Now you see it, now you don’t

Did you know the Communists want to ban expressions of homosexuality?

Oh, they’re not in power, and this isn’t a historical post—this was a law proposed by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation in October 2015. They’re a minority party, and aren’t even particularly communist for that matter.

In 2013-2014, English-language newsmedia offered massive (for Russia-centric news) coverage of Russia’s proposed-then-passed ban on gay propaganda. (Technically the law targeted “propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientations among minors,” thus had a particular effect on outreach to LGBT youth such as the Deti-404 program.)

Where’d it go?

This is not to say that Western coverage necessarily helps the cause in Russia. A significant theme of my dissertation research was in fact the opposite dynamic, insofar as gay rights have been associated with “the West” in post-Soviet Russia and so have become entangled in the anti-Westernism that now comprises a large portion of pro-Kremlin messaging.

And Western coverage likewise tended to imply that anti-gay laws were somehow the antithesis of Western values, a sign of cultural backwardness wherever they pop up (Uganda gets this treatment, too,  with the added stereotyping associated with reporting on “traditional African culture.”) These frames not only ignore the ways that anti-Westernism is a dynamic product of contemporary global exchanges, not a relic of culture before civilizing Western contact. There would be no law against “gay propaganda” without the steady march of queer visibility and expansion of gay rights in the US and EU.

Yet the turning of a blind eye does not reflect well on us, I think. How many politicians and celebrities professed to care in the run-up to Sochi, just a few seasons ago? How many news outlets got thousands of clicks for the feel-good stories they posted in support of LGBT rights?

The latest ban

Anyway, here’s a few words about the latest defense of heterosexual public space in Russia.

Izvestia reported on October 23, 2015 that Ivan Nikitchuk and Nikolai Arefev, both of the CPRF, proposed creating penalties for “public expression of a non-traditional sexual orientation,” 15 days in jail or a fine of 4,000-5,000 rubles (currently around $50-64, though the exchange rate has been quite variable lately). Izvestia reported this as creating a penalty for “coming out” (kaming-aut in Russian, essentially adopted from English), but one can imagine how “public expression” might be interpreted in practice.

(Indeed, the law rather calls to mind numerous Americans I’ve heard say things like, “I don’t have any problem with homosexuality, but do they have to throw it in my face?” in response to provocations like seeing two apparently same-gender people hold hands or kiss on the street.)

Ivan Nikitchuk:

I believe that the problem we are raising is acute and pressing, insofar as it deals with social diseases of our society and in the first place concerns the moral upbringing of the growing generation… Unfortunately, the mechanism taken in 2013… which forbids propaganda of homosexualism, appears to be insufficiently effective, and for that reason we are proposing a new measure.

Further reading: interview with Nikitchuk.

There is some disagreement about the need for this new measure. Vitalii Milonov, the Saint Petersburg politician who was instrumental in pushing the 2013 ban, told Izvestia that the older law is sufficient in this age of mass media:

…any public figure, giving any statement in public space, informs an unlimited number of individuals, among whom might be minors.

So far, the party of power seems to agree; RBK reports today that the proposal will be blocked in committee. But be careful—it’s not exactly because they thought it was a bad idea to fine people for coming out.

Dmitrii Vyatkin, member of United Russia, explained:

I am absolutely sure, and here there can be no question, that the position of the committee on this law will be opposition… This is connected not with the fact that someone in the Duma is protecting something, but above all with the fact that in and of itself from a legal point of view the proposal is formulated in an absolutely illiterate manner.

There are some further accusations that the CPRF is just in it for cynically populist reasons. (Some may think about pots and kettles at such moments.)

There’s an interesting moment here, one that bears a colder take, about what counts as “public expression,” the felt hypervisiblity of non-hetero sexualities, and so on. I am thinking about the ways in which it is normal for young women friends to hold hands in Russia, while such a thing after puberty is read as romantic expression in the US. I am thinking about the fact that anti-LGBT groups promoted a petition against this proposal on the grounds that it might outlaw their demonstrations.

No conclusion for the moment. Just trying to do a little documenting as things keep moving along.

On protest without risk

This post last week by NYTimes columnist Frank Bruni didn’t get a lot of traction, but it caught my attention because it illustrates an approach to protest that is fairly widespread. 

Bruni describes a campaign/fashion line by Alexander Wang, Principle 6, which refers to Principle 6 of the Olympics charter:

Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race,
religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic

Olympics participants/spectators are to buy clothing with a “P6” graphic as a visible reference to this principle. According to Bruni, this is a way “to get spectators and athletes in Sochi to register their opposition to outrageously repressive, regressive anti-gay laws in Russia without running afoul of one of them.” Continue reading

“I’m against Putin”

There’s a strong tendency to blame President Vladimir Putin for repressions and rights abuses in Russia. You can see this in pieces like Robert Sauders’ in Anthropology News today:

With the rise of Vladimir Putin as the undisputed political power in Russia, the government has undertaken a vigorous and systematic suppression of social, political and environmental activists.

