Boycott politics: Breaking out of the spaghetto mentality

rs_560x415-130927122711-560.barilla-pasta.ls.92713The same people who have been pushing to boycott a whole country turned on a dime last week, and switched all their eager energies to boycotting bigoted spaghetti. It’s getting hard to keep track. 72 hours ago it was still Boycott Stoli, or Stop the Sochi Olympics, because, they thrummed, there’s a genocide in Russia and we have to stop it! Then everything changed to Boycott Barilla pasta, because, uh.

To be precise, the head of the Italian food conglomerate said his company “would never do [a commercial] with a homosexual family, not for lack of respect but because we don’t agree with them. Ours is a classic family where the woman plays a fundamental role.” He added that if gays don’t like Barilla and its marketing strategy, “then they will not eat it and they will eat another brand.” One confusing aspect is that while this is an awful thing to say, it’s awful in a very different way from what’s happening in Russia. Yet the rhetoric devoted to its awfulness was the same. Comparing the Russian situation to the Holocaust or apartheid makes me uneasy. But how am I supposed to feel when identical moral importance is slapped, one size fits all, onto a repressive government that restricts basic rights for millions, and the unrepresentative TV ads of a corporate tycoon? Even El Pais, usually a sensible newspaper, went analogy-mad over the Barilla contretemps, and

was powerfully reminded of the defenders of apartheid in South Africa, when they said they had nothing against blacks and just wanted to live apart from them. Or worse [sic], of those who demonstrate against equal marriage or adoption but then say they are not homophobic …

And what cause doesn’t come with a mini-Mandela attached these days? Here’s John Aravosis, who helped get the Barilla boycott going, explaining the campaign’s moral stature to kibitzers yesterday:

aravosis birmingham 2I don’t mind if people find a cause that makes them feel good about themselves while sitting and Tweeting, and even superior to others who sit and Tweet about other things. Good for them. And in fact, every time somebody launches a boycott call, there’s always a critic to belittle it, to ask: There are more important things. Why choose this one? This caviling goes on endlessly about the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaign against the Israeli occupation right now — a campaign from which the anti-Russian activism is tacitly taking pointers, including the idea of cultural politics and carrying protest to the arts. Why are these people concerned about Israel when NorthKoreaSyriaSaudiArabiaChina is so much worse? You go after Israel because you’re a bunch of anti-Semites!

In truth, that relativism is the least relevant objection to any boycott. There’s always something worse in some way, somewhere in the world, always some other injustice crying for attention. To take the comparisons game too seriously is to condemn oneself to paralysis. The useful criteria are not so much what’s worst, but: On what issue can you move a critical mass of people to some kind of action? And can you achieve change this way – are the offenders susceptible to public and economic pressure? (That Israel feels the heat, that the boycott calls are working, is revealed most clearly by the noisy anti-boycott rhetoric, including the incessant claim that people should concentrate on something else.) In this sense — while there really isn’t a lot of North Korean kimchi on the shelves to bypass, and few countries have yet figured how to abjure Saudi oil — the Barilla boycott was a natural. You have a large constituency of gay men who oppose discrimination and are discriminating shoppers, while most international corporations now worry obsessively about their public image in different markets. It was child’s play to make Barilla capitulate and videotape an apology, almost within hours.

This raises a different question for boycotters, though. Is the goal (here, apparently, an apology) worth the effort: does it justify the expense of spirit, is it a waste of time? Take Aravosis’ second comparison. He means, I’m sure, the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955-1956, which helped launch the civil rights movement and the career of Martin Luther King. (A later bus boycott in nearby Birmingham was less famous, dramatic, and successful.) It’s true it was directed against another obstreperous private company (National City Lines, which operated the bus system on contract with the city). But come on. The analogy is grating. Those marches didn’t aim at some CEO’s offensive but non-binding comments, but at a policy of segregation, one that didn’t just symbolize but was intrinsic to racism and rightslessness enforced across the whole South. Women and men hitched or hiked for miles to get to work, gave up public transportation for 381 days to assert their dignity. This is a different order of politics from just extracting an overnight apology from some executive. It was change. What did changing Barilla’s mind change?

Men and women walking in the rain during the Montgomery bus boycott, 1956

Men and women walking in the rain during the Montgomery bus boycott, 1956

I’m old enough, at least, to remember some of the international campaigns whose memory is taken lightly these days – not Montgomery, indeed, but divestment from South Africa in the ‘80s, as well as getting Romania’s sodomy law repealed in the ‘90s and many more. And I have some reservations.

FIRST,  a boycott is just one tool. When it works, it’s almost always part of a broader, more difficult campaign. The campaign against apartheid could not have been carried out in Tweets. It would have used Twitter, if that were around, but it wasn’t just about getting some anomic individuals to press buttons on their iPhones: it meant mobilizing institutions, communities, movements.  This was partly because nobody succumbed to wild presumptions that South Africa would surrender overnight. It was essential to put pressure on them for the long haul, and that would entail action by as many partners and allies as possible.

A contrast with the various anti-Russia boycott actions roaming the West is instructive. These pretty much all focus either one event (the Olympics) or one product (vodka). At first, there was a tacit, prevailing illusion that punishing the good name of either entity would quickly bring Putin to his knees. “It ’s time to put a stop to it, with the means available. And for starters, that means hitting Russia where it hurts. And you can’t start with a better target than Stolichnaya vodka.” Perhaps the belief that the omnipotent United States was finally on the gays’ side encouraged these fantasies of immediate gratification and power. Well, it’s apparent Putin’s posture is more resilient than previously imagined. Even Obama, after saying all sorts of encouraging things on Jay Leno, dropped the issue – along with the rest of his human rights agenda in Russia – when the administration found it needed Moscow‘s help in Syria. Now we hear, from none other than racist intellectual Michael Lucas, that the boycott actually had other ambitions all along: “This is not about hurting Russia economically. We understand very well that we can’t do that. This is about telling the story over and over again and making sure that our Russian LGBT friends are not forgotten.” But if the Russian regime has shown anything in ten years, it’s that bad publicity doesn’t bruise it much. So what other weapons are in the arsenal? What’s Plan B? What’s next?

Gran Fury poster, 1988

Gran Fury poster, 1988

Many people propelling this work are ACT UP veterans and survivors. They remember, I think, a particular version of ACT UP, one canonized by the recent film How to Survive a Plague: that the queers, despised and rejected by everybody, went out and changed medicine, public health, and history pretty much on their own, with some vibrant messaging and a shared defiance of death. Aside from the defiance, this isn’t entirely true; alliance-building makes neither for dramatic memories nor enthralling documentaries. But even if it were, it was an exception to how causes succeed.  If you want to get things done, particularly in the long run, you need more than courage and catchy memes (and the anti-Russia visuals circulating on the Internet, by the way, are pathetic compared to the somber majesty of Gran Fury). You need a movement that can enlist co-combatants and partners. I’ve asked this before: where, in the US-Russia protesting, are the unions and the students? Both were basic to the anti-apartheid activism that everybody keeps citing without remembering. Nobody, though, seems to feel a pressing need for a much different, broader base of participants, or for reaching out through political networks rather than social ones.

SECOND, successful boycott campaigns keep an eye on the bigger picture. They’re not just asking for apologies or lip service, they want real change, because only social change, not small change, keeps an activist movement mobilized and committed. The Montgomery boycott was a beginning, not an end, because Southern segregation was the target, not the city government. A demand that Harvard divest from South Africa wasn’t just a request that Harvard students be able to keep their hands clean of dirty investments. It was intended to (and did) put pressure on Pretoria, with the ultimate aim of demolishing the apartheid system. This may seem obvious, but it bears repeating.

end-apartheid-nowBack to Barilla for a moment. An article in Slate by an Italian academic pointed out accurately that, for Italian LGBT people, this really is a big deal. The visible community of queer activists in Italy is small by European standards. I’d call them embattled; the author merely says there’s  “a general feeling of exasperation”:

Just a few days ago, the Parliament decided to respond to a rise in homophobic violence in the last years with an anti-homophobia law, but LGBT activists called it “useless” since it protects anti-gay speech within political, cultural and religious groups. The debate accompanying the law has been characterized by homophobic remarks from members of various political parties who continually spoke of a “right not to like gays” in terms of freedom of speech. So, when Guido Barilla shared his bigoted opinions, his comments became a casus belli to talk about how far the normalization of public homophobia can go.

I look up to you, ragazzo: Guido Barilla (L) and small, admiring bunga-bunga man

I look up to you, ragazzo: Guido Barilla (L) and small, admiring bunga-bunga man

The issues go even deeper, though. Guido Barilla himself is almost a consigliere to Italy’s corrupt heterosexual-in-chief, Silvio Berlusconi. This spring, celebrating what would have been the 100th birthday of Barilla’s father, Berlusconi lovingly recounted the advice that founding paterfamilias gave him when he first contemplated becoming Duce (“You want to get your hands dirty in politics? They’ll paint you all colors.”) And the younger Barilla is recurrently rumored as a possible new leader of Berlusconi’s right-wing party if legal troubles ever pry the old man’s cold, dead fingers away from the steering wheel. The Barilla Group is not a huge satrapy as Italy’s feudal capitalism goes. Global revenues in 2012 were just under €4 billion, a pittance next to the €110 billion earned by petro-conglomerate ENI. But all these firms manage to sit at the heart of things. They all profit from the marriage of economic conglomerates and political power in Italy, wedded to advance a neoliberal agenda. It’s a very traditional union, but revamped for the 21st century, as Berlusconi’s electoral immortality suggests. According to the Wikileaks cables, for example, the obliging Silvio may have got millions in kickbacks for helping ENI arrange a gas deal with Vladimir Putin – all as yet unprosecuted.  As for the pasta firm, even the previous center-ish prime minister, dour banker Mario Monti, was given to quoting the elder Barilla’s bromides at various opportunities. “Go ahead, go ahead with all courage!” said the genius — words to live by.

Meanwhile, Barilla Inc. promotes old-time values as selling points the way its right-wing allies promote them as social norms. One blogger writes,

One of Barilla’s biggest brands is “Mulino Bianco” (White Mill). While the brand’s biscuits and snacks are obviously produced industrially in enormous factories, in the fantasy world of Barilla advertising they are made in the waterpowered White Mill, located in a landscape somewhere between Tuscany and Kansas, where Antonio Banderas, accompanied only by a hen called Rosita, makes all the goodies. These delicious, wholesome snacks (as long as you don’t read the list of additives on the packets) are eaten exclusively by perfect families with two children who live in charming country villas and enjoy leisurely breakfasts together every morning. So unrealistic is the image of family life that “very Mulino Bianco” is actually an expression for an idealized form of domestic bliss.

Everything is happy here, we love bread and the opposite sex and we especially love the Duce: From a Barilla commercial for Mulino Bianco

Everything is happy here, we love bread and the opposite sex and we especially love the Duce: From a Barilla commercial for Mulino Bianco

There is, of course, a long history of capitalism using nostalgia for pre-capitalist social relations, however repressive, to sell its products. Think of the way the black provider-servant was an icon in US ad campaigns for more than a century. You’re not buying pancakes, you’re buying a Hegelian master-slave dialectic that will affirm your higher Being and clean your house! The Barilla firm is as shameless as Aunt Jemima’s slavery-loving makers  in using antique miseries as modern marketing ploys. But the corroding effects of capitalism, its actual acid attacks upon traditional connections, also require the balm of practical, not mythical, conservatism to enforce belonging and keep people in their places. “Classic family” commercials morph into “pro-family” policies, the two-child fantasy translates to the slow roll-back of abortion. Image becomes ideology. White mill becomes white power.

Ad for Aunt Jemima pancakes, 1950

Ad for Aunt Jemima flour mix, 1950

All I mean by this long digression is that there’s more to Barilla than just the symbolic value of getting them to retract a stupid statement. There’s a bigger picture. They have a longstanding role in the corrupt copulation of business and politics in Italy, and the way that the resulting right-wing juggernaut sells conservative social as well as economic policy. That won’t change just because they’ve apologized for alienating one market sector.

