Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Putin, Pictures and (GAY) Protests

Last time we looked at why Alexei Navalny is making headlines across the world for taking chunks out of Putin's legitimacy. Now it seems like everyone is getting in on the act, especially in the wake of the latest affront to the Russian president's manhood...

You may have read or heard about this story (  in which a Russian artist has fled the country when his paintings of Putin in drag were seized by authorities. It's all very 19th century isn't it? Someone scribbling something dirty about the Tsar on a blackboard...

The context for this latest Russian oddity is the horrendous "anti-gay law" that has been  on the fringes of the world news agenda over the last few months. The law works by effectively banning all instances of what the Russian state calls"homosexual propaganda" (not a gay, indie, club night) which constitutes anything from open displays of same-sex affection to simply wearing a rainbow flag pin button badge.

Arguments in favour of the law centre around hackneyed stances on "traditional values and "protecting youth" from being "made gay". It's very sad to see homophobia given legal legitimacy. You can probably tell by all the inverted commas in my text that many of the terms being banded by the lawmakers have no fixed meaning or definition. It is this flexibility that has allowed St Petersburg authorities to raid the artist's collection with, as the BBC article states, "no formal warrant or explanation."

AS ALWAYS with this blog I intend to be respectful to Russian opinion and tradition but this one issue makes this a personal, moral conundrum. I'm really struggling. I want to say that Russia has some kind of right to do this kind of thing - it is not Europe, nor Asia, it really is its own master - but this goes beyond my ability to empathise. Many Russian people themselves are gay and no longer safe in their own country. Instances of anti-gay violence are reported as being on the increase.

Part of the reason why Russia has such a negative view of LGBT issues is to do with religion. This is, in all honesty, something that cannot be surmounted easily. If the bible, according to orthodox readings, calls homosexuality a sin, then this is an enormous obstacle that complicates the issue for many believers. This is not a uniquely Russian problem, Catholics who are gay would reach the same religious/personal crisis, but it's taking the next step to actually arresting people that is so worrying. Once again, it is a mixture of nationalism and religious fervour that has lead to a situation where people grow up to believe gays are some kind of threat. It's a cliche and an offense to call Russia "backwards" and I hate myself for doing it, but the whole affair just reeks of Britain in the mid 20th century.

Nikolay Alexeyev - a prominant Russian lawyer and LGBT activist (2)

The Sochi Winter Olympics offers the best chance for the international community to intervene with this law in a meaningful way. As we have seen with the pro-LGBT performances in St Petersburg of artists like Lady Gaga and Madonna, foreign nationals with a high-profile are able to defeat the Russian government's attempts to curb their expressions of gay freedom. Sports stars are not that different and the media spotlight will be on Russia's cultural and social sides for the first time in years.

An Olympic boycott won't happen but going and being openly gay in Russia is becoming increasingly dangerous. Whatever happens Russia is going to be confronted with something that it didn't want to see, something that will hopefully be very glittery, noisy and fabulous.

(1) wikimedia commons
(2) wikimedia commons

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