snapshots keep cropping up on Western blogs. Here’s a  “horrific video showing Russian thugs have started entrapping gay men and boys,” posted by John Aravosis, with 85,000 hits on YouTube. Yet how can you evaluate it if nobody bothers to say where the hell they got it?  Nor do most of the reposters have any qualms about showing the full faces of the people in these videos and photos: apparently once they’ve been outed and humiliated in Russia, they’re fair game in the rest of the world. (“While I am loathe to expose this young man any further, but [sic] this must be shown,” Melanie Nathan blogs while hawking one video. No, it mustn’t.) There’s a panicked compulsion to give us more and more pictures to consume, partly because they drive up Web traffic, partly because they lend an urgency that makes mere explanations seem distracting. But you can’t make sense of it unless you can say, not just see, something about what’s going on.

Pictures are problems. Photos pretend to tell us truths — a photograph “seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects,” wrote Susan Sontag — but, of course, they’re limited in what they tell. A photograph, or even a YouTube fragment of film, lacks context, is pulled free from the background that would give it meaning. You could argue (I’m sure someone has) that photographs of violence have an especially insidious appeal because all photographs are made in violence. Atrocity photos simply express the essence of the form: a few moments ripped from the seamless substance of the world, propped up in lopped and amputated isolation. You can use them, abuse them, put them in new contexts where they say and mean something completely different.

Russia is, as it happens, used to having its story told in images. Orthodoxy pioneered the use of icons for narrating religion to illiterate masses. To many Russian faithful still, these pictures don’t just show the sacred, they are it: a second, visual Gospel, sharing the authority and infallibility of the first. All those modern propaganda posters and imposing Red Square pageants draw on the same tradition: that seeing induces believing.

I like my mother better: Divine parenthood in the Russian visual tradition

I like my mother more. Divine parenthood in the Russian tradition

But we’re talking politics, not religion. And a picture must never be left to speak for itself. It’s not that hard to trace some of the stories behind these images. Due diligence requires it. At the very least, it can show Western activists how repression in Putin’s Russia goes far beyond a single “anti-gay law.” Moreover, you can learn much from the international economy of images in which these pictures circulate.

For example: the photograph at top comes from the page of Mikhail Solovyov, a neo-Nazi in the small, remote Urals city of Kamensk. (More on Kamensk soon.) It’s gone round the world; it’s become symbolic. Last week, a march against Putin’s law in Sweden saw the photo restaged as a tableau vivant, with a bear and a leather queen playing the abusive skinheads. (Isn’t this a peculiar way of protesting violence? I’ve been to countless demonstrations on Darfur, but never saw street theater enacting the invasion of the janjaweed.) How do I know that? Because a picture of the demo made its way back to Kamensk, and Mikhail Solovyov. He put it on his page too: with the caption,

Following the “advanced” West, you first recognize LGBT marriage, then pedophilia [as a] normal sexual orientation. … Pictured, representatives of foreign LGBT organizations protesting against catching pedophiles.

Swedish demo, August 2013: From Mikhail Solovyov's page, at http://vk.com/id162104250

Swedish demo, August 2013: From Mikhail Solovyov’s page, at http://vk.com/id162104250

So where did all these pictures start?

Maxim Martsinkevich is probably the place to begin. Nothing about the 29-year-old would-be architect’s page at VK, Russia’s answer to Facebook, suggests a particularly distinctive skinhead. He goes by his nickname, “Tesak,” variously translated “machete,” “cleaver,” or — my favorite — “slasher.” He likes steroids, protein shakes, pointless displays of masculinity (three videos show him having a tooth pulled minus anesthetic), and Adolf Hitler. Yet he’s quite innovative as Nazis go. Early in the Putin years, he was the driving force behind Format18, a violent group that called itself the “armed wing” of Russia’s National Socialist party.

Not your father's fascist: Slasher, from his profile at http://vk.com/resstruckt

Not your father’s fascist: Slasher, from his profile at http://vk.com/resstruckt

Format18 regularly assaulted immigrants and dark people. Its creativity lay in deciding that visibility — movie cameras coupled with social media — was not its enemy, but its friend. It filmed the attacks, turning them into imitation music videos that went viral on YouTube and VK. Google “Format18” and “funny” and you’ll figure out why: their savage sense of humor. “Lol, I love those videos,” one European neo-Nazi says. “It’s funny when they beat people up then burn their passports.” Some of the videos showed murders.