OK, you’re not going to shift that overnight. But my problem with the Barilla boycott is that its US promoters think they’ve accomplished a big victory over Barilla, and they haven’t. In fact, if anything, they’ve reinforced two intertwined and dangerous ideas. First, that corporations can be “good citizens” if they just do formal obeisance to a vapid, verbal ideal of equality, while carrying on with the business of getting rich, exploiting people, and making inequality worse. Second, that the rest of us mainly exercise our “citizenship” as concerned consumers, or non-consumers, of what those corporations sell.

As far as the first goes, here’s a prefab recommendation to Barilla that went mildly viral over the weekend:

1380504_188087118043291_959814342_n

This is a classic call to good corporate citizenship. But if the pasta kings say “we’re sorry!” to Illinois Unites for Marriage (a campaign for same-sex marriage in the state) — which in practice would mean giving a tidy sum of money — how does that help LGBT Italians? Does it change Barilla’s support for Italy’s right wing, or its coziness with Berlusconi, or the heterosexual agitprop it broadcasts hourly during the breaks on Italian TV? This kind of appeal to philanthropy to solve everything is the polar opposite of politics. It’s an escape from politics. It lets Barilla off the hook unexamined, the system it feeds on still uninterrogated. It lets the campaigning stop before it’s even started getting at the serious questions. Maybe that’s all the gays have energy for in the busy US, but to compare this to the struggle against South Africa’s racist state is insulting.

This food is HOMOPHOBIC, and no one should ever eat it

This food is HOMOPHOBIC, and no one should ever eat it

But if the campaign is apolitical, it’s because the gays are apolitical. And if the gays stay apolitical, it’s because campaigns like this encourage them to think of their beliefs, values, and political actions as consumer choices. The idealistic myth that you can “hit Russia where it hurts” solely by switching to a different brand of vodka, without a lot of longer work being done, is of a piece with the myth that you can do something tremendous for equality if you chuck your lasagna boxes in the trash. Photos like this, of pasta in the garbage can, started circulating Friday from folks who wanted to show the world they’d done something good — rather offensive, given that if you’ve already bought the stuff, you might at least tear yourself from the computer and cart it to the food bank so that somebody hungry could eat it. That won’t happen, though: indolence, indifference, and privilege lurk not far beneath the surface of easy boycott activism. It’s a caring that stops when you’ve clicked “Like,” and doesn’t take trips to the soup kitchen. But what about your own kitchen? No sooner did Barilla become a pariah pasta than gays started explaining you could still get good fettucine, even better fettucine, if your care and energy went to the consuming cause. A comment from Dan Savage’s blog launched itself into a sort of anguished gustatory moral debate; you can’t just switch to American pasta, because

there are differences … Italian pasta is popular because their semolina wheat simply develops differently. Even when you grow the same variety in America, it’s not the same. (It’s also why Indian basmati rice is much better than American.) Of course, the way wheat is ground into flour makes subtle differences, as does the actual pasta recipe, as well as the final cut of the pasta. Try a few different brands of the same pasta (anything you like, as long as it’s the same noodle and prepared the same way – e.g., boil it for the same time regardless of how long the label instructs you) and you’ll note some very real differences.

Anyway, Barilla is far from the only good Italian brand that’s readily available in America. I go for De Cecco myself, although the last time I needed lasagne noodles, Barilla was the only decent brand I could find. I’ll have to cast a wider grocery net the next time, or hope my preferred store wises up and carries more brands.

Is this kind of boycott politics really politics? Or is it a boycott of politics, evading the responsibilities and demands that politics impose on us for an easy cyber-way out? Does our consumer power — that $800 billion gays spend annually at being gay — really make us stronger, more potent citizens? Or does it makes us less citizens, shut us into ghettos where we become what we do or do not purchase with our power? Does it foreclose more generous identities, more onerous but meaningful commitments, larger and more human solidarities?

Sometimes these militant calls to action, with their military metaphors (“fight back! to arms!”) up front, sound as if they come from deep insecurity that our consumer lives are making us decadent, less virile, weak with surfeit. Man up, people, unless you want to turn into Chelsea Manning or Johnny Weir! A century ago, William James feared that pacifism would fail unless it found some other animating purpose that could inspire and mobilize a citizenry, some “moral equivalent of war” to provide “war’s disciplinary function” amid the “pleasure-economy” and its “unmanly ease.”

But of course, mini-boycotts and web petitions that die down when enough clicks have been collected aren’t even that. There’s not enough stick-to-itiveness in them for a proper war. They’re the moral equivalent of a Mongol raid, a cattle-rustling foray that brings back just sufficient booty to keep you morally sated for a day or two: a useless apology from some powerful straight guy, a corporate donation to some gay board of directors or to HRC. They remind me of Thomas Love Peacock‘s wonderful “War Song of Dinas Vawr,” a poem which, he said, contained “the quintessence of all the war-songs that ever were written, and the sum and substance of all the appetencies, tendencies, and consequences of military glory”:

The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
We made an expedition;
We met a host, and quelled it;
We forced a strong position,
And killed the men who held it.

We brought away from battle,
And much their land bemoaned them,
Two thousand head of cattle,
And the head of him who owned them.
Ednyfed, king of Dyfed,
His head was borne before us;
His wine and beasts supplied our feasts,
And his overthrow, our chorus.

boycott_stoli

© Not Gran Fury

In Russia they resist, too

 September 24 demonstration in Moscow against homophobia in schools, and official neglect of Russia’s school system

None of the Big News about gay Russia these days comes from Russia. Perhaps that’s a comfort – no news is good news; Nikolai Alekseev has been relatively quiet, and so has Putin; silence lies on Mirkwood. Still, it makes you wonder.

Yesterday there was  a demonstration by Queer Nation, in New York City, at the Metropolitan Opera. That was noisy. Naturally I wasn’t there (I am in Egypt); it seems only marginally more confusing from here than it probably was for the attendees. Outside, protesters passed out rainbow pins and raised awareness about Russian oppression. Inside, four infiltrators jumped up as the orchestra launched Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin, and shouted – at diva Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev —  “Anna, your silence is killing Russian gays! Valery, your silence is killing Russian gays!” I read mixed reports on whether the audience predominantly booed or cheered as the brave miscreants were led out.

This happened because the Met declined to dedicate the gala opening evening to Russian LGBT people. On the whole, I think it is lucky they did not. Russian LGBT people don’t have a crying need for an opera dedicated to them in a distant land right now. It might be nice, but it’s not a priority. (Do gay people need any more operas, period? The repertory closed a long time ago, like the gates of ijtihad, and we are left recycling all the old warhorses, memorizing Tosca note by note; but nobody seems too unhappy; the lack of novelty just simplifies things.) Absent the dedication, though, Queer Nation got to protest and make its own kind of music, and got excellent publicity as well. The Times gave them an article, and they made it into the Russian press, which is much more important. If it was one of those moments, common in activism, where everybody acts out their assigned roles with routine lassitude – the Met management defending l’art pour l’art, the protestors decrying the usual blood on someone’s hands – the same could be said of most any opera: you’d have to be an utter hick or cretin to be surprised when Tosca takes her jump, or Don Giovanni descends to hell. We are at an operatic moment now, when a huge surge of passion produces sound but so far little action. Everyone is emotional and nothing happens. How long can that go on?

One wrenching photo in a story about the protest struck me. It shows a member of the Russian diasporic LGBT group in New York –somebody I’d guess is showing way more courage than average in being there — holding up a sign:

met-protest-IS-bWe all know Pastor Niemoller’s moving message. Yet here it isn’t true. They didn’t come for the gays first.  Putin came for the Chechens first (actually, Yeltsin did before him); for the journalists; for the odd oligarch and whistleblower; for the punk rock feminists and the environmentalists; for the protest marchers; and then, somewhere down the list, he came for the gays. Where were we when the truth-seekers were slaughtered, when Pussy Riot went to prison, or when Grozny burned? Would things be different now, if some of that emotion had been transmuted into actions back when the right-wing thugs were mainly killing black people; or when the “foreign agents” law was first bruited about; or when cops were beating up Muscovites in the street after a faked election? It’s true, there’s only so much energy to spend on anger, and it’s so hard to get anyone exercised when there’s no ready point of similarity, no common identity at stake, no way you can say There but for the disgrace of Lady Gaga go I. I can’t blame anyone for coming to the Russian issue late. I’m not asking for miracles of altruism. I am glad enough the gays care about other gays who aren’t findable on Grindr. Yet you can’t help wishing some of that passion could be passed around, could be extended in the kinds of leaps possible in dreams, to grasp a few connections with other causes. So much feeling, you think helplessly, and yet somehow such a drought of sympathy. So much emotion showered on other people, yet so little sign of imagining beyond oneself.

Two other things I noticed, then. First, there was a demonstration in Moscow too yesterday – even if nobody in New York paid much attention. You can demonstrate in Moscow: the LGBT and democracy movements in Russia may be in retreat but are not silent or submissive. This is important to understand, since the tendency now is to paint them as pure victims who can’t say anything for themselves.  That’s wrong.

The September 24 demonstration was against homophobia in schools, which has come to the fore with the passage of the anti-propaganda law and also with two well-publicized recent firings of teachers who were also LGBT activists. (A Krasnodar university also fired an arts professor for supporting Pussy Riot.)  It was sponsored by a teacher’s union, the Interregional Union of Education – the “mainstream” participation helped it get official approval – but co-organized by LGBT groups and activists, including Igor Iasine. It’s interesting how the message differed from its New York counterpart. There were signs saying “Homophobic Law encourages bullying at schools,” but also “Homophobia is a tool to cover up budget cuts, school closures, and teachers’ lay-offs.” There was an effort to tie the law and homophobic harassment to the regime’s economic crisis, which has led to projected slashes in social spending — there’s a $30 billion revenue shortfall, and Putin said at a meeting with Vladivostok students last weekend that he’ll “have to be realistic and trim our intended expenditures. … What can we do?”

September 24 demonstration, Moscow: Igor Iasine holding up sign at center

September 24 demonstration, Moscow: Igor Iasine holding up sign at center. © Novaya Gazeta, Margaret Horn

A socialist group co-sponsoring the rally urged teachers to “explain to colleagues, parents and students how a lack of scientific information on homosexuality jeopardizes children.” But it also urged them to spread  “materials that explain the link between homophobic bullying with reduced funding for education.” They called for “a mass movement with a base in the trade unions against the government’s homophobia,” but also for a “fight for free crisis centers and support lines for LGBT teenagers from the [State] budget, and a decent education.” In other words, there was a consistent effort to make the rally a meeting point for different movements and demands, and to draw the connections between state-promoted homophobia and the Putin government’s ability to hurt people’s lives and livelihoods without democratic consent. 

Family, private property, and a State I don't like: Demonstrators under the Engels statue © Dmitry Zykov

Family, private property, and a State I don’t like: Demonstrators under the Engels statue © Dmitry Zykov

Several dozen activists picketed under the statue of Friedrich Engels near the Kropotkin metro station in central Moscow. (For context, that’s more turnout than nearly every Moscow Pride.) Zhenya Belyakov, a participant, described it on Facebook: 

The picket, attended by circa 40 LGBT activists and allies, was officially sanctioned although police at first did not realize that ”protest against illegal discharges of teachers” can be organized by the LGBTs. After short negotiations, police let the picket go on.

The highlight of that day was, of course, some 20 ultra-right thugs and some religious fanatics who, for some strange reason, always want to hang out with ”faggots.” Police pretended they did not see the eggs thrown at us, but despite that the whole picket was rather peaceful and went for a bit more than an hour.

When leaving the picket, our group was accompanied by some policemen (not to mention journalists, who always want to see some action) and some excited right-wingers, one of whom managed to hit one of our activists. Both the attacker and the victim were detained, and, as of now, both are released without any charges. The right-wingers tried to follow us in the metro, but, thanks to incredibly complicated metro system in Moscow, we shook them off very soon.

