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The Case Against Boycotting the Sochi Olympics

Many LGBTQ Russians would rather have the chance to draw attention to their homophobic state.

Our film, Young and Gay in Putin's Russia, premiered on VICE.com 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 its 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 film, Young and Gay in Putin’s Russia, which investigates the way in which the law is affecting Russia’s gay community.

The Winter Olympics, which begin in the Black Sea city of Sochi on the 7th of February, 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, he passed an amnesty that covered at least 20,000 prisoners including, crucially, some famous inmates. Once one of Russia’s richest oligarchs, Mikhail Khodorkovsky also became one of Putin’s most dangerous political opponents, an honour that landed him a ten-year jail sentence on charges of fraud and tax evasion. In December, Khodorkovsky asked to be pardoned and the Kremlin, seemingly keen to get him off Russian soil, let him out of prison, with Putin attributing this sudden show of kindness to Khodorkovsky’s ill mother. Khodorkovsky has since vowed not to seek power and will almost certainly settle abroad. It’s 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 also sanctioned the early release from prison of Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina and formally dropped charges against Greenpeace’s Arctic 30. Putin, master of the bare-chested Man of Steel photo opp, has been showing the world his forgiving side. These gestures are worth it. The Sochi 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 them 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 amnesty for 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 organisations could incite a gay revolution that would “plunge the country into a new period of chaos”. “In Russia, homosexuality is not a norm,” says Vitaly Milonov, the politician behind the law. “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,” he adds, in Young and Gay in Putin’s Russia.  

In the face of this kind of (tantalisingly 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 Games. 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,” says Nikolay Alexeyev. Countless gay rights activists in Russia echoed his views and this stance is being supported by the UK-based charity Stonewall, whose chief executive, Ben Summerskill, has said that “Our partners in Russia are in favour of engagement.”

Last summer, when Stephen Fry wrote his 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 saviour trap. He equated Putin’s Russia with Hitler’s Germany, he referred 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, someone who had not, crucially, listened hard enough to the Russians living with the law on a daily basis.

Fry had gone to Russia as part of a two-part BBC programme 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 then 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 on-going 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, ran it pretty close.

It’s worth remembering that Britain had its very own anti-gay propaganda act – Section 28, which stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality", and that this was only repealed in 2003. It’s worth remembering also that homosexuality has only been legal nationwide in the US since 2003 (in Russia, it’s been legal across the country since 1993). “He that troubleth his own house, shall inherit the wind,” says Proverbs, but the governments, armies 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 – you only need to see our film, you must see our film – 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 re-consider their awful, divisive law. Because in Sochi, gay rights activists from Russia, supported by their friends around the world, will 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.

Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow

WATCH – Young and Gay in Putin's Russia

For further information on some of the issues raised, please visit www.stonewall.org.uk/international