This is pretty representative; if you keep your eyes open, you’ll see the same trope in most coverage of political repression in Russia. (I don’t mean to pick on Sauders in particular–the cases he raises are important, and I’m glad he chose to draw attention to them!)

It’s certainly true that Putin exercises a great deal of power in Russia, and that political power there is 1) highly centralized; and 2) not institutionalized. (That is, the center of political gravity is in individuals, not their offices, as we saw during Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency: the role of Prime Minister suddenly became much more powerful when Putin occupied it.) And yet I worry that this tendency to focus on Putin himself as the master villain of political repression means we’re missing quite a lot about how repression operates, and it’s likely to lead us astray when we try to understand what is actually causing the problems activists are protesting.

I’ll have more to say on the former in the paper I’m working up for the AAA conference in November, which I’ll post about in a few weeks. The latter…will be a big chunk of my dissertation! But for starters:

— In any given case, there’s an entire apparatus carrying out state repressions. Putin’s a powerful guy, but he can only be in so many places at once. Other people run security ministries, oversee police departments, run security at prison, adjudicate legal cases, throw bodies into police vans. . . Focusing on Putin erases the ways in which a significant portion of society is complicit in these actions.

— As many of my interlocutors pointed out while I was doing fieldwork last year, replacing a single person won’t fix a whole system–especially when well-known opposition figures may not be much better. Aleksey Navalny, for example, responded to recent anti-migrant riots by calling for stricter visa regimes for people from Central Asia and the Caucasus, essentially siding with the rioters. Locating “repression” in the person of Putin doesn’t do much for us here.

— The case of Mikhail Kosenko, ordered to undergo mandatory psychological treatment after being arrested for alleged involvement in “mass disorder” at a major protest in May 2012, suggests some historical continuities as well. Given the fairly extensive history of repressing political dissent in Russia, viewing this as a fault of Putin and his particular government seems a shallow explanation.

None of this is meant to suggest that Putin and the current political elite should not be held accountable for their decisions and policies. Of course they should be. But understanding repression as emanating from a single malevolent figure is a mistake.

Power in pictures

Last week, Buzzfeed published a set of photos from a St. Petersburg LGBT march that was, like most LGBT street actions right now, set upon by nationalist groups and ended in violence and arrests. I ran across it after a couple of friends (who don’t have any particular connection to Russia) posted it on Facebook. I’ve been glad to see that this area of conflict has been getting some coverage outside Russia, even reaching people who aren’t in general tuned into Russian current events. All the same, the photos and their presentation followed a very common pattern in coverage of LGBT issues in Russia.

Exhibit A:

This is what Gay Pride looks like? Continue reading

Going to camp!

A juxtaposition in my news feeds today:

First, the infamous Edward Snowden, having received temporary asylum status in Russia, seems to have finally left the purgatory of Sheremetyevo Airport’s transit zone. There’s some discussion about where he might end up: privileged enough to take up a tech job reportedly offered by the social networking site VKontakte, or just another asylum seeker destined to end up in a rotting trailer in a Perm asylum camp (via Susan Armitage)? One can guess that the latter is unlikely–Snowden is a public figure whose movements are (at least for now) of great interest to the international press. He also possesses some symbolic value to the Russian state, and perhaps could be useful in the future as a bargaining chip with the US. All of these factors appear to give him a relatively privileged status among those who cross borders without documents. Yet the fact remains that without a secure right to permanent residency anywhere, with his citizenship in a sort of limbo, he is vulnerable. Whether the Kremlin decides to house him in a prison camp or a penthouse, he has relatively little choice in the matter. Continue reading

Madonna -not- on the hook for 333,000,000 rubles

There’s been a suit running against Madonna in connection with her concert in St. Petersburg earlier this year. She was charged with violating a recently-passed law against propagating homosexuality. The case was just heard and found in her favor. (Here in English.) This more or less accords with what I’ve been hearing anecdotally about the law: it’s on the books, but cases so far have been few and largely unsuccessful.

But as I read the linked article, what I found striking is the claims made by the plaintiffs (in agreement with the law and its justification) that Madonna was threatening the traditional family by promoting immorality. In a certain way, isn’t this…precisely true? Madonna first became famous (slash infamous) as a symbol of modern female sexuality. Her image, even her stage name, are directly opposed to the demure maternal femininity of “traditional values.” To the extent that Madonna is celebrated by feminists (and certainly there are plenty of feminist critiques of her, as well), it is because she expressed a certain freedom and unabashed sexuality. Which is to say, celebrated because she transgressed “traditional” morality.

The RFE/RL post I linked above makes fun of the case, as we often like to do with court cases in Russia. And it would be exceedingly hard to make such a case–plenty of dissertations are written about suggestive evidence that pop culture influences values, but it’s extremely hard to prove one way or the other, particularly to the standard required by a court of law. Still, I wanted to suggest that it’s not absurd to take seriously the influence of a pop figure like Madonna, and that bringing a case against her is, in a way, taking her quite seriously.