Police objected at first to the mention of “homophobia” on placards, but gave in after argument. The picket was publicized in advance on the website of Garry Kasparov (one of the main opposition leaders). It got sympathetic coverage in the mainstream press and on civil-society websites, and sent a message, at a minimum, that LGBT issues are Russian and not just foreign issues, and are part of the pro-democracy movement. This stands in contrast with Nikolai Alekseev’s declaration — repeated for years, and implicitly accepted by the many Westerners who attended his events — that “LGBT human rights fight has nothing to do with politics in Russia and GayRussia as well as Moscow Pride will always stay as purely non-political groups.”

September 24 demonstrators confront police: © Novaya Gazeta, Margaret Horn

September 24 demonstrators confront police: © Novaya Gazeta, Margaret Horn

The second thing I noticed was an open letter posted by my friend Viacheslav Revin, a Russian LGBT activist who is now in the United States; he’s protesting a decision by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to preserve a “sister city” relationship with his home town, Nizhny Novgorod. I have always wondered about these “twinned towns” linkages, which in the US burgeoned as a Cold War gesture to “cultural exchange.” Like most such gestures, they put a comfortable veneer on basically commercial and political ends, and political injustice should be a reasonable basis for terminating them. But let Slava speak for himself:

Dear Mr. Nutter.

Viacheslav Revin

Viacheslav Revin

As a citizen of Nizhny Novgorod, a gay man, a LGBT activist, who was forced to flee the city and Russia due to my fear of persecution by the police for my activities against stigmatization and discrimination against LGBT community, I was deeply saddened to find out that you declined to break the sister city relationship between Philadelphia and Nizhny Novgorod.

I respectfully disagree with your position on this issue: by maintaining this relationship you do a disservice to the people of Russia and Nizhny Novgorod. Mayoral elections were canceled in my city. The power was usurped by thieves and scoundrels who can’t even maintain the storm sewer system, which causes the flooding of the streets every time it rains. Recently, the funds for snowplow equipment were embezzled and the city streets were not cleaned the entire winter. Do you think the culprits were found and held responsible? NO! Our parks are destroyed; our landmarks are taken down without any permission, often under the cover of the night, so the activists don’t even have a chance to protest against these atrocities. Our police have turned into a tool of repression, threatening and beating up those who try to exercise their civil rights. Many people have become victims of this persecution. People are beaten up right in the police precincts.

I myself was forced to flee because the chief of the anti-extremism department openly threatened on Twitter “to deal” with me. Why? Because I am an openly gay man, because I am HIV-positive, because I try to be a responsible citizen. And because I published an open petition, signed by several hundreds of people, asking Putin to put an end to his activities.

I ask you to stop supporting these scoundrels and to not participate in legitimizing of these criminals.

On behalf of the citizens of Nizhny Novgorod, I respectfully request that you reconsider your decision and hope you will come to the only possible and truly just conclusion: to break the sister city relationship with Nizhny Novgorod.

By doing this, you will show support to the people of Russia and will say a resolute NO to the criminals who usurped the power in my city.

Best regards, Viacheslav Revin.


What I appreciate is that Revin, again, makes the connections between the oppression of LGBT people and other oppressions; between a particular injustice and the way Russia is governed. Perhaps there’s something to learn here.

But I misspoke when I said that Nikolai Alekseev has been silent. He held a protest today outside the Moscow HQ of the Sochi Olympics, and he got himself arrested (for the fourteenth time in his career, which the pages of Gay City News will undoubtedly soon inflate into the four hundredth). There are many things I find odd about Alekseev, but one is that after weeks proclaiming that foreigners have nothing to do with Russia’s LGBT movement, and that Russians will now do it all for themselves, he was carrying an English-language sign today.

Not a foreign agent, but old habits die hard

Not a foreign agent, but old habits die hard

Also one notices that on Twitter he’s mostly been exulting about the foreign, not Russian press coverage (in fairness: complaining in one case, because the article didn’t give him enough credit):

alexeyev sochi protest tweetsI don’t know how much good this will do in Russia. But one thing you have to grant Alekseev is that his single-mindedness, and his focus on the bright lights, would serve him very well in America.

Top guns: Last words on Johnny Weir

Don't ask, do sell: Michael Lucas with adoring soldiers, from ad for his tours of gay Israel

Don’t ask, do sell: Michael Lucas and his gay brigade of faithful soldiers, from ad for his tours of Israel

Yesterday morning I got a message from a friend: “Do check Jamie Kirchick’s Twitter feed.” I sighed and hesitated till lunch. This kind of thing never bodes any good; it’s like Pandora’s inner voice saying, Think outside the box. Check I did, though, and there it was: your two favorite gay pundits conjoined in 140 characters, Jamie and Michael Lucas both. JKirchick Stepin Fetchit copyOh, joy. Jamie has a longstanding partiality for Lucas, the porn impresario with a second career as political commentator. Back when the New Republic was right-wing, and Kirchick was Martin Peretz’s last addition to a whole seraglio of protégés, he published a long, admiring article on Lucas there. Lucas was, he said, “a fervent supporter of Israel and a harsh, often offensive, critic of the Muslim world,” not a criticism since Jamie thinks the Muslim world deserves it. (What do you call someone who writes a puff piece for a porn star? A fluffer?) He still thinks of Lucas as one of his favorite, well, propagandists: Kirchick Lucas copy Lucas’s new essay weighs in on the fracas over Johnny Weir: predictably, another attack piece on the hapless skater. I am already losing interest in this business, but really, this one was revelatory. Lucas at last made it all clear.

Russians love Johnny Weir. He’s their kind of gay: Liberace of the ice. He’s the “fabulous” gay, the mascot, the gay who knows his place and stays in it. …  The Russians don’t mind token flamers like Weir; what scares them are everyday people who happen to be gay. They’re scared of homosexuality becoming normal, not staying outrageous like Weir. That’s what the “gay propaganda” law is all about.

You see now. The real problem for Lucas, Kirchick, and the rest isn’t what Weir said. It’s that he’s a fag and a fem and reflects on us badly before the Rooskies. Lucas even heaps the ultimate American insult on him/her. The little nancy weakling didn’t know how to play football — he let the real men bully him in school:

The Russians love Weir, so Weir loves the Russians. He’s like a sad high-school figure: the cheerleader for the same team of jocks that would beat him up if he weren’t also doing their homework for them.

Has anyone told Lucas that bullying fagboys is no longer considered a good thing?

I’ve never much approved of mocking Lucas for being a porn star with Tom Friedman pretensions. Tom Friedman is a Tom Friedman with porn star pretensions; what’s wrong with the other way around? (Just click the link, please.) Porn stars’ opinions are no less valid than those of sex workers, pop singers, or Human Rights Watch directors, each with their own realms of undoubted expertise. Lucas is perfectly free to write op-eds. The problem is, the op in them is a stinking mass of racist tripe. He can’t open his computer without something loathsome crawling out. It’s not just Arabs and Muslims, whom he hates and vilifies at every opportunity. It’s not just his despicable attempt to shut down all discussion of Palestine at the New York LGBT Center, where his partner was a major donor. He goes after every group at one point or another. Black people “are racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic,” he told Michael Musto, adding “Why does everyone attack the Mormons, but they’ll never go after African-Americans?” Show the man a need, and he’ll fill it.

License to shill: Porn and propaganda

License to shill: Porn and propaganda

But this latest insult is revelatory because it displays the common ground under Lucas’s various racist obsessions. His contention about Russia is pretty much absurd. Years ago I heard the great trans* activist Stephen Whittle remark that 90% of so-called homophobic violence is really gender-based violence. It isn’t about what you do in bed but what you look like, punishing men who aren’t masculine enough or women who aren’t feminine enough. That this is relevant to Russia is sufficiently proven by the sadistic “Occupy” videos now all over the Web: a bunch of worked-out macho Nazi wannabees abuse and brutalize people invariably presented to the cameras as flaming, weak, effeminate, and pathetic.  Obviously Lucas has never seen these. Or, if he did, maybe he got the wrong message. Spiritually, he’s on the side of the abusers. Buried in Lucas’s op-ed is his  admiration for the bullies, the “team of jocks,” the top guns, the fuckers who dominate the fuckees. (Lucas once boasted to Michael Musto that he’s never ever been a bottom, onscreen or off.) Lucas’ own peculiar brand of nationalism – his homonationalism, his Queer Nationism, his defense of his gay tribe against imaginary black or Muslim or Arab enemies – has a lot in common with Russian nationalism (and many others) as a cult of mastery and conquest. It just has the foes transposed. Even while calling Russia “the putrid country of my birth,” Lucas admires Russian chauvinism at its most murderous. Jamie describes it:

While he originally disagreed with Russia’s brutal policies toward Chechnya, he now believes that America could learn something from Vladimir Putin. “The American Army can’t take Fallujah?“ Lucas asks me, incredulous. “Level it!“

Don't enter. That's Michael's job.

Don’t enter. That’s Michael’s job.

Tied to his gay patriotism is Lucas’s other nationalism. A few years ago, while Lucas was fiercely protecting the Promised Land from a handful of pro-Palestinian activists at the LGBT Center, an Israeli friend wrote me that “The man doesn’t really love Israel because he’s Jewish. He loves it because it’s a country where even the bottoms look like tops.” I doubt this is true of Lucas, but it’s at least partly true of Israel. There, sculpting both by mandatory military service and by an ethos of strength produces a kind of body (personal as well politic) that can take masculinity to new heights. This in turn makes Israel a huge erotic fetish for a lot of people beyond its borders, particularly the gays. Some while back, in a post devoted to Dan Littauer’s fake news site GayMiddleEast.com, I tacked on a still from one of Lucas’s films: Israeli guys striding like impossibly virile Venuses from the half-shell. Every day that post still gets 100 or so hits, from searches for “men of Israel.” It’s like catnip.

Here we go again

Here we go again

Lucas sells that fetish (he offers guided tours of gay Israel starting at $2755), but he also buys into it. It’s not just the bodies that turn him on, it’s the beliefs behind them. The dominant version of masculinity in Israel, writes Oma Sasson-Levy, is “identified with the masculinity of the Jewish combat soldier and is perceived as the emblem of good citizenship.” The militarized version of Israeli manhood seduces because it promises access to power. It’s tailor-made for Lucas’s preoccupations.

As for Kirchick, respectability has been his concern for years. He wants to find presentable gays who will make the tribe look good, and kick out the losers who give a bad image. The latter include traitors like Chelsea Manning, cowards like war opponents or other lefties, freaks like most feminists, and combo platters like me. “The whole purpose of the gay rights movement has been to convince heterosexual Americans that gay people are just like them,” Kirchick insists. What he can’t stand, ever, anywhere, is this: kirchick sex shop copy 2Jamie’s ceaseless demands that we be nice and normal remind me, helplessly, of the most hilarious passage from that great comedy, Finnegans Wake — where the narrator evaluates the respectability of a slew of sordid Dublin lodging-houses:

Fair home overcrowded, tidy but very little furniture, respectable; open hallway pungent of Baltic dishes, bangs kept woman’s head against wall thereby disturbing neighbours, case one of peculiar hopelessness, most respectable; nightsoil has to be removed through snoring household, eccentric naval officer not quite steady enjoys weekly churchwarden and laugh while reading foreign pictorials on clumpstump before door, known as the trap, widow rheumatic, haunted, condemned and execrated, of dubious respectability; reformed philanthropist whenever feasible takes advantage of unfortunates against dilapidating ashpits, serious student is eating his last dinners, floor dangerous for unaccompanied old clergymen, thoroughly respectable; many uncut pious books in evidence, nearest watertap two hundred yards’ run away, fowl and bottled gooseberry frequently on table, man has not had boots off for twelve months, infant being taught to hammer flat piano, outwardly respectable; sometimes hears from titled connection, one foot of dust between banister and cracked wall, wife cleans stools, eminently respectable …

I think the next-to-last one is Jamie. The “pious books” are the giveaway.

