From Russia With Love: Ending Up on the Wrong Side of History



It’s mid-morning in broad daylight on an urban city thoroughfare. City dwellers are going about their daily business. Coffees are bought, breakfast is eaten, newspapers are read and discarded. Children play in the streets while parents share stories of family outings. Televisions in shop windows flicker between advertisements for the newest fleet of sports cars and the morning’s current events. A man walks down the busy street wearing jeans, a Rolling Stones t-shirt and a jacket from his dad’s alma mater. He quickly draws attention from people on the street, despite his nondescript appearance. Looks of disgust spread across the faces of parents and young people while the children continue to play. A child points – the mother says nothing. A rainbow flag sewn beside an array of patches onto his messenger bag has provoked the people on the street, unbeknownst to him.

Laughter and pointing erupts from the people on the street, quickly turning to crude and hateful slogans. “Faggot!” they yell. The man has become aware of the attention and begins to walk quickly, a familiar feeling. He glances quickly over his shoulder, noticing a few men who appear to be trailing behind. He picks up his pace, but is unable to escape the suddenly angry group of uninvited followers. Without warning, the man is thrown to the ground face first. Panic spreads through the man’s body and he attempts to get up – his attackers kick his head to the ground, breaking his nose. The attackers are shouting death threats – the man is yelling for help.

In Russia, reports of violence against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community are at an all time high. Stories like these are reported daily, sometimes resulting in death. The LGBT community in Russia is in trouble due to new laws enacted by President Vladimir Putin. In June 2013, the Russian National Government in Moscow passed a bill that banned distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.” The legislation lacks a clear definition of “non-traditional,” a convenient opportunity for the Russian authorities to target the LGBT community without consequence. In July, the Kremlin, Russia’s federal parliament signed a bill banning the adoption of Russian children by same-sex couples of any nationality.

The scope of Russia’s new hate-based laws extends beyond the distribution of “propaganda.” Under Russia’s new laws, penalties for the spread of “non-traditional” values include arrest, imprisonment, and fines that range from USD $155 for individuals, up to $31,000 for media outlets. Reports of clashes between Russian Police and LGBT groups have soared in recent months with most incidents resulting in the use of Police brutality and unwarranted arrest. According to the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, nearly 90 per cent of Russians support the homophobic anti-propaganda law, with support growing throughout the country.

[pullquote]This begs the question, what will happen at the Olympics in Sochi this February? [/pullquote]

Russia’s new laws have sparked outrage worldwide. The Commissioner of the European Union and the President of Germany have vowed to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Campaigns have begun around the world to forgo the use of Russian products – most notably: Russian Vodka. Many public figures have called on national Olympic committees to boycott the games. Musician Lady Gaga has been vocal against the games in Sochi, demanding that the United States Olympic Committee take a stance on the issue. Elton John and Madonna have made their opinions heard as well, and have faced much disapproval from Russian authorities.

This begs the question, what will happen at the Olympics in Sochi this February? The Olympics are more than an opportunity for athletes to expose their talents. To deny the reality of the political influence exerted by the Olympics is to live in ignorance. The Olympic games play a large role in international diplomatic relations. At the games in Moscow in 1980, 62 countries performed the world’s most significant Olympic boycott in history with a ripple effect that could be felt around the world.

Athletes are most certainly affected by an Olympic boycott, but at what cost? By participating in the Olympics through the justification of athletic competition, we have consciously accepted the unimportance of the freedom of innocent Russians. The silence of our leaders in culture and politics on this issue is akin to the promotion of oppression.

According to the Olympic Charter, one of the fundamental principles of olympism is that any form of discrimination on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with the olympic movement. Yet the many openly gay Olympians that plan to attend the games in Sochi this February, each face an uncertain fate. Johnny Weir is an openly gay retired American Olympic figure skater and competed in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Weir will be attending this year as a commentator with NBC, and has been quoted saying, “I risk jail time just going there, but the Olympics are not the place to make a political statement.”

As the Olympics draw near, the issue of LGBT rights will become more contentious. Russia’s treatment of the LGBT community is on par with their definition of sexual deviancy. The Olympics will be a litmus test of Russia’s loyalty to its new homophobic laws. The country will be under scrutiny and likely on its best behavior as the world watches. Many athletes will fear for their safety and freedom while representing their country in a nation that believes they should be imprisoned for their sexuality. As more countries continue to legalize marriage equality, Russia will quickly find itself on the wrong side of history.

By: Finn Macleod