I am a long-time Russophile. As a child, I yearned to play the violin part of Prokofiev’s exuberant Peter and the Wolf (an ambition I never came anywhere near achieving). But if I was a lazy violin student, I was a diligent reader and, as an undergrad, I fell for Leo Tolstoy. I was entranced by the romantic affairs, political idealism and panoramic sweep in his novels. And so I studied Russian literature and language, and went on a foreign-study program to St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as it then was, a year before the Berlin Wall fell.
In the past five years, I’ve done a fair amount of travel writing, and a few months ago I thought of revisiting Sochi, the Black Sea resort we went to on a break from the program, to write a layered then-and-now piece to publish when the regional centre plays host to the Winter Olympics in 2014. I had written up the pitch and heard promising noises from a magazine editor, but then the so-called anti-gay propaganda law was passed – signed by Vladimir Putin on June 30 after the Duma, with only one abstention, approved it. The issue: I am a writer and gay – in Russian slang, goluboi, meaning light blue – easily within the purview of this new legislation.
The law against “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” criminalizes the act of providing information about homosexuality to minors, speaking in defence of gay rights or equating gay and heterosexual relationships. Punishable with fines of up to $30,000, it allows the government to detain foreigners who breach it for up to 14 days before deporting them. It was under colour of this law that four Dutch filmmakers attending a gay conference were held overnight in July and then deported, for, according to reports, exceeding the terms of their “cultural exchange” visas.
So, before deciding whether to push my story, I made some calls to see what the situation was actually like on the ground. What would it be like to visit? And, perhaps more important, what are the ethics of travelling to Russia for work or pleasure – whatever your sexuality? These are questions of some moment for Canadians thinking about attending the Sochi Olympics.
“We all want to get out of here,” are the first words Masha Gessen says. I reach the renowned Moscow-based journalist, and author of a critical biography of Vladimir Putin, a couple of weeks after the new law’s passage. The out lesbian mother of three had just flown back to Moscow from Perm, a town in the Urals, where she was reporting on the latest twist in the Pussy Riot case. “It has become a crime for me to tell my kids our family is equal,” Gessen says from the car on the way from the airport.
There have been reports that the legislature will soon authorize the removal of kids from families headed by lesbians and gays. “Because I am considered the No. 1 enemy of the Russian traditional family, I … have already sent one of my kids abroad, the other two are going soon.” (Putin also recently signed into law a ban on adoptions by gay and lesbian couples and by single people who are citizens of countries, such as Canada, with legalized gay marriage.)
Although she tends to use her keyboard for her activism, Gessen has also taken her lumps in the streets. “I was at a gay pride parade in Moscow and as I was walking away from it, this young guy hit me from behind with his shoulder bag a couple of times. It had something heavy in it, maybe a bottle. Here I was, this middle-aged woman in work clothes, and the police were standing there doing nothing. Eventually, they arrested me – me, not this guy who hit me – saying it was for my own protection.”
Gessen says she dreams of a boycott of the upcoming Olympics. I ask her what those considering a trip to Russia ought to weigh when deciding whether to go. I remember travellers of my parents’ age quietly refusing to join a safari to South Africa during the apartheid era. They couldn’t stomach their money going to that regime, I tell Gessen. “If you’re going to boycott Russia, please don’t do it quietly,” she says. “Add up what you were going to spend, and tell people, tell the authorities, this is what we were prepared to spend, until we heard of the situation there.
“For us, here,” she adds, “it feels like what I imagine it was like to be a Jew in Nazi Germany. Of course, it’s not exactly like Nazi Germany. Russia has its own history, its own … complications.”
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