Given Kirchick’s passion for respectability, it’s a bit odd he should care so poignantly for Lucas, the porn magnate and former sex worker. One likely reason is the latter’s propensity for calling everybody anti-Semitic, with a sweep only slightly less comprehensive than Jamie’s own. They share the same enemies. Kirchick’s distaste for Muslims brings him to embrace Bruce Bawer, the obsessive, secular Savonarola who helped inspire mass-murderer Anders Breivik. Lucas’s similar loathing leads him straight into the arms of unabashed crank Pamela Geller. (“Gays should join the anti-Islamic movement,” he told her. They haven’t already?)

Kirchick nightmare: Help, I seem to be surrounded by these Arab-like people, and that building behind me looks like some kind of "mosque," and I can't wake up. (Neocon junket to Lebanon, 2009)

Kirchick nightmare: Help, I seem to be surrounded by these Arab-like people, and that building behind me looks like some kind of “mosque,” and I can’t wake up. (Neoconservative junket to Lebanon, 2009)

But more basically, respectability for Kirchick, like power for Lucas, is a matter of being the right kind of man. Strength is part of it; so is soldiering. Most famously, back in the days of Don’t Ask etc., Jamie urged the US military to create a segregated gay brigade, to “put the lie to the charge that gays are effeminate and weak.”

But the most satisfying aspect of this policy would be its effect on our Islamist enemies, who not so long ago were burying gays alive … What humiliation, what shame these barbarians would endure if after every successful terrorist assassination accomplished by the Leonard Matlovich Brigade, U.S. Central Command issued a press release announcing that yet another Taliban fighter bit the dust at the hands of warrior homosexuals!

This could easily be a Michael Lucas Production.

Both Lucas and Kirchick lead vivid fantasy lives. Lucas does so by definition: porn is all about fantasy. It’s also all scenarios reiterated, though, and climaxes endlessly redone: in Freudian terms, the melancholy of repetition. Some of this melancholy seems to hang about Michael Lucas, who more and more relies on involuntarily campy excess to emphasize a masculinity that can’t quite prove itself: showing himself surrounded by adoring soldiers like some weird inflatable Mussolini doll. Jamie, meanwhile, dreamed of gay glory but didn’t battle for it; he advertised his imaginary brigade, but never volunteered. Yet as middle age has its way with him – a sad transmutation my own plump features testify to all too well – he’s settling into an eerie resemblance to that historical incarnation of la patrie and l’etat, the last King of France.

The King’s two bodies: They make a pretty pear

After Daumier. The King’s two bodies: Quite a pear

The cult of masculinity is always dreamlike. But it has real consequences. Below the surface it’s built on despising and excluding. And so are the passions and ideologies that draw on it for strength, from frat-boy loyalty to football thuggery to patriotic fervor. There’s hate buried in the foundations, like a time bomb or a sacrificed body. Somebody’s nightmare sustains the dream, somebody has suffer to keep the ideal of manhood going; and in this case you demonize the feminine, the effeminate, the ladyboy or Liberace. They all become traitors to the cause, Stepin Fetchits. 

There’s seems to be a bit of ¿Quién es más macho? in the air around this Russia campaigning. I’m not saying Kirchick and Lucas are typical — thank God, they’re not. But there’s John Aravosis, who launched the nastier attacks on Weir, that “freak of nature.” Redoubtable fellow, but with a rep for not being very friendly to trans* people or the issue of gender. (“What [do] I as a gay man have in common with a man who wants to cut off his penis, surgically construct a vagina, and become a woman”?) There’s Dan Savage, who kickstarted the whole boycott-Stoli thing. He too has voiced some serious discomfort in the past with a man who doesn’t like manhood, who “get[s] his dick cut off” — and he’s been glitterbombed as a result.

I mistrust the point when any of our movements start indulging macho anger as a driving force, a motive influence. I mistrust the moment any of them start using manhood as a criterion for membership, as though questioning the received, repressive value of manhood weren’t (despite all Jamie’s sanctimonious lies) the point of lesbian, and gay, and bisexual, and trans* activism at its best, from the start. I don’t care whether you like Johnny Weir or not — I’m not a figure-skating fan, and frankly I barely knew about him before last week. But you can argue with him without implying he’s a traitor to the meaning of being a man. Michael Lucas is a notorious racist. Now, though, he also shows how he speaks the taunting language of schoolyard bullies, mimics the poses of uniformed abusers. When it comes to imitating the oppressor, that’s more dangerously Stepin Fetchit-like than anything else I’ve heard lately.

Oh, yes, and one more question. Lucas ends his op-ed with this odd comment:

The boycott movement … will not harm athletes or Russian workers, because the boycott movement will almost certainly make little real impact. It is a moral gesture, and a media strategy. Its real point is to keep the Russian LGBT crisis in the news, and to keep people talking about it.

Come again? Sorry, but this wasn’t what they were saying at the outset. “Will almost certainly make little real impact”? What happened to “Boycotts helped end Apartheid, spurred the Civil Rights Movement, and curbed potential atrocities”? What happened to “Boycott Russian vodka until persecution of gays and their allies ends”? What happened to It’s time for us to put our foot down and say we will not be the scapegoat of the world any longer”? And what happened toheroic images of gay bars who are fighting back”? 

Again, I don’t know who Lucas thinks he speaks for. I know there is way more sophisticated thinking than his out there. But it’ll be hard to keep up momentum for a boycott if a really loud celebrity tries to sell it by promising it’s just a macho gesture, and it won’t help. It’s fine, I guess, to acknowledge that the goal all along was to get people’s attention. But what if those people say: OK, you’ve got our attention. Now what are you going to do with it? What’s the plan?

“Queer quislings”: Johnny Weir, and getting Russia wrong

A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men: NON-GAYS WALK AMONG US, and we must root them out!

A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men: BAD GAYS WALK AMONG US, and we must root them out.

Fellow gays, I want to discuss a subject which, in my opinion, towers in importance above all others. It is the subject of international homophobia.

At the start, let me make clear that no special credit is due those of us who are making an all-out fight against this force — a force which seeks to destroy all the honesty and decency that every gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender person has been taught at his mother’s knee. It is a task which we are obligated to perform. It is one of the tasks for which we were brought into this world. If we fail to use all the powers of mind and body, then I am sure our mothers, wherever they are tonight, may well sorrow for the day of our birth.

We must be sure that those who seek to lead us today are equally dedicated.  We cannot survive on half loyalties any more than we can find the facts of homophobia with half truths. 

Wise words! They’re as inspiring now as the day they were first spoken. That day was June 2, 1950, and the speaker was that famous gay campaigner Joseph McCarthy, a patriotic fighter and good-looking Irish lug equally at home under the Capitol dome and in the anal cavities of Roy Cohn. At least, so they say. I’ve changed a few words in Tailgunner Joe’s oration, just to bring it up to date for the era of Queer Nation. But the basic idea still resonates for us, as our great sexuality stands at a moral crossroads, caught between Us and Them, hope and fear, the dark burden of the past and the shining promise of the future, which just like tomorrow is always a day away. Right?

There’s no room for half-loyalties. Consider the sad Alger Hiss of the homos, Johnny Weir. Weir, an Olympic figure skater, is not just openly gay but flaming. Even so, it may be necessary to burn him at the stake. In an interview yesterday with Keith Olbermann, Weir – dressed, with typical traitorous élan, in a vintage Red Army uniform – said he doesn’t think boycotting the Olympics is the best protest of Putin’s anti-gay laws.

While many people can sit on their couch at home and say Oh, we shouldn’t go to Russia …  staying away is something I think is the worst possible thing we can do. … Even if we stay away, Russia will still put on an Olympics, they will win all of the medals and it will be even more of a propaganda machine for Russia. What we need to do is be there, to be strong and to be united. We have to show Putin who we are, what we’re about.

If you aren’t for us, you’re against us. John Aravosis promptly lit into the skater: “Johnny Weir is living proof that you can be de jure progay, and de facto antigay, at the same time.”

Weir has been somewhat – how shall I say? – unhelpful in terms of his lack of support for the international effort to help the gay and trans communities in Russia. Weir seems to be letting his Olympian side take precedence over his gay side.

Weir in costume: At least he's not carrying a Kalashnikov

Weir in costume: He may look gay to you, but  just ask him about the boycott

Two sides? People with an extra side need it amputated, fast. They can’t be trusted. Is this guy some kind of closet Communist? I’d guess the author really doesn’t like Johnny Weir personally, which is understandable, given that the kid is not only disloyal but, as Aravosis tweeted today, “a bit caricaturish.” His post is called “Nothing Good Can Come from Johnny Weir,” but if you judge from the URL — these tend to fossilize headings from early drafts — the title used to include something about a “freak of nature.”  (The URL is http://americablog.com/2013/09/freak-nature-johnny-weir.html) Oddly enough, that’s the kind of slur Johnny Weir has heard from homophobes throughout his career. ““We should make him pass a gender test!” “He should compete with the women!” a couple of Canadian sportscasters chortled on air during the 2012 Olympics. In the past, many people saw Weir as courageous for standing up against this shit. But that was before the fey little deviationist veered from the Central Committee’s line.

Then someone named Scott Wooledge stepped in — he has a business called Memeographs, which as you’d guess produces memes, those funny internet pictures that make you seem cool and original when you post them on Facebook along with 1,537,648 other individualists.  Here’s today’s viral sensation:

Meme for the day: Traitors in our midst

Meme for the day: Traitors in our midst

Queer quisling? Really? I have a dark confession. I, too, have a Soviet military uniform. You could buy them for a few forints in Budapest when I moved there in 1989; Russian soldiers were peeling them off and selling them right and left to scrape up spending money. For years, in the former Warsaw Pact, they were prized as ironic objects whose appropriation (for costume parties, not Party Congresses) mocked the onetime occupiers. This is a lot like the kind of thing gays used to call “camp.” Johnny Weir is campy, an attitude that tends to sit poorly with political correctness.  But these days, camp is for quislings. I wonder if the language here might be getting a bit over the top. This thought control, these charges of treason seem a little … Stalinist, somehow. Maybe Soviet attire would fit Scott Wooledge even better than Johnny Weir.

The enemy is clever – be vigilant! Stalin-era propaganda poster: A phobe in Johnny Weir's clothing, unmasked

The enemy is clever – be vigilant! Stalin-era propaganda poster: A phobe in Johnny Weir’s clothing, unmasked

But all this is nothing as against the righteous ire of John Becker, at the Bilerico Project, who practically dismembers Weir’s comments syllable by syllable, The incompetent little ice queen can’t do anything right. Weir, for instance, had the effrontery to describe himself as “an Olympian, first and foremost, before a gay man, before a white man, I am an Olympian. That’s what I worked for from age twelve.” That is not just disloyalty, it’s thoughtcrime. Wise up, traitor skaterboy, remember who you are! Becker explains it to him:

Note to Johnny: while you’re certainly entitled to view yourself as an Olympian “before a gay man,” that’s simply not true, biologically and chronologically speaking. You may have been training for the Olympics since you were twelve — and believe me, I have incredible respect for the training you and other athletes put yourselves through — but you were born gay. Sexual orientation is intrinsic to a person’s humanity; being an Olympian is not. So whether or not you place your gayness ahead of your Olympic identity, you were a gay person long before you set foot on the ice for the very first time.

Not only does this little ingrate not understand his own essential, primordial, primary biological being: he disses marriage. Weir made the mistake of saying that “the Western countries that support gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender unions” should unite at Sochi. Becker goes ballistic:

Ummmm, Johnny, it’s 2013, not 1983. LGBT people don’t have unions, we have marriages. … Those terms may have been acceptable in the 1980s, but they sure as hell aren’t now. If you’re going to be working the talk show circuit, you owe it to your community to update your vocabulary.

Wait a minute. 