You might say Slasher dealt in iconography, that Russian tradition of showing, not telling. Made visible, the violence spread terror among the people Format18 wanted scared; made consumable, it helped Format18 recruit. Many Russians had loathed foreigners and especially Southerners at least since the Chechen wars. (There’s ample evidence that Putin sealed his 2000 election victory by having the ex-KGB carry out apartment-building bombings that slaughtered hundreds of Russians — then blaming them on Chechen “terrorists.”) Format18’s videos changed killing foreigners from drab fascist duty into something sexy.

Slasher even became a minor star in Putin’s mainstream media, soundbiting his way onto talk shows. Then disaster struck. Starting in 2008, he was convicted twice for “inciting ethnic hatred”: once for breaking up a debate between democracy activists, and once for a video supposedly showing a Kazakh being hanged and dismembered. (The latter turned out to be staged with actors, though it was rumored to re-enact a real killing.) Format18 fell apart while he was in prison. Slasher’s popularity still smoldered, though. When he was freed in 2011, a video celebrating his release immediately became one of the most-watched YouTube offerings in Russia.

Slasher politely interviews a "pedophile": photo posted on his VK page, http://vk.com/resstruckt?z=albums180496638, July 31, 2013 (blurring not in original)

Slasher politely interviews a “pedophile”: photo posted on his VK page, http://vk.com/resstruckt?z=albums180496638, July 31, 2013 (blurring not in original)

Slasher’s second act really got going sometime in 2012, though. His new idea was to apply Format18’s social-media methods to hunting down sexual perversion. His conceit was that Russia swarmed with chickenhawks chasing young men in impunity; he started gathering skinheads into a movement to combat them, called “Occupy Pedophilia.” The project’s genius lay in the potential drama. Most foreigners, after all, don’t or can’t hide their origin. But someone accused of pedophilia has every incentive to avoid exposure. Hence the titillation of humiliation, of violated privacy, topped off the violence. Reality TV replaced music videos as a model. Slasher seems to draw direct inspiration, in fact, from Dateline NBC‘s deranged To Catch a Predator series. He tries the same tactics: lure “pedophiles” with online ads allegedly placed by kids, then shame them with candid cameras. Except, unlike Dateline‘s wordy hosts, Slasher doesn’t waste time moralizing. He gets straight to the beatings.

Slasher catches a "bisexual hair stylist," from a video on http://okkupay-pedofilyay.ru/, now removed: blurring not in original

Slasher catches a “bisexual hair stylist,” from a video on http://okkupay-pedofilyay.ru/, now removed: blurring not in original

Unaware Westerners call Putin a “czar” and focus on the letter of legislation, but this ignores the peculiarly lawless character of his rule. Police persecute dissidents, journalists, and businessmen who don’t pay and play along; meanwhile, many laws go unenforced, much actual crime unpunished. Slasher’s vigilantism thus is a ready route to popularity. And he can carry on his own obviously criminal campaign in the full light of YouTube with little tangible threat of prosecution.

But it’s worth stressing: the passionate, extralegal revulsion against “pedophiles” that Slasher exploits is not just a Russian emotion. The mania’s international. If Slasher donned mufti and put the skinhead clothes in mothballs, he’d have plenty of fans in the US or UK. At one American website, you can cast a ballot: “Should pedophiles and serial rapists be killed?” 86% vote yes; 14% no. That law-and-order Pasionaria Sarah Palin called for lynching child abuser Jerry Sandusky instead of trying him: “Hang him from the highest tree, I’ll bring the rope.” In Britain in 2000, News of the World, Rupert Murdoch’s now-sunken flagship, launched a campaign of “naming and shaming” sex offenders who had already served their time in prison. It

led to lynch-mob attacks, firebombings and rioting in at least 11 communities, with vigilantes in some cases attacking people who looked like the men pictured or who had been incorrectly identified as past offenders. In one town, the home of a pediatrician was attacked when anti-pedophile campaigners got their spelling confused.

