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.”
Her words are similar to those of playwright-actor Harvey Fierstein, who, writing on the New York Times op-ed page, recently compared the upcoming Games to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In calling for a boycott, he wrote: “Few participants said a word about Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. Supporters of that decision point proudly to the triumph of Jesse Owens, while I point with dread to the Holocaust and world war.”
On Thursday, Russia’s Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko made it clear that athletes will be subject to the vague, broadly defined ban in February. Until then, the majority view was that they would not be vulnerable.
It was the opinion expressed by former Olympian Mark Tewskbury when I spoke to him days ago. Even so, the Canadian swimmer, who has won multiple medals, had already decided not to attend the Sochi Games. “It’s terrible what is happening for gays and lesbians in the country. The International Olympic Committee picks these countries seemingly without regard to the human-rights situation. Beijing …”
The day after the Russian minister weighed in, Tewksbury called back. "For me, his comments that the athletes are not protected is a game-changer. This puts the onus squarely on the International Olympic Committee to look after the athletes and their fans. If I were chef [de mission] for this Olympics [not London], and I forgot and put my arms around my partner …"
This year, marks the 20th anniversary of Boris Yeltsin decriminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults, and the 80th anniversary of Joseph Stalin outlawing them. (Gay sex was legal for a brief period after the Revolution.) While gay marriage has triumphed in other places, the Russian public’s hostility toward homosexuality seems to have grown, not lessened, during the post-communist years, especially during the recession in the late 1990s, says Daniel Healey, a Canadian-English citizen who has written the canonical history of homosexuality in the Soviet years for the prestigious University of Chicago Press. One poll pegs public support for the latest anti-gay legislation at more than 80 per cent.
Healey takes up a professorial appointment at Oxford this fall and is one of a cadre of international academics who do dispassionate work on sexual culture in Russia. His research depends on access to the country. He speculates on how the breadth of the law might affect presentations made by him and his colleagues at Russian universities. “Do we have to check IDs to make sure not one of the students is a minor?”
For my part, it is unclear that I would even get a visa for Russia – especially after writing this piece. I would love to take in the downhill at the Olympics, but mainly I’d be tempted to see St. Petersburg again – check out Jack Diamond’s new Mariinsky Theatre and roam the streets where Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov walked – and where I strolled when I was young. But I can’t imagine going on that sort of pleasure-filled, sentimental journey until the government stops viewing homosexuality as a decadent vice and starts treating gay Russians as human beings.
In the absence of a boycott, I’d be proud if a top-tier Canadian competitor would, after thanking Mom and Dad, speak in favour of gay rights. Will the authorities actually hustle an NHL player off the podium and into custody?
I would discourage anyone else from travelling to Russia – and encourage them to give to the country’s gay-positive charities and activist groups, which are sorely in need of funds. (Coming Out, a St. Petersburg group, is doing particularly fine work and takes donations online.)
Last month, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department refused an interview request, releasing only a statement of concern. But on Thursday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the Canadian Press: “As concerned as we are about the Olympics, that’s nothing. That’s two, three, four weeks for the athletes and participants and the visitors. This mean-spirited and hateful law will affect all Russians 365 days of the year, every year. It is an incitement to intolerance, which breeds hate. And intolerance and hate breed violence.”
The photos of those brave enough to march that are circulating on the Internet are shocking: young lesbians and gays, battered and bruised by their countrymen, the rotten eggs thrown at them streaming down their faces and clotting their hair, with the police just standing by. By now, we know where this might lead. Russia is, of course, the country of Tolstoy and Prokofiev – but also of Stalin and, yes, Putin.
If the show must go on, let it go on before minimal houses, let the cameras pan over empty arenas, and let Putin and his ilk draw a message from that.