You owe it to your community to use the M-word? I feel my own inner traitor coming out. But what if you don’t want to marry, or call your relationship a marriage — because, say, you believe along with generations of feminists that it’s a repressive institution sodden with the unpaid sweat of patriarchy, and no liberating model for your loves? Weir, as it happens, has married his Russian partner. But are we all bound to obey and imitate, in word and deed?

Here’s where I leave the party. With all due respect to Becker, I invite him to fuck the hell off, and stop telling me how to define my intimacies or live my life. I haven’t been a human rights activist for a quarter century so that some small-minded blogger could straitjacket me in a new regime of canons, conformities, and exclusions. For his information, my relationship is not a marriage, nor is it any kind of regular, sell-out union. It’s a radical Trotskyist union with militant anarchist tendencies, wild as the Wobblies or the old Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo. I’m going to stick to my principles, and I’m not going to play Brad-and-Janet just because John Becker orders me to. And If John Becker doesn’t like how I think of my own life, too fucking bad.

Model for my relationships

Model for my relationships

The abuse of Weir today was weird, an explosion of macho paranoia. But the rage and vitriol, completely out of proportion to what Weir said, suggest that something’s getting way, way out of hand. The demand that gayness trump any other identity or interest because you’re BORN THAT WAY, that’s ALL YOU ARE; the contradictory search for bad gays who don’t have any right to the name; the talk of treachery, the policing of word choice as well as opinion, the smearing of some gays as “antigay” — these kinds of things don’t just demolish nuance and discussion. They destroy movements.

They breed amid the mounting fever of ever more high-pitched rhetoric that surrounds the Russia campaign. The panic gets steadily more manic. The Holocaust comparisons are becoming not just offensive but insane. Aravosis warns Weir that “Jesse Owens won and the Nazis still killed millions afterwards”! — as if Putin is already testing his gas chambers. Harvey Fierstein seriously believes the next stop after Sochi is, if not Auschwitz, at least Bergen-Belsen:

Vigilantes [in Russia] have implied instruction to protect their communities from the rampant evil.  … And now the government comes in with “concern” for the gay community’s safety. They are rounded up for their own protection and isolated for the sake of the children at risk of infection. Welcome to the return of concentration camps.

This is all in the present tense: Fierstein seems to think it’s happening now, or anyway only a day away. If you really believe that, then of course you can’t waste a second on discussion, there’s genocide going on, something must be done immediately, and dissenters are as bad as killers. Johnny Weir has blood on his blades!  This kind of hyped-up desperation debases all debate.

This wouldn't have gotten out of hand if you'd listened to me earlier: "Death to World Imperialism," Soviet poster, 1920

This wouldn’t have gotten out of hand if you’d listened to me earlier: “Death to World Imperialism,” Soviet poster, 1920

There’s something even more disturbing about the abuse. The truth is: Weir’s opinions, whatever you think of them, are shared by a significant number of Russian LGBT activists. Many activist voices there have criticized the boycotts. The Russian LGBT Network issued a statement six weeks ago that said:

Participation and attendance of the Games in Sochi will not indicate endorsement of injustice and discrimination; they will only if they are silent. We hope to join forces and succeed in raising everyone’s voices for LGBT equality in Russia and elsewhere. We hope that together with those who share this vision, we will succeed in sending the strongest message possible by involving athletes, diplomats, sponsors, and spectators to show up and speak up, proclaiming equality in most compelling ways. …

Do not boycott the Olympics – boycott homophobia! Stand in solidarity with people in Russia and bring LGBT pride and values of human rights and freedoms to the Games in Sochi!

So? Is the Russian LGBT Network “antigay”? Are they fake gays, mere gays “de jure,” as Aravosis says? Are they quislings, Scott Wooledge? Are they only concerned about their selfish interests, instead of a bunch of American boycotters’ needs? Attacking Weir is actually a way for these folks to attack Russian activists and Russian arguments by proxy. They’d be shouting insults and heaping abuse on some of the Russians they claim to defend, if they dared.

Surprise! There are divisions among Russian activists. All the attention paid in recent days to the sheer looniness of Nikolai Alekseev — whose pathology and prejudice truly put him beyond the pale — obscures the fact that serious, respected activists in Moscow and Petersburg differ, for the most part civilly, on what to do. Some people support the Stoli boycott but not the Olympics boycott, some support both, some want neither. The first obligation on Western supporters in this kind of situation is: Do no harm. Whatever you do, try not to worsen the divisions unnecessarily, try not to turn disagreements into civil wars by the sheer weight of your influence. But when Aravosis and Wooledge demonize a perfectly credible strain of opinion by abusing it viciously as “antigay,” they are really, really, really not helping the movement within Russia.

Working together, we're pretty rad: "Worker and peasant women, all go to the polls! We bring fear to the bourgeoisie!" Soviet poster, 1925

Working together, we’re pretty rad: “Worker and peasant women, all go to the polls! We bring fear to the bourgeoisie!” Soviet poster, 1925

More than that, though: There have to be strategic discussions. Western activists actually can play productive roles here. They can help create virtual spaces for talking strategy — Skype, Viber and Internet chat are wonderful inventions that, surprise again!, are useable for more than hookups. They can serve as sounding boards for their Russian colleagues, to figure out what methods will sway foreign governments as well as their own. They can learn about what’s worked in Moscow or Rostov, and, with a little humility, they can offer examples of what’s succeeded elsewhere. Doing this would require getting off  the high-horse of urgency, discarding the frantic certainty that we are summoned to do something, anything, and it has to be now. It would mean admitting that this is going to be a long fight that will stretch way beyond Sochi. It would mean trying to settle on some common and realistic long-term goals, which might not be the stuff of headlines (Putin overthrown! Anti-gay law repealed) but could be very meaningful all the same: arrests that aren’t made, trials that don’t happen, organizations that actually survive. It would mean building a movement for the long haul, too, reaching out to the backbone structures that power real, successful international campaigns — labor unions, anti-war and women’s groups, minority lobbies, mobilized students. It would mean putting the Western activist ego in abeyance a bit, admitting that you’re not going to save a bunch of Russians solo, that Russians are more likely to save themselves.

Of course, this would all be slow and boring and terribly unsexy, and much of it would be out of the public eye. Which is why the Dan Savages will probably never go for it.

How much are the U.S. campaigners bothering to listen to Russians at all — you know, the kind inside Russia, the ones who are going to be directly affected by what they do? Not much, from what I see.

Exhibit One. Dan Savage gave an interview to Radio Free Europe a week ago:

RFE/RL: Are you in communication with Russian LGBT activists about the situation on the ground?

Savage: I’m getting a very clear picture. I live in Seattle, Washington. And there isn’t a large Russian or Russian gay community here. The large Russian community and large Russian gay community is in New York City. And I’m following very closely their statements and following meetings that are going on there.

I visited Moscow in 1990 and met with gay people there. And it just breaks my heart that they were so full of hope for their futures and for the progress that they hoped their country would make as it joined the civilized world.

This all means “No,” with a little overlay of “I can see Russia from my house.” Savage weirdly answers a question about whether he’s ever talked to a Russian activist in Russia by saying he “follows” –whatever that means — what Russians living in New York are saying. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that these aren’t the same thing. He does let us know, however, that 23 years ago he talked to some people in Moscow. It’s a pity they still aren’t civilized. They do have Starbucks now, though.

It makes you wonder whether Savage thought Russians should have any input into the boycott campaign he started. John Aravosis began his attack on Johnny Weir today with this immortal line: “It’s time we stopped pretending that every guy who sucks d*ck, as my friend Dan Savage would put it, is somehow an instant expert on our civil rights.” But how many blow jobs does it take to make you a Russia expert?

Exhibit Two: Also last week, Eric Sasson, a Wall Street Journal blogger, published a piece at Salon on the Nikolai Alekseev mess. He reviews the grim record of Alekseev’s anti-Semitism, but then gets down to the 64,000 ruble question: “Just how does the Russian LGBT community move forward when its most prominent voice loses his credibility?” The answer is, it can’t, and its credibility is shot. The whole initiative lies with activists in the West: “We have a responsibility to speak up for those who cannot do so.  This is exactly what the propaganda ban is about: denying a class of people the right to stand up for themselves.”

Shut up, she explained: Soviet propaganda poster, 1941

Shut up, she explained: Soviet propaganda poster, 1941

In the process he attacks Nation editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel, who dared to suggest that “a truly effective fight for LGBT rights” means listening and giving priority to what Russians themselves say and do. Vanden Heuvel, he says, simply seeks “to dismiss the efforts of Westerners (including activists such as Harvey Fierstein and Dan Savage and journalists such as John Aravosis and Richard Socarides).” We need to remember how important those people are, “given that the propaganda ban effectively denies Russian LGBT citizens the right to protest freely.”

The law is awful, but Sasson is silly if he thinks it has shut “Russian LGBT citizens” up for good. They continue to organize, protest, and write. Of course they demand and need Western support, but they are also perfectly capable of saying what they want, and telling Aravosis, Fierstein, and Savage what to do. It’s their country. For Sasson, the law really seems less a human rights abomination than a wonderful opportunity for Westerners to speak for “silenced” people. No matter how loud they scream, Putin says they’re “silenced,” therefore we’ll do the talking. The good intentions shouldn’t obscure the terrible methods here. As Teju Cole wrote, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

Exhibit Three: Lesbian Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen gave an interview last week to Michelangelo Signorile, in which she said: “It’s high time to talk about asylum. The only way at this point that the U.S. can help Russian gays and lesbians is get us the hell out of here.” Masha’s an old friend of mine, and somebody whose opinion I respect a lot. She’s been a power behind the boycott movements, but she’s also consistently discouraged expecting quick results. Repealing the propaganda law is unlikely, she’s stressed, for instance; the best one can hope for is scaring Putin into seeing that it’s not enforced. It’s hard not to read this statement as a reminder that the US has limited clout in Russia, that persecution and arrest are real threats, and that we have a responsibility to clean up our own act where the human right to asylum is concerned.

That’s not how the comment played, though. By the time the meme-makers had mangled it, this was spreading over Facebook like kudzu:

1003392_631726586860265_1239272419_n

Bullshit. No activists are “begging” for asylum. They’re not abject mendicants. Most activists in Russia are courageously working and fighting on. But we need to feel that Russians need us. So we translate even a message that there’s not much we can do into a satisfying cry for help. How great to live in a country people want so desperately to get into! Let’s not think about immigration reform, though (does anybody even remember that?) As Teju Cole wrote, for the White Savior Industrial Complex, “The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.”

None of this is the stuff of successful campaigning. It’s the raw material for personal catharsis, not change. And in fact, despite all the urgent talk of concentration camps and gas chambers, the Russia campaigns aren’t going swimmingly. The anti-Stoli side of the boycott came in for withering ridicule in last week’s New York Times. More importantly, nothing in Putin’s Russia has budged; new, worse law proposals keep coming. Aravosis tried to tabulate the boycott’s successes today, while reproving Weir:

The only reason that Johnny Weir is even on Keith Olbermann’s show is because the boycott took an issue that most people didn’t care about and made it an international scandal with non-stop coverage going on seven weeks now. No one outside of the gay blogs and the very occasional news article was talking about Russia’s draconian crackdown on its gay and trans citizens, and it certainly wasn’t being discussed on a daily basis like it is now.  Yet, just days ago, the issue was raised at the G20 summit by both President Obama and the British Prime Minister. … It happened because some activists called for a boycott which caught the attention of the gay community, the media and the world.

This is getting the cart before the ass, I think. The boycotts creatively rode a wave of indignation that was already rising; they didn’t create it. But even granting the point (which Gessen also agrees with) that the boycotts have done a lot to crystallize public attention: what do you do with that public attention? Just getting publicity is not, is never, the point. Even pressing Obama to talk to Putin is not the point, as long as Putin doesn’t listen. If the Olympics stay in Sochi, what’s the plan? What are you going to do when Sochi’s over, and the law’s still there?  Can you mobilize people for something more sustained and demanding than dumping vodka in a drain? What actually are your concrete goals, short of bringing Putin down?