Slasher, who probably thinks “pediatrician” is what you call a Jewish pedophile, would have been proud.

Slasher torments a weeping young "pedophile," whom he calls "Whiner." From a video on his page at http://vk.com/restrukt,

Slasher, at left with dildo, torments a weeping young “pedophile,” whom he calls “Whiner.” From a video at http://okkupay-pedofilyay.ru, posted December 18, 2012.

To be sure, there are specifically Russian inflections to Slasher’s popularity. “Protecting children” has taken on acute political meaning: exaggerated anxieties about Russia’s falling birthrate translate into fears that the national future is in danger. Putin’s state-promoted homophobia feeds on that. And Occupy Pedophilia is explicit in its homophobia. They have no evident interest in men who seek girls for sex. (One member told a reporter, “Why should we catch girls who have sex for money? That’s normal for me. A pedophile is a different kind of person.”) For them, male homosexuality and preying on children are pretty much the same thing.

In Kamensk, the online news source Lenta.ru interviewed Occupy Pedophilia members. “Homosexuals are almost sacred in this country,” one leader complained. “We are against pedophiles, but we also do not like homosexuals. I don’t know why homosexuals protect pedophiles.” He added:

Some representatives of homosexuals came to my home recently … They said we mock people. They asked why we hate them. They said they feel oppressed. It just happened that they both somehow jumped into the garbage cans.

“If you see two young men walking down the street and holding hands, what would you do?” the reporter asks. The answer: “Interrogation. And then it all depends on them.”

 Catching a "pedophile" in Kamensk: Photo from Mikhail Solovyov's VK page, http://vk.com/id162104250?z=albums162104250


Catching a “pedophile” in Kamensk: Photo from Mikhail Solovyov’s VK page, http://vk.com/id162104250?z=albums162104250

That slippage between gays and predators is a common enough prejudice, in Russia as elsewhere. On the other hand, when Western activists redefine the men simply as “gay” victims, they should be aware they’re just reinforcing a widespread Russian belief that gays are identical to pedophiles. They need to note the nuance and stress the difference, not just confirm the belief.

"Well, friends, the summer season on pedophiles is open :-) We give you the latest photos from a safari." Photo from http://vk.com/okkupay_pedofilyay, posted August 10, 2013 (blurring not in original)

“Well, friends, the summer season on pedophiles is open 🙂 We give you the latest photos from a safari.” Photo from http://vk.com/okkupay_pedofilyay, posted August 10, 2013 (blurring not in original)

Occupy Pedophilia has taken off. Its website claims groups in 21 cities. A Russian journalist counted 359 Occupy Pedophilia groups on VK; one of those pages has 75,000 followers. Most of the videos circulating in the West that show “gays” being beaten are from Occupy Pedophilia’s sites. (This page has almost 400 clips from around the country.) I’m not going to embed the full videos here, because I’m not going to show the men’s faces. Slasher’s own films are less violent than some of his provincial acolytes’. He strips victims, interrogates them, humiliates them. Other groups douse the victims with urine, or force them to drink it.  This month, a police raid on the Occupy Pedophilia HQ in Sverdlovsk found “20 knives and sharpeners … 5 brass knuckles, 3 shuriken (Ninja throwing stars), nunchaku [Japanese chain sticks], a self-defense weapon ‘Blow,‘ 12 rounds of ammunition of various calibers and labels, as well as a wooden handle attached to a weighted chain, a metal hook with a chain, a metal hedgehog, 2 scythes, axes, wooden bats, and pepper spray.”

The same man doused with urine: Photo from http://vk.com/okkupay_pedofilyay, posted August 10, 2013 (blurring not in original)

The same man doused with urine: Photo from http://vk.com/okkupay_pedofilyay, posted August 10, 2013 (blurring not in original)

Several things should be emphasized. The entrapped men are of varying ages — from early 20s to 50s or 60s. Most were apparently lured by ads that promised teenage youths.

