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The Case Against Boycotting the Sochi Olympics

Many Western celebrities and activists have called for a boycott of the Olympics in Russia as a way to protest the country's aggressive anti-gay law—but LGBTQ activists in Russia themselves say that they're against such an action.

Our documentary Young and Gay in Putin's Russia premiered on this week

Last June, the Russian government looked around for a new scapegoat and duly passed a law that banned the “promotion of homosexuality among minors.” It turned out that “promotion” was a catch-all term encompassing anything from public displays of affection to suggesting, in any public forum, that being gay is normal. While being gay remains legal in Russia, the bill amounts to nothing less than state-sanctioned homophobia and condemns the country's gay community to a life of shame and secrecy. “You could say that being gay in Russia is like living in the closet, a very big and comfortable closet,” Alexei Mukhin, a Russian political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin, told VICE in an interview for our new documentary, Young and Gay in Putin’s Russia, which investigates the ways the law is affecting Russia’s gay community.


The Winter Olympics, which begin in the Black Sea city of Sochi on February 7, have put Russia and its human rights issues in the spotlight. In a calculated attempt to divert attention from these issues, Putin has thrown some bones to the media and engaged in some relatively painless humanitarian PR work. In December, the parliament passed an amnesty law that aimed to free at least 20,000 prisoners including, crucially, some famous inmates—Putin sanctioned the early release from prison of Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, and formally dropped charges against Greenpeace’s Arctic 30. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian oligarch who became one of Putin’s most dangerous political opponents and was thrown into prison on charges of fraud and tax evasion, was also recently [released](http:// (Putin attributed this sudden show of kindness to Khodorkovsky’s ailing mother.) Khodorkovsky has since vowed not to seek power and will almost certainly settle abroad. It’s a win-win for Putin—he plays the benevolent leader who can put a son’s love for his mother above past crimes while also sending a political rival into exile.

Putin has been showing the world his forgiving side, and these gestures are worth it. The Olympics have cost Russia $51 billion, making them the most expensive Olympics in history (largely because of “waste and corruption,” according to many observers), and the Kremlin doesn’t want the games overshadowed by boycotts and protests. With that in mind, the authorities have generously picked out a designated protest zone for those wishing to express their dissatisfaction at Sochi. The thing is, the zone isn’t even in Sochi. It’s in a park in the town of Khosta, seven miles from the nearest arenas.


The protest zone and the releasing of prisoners are, needless to say, cosmetic moves designed to make life easier for the Kremlin, just as the anti-gay propaganda law turns gay people into an enemy to be hated by Russia's Orthodox majority. The creation of an enemy is a move beloved of governments the world over. During the Cold War, it was simple. The US had the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union had the US. Now an “independent” study commissioned by the Kremlin has fused the domestic and the international by suggesting, for example, that foreign-funded LGBT organizations could incite a gay revolution that would “plunge the country into a new period of chaos.”

“In Russia, homosexuality is not a norm,” Vitaly Milonov, the politician behind the law, said in Young and Gay in Putin’s Russia. “Situations when six- or seven-year-old kids get lured in by some kind of psychiatrist who tells them that one Santa Claus can live together with another Santa Claus are situations of hatred. It's a situation that in essence is Nazi.”

In the face of this kind of (tantalizingly erotic) Santa-on-Santa rhetoric, it’s perhaps understandable that a number of Western politicians and celebrities, from Francois Hollande to Lady Gaga to Stephen Fry, are boycotting—or calling for a boycott of—the Sochi Olympics. But, as Young and Gay in Putin’s Russia shows, the vast majority of gay people and gay activists in Russia do not support an international boycott.


“We oppose the boycott of the Olympics because it would hurt the athletes, who then wouldn't be able to participate, and also the Russian LGBT community, because they would blame us if anything goes wrong,” said activist Nikolay Alexeyev. Countless gay rights supporters in Russia echoed his views.

Last summer, when Stephen Fry wrote an open letter to David Cameron and the British and International Olympic Committees insisting that “an absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 on Sochi is simply essential,” he was widely applauded for falling into the classic white savior trap. He equated Putin’s Russia with Hitler’s Germany while referring to Cameron, Sebastian Coe and the IOC as the “good” people who would let “evil” triumph if they allowed the games to go ahead. Of course, dear old Stephen had good intentions and he was speaking out against a terrible law, but the overall impression given was of someone caught up in his own righteousness and not someone who had listened to the Russians living with the law on a daily basis.

Fry had gone to Russia as part of a BBC program called Out There, which looked at gay rights around the world. He stood up to the ridiculous Milonov and attacked the ban in an address to the Russian press which was, of course, well covered by the BBC. But if he had really listened to the people he met in Russia, he’d know that they don’t want a boycott of the Olympics. Elton John knows this, which is why he performed in Russia recently. Fry’s letter and other Western calls for a boycott of the Sochi games are suggestive of many Western attempts to “save” supposedly blighted parts of the world. The difference here is that Russians are white, something that normally saves them from the enlightened good intentions of Britain and America.


Ethiopia didn’t ask for Live Aid but they sure as hell got it. The world doesn’t want Bono to cure it, but that isn’t going to stop him and the good people at Louis Vuitton and hey, if you can sell some luxury handbags at the same time, where’s the harm? Kony 2012 was perhaps the nadir of this ongoing phenomenon, though this cover of the Rihanna song “We Found Love” by a violin-playing talent show contestant, filmed in Kenya with the support of an online retail site, is a pretty close second.

It’s worth remembering that Western countries have had anti-gay laws on the books. Britain's Section 28 stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" and was only repealed in 2003. Similarly, sodomy was illegal in many US states until a Supreme Court decision in 2003. “He that troubleth his own house, shall inherit the wind,” says Proverbs, but the governments and celebrities of Europe and the US like nothing more than intervening in other parts of the world.

I don’t say this to excuse the Kremlin. Homophobia in Russia is rife at the moment, but it’s worth remembering that it’s a problem in the West as well. More importantly, our politicians, athletes, and celebrities must listen to Russia’s gay community. They must go to Sochi and put Russia in the international spotlight in the hope that Putin and his cronies will reconsider their awful, divisive law. In Sochi, gay rights activists from Russia, supported by their friends around the world, have a chance to stand up and draw attention to a situation that needs to change—even if that means having to do it in a park seven miles from any Winter Olympians.

As the 17-year-old Muscovite Nikita Guryanov says in VICE's film, “No matter who you are—gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender—you are a human being… You should not be scared. You should not be shy.” When it comes to being gay in Russia, it's Nikita, not Barack Obama, David Cameron, or Stephen Fry, who we should be listening to.

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For further information on some of the issues raised, please visit