I don’t yet hear answers to any of these questions — and that’s partly because even to take a stab at answers, you’d have to pay some serious heed to Russian activists, especially Russians outside New York. Short of that, all this attention-catching and publicity-grabbing mainly mean attention and publicity for Dan Savage and the rest. Russian activists, Russian movements, and ordinary Russians facing silence or arrest are still waiting to see what it means for them.

Soviet sports education poster, 1951: "If you want to be like me, just train!" No comment.

Soviet sports education poster, 1951: “If you want to be like me, just train!” No comment.

Promoting homosexuality versus promoting one homosexual: Putin, Nikolai Alekseev, and the publicity machine

Brokeback Moscow: Everything is fine here in Marlboro country

Brokeback Moscow: Everything is fine here in Marlboro country

Vladimir Putin dabbled in the promotion of homosexuality this morning. After all, he can get away with it. In an interview published by AP, he praised the notoriously decadent Tchaikovsky, and promised that everything for LGBT folks in Russia will be fine, fine.

I assure you that I work with these people, I sometimes award them with state prizes or decorations for their achievements in various fields. We have absolutely normal relations, and I don’t see anything out of the ordinary here. They say that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a homosexual. Truth be told we don’t love him because of that, but he was a great musician, and we all love his music. So what? There’s no need to make a mountain out of a molehill, there’s nothing horrible or scary going on in our country.

Great; unlike scary Syria, which understandably took up most of the conversation, Russia continues in the peace that passeth understanding. In response to a question that has all the marks of being planted (“You said earlier that President Obama was welcome to meet with members of gay and lesbian groups in Russia. Would you also be willing to have such a meeting?”) Putin voiced eagerness to listen not only to the musical gays, but to the ones who just talk.

If any of them would like to meet me then, by all means. But so far there hasn’t been any such initiative. We have many such groups, various organizations, societies, and as a rule I meet with anyone who voices a request for a meeting and offers to discuss an important problem. So far there haven’t been any such requests, but why not?

Convenient. It cocks a snook at Obama, and allows Putin to show that civil society (all those “groups, various organizations, societies” now hamstrung by draconian registration requirements under his laws) is functioning just fine despite everything.

In an interval so brief that subatomic particles would envy it, anti-Semitic activist hero Nikolai Alekseev announced he is asking for a meeting.

Quick, before the Jews find out:  "A formal letter requesting a meeting today will be sent by me to the Administration of the President of Russia." "Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich! I ask you for a meeting to discuss the situation of LGBT people in Russia and around the world!"

Quick, before the Jews find out:
“A formal letter requesting a meeting today will be sent by me to the Administration of the President of Russia.”
“Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich! I ask you for a meeting to discuss the situation of LGBT people in Russia and around the world!”

For a long time, some activists in the West — along with the US and UK gay press, and others — have proclaimed Alekseev the leader of Russia’s gay movement, despite ample evidence of his pathologies and prejudices. They didn’t give a damn, either, about the disinclination of Russia’s actual, vibrant gay movement to follow Alekseev’s erratic lead. “Not many people would have dared continue to put themselves in the frontline and take on the power of the ruthless tyrannical Russian state,” Peter Tatchell wrote in 2011 (this despite Alekseev’s insistence, over many years, that he was in no way an opponent of Putin). “Sadly,” Tatchell added, “too many people were ready to believe some of the malicious things said against him.”  Alekseev’s faithful scribe and oddly fawning promoter Doug Ireland called him, in Gay City News in 2010, “the internationally recognized symbol of the nascent new generation of liberated Russian queers.” 

Now, for the first time, Russia’s government agrees with them.  The official news agency RIA Novosti referred to him today as “the leader of the Russian gay movement.” The Presidential press secretary told the agency that “Putin is always a supporter of dialogue. Certainly, it is important to determine the theme of the meeting …  If he wants to ask a burning question, of course, I am confident that the meeting will be considered as [a matter of urgency.]”

If this meeting happens — and if Putin is smart, he will do it, perhaps after putting some tranquilizers in the samovar — you can expect a communique from the duo saying that everything is fine across all of Russia, maybe even for the gays in Syria too, that those crazy human rights activists (whom Alekseev was deriding as “extremists” as far back as 2007) should be jailed, and that the law really doesn’t make any difference. Maybe Moscow Pride will finally be allowed, as a moneymaking venture, as long as it’s indoors. Maybe Alekseev will get one of those State prizes. Maybe he will even sing Evgeny Onegin for Putin, in a command performance.

I am not one of those who believe (as Oleg Kashin speculates today at Svobodnaya Pressa) that Alekseev has somehow been captured, bullied, or blackmailed by the Kremlin and is now under their control.  That easy explanation seems to me a product of the same naiveté about the man that his Western fan club helped promote. The government doesn’t need to pressure Alekseev for him to be erratic and divisive. They just need to wait. Anybody who’s watched him for years knows that jealousy and opportunism come to him as second, or first, nature.

What’s at work isn’t State intimidation; it’s much simpler. It’s Alekseev’s passion for publicity, something that he’s learned at the feet of stuntmen, pseudoactivists, and journalists in the West. He could certainly use some good publicity right now; here’s a way to get it. His pursuit of the paparazzi, and Putin’s need for a friendly headline, have just converged. Alekseev’s fan club plucked the man from obscurity, kept him in the limelight for years despite burgeoning doubts and questions, ignored and actively insulted other Russian activists doing serious and important work, and fed his hungry ego till it burst. They made him. He’s their golem — a Jewish legend Nikolai wouldn’t like, but in which he might feel the shock of recognition. But unlike the golem of the old stories, Alekseev can’t hurt his makers. Instead, it’s Russia’s LGBT community whose rights will suffer.

 

Nikolai Alekseev speaks: “I’ve been called a faggot on every corner, and I can’t call someone a Yid?”

"They are trying to seize power in Russia," and my little LGBT organization is the first target: Russian edition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, 1992

“They are trying to seize power in Russia,” and my little LGBT organization is the first target: Russian edition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, 1992

Nikolai Alekseev, the activist who has for long enjoyed a near-monopoly on Western media coverage of LGBT issues in Russia, had yet another social-media meltdown last night, spewing a flood of unequivocally anti-Semitic Tweets and Facebook posts. This is the latest eruption among several in recent weeks; John Aravosis covers the repellent content here. This morning, Alekseev followed up with an interview given to the independent news website Slon.ru. Here is a translation, completed with the help of Russian-speaking friends. (Please, if you notice any inaccuracies, note them in the comments.) This may at least settle the fears of many of Alekseev’s diehard fans and supporters who still suspect he’s been hacked or made away with, and can’t bring themselves to admit he’s saying these things himself. Or, the human propensity for naive belief being what it is, maybe it won’t. Anyway, let the man speak for himself.

[NB. Alekseev Tweeted this article this morning, and posted it on his Facebook account. So, unless the same Kremlin puppeteers who kidnapped him and hacked his passwords also impersonated him in talking to Slon, one can assume that he approves of how he was represented in the interview.]

Alekseev: “Americans do not help the LGBT community in Russia, they just undermine it” 

Ilya Shepelin

Alekseev, from Slon.ru

Alekseev, from Slon.ru

Today, the most famous Russian LGBT activist, the head of human rights project GayRussia Nikolai Alekseev, lashed out at U.S. gay organizations. In particular, he called their leaders “Jews, who want to control the LGBT movement in Russia.” Recently, foreign LGBT rights activists have come out with frequent proposals to take action against Russia because of a law banning “propaganda of homosexuality among minors,” but Alekseev’s statements seem perhaps even sharper than the reaction of the Russian authorities. Slon contacted Alekseev, to find out what angers Russian LGBT activists.

– Nikolai, why do you have to use anti-Semitic slurs against members of Western LGBT organizations?
– I don’t understand what ‘s the big deal? They are trying to seize power in Russia – power over the LGBT movement. For example, right now in America, there is a group of people who are actively doing everything to frustrate my trip to the U.S. They put pressure on Human Rights Watch [sic: Human Rights First initially invited Alekseev to a U.S. meeting], so I wouldn’t go to Washington in early December. They just bombard them with emails and all that they’ve got, so that I was disinvited. Moreover, this whole campaign is about the boycott of the Olympic Games and Russian vodka, which is not supported by the active part of the LGBT community in Russia.

The entire campaign which they’re now cranking up is pure PR for a topical subject which has recently come up around Russia. They don’t help the LGBT community in Russia, but simply undermine it. They sit there for themselves in New York and London, and they are not at risk. And we are here. Therefore, the whole of their activity does nothing but harm. The way they operate – and behind the scenes to boot. They say something and say they have freedom of speech, but there is no there is no freedom of speech! All this is a myth. I played there in the University of Harvard [sic: Alekseev is referring to a lecture at Columbia University in New York in 2011], so they just went to the rector, and urged him to cancel my lecture there! [sic: I was at Columbia at the time, and nobody urged that. His lecture went undisturbed.]

– I don’t really understand why you disturb them.
– But I do not do what they want. I don’t support their methods – the boycott of the Olympic Games in Sochi, the absolutely ridiculous boycott of vodka. They operate by their own methods, which we have to accept and act the way they should. But we will not! All of our court cases and complaints to the European Court were initiated by us. Any suggestions as to how to deal with the laws on propaganda, they pooh-pooh. But no one listens to us. They just continue to do their PR.

– And tell me, what is this gay lobby in America?
– Oh, yes, there are a lot of them! You read what they’re writing in their articles! It feels like they’ve got nothing better to do than read my Facebook and Twitter, and search out the things that they find, in their opinion, unacceptable. Now they’re trying in every possible way to attribute some anti-Semitism to me!

– But you called them “Yids”  [жидами] a few hours ago on Twitter.
– Yid – is that an offensive anti-Semitic word?

Lyudmila told the truth: Lyudmila Alekseeva

Lyudmila told the truth: Lyudmila Alekseeva

– Actually, it’s a term of contempt for the Jews [евреев].
– I’ve been called a fa**ot [п*******м] on every corner, and I can’t call someone a Yid? I don’t run to the courts when I’m name-called. [sic: Alekseev famously sued Lyudmila Alekseeva, no relation, the widely revered 86-year-old leader in the Russian human rights movement, for libel, Peter-Tatchell-style, after she called him a “liar.”] 

– If you’re name-called, I think it’s no reason to name-call the Jews [евреев].
– I didn’t name-call the Jews [евреев]! [sic: check Alekseev’s Twitter feed.] I said that there is a group of people in America which is engaged in clandestine subversive activities. It includes pornographer Michael Lucas, who fled from here in 1994, journalist Masha Gessen – now she’s settled in America, under the pretext of these laws on “promotion” [of homosexuality], just to get away from here quickly, though she’s not doing anything for the LGBT community. Twice she took a job, and then they drove her out from everywhere. All these people are promoting their agenda, and it doesn’t suit us. I said nothing about Jews in general. [sic] I talked about specific people in America who are engaged in such activities and who have tried to disrupt [my] event there. Well, what kind of freedom of speech can you speak of there?

– And you’re trying to say that American LGBT organizations should just take your position?
– No, but here all the leading organizations opposed the boycott of the Olympic Games, and opposed the boycott of vodka.

– But these organizations, quite frankly, aren’t likely to reflect the views of the majority of Russian gays.
– And who can represent the views of anybody else, unless there is an election? You can say that something reflects the opinion of the majority of Jews [евреев] in Russia? What do you mean, referendums were held there?

– There are organizations that have some authority.
– I’m talking about them – about the active LGBT community. People who are on the front lines and fight for their rights. And what ordinary members of the LGBT community think doesn’t matter, because they do not affect the development of the situation.

– Foreign LGBT organizations do not have the right to express their opinion?
– For God’s sake. But what are they trying to do? To do what’s  best for the LGBT community in Russia, or to make a universal noise and get more grants?They are doing it for their own sake, or for Russia? If it’s for their own sake, then let them be. And tomorrow I can arrange a protest against Obama, for example. And then what?