But there’s no evidence that most of them would be “pedophiles” under Russian law, or that, answering the ad aside, they’ve done anything wrong. The Occupy goons don’t care about the legal age of consent, which is 16 in Russia. Homosexuals “say a 16-year-old boy is already an adult, and can’t be corrupted,” a Kamensk skinhead complained to Lenta.ru. Reminded this is the law, “he shrugged.”

Indeed, sometimes Occupy Pedophilia doesn’t bother with the ads and the bait: they just pick up guys they think are gay on the street. One victim, Evgeny, told Rosbalt News that he went for an excursion with a girl “who’s dating a guy from ‘Occupy Pedophilia.’ … Based on others’ opinions, he decided I was gay, and it’s terrible that his girlfriend is talking to me.” At a bus stop,

Suddenly the guy attacked me. Hit my face and kicked my body… When I started bleeding from the nose, he stopped. I tried to get away to a safe distance, where a couple with a child were sitting. They lent a handkerchief but refused to help. After 10 minutes, three men approached. They began to ask me obscene questions and take pictures with their phones. … “When did you become gay? Do you have anal and oral sex?” They told passers-by that I was gay and would become a pedophile in the future. Some people got in conversations with them and even laughed. Next two of them tried to shove me into a car. They said they want to interview me … A woman waiting for a bus shouted she’d call the police. Hearing this … they jumped into the car [without me] and drove away. 

Slasher slaps a "pedophile" whom he's forced to strip in a tub. From a video at http://vk.com/video119910902_164053325, posted December 29, 2012

Slasher slaps a “pedophile” whom he’s forced to strip in a tub. From a video at http://vk.com/video119910902_164053325, posted December 29, 2012

Any hit TV series spawns a spinoff. Slasher’s violent reality show already has one. It’s called “Occupy Gerontophilia.”

Chicken and hawk: Philip Doeznitz, né Rosinsky, with Slasher. From a video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5w96iWzMOio.

Chicken and hawk: Philip Doenitz, né Razinsky, with Slasher. From a video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5w96iWzMOio.

Things get especially vicious here. “Philip Doenitz” founded Occupy Gerontophilia. That’s a pseudonym for Philip Razinsky, a fresh-faced Moscow student and Slasher groupie. He renamed himself after HItler’s successor: perhaps that’s how he sees himself next to Slasher, who probably should watch his back. At one point, Slasher used him as bait in entrapping older “pedophiles.” Then Philip branched out on his own.

Instead of hunting hawks, Occupy Gerontophilia chases the chickens. Doenitz assembled gangs of homophobic teenagers; they try to entrap other young guys into meetings with imaginary older ones, sometimes with the promise of money. A blogger explains,

Caught through social networks, 12­-16 year-olds are invited to meet, then beaten and forced to talk to their about their homosexuality. Then it’s all laid out in VK groups, with the slogan “Do repost — break his life.” The teen is terrorized by sending out these videos to his friends, acquaintances and parents.

Still from a video of a 12-year old being threatened and abused in Tambov; faces not blurred in the original

Still from a video of a 12-year old (R) being threatened and abused in Tambov; faces not blurred in the original

Occupy Gerontophilia is smaller than its anti-pedophile model: a reporter found only 14 VK groups, against over 300 for Occupy Pedophilia. VK keeps closing these down, much more often than it does Slasher’s direct progeny. In early July, a video Doenitz’s followers took in the town of Tambov provoked a surge of indignation. Local news recounts that “On a dating site [the Occupy members] posed as a 23-year-old man and met a 12-year old schoolboy. They promised him money for the meeting; during all this, services of a sexual nature were not discussed. The child agreed and went.” Instead they bullied him in a 15-minute video, taunting him for homosexuality and prostitution. Police opened an investigation against the abusers; the video has been removed from the web. The newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets followed up on the 12-year-old’s fate:

He now refuses to go out or socialize with friends. But sadly, he doesn’t have many friends. Teenagers are cruel; the majority turned away from the humiliated boy. He will likely be removed from the school where he was studying before. … His mother even thinks about moving to a remote province, where there is no Internet and no one will know her son.

