Ukraine holds the largest demonstration in its recorded history while, back in Moscow, Putin decides to restructure the Russian state press agency the very next day. To head up the newly-reformed agency Putin chose Kiselyov, who famously said that the internal organs of homosexuals should not only be banned from consideration in organ transplants but should also be burned and buried separately from heterosexuals.
I’ve been arguing that while there’s no direct evidence Putin has spearheaded anti-gay legislation in Russia (it started as a grass roots movement in the provinces), he has been quick to capitalize on the legislation’s potential. His popularity waning, Putin has sought to bolster his support by reaching out to the Russian Orthodox leadership, harassing immigrants (and sparking a recent anti-immigrant pogrom in a Moscow suburb), and signaling that the Kremlin will stand behind any and all movements seeking to discredit homosexuality. Anti-gay attacks are on the increase across Russia with bomb threats at St. Petersburg’s recent LGBT film festival, teachers and journalists fired for being gay, vigilante groups baiting and torturing gay men — all this while the state press turns a blind eye.
The protests in Ukraine have been an interesting test case on anti-gay sentiment in the slavic world. Buzzfeed recently reported that pro-Russian groups in Ukraine as well as leaders in Moscow attempted to drum up Ukrainian anti-gay sentiment as a means to discredit the pro-EU movement in Kiev with advertisements, tweets, and articles telling Ukrainians that choosing EU membership would mean choosing gay marriage. While EU membership does not require gay marriage rights, it is true that the EU demands a certain level of respect for LGBT people to which Eastern Europe is unaccustomed. It has all been, seemingly, for naught — Ukrainians have ignored the anti-gay messaging and instead come out in force to protest President Yanukovych’s recent tilt away from EU and towards Russia, somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million people showing up to show solidarity with the pro-EU movement on Sunday.
What does all this mean for Sochi and the Winter Olympics? Putin’s choice of Kiselyov is a clear indication that he’s not taking the failure to drum up anti-gay sentiment in Ukraine to heart; meanwhile, activists in the U.S. are planning to openly protest anti-gay Russian legislation at the Winter Olympics by encouraging Olympic athletes and spectators to wear “Principle 6” clothing, a reference to the non-discrimination section of the Olympic charter. It’s hard to imagine that a protest that subtle will be understood by Russians watching the Olympics on state television, but if the goal is encouraging pro-gay solidarity in the West then it may well help.
Ukrainians, for their part, seem to have spoken — however unpopular gay people may be in Eastern Europe, Putin and his Customs Union is even less so.