– It is not exactly clear what successes are due to these active LGBT organizations in Russia.
– Very big ones. The first victory in the European Court of Human Rights (the case of “Alekseev v. Russia”), the victory at the UN Committee on Human Rights about the law “On the promotion of homosexuality” in the Ryazan region. There the law was adopted in 2006, back then nobody was interested in it – now everybody pounces on [the issue]. Now in Ryazan, a court is reviewing the case – and the review would be a terrible blow to Ryazan, and to the federal laws “On the promotion of homosexuality”! And we have a lot of achievements!

– Of course. Only these achievements take place outside of the Russian Federation, in Strasbourg and Brussels.
– So these solutions will just have to do! If there are dozens of such decisions and Russia doesn’t take them into account, it’ll just be removed from the Council of Europe! Because the issue has already been before the Cabinet of Ministers of the Council of Europe for two years, and every six months they require an explanation from Russia. And it won’t last forever!

– However, the situation for the rights of gays in Russia is certainly not getting any better. And I have to say, among some of my gay friends you have a dubious reputation. I’ve heard that there have been cases when you were supposed to come to the unauthorized gay pride parades, and don’t show up.
– When was that? I went to all of them except 2012. Then I did not go simply because at the time my father was dying – for your information. You all just show up, and I’m working!

– Well, why do we just show up? Because you will too. Now, remember, you spread information that the City Council had agreed for the first time to allow a gay pride parade in Moscow, but it was not true.
– Oh, how do you know whether it was true or not true?

– City Hall immediately denied your claim. You didn’t show any documents that allegedly were a tentative agreement.
– Denied? And so what?

– It turns out that you lied.
– No, that isn’t true! So what?

– The fact is, it’s pretty sad. 

The emergency of everyday life: What activists who care about the Russia Olympics should learn from sex workers, and why

This town's not big enough for Johnny Weir and me: Life-size wax figure of Stalin sits in his former dacha in Sochi

This town’s not big enough for Johnny Weir and me: Life-size wax figure of Stalin sits in his former dacha in Sochi

One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by authors of simile and metaphor…
They always say things like that the snow is a white blanket after a winter storm.
Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a six-inch blanket of snow and I’ll sleep under a half-inch blanket of unpoetical blanket material and we’ll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you’ll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.

What Ogden Nash believed was good for the literary goose would surely be even better for the activist gander (that’s a metaphor, I know).  Yet once you’ve got a comparison in your head, it takes a brain tumor to dislodge it. The reigning simile these days is that Russians are Nazis. Therefore: Putin = Hitler, gays = Jews, 1936 = 2014, and the day after the Olympics = Auschwitz. The latest item is a Huffington Post piece which argues Russia’s anti-gay-propaganda law is exactly the same as Hitler’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws. The author proves this by replacing “homosexuality” in the new law’s text with the words “interracial relationships.” Q.E.D.

Unfortunately what his argument lacks is the other half of the comparison — a look at what the Nuremberg Laws said. Evidently the author hasn’t read them, because they say something quite different from Putin’s bill, and a single search-and-replace won’t make them identical. The Russian law treats sexualities as a kind of virus of persuasion, and restricts freedom of expression to keep unwanted ones from spreading. The German laws regarded race as an absolute divide, an unfathomable chasm in morality and biology that the State had to reflect. The Russian law is about defining and closing the public sphere; it censors what people say. The German laws ripped away both public rights and private safety: they stripped Jews of citizenship and began the process of criminalizing all relations, sexual and social, between the “races.” Race as it was in Hitler’s eyes can’t be turned into sexuality as Putin sees it.  You’ll never change the latter hatred if you imagine what it wants and where it comes from in the former’s terms.

Interspecies marriages are discouraged but tolerated

Interspecies marriages are discouraged but tolerated

But there’s no stopping comparisons. Apartheid, of course, comes in a close second to the Holocaust as a travel guide to Sochi. Just yesterday, blogger Melanie Nathan delivered a death-blow to the credentials of a scholar who studies Russian society and history. His crime? The schmuck wrote an op-ed arguing the Stoli boycott was misguided. “His voice should drown in one shot of vodka,” she says devastatingly:  “He also did not live through the collapse of an Apartheid South Africa.” Throw him off the ivory tower! It takes a South African to know the Russian soul. Indeed, Cape Town and the various Holocaust museums around the world contain the only qualified Russian experts in the world; all those silly Slavic departments should just shut down. Endless showings of Cry Freedom and Schindler’s List will teach us all we need to know. If we just mimic the non-black, non-Jewish heroes that Kevin Kline and Liam Neeson so movingly served up (“bridge characters,” in Nick Kristof’s helpful explanation, who “get people to care about foreign countries, to read about them, ideally, to get a little bit more involved”), tyrant Putin’s nyets are numbered.

So I give up. Or maybe I can join in myself. One comparison’s as good as another. The news today is that Putin has just released a decree (“On the use of high security during the XXII Olympic Winter Games”) that essentially ends freedom of movement in and around Sochi from January 7 till the end of March.

The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.

The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.

There’ll be a “forbidden zone” — this is like a Tarkovsky movie — blotting out most of the city of 350,000 as if it were Chernobyl. Access for regular Russians will be severely curtailed. Any “meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets that are not associated with the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games” are banned during the period.

Western gays are the loudest ones sounding alarms over the restrictions. But they’ll hamstring plenty of other dissenters: human rights groups and Russia’s environmental movement, which hoped to protest the destruction the Games’ construction boom has brought. Independent TV channel Dozhd warned that Sochi 2014 will be like the 1980 Moscow Games, when barbed wire sliced up the city to keep “antisocial” elements distant.

And here’s the thing. This actually is one point where we can learn from the experience of Olympics past, and from other sporting events as well. Putin’s exclusions, though sweeping in their scope, are far from unprecedented in their nature.

Dozhd on Twitter: "Putin's ukase is turning Sochi 2014 into Moscow 1980."

Dozhd on Twitter: “Putin’s ukase is turning Sochi-14 into Moscow-80.”

The Olympics are always a chance for hosts to do some moral cleansing, and drive away undesirables by brute force. Gay activists join a long list of victims from past Games. Among the exiled have been the homeless, immigrants, drug addicts. They pretty much always include people selling sex, though. If Western gay bloggers or activists want to know what Putin’s decree will mean in practice: ask a sex worker.

Try a sex worker in London, for instance. Before every big sporting event, the same rhetoric reverberates: Prostitutes are going to take over this town.  All those repressed athletes with pent-up body fluids, all those spectators rutting! It was everywhere in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics. The press trumpeted: “Vice girls hope to strike gold”! Local councillors “called for politicians and police across the capital to work together to tackle the problem of prostitution”:

There needs to be speed of action and there needs to be a London-wide response to this … It’s not legal so why are we tolerating it? I have asked for it to be a policing priority.

This could be your daughter: Notorious human trafficker (top right) eyes unsuspecting victim (bottom)

This could be your daughter: Notorious human trafficker (top right) eyes unsuspecting victim (bottom)

“Major sporting events can be a magnet for the global sex and trafficking industry,” intoned Dame Tessa Jowell, the Labour Party’s Olympics maven. “I am determined that traffickers will not exploit London 2012.” (Jowell’s husband had been jailed as a result of his lawyering for Silvio Berlusconi. Perhaps a vision of the Italian lecher descending on England like Count Dracula, and making bunga bunga parties proliferate much as the Transylvanian spread toothmarks, clouded her objectivity.)

All predictable. None of it true. The same terrors, the same answers always recur. Before the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, Canadian advocates denounced “The shame of Olympics prostitution,” demanding a clampdown on women to restrain “the sexual desires of fans.” Germany, hosting football Babylon in 2006, braced for a “World Cup sex explosion,” “an influx of sex slaves.” But none of the influx happened. The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) debunked the paranoias in a detailed report:

Prostitution abolitionists have argued that large groups of men at sporting events result in increased demand for commercial sex, and that this demand is supposedly met through trafficking women. Anti-trafficking organisations, sex workers rights organisations and other stakeholders have strongly refuted this claim.

They neatly lay out how predictions stacked up to realities:

GAATW Cost of a Rumour table

The predictions are nearly always couched as concern for “trafficked” women, but they mostly come down to twinned anxieties over nuisances to “normal” neighbors, and over the reputation of the host city. Yet, however based in fear and faked statistics, the demand to drive out sex workers is hard to resist. What major sporting events bring is not an “explosion” in prostitution, but an explosion in repression.

Repression! — not in evil Russia, but in liberal Canada and the UK, countries that value human rights, except for sex workers, who aren’t human. Local researchers found that “increased police harassment” of sex workers around the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics endangered their health as well as safety. There weren’t many arrests — this is Canada, eh — but much of the city became a no-go zone. The onslaught displaced them to “more isolated spaces away from health and support services, and increase[d] risks of violence and transmission of HIV/STIs.”

London’s crackdown was worse. In the first eight months of 2010 — fully two years before the Olympics — police carried out 113 brothel raids in the seven boroughs where contests and tourists would cluster. (There were only 29 raids in the capital’s other 25 boroughs.) This pace quickened as the Games drew near. In Tower Hamlets, police arrested 14 alleged sex workers in 2010, then 37 in 2011, and 44 in the first four months of 2012 alone! Toynbee Hall, an anti-poverty charity, said prostitutes were being “cleaned off the streets.”

Prostitutes are being told to stay away from parts of Newham … They have also been given curfews from 10pm to 6am, according to Toynbee Hall. One sex worker told the charity she was not allowed onto the street where she lived after 8pm.

Cops asked for “cooperation” from phone companies in shutting down one of the safer ways for sex workers to screen clients.

They want help targeting numbers advertised on thousands of sex calling cards that litter phone boxes throughout the capital. Kit Malthouse, deputy mayor for policing, said the mobile phone numbers are a valuable resource for those behind the sex industry. He said an agreement must be reached between mobile phone networks and police … “Hopefully it will become dangerous to advertise your number in these boxes.”

Call me, call me any, anytime: Forms of sexual expression at the London Olympiad. L: Good. R: Bad.

Call me, call me anytime: Forms of sexual expression at the London Olympiad. L: Good. R: Bad.

A 2012 report by a Conservative member of the London Assembly, Andrew Boff, found that Olympics-related brothel raids were forcing more sex workers onto the streets, making them in turn more vulnerable to further arrests — and to violence. The risks of women being trafficked actually grew. As crackdowns drove sex workers out of their usual work spaces, police lost touch with (and trust from) sources who might have helped them identify abused women. (This situation was not helped by the UK’s appalling Sexual Offences Act of 2003, a product of Tony Blair’s oily moralism, which redefined “sex trafficking” to mean something other than “trafficking”: the term could now cover any travel to the UK to commit a sexual offence, whether voluntary or not.) But helping women wasn’t really the goal. Tower Hamlets Council said, “Where they [sex workers] aren’t willing to work with us, we are taking enforcement action against them.”

Two notorious international sex traffickers escort unwilling victim to their lair

Two notorious international sex traffickers escort unwilling victim to their lair

And this is nothing next to what’s happening in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro will host the World Cup in 2014, and the Olympics two years later. The latter honor fell to the city just months after Eduardo Paes, a chameleonlike center-right politician, won the mayoralty in 2008. Paes’s campaign money came from real-estate and construction magnates. They dreamed of gentrifying tenderloin territories across the Rio landscape. They’d hired Paes as a repo man, to evict the occupying poor.

Men in black: BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion) soldier near convenient local business

Men in black: BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion) soldier near conveniently situated local business

Even before the Olympics bid succeeded, Paes launched a massive police assault on favelas and poorer quarters of Rio, terrifyingly called Choque de Ordem — “Shock of Order.” It means semi-military invasions of whole neighborhoods to root out drug gangs as well as other illegal or informal activity: street vendors, squatters, tax evaders, people who don’t pay utility bills, and of course sex workers.  Usually, there’s a two-pronged assault. First troops from BOPE (“Special Police Operations Battalions”) attack the district and drive out or kill any dealers or leaders who offer resistance. Then the UPP (“Pacifying Police Units”) move in to deal with non-violent recalcitrants, like prostitutes, and to establish a permanent Pax Paesana in the area. With the Games coming, the aggression grows. To poorer Cariocans, the UPP are the Olympics Police.