Shallow, just a little bit: Doenitz (right) bullies a helpless victim to give a blow job

One time only, just a little bit: Doenitz (right) bullies a helpless victim to give a blow job

According to the Russian LGBT blog AntiDogma, in another July video Doenitz is seen blackmailing one of his victims, promising to release him and suppress the footage they’re filming if he gives one of his abusers a blow job. “I understand you don’t want it, but this is the only option or the movie hits the Internet. Your friends will see it 100%, and your parents.” He tells the child that sucking the guy won’t hurt: “One time only, shallow, a little bit.” This video too is mercifully gone from Doenitz’s VK page. 

If Dateline offered inspiration to Slasher’s scams, Doenitz’s abuses are pure kid-on-kid bullying — but with a brutal, militaristic edge. Interviewed by Moskovskij Komsomolets, Doenitz defended his videos. Better that a child’s life “be broken in this way, than that he grow up gay, and continue to engage in prostitution for money. I care about their future. But a quiet life? They’re just not going to have it.” He added that, as outrage over his methods grows, he’s getting tougher.

I’ve decided to apply the methods of urine therapy with regard to juvenile gays — simply pour urine on them at the meeting. I will lead the conversation, too, in a more rigid form. The level of aggression at the present time will increase significantly.

In the provincial city of Lipetsk, Oleg, an Occupy Gerontophilia member, explained to another journalist that “I do not want to live in a society where they tell me that homosexuality is the norm. And if a teenager is selling himself for money, where’s the guarantee that after a few years he won’t start to seduce children?” Oleg says his group has “50 like-minded people, but I think there will be more soon.”

The kids are all right: Philip Doenitz, from his page at http://vk.com/restrukt_88?z=albums24422330

The kids are all right: Philip Doenitz, from his page at http://vk.com/restrukt_88?z=albums24422330

Among the questions all this raises, some stand out.

a) What’s the relationship between skinhead violence and Putin’s State? Through the first decade of Putin’s rule, neo-Nazis were usually found, if uneasily, among the opposition. Putin used them to divide his opponents — many democrats wouldn’t be seen at the same demo with them — but distrusted them. The 3 1/2 year sentence meted out to Slasher for staging a Kazakh’s mock-murder was indicative: where possible, Putin wanted their violence kept under control.

Ultra-rightists march in Moscow to protest Putin and immigration, November 2012: @Reuters

Ultra-rightists march in Moscow to protest Putin and immigration, November 2012: © Reuters

When the current Occupy antics go too far in rousing outrage, the authorities will step in with at least token threats of prosecution. (In Sverdlovsk oblast, Occupy Pedophilia is under investigation by the Ministry of the Interior’s Center for Combating Extremism; most Russians would be surprised there is such a thing.)  But since the 2011 protests against his rigged re-election — the most serious challenge to his rule in over a decade — Putin has lurched rightward in calculated fashion. He hopes to peel off ultra-nationalists from the anti-Putin coalition, where they’ve been perhaps the most reliable street presence. His current nationalist, natalist, morally conservative language (and legislation) is part of the plan.

In this sense, Slasher et. al. are playing Putin’s game, rousing public anger against imaginary enemies — and, by their vigilantism, whipping up demand for an ever-stronger State to step in. The very fact that they’ve dubbed their moral-minority movements “Occupy” is telling. “Occupy” was a totemic term among the 2011-2012 anti-Putin demonstrators, as for many democracy activists around the world. By co-opting it for trivial moral policing, Slasher depoliticizes the word, and helps channel those revolutionary energies toward private ends. He makes deviance the issue, not democracy. Most ultra-rightists in Russia still loathe Putin.  But whether or not Slasher realizes it, he’s acting out Putin’s strategy.

b) Are the abuses a recent thing, a product of Putin’s new law? You’d think so, to read the gay blogosphere, which only just heard about them. Most Western gay commentators haven’t followed anything in Russia for the last ten years except the highly public, counterproductive efforts to stage Gay Pride in Moscow — a fiasco that has run at cross-purposes to other Russian LGBT activists’ patient efforts at building communities. So naturally, all these stories surprise them, and get lumped together with the panic over Putin’s law.

Melanie Nathan blogs that “since the introduction of new homophobic laws in Russia, the violence against gays has increased.” But there’s no evidence for this. It’s language that creates an atmosphere of urgent crisis (“the terror is so rife at this time, that it is equally criminal for us to be silent”), in which something — anything — must be done (“To my way of thinking it should be all or nothing“). It negates the fact that the repression in Russia has been going on for a long time and has deep roots. Occupy Pedophilia is at least a year old, and many of the videos cited as evidence of abuses now actually go back months. The Occupy Gerontophilia film that Nathan points to, as proof of “new terror unfold[ing] before our eyes” in August, shows snow on the ground.

It’s quite plausible that the Occupy twins, Pedo and Geronto, have fed on the anti-homosexual rhetoric of Putin’s party. They certainly will feed on the political restrictions and stigma that the new legislation will create. Easy to fight enemies who can’t talk back! But it’s equally plausible that they’ve been nourished by the same general environment  — of demonizing difference, marginalizing minorities, doling out rights like sweets to the deserving — that powered Putin’s legislation in the first place.

Demonstrator beaten by police at an anti-Putin rally, May 2012: © AP

Demonstrator beaten by police at an anti-Putin rally, May 2012: © AP

The anti-propaganda bill is odious, and must be scrapped. But repealing it will not make Slasher go away, or ensure gay men’s and children’s safety, or guarantee the civil liberties of LGBT people or anybody else in Russia. The problems are more profound than a single law. They involve the regime’s use of violence and murder against opponents, its stigmatizing and scapegoating of convenient Others, its suppression of civil society across the board. The current publicity is a chance to engage Western activists with Russian issues over the long haul; letting them rest content with short-term answers is a catastrophic failure. To tell Western gays that they need only pressure Putin about a single issue, then sit back satisfied if their demands are met, is to offer all the Slashers carte blanche for a future career of abuse.

c) Is this just a gay issue? No. Slasher and other neo-Nazis were attacking — and murdering — guest workers, immigrants, and other foreigners, along with dark-looking Russians and Muslims of all sorts, for years before Occupy Pedophilia started. That’s still their first priority. Even the Occupy Pedophilia thugs are never happier than when a gay-seeming “Uzbek waiter” or Korean student falls into their hands.

Friends commemorate Lamzar Samba, a 28-year-old Senegaleses student and activist, murdered by neo-Nazis in St Petersburg, April 2006

Friends commemorate Lamzar Samba, a 28-year-old Senegalese student and activist, murdered by neo-Nazis in St Petersburg, April 2006

No Russian LGBT activist would fail to see the link between homophobic violence and this history of racism (possibly excepting Nikolai Alekseev, who’s flirted with racist extremists at various points in his career). It’s irresponsible for Western LGBT activists to ignore it. When they complain of “terrorism” against gays, and don’t admit that immigrants and ethnic minorities have faced the same terror for decades, they’re not just wrong: they hurt their own cause. “We should not be silent when a country is being oppressive to our friends,” Duncan Osborne of New York’s Gay City News said in promoting a Russia boycott. Are gays the West’s only friends? Are ethnic Uzbeks, Koreans, or Chechens strangers or, worse, enemies? To foster that impression is morally intolerable.

d) Are they killing gays? There have been horrible homophobic murders — most recently a 23-year-old in Volgograd, killed by two acquaintances in May when he told them he was gay. But for some of the stories circulating now, there’s no evidence.

"Uzbek waiter" being brought in for "interrogation": from a video on Mikhail Solovyov's VK page, http://vk.com/video162104250_165741706, posted July 31, 2013

“Uzbek waiter” being brought in for “interrogation”: from a video on Mikhail Solovyov’s VK page, http://vk.com/video162104250_165741706, posted July 31, 2013

The latest account comes from Kamensk (again).  In mid-July, Mikhail Solovyov of the Occupy Pedophilia group posted a video showing an entrapped “Uzbek” being questioned: a “pedophile, who worked as a waiter in a restaurant,” and “came to visit a 14-year-old teenager.” There were also photos of him (like the one at top) abused and humiliated: stripped, smeared with red paint, forced to hold a dildo, painted blue and doused in piss. These were picked up by Valentin Degterev, a doctor living in Kamensk, on his blog, and went around the world.