Shock and Order police, and reporters, with an alleged sex worker in Jacarézinho favela, 2009

Shock of Order police, and reporters, with an alleged sex worker in Jacarézinho favela, 2009

Prostitution is legal in Brazil (though pimping and keeping a brothel are against the law), but Paes doesn’t care. It’s disorder, and deserves a shock. Earlier this year one judge, who acquitted detainees from a brothel raid, described a “repressive political climate rising from the adoption of hygienist measures, aimed at preparing Rio de Janeiro for the mega sporting events in 2014 and 2016.” One reporter recounted last year how

On the eve of June 14, as tourists streamed into town for the highly publicized Rio+20 [UN] Conference [ironically, on sustainable development], armed members of the Copacabana Police Precinct and Rio’s public prosecutor’s office arrived at a brothel called Centauros, in the heart of Ipanema Beach. They arrested prostitutes, management and the owner, seized documents, computers and used condoms, and walked out with $150,000 dollars in cash. The owner of the brothel spent a week at a maximum security prison. …

Rio has already shuttered 24 sex establishments in the rapidly gentrifying downtown and tourist‐ friendly South Zone neighborhoods. Another 33 venues have been threatened or harassed by the police. The Rio+20 raid included Centauros and another dozen of the most popular sex venues … It’s the biggest crackdown on prostitution in a generation.

Shock of Order = Extermination of the Poor

Shock of Order = Extermination of the Poor

Putin could hardly dream of remaking Sochi in the way Paes and the neoliberals are rebuilding Rio. They’re as drunk on eminent domain as Robert Moses or Albert Speer. 3,000 homes will die by bulldozer, their residents evicted, for a huge highway to exempt Olympic visitors from Rio traffic jams. In the vast favela of Rocinha, the cleanup started by shutting down street parties, a venue for sex as well as fun. The local UPP commander, “a kind of manager in Rocinha,” explained that “Citizenship is a two-­way street. Parties ended because they weren’t fitting the rules.” What fits the rules are rich people. “Property values have risen…. Rents are rising as well: a little room costs 450 reais ($225) per month, ­­the price of a house before the UPP.” As the poor are priced out, their homes become hotels for sport-loving tourists. In Rocinha, one posh auberge

covers four floors of a building that once had 106 apartments. Half of them were converted to rooms charging 98 reais ($49) a night. …. [According to the manager], the first shipment of tourists are due to arrive this month. “A group of 29 French people confirmed they were staying for one week. They want to see what a slum looks like.” 

Prostitutes exit for more respectable guests. The city envisions converting 60 “four-hour-nap hotels,” used by sex workers and clients, to fancy digs for Olympic spectators. Activists also face exile. “In the Cinelândia cultural district downtown, Rio’s oldest and most active prostitutes rights group, Davida, was evicted to make way for a boutique hotel by a French hotelier.”

"Meanwhile in Rio de Janeiro: Public policy, for real. For what?" "Marvellous city" is a nickname for Rio.

“Meanwhile in Rio de Janeiro: Public policy, for real. For what?” “Marvellous city” is a nickname for Rio.

Brazil’s resistance should be our inspiration. The massive protests of recent months unleashed indignation at the evictions, exclusions, violence carried out for sport and profit. Sex workers too have been on the march.

Yet in London, few powerful voices opposed the Olympic rollback of sex workers’ freedom — and certainly few LGBT activists. Andrew Boff, who’s gay, was a rarity in raising objections. By contrast, Peter Tatchell spoke out to “end prostitution around the Olympics.”

Anyone remember Carl Schmitt? If you seriously want to make comparisons to Nazi law, Schmitt really should be a starting point. A legal theorist of how democracies die, he wrote: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”

I can make an exception for you, soldier: Carl Schmitt (R) with Ernst Junger in occupied Paris, 1943

I can make an exception for you, soldier: Carl Schmitt (R) with Ernst Junger in occupied Paris, 1943

For Schmitt, the key to authority (and, in equal degree, the indispensable secret weapon and the Achilles heel of democracies) was the legal ability to declare an emergency, to invent a moment or a place when law and due process stop. There, pure, arbitrary power can rule. The state of emergency is a paradox; provided for in law, it is nonetheless a “suspension of the legal order in its totality”; it appears to “escape every legal consideration.” Most democracies make allowances for an emergency to stop the democratic order, temporarily. The Weimar Republic did; the President could declare lawmaking, rights, and justice in abeyance, and rule by decree. It seemed like a useful idea at the time. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben sees the ultimate form and zone of the emergency, the “suspension of the legal order in its totality,” in the concentration camp.

The emergency has become both basic metaphor and fact in our modern moment. This dates at least to 9/11, when an act of terror proffered an excuse for setting ordinary legality aside, for Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo. The way that law can delineate preserves of lawlessness — much as it draws borders around national parks — obsesses both right and left. And it’s an issue everywhere. I write this in Egypt. An emergency law suspending ordinary rights and justice — allowing detention without trial, trial without evidence, military courts, sentence without appeal — has been in effect in one or another form for all but about 20 of the last 113 years. There’s a curfew now, the Cairo streets close down at 9 PM, tanks hunch at intersections, you can be arrested for wearing a beard. What Putin is doing in Sochi is simply another version: making the city an emergency zone, restricting rights of movement, putting bodies in extralegal cages, using terror as a reason.

There are people, though, for whom the emergency isn’t an exception. There are people who endure the state of emergency every day.

State-of-Emergency-2

Sex law has never worked the way the rest of law does. It doesn’t play by the same rules or ask for similar evidence.  Law tends to see sex as an emergency where the regular principles don’t apply. 

Sex workers suffer an extreme example. They often live their lives under a police regime where due process plays little part — an Olympic repression without end, a perpetual state of suspended justice.  Provisions allowing detention without a chance of trial are everywhere. Police can impose fines on suspected prostitutes whenever they like, or curfews, or confine them to particular areas of a town. Morals campaigns in Zimbabwe and “quality of life” policing in the US carry comparable effects. “After dark,” several Turkish trans* women told me ten years ago, “if a transvestite goes out even for a social reason, they will arrest you for prostitution. Whether you are a prostitute or not, they assume you are.” To be arrested once for street prostitution in Turkey means to be placed on a register, subject to arrest whenever they notice you again: “Police have such powers that they can arrest you because the way you dress is against general morality or public health, or disrupting traffic.” Until a few years ago, the UK mandated (many ex-colonies still do) that any woman the police judged a “common prostitute” was suspect and could be arrested just for showing herself on the roads.

Walls around us: Sex worker street art, Buenos Aires

Walls around us: Sex worker street art, Buenos Aires

Street sex workers often circle in a public jail, with daily movement hemmed by invisible but palpable borders. But workers in state-regulated brothels may live in more literal prisons, where police protect public morality by not letting them out. To be a prostitute, in those regimes, is to lose the right to be seen. Why do you think your pungent spaghetti meal with capers and anchovies is called puttanesca — “whore’s pasta”? Because prostitutes confined in state-regulated brothels in early 20th-century Italy were only let out once a week to shop. To live, they needed to make a salty, preservable sauce that would last till their next allowed excursion.

Under such regimes of surveillance and constriction, you are a criminal; you don’t need to be judged guilty to become one. Proofs don’t matter, courts don’t intervene. The New Yorker recently reported on the scandal of “asset forfeiture,” by which police simply seize property from suspects who may never even be charged with, much less convicted of, a crime. Alleged sex workers and accused clients are among the commonest victims.  One US state just passed a law that “permits authorities to forfeit the cash that was used in or intended for…sex solicitation”; it “applies to prostitutes, patrons or pimps.” Any money you have on you, or maybe even in your ATM account, will go to the cops.

And then, in the UK, there’s the “ASBO”: the “Anti-Social Behavior Order.” We owe this work of genius as well to Tony Blair, who introduced it in 1998. It allows a magistrate to control someone’s movement or behavior, not because they’ve committed a crime, but because they’ve done something “anti-social.” It must last for at least two years, sometimes longer. “ASBOs rely on hearsay and police evidence alone,” the English Collective of Prostitutes notes.  Liberty, the British human rights organization, explains that even though the order is served under civil law, “Breaching the conditions of an ASBO is a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years in prison … Individuals are being sent to prison for committing acts which may not be in themselves illegal.” Even if the act prohibited in the ASBO is something as innocent as playing loud music or walking through Sussex Gardens, you can be treated worse than an armed robber if you commit it. 

Sex workers and allies demonstrate against abuse by ASBO, Stratford Magistrates' Court, London, July 12, 2013

Sex workers and allies demonstrate against abuse by ASBO, Stratford Magistrates’ Court, London, July 12, 2013

“There has been a massive expansion in the availability and use of civil orders to regulate conduct outside of the criminal justice sphere,” Liberty says. And who are the targets? The Guardian reported in 2005,

Anti-social behaviour orders are increasingly being used against prostitutes as a “quick fix” way of clearing women off the streets, campaigners warn….

Harry Fletcher, spokesman for the probation officers’ union Napo, said … “Some local authorities, in conjunction with police, are using them as a way of clearing the streets of people whose behaviour is undesirable, but not antisocial. The actual offence of prostitution is not imprisonable, but we are ending up with people facing up to five years in prison for it.”

The orders dictate sex workers’ daily movements. Here’s a headline: “ASBO bans Roehampton prostitute from Tooting Bec Common.”

Sarah Caldecott, who has several convictions for soliciting in the area, was given an antisocial behaviour order banning her from entering the zone for the next five years. …  Sergeant Jill Horsfall, of Wandsworth police’s Bedford Ward SNT, said: “Now she is the subject of an ASBO Sarah Caldecott should not be under any illusions about what will happen to her if she is spotted anywhere near Tooting Common.”

Contradiction in terms?

Contradiction in terms?

Restricting where sex workers can go, confining them, controlling them out of the public eye — isn’t that what the “pimps” and “traffickers” stand accused of doing? Tony Blair trafficked in women’s bodies. It taught him to traffic in terror.  His limits on civil liberties for despised nuisances foreshadowed some of the “anti-terrorism measures” he would introduce even before 9/11, allowing search without cause, detention without oversight, interrogation without check. The English Collective of Prostitutes says, “[As] with anti-terror laws, ASBOs have spawned a parallel legal system where the normal rules of evidence do not apply.”

“Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.” Sex workers in the post-Blair UK, as in many other countries, carry their own Sochi about with them, shadow and burden above their heads. Yet LGBT activists who protest Putin rarely worry about the infringements of sexual freedom on their kerbs, in their own back yards.

You can learn things from sex workers’ resistance: slogans to borrow, strategies to share. LGBT advocates could look at the campaign to call out politicians on the 2012 repression in London. They might figure out how sex workers got the Greek government to back off from brothel raids before the 2004 Olympics — actually easing a law restricting brothel locations! They might take some lessons from sex workers fighting the restructuring of Rio. But they don’t.

Our Western LGBT activists lack imagination, the kind of imagination that connects you to reality. They don’t imagine sex workers as allies; don’t see their repression as relevant and urgent; don’t believe their activism entails models, their experience examples, or their lives value. Meanwhile, the injustices go on, and no athletes stand up in righteous anger, and Dan Savage and Jamie Kirchick have other things to do. The Republic of Ireland introduced the ASBO in 2007. It’s almost never been used since then, “shunned” out of some instinctive, civilized revulsion at its restrictiveness. Four days ago, though, police tried to invoke it against eight women, mostly Romanian, “to curb prostitution in Limerick.” Ireland cages women. Boycott Guinness, anybody? No.

2012-07-29-Sex-Olympics5

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.