"Uzbek" being abused: From Mikhail Solovyov's VK page at http://vk.com/id162104250?z=albums162104250, posted July 15, 2013

“Uzbek” being abused: From Mikhail Solovyov’s VK page at http://vk.com/id162104250?z=albums162104250, posted July 15, 2013

On August 1, Degterev announced that the Uzbek had died of his injuries. No one has been able to confirm this, and a number of things don’t quite make sense. For one, this news came more than two weeks after the first pictures of the “interrogation” appeared. For another, the images circulating show the victim being degraded, but don’t suggest life-threatening injuries. Degterev is a passionate, even heroic anti-Fascist who follows the local neo-Nazis obsessively: but I can’t vouch for his reliability on this without independent verification. Still, the story mushroomed on the Internet in grossly distorted form. In the UK, both Pink News (which called the killing a “claim”) and Gay Star News (which reported it as gospel) turned the “murder victim” into a “gay teen” for sensation’s sake — despite the obvious fact that he was, from the pictures, in his twenties at minimum.

Earlier stories of deaths in Kamensk had failed to check out. In April, Occupy Pedophilia entrapped a 19-year-old, Alex Bulygin, to meet a fake 16-year-old. They “interrogated” him, beat him, and forced him to drink urine. In June, the group gloatingly claimed on their VK page that he had hanged himself in shame, which they presented as an “exemplary” encouragement to their members. Yet a Lenta.ru reporter, visiting Kamensk in July, learned that Bulygin was alive.

Occupy Pedophilia members in Kamensk spray foam on a victim: video from the VK page of Lev Vychurov, http://vk.com/videos16595071, posted July 30, 2013

Occupy Pedophilia members in Kamensk spray foam in a victim’s rectum: video from the VK page of Lev Vychurov, http://vk.com/videos16595071, posted July 30, 2013

Occupy Pedophilia Kamensk is, however, renowned for its toughness even among the movement’s reprobates. As one journalist writes, it “operates much more harshly than other branches.” Allusions to death haunt its doings. At a July 1 rally in support of Putin’s anti-propaganda law, in the nearby town of Bogdanovich, the okkupatsi carried banners saying “50% of gays are pedophiles,” and a coffin. They titled a clip of the march “Bulygin’s funeral.”

Weapon found in Occupy Pedophilia's Sverdlovsk HQ: from http://rusplt.ru/society/pedoisteria_ugolovka.html

Weapon found in Occupy Pedophilia’s Sverdlovsk HQ: from http://rusplt.ru/society/pedoisteria_ugolovka.html

If the Kamensk group hasn’t killed anybody yet, they stand a good chance of doing so in future. The weapons cache I mentioned, found at their lair in nearby Sverdlovsk, is telling. Their videos seem more violent than others in the Occupy Pedophilia movement, too — at least judging from those on the page of movement activist Lev Vychurov (whose permanent status is “I HATE YOU ALL”). They force foam in victims’ anuses (as in the video above, titled “Anal Watchman”). They make them swallow urine, which they call the “magic elixir.” In one film, “Loser on the Run,” a man is electroshocked, sprayed with what seems to be urine in his eyes, beaten both indoors and outdoors, and kicked in the head. And here I’ll break my own strictures and show part of his face — because the face says more than all my words ever could:

Still from Оккупай -педофилия Каменск Выпуск No.5: беглец-неудачник (now apparently removed from VK.com)

Still from Оккупай -педофилия Каменск
Выпуск No.5: беглец-неудачник (now apparently removed from VK.com)

The world and the Internet are now full of passionate proposals for doing something about Russia: boycotts, protests, shows of solidarity from the sincere to the specious. I don’t know what to add. But I’d suggest pressuring VK.com to act vigorously to remove pages from its site that portray abuses or promote criminal acts. (The company’s financial history is shady, but information on its ownership structure can be found here.) That would at least slow the ceaseless circulation of these images of violence, which (to paraphrase words that Jorge Luis Borges once attributed to an imaginary heretic) multiply the most abominable aspects of humankind.