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Posts for August, 2013

The Unique Challenges of Russian Homophobia

Jim Burroway

August 13th, 2013

It’s important to understand the particular nature of Russian homophobia if we ever hope to address it. In the U.S., much of our anti-gay politics emmanates from a politically influential religious class, and so it would be reasonable to assume that Russia’s anti-gay animosity springs from a similar source. And while the Russian Orthodox Church is virulently anti-gay, Masha Lippman says it would be a mistake to try to address Russian homophobia on religious grounds.

The country may appear to be fairly conservative, if one looks at its widespread homophobia or public condemnation of irreverence toward Russian Orthodox Church. Yet when it comes to other social habits, such as divorce, abortion, or birth rate, the picture is very different. Russia has one of the world’s highest rates of both divorce and abortion, and some of the most liberal laws on the latter. Russia’s birth rate is not dissimilar from that of secular cultures of western Europe. Premarital sex and single motherhood are fairly common; in one survey, a mere fourteen per cent of respondents said they believed a single parent can’t raise a child properly. And while a large majority of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, the proportion of those attending services or observing religious rituals in Russia is not dissimilar from many European countries.

A partial explanation of this discrepancy can be found in Soviet history. The early Soviet period involved a radical rejection of the ancien regime, a forced modernization by the Bolsheviks that included universal literacy and suffrage (along with the elimination of political choice, of course), as well as brutally imposed secularization, among other things. But the Soviet Union mostly missed the later, post-war stages of the Western social modernization, and especially the gay-rights movement. In the U.S.S.R., it was a crime to be a gay man. The atmosphere grew much freer for gays in the post-Communist period, yet gay rights have not become a nationwide issue until now, as the government has abruptly moved toward social conservatism.

This diary over at Daily Kos goes into it deeper, where Russian homophobia is seen in the context of Russian nationalism and distrust of foreigners. This is not the first time I’ve seen this; a number of Russians and citizens of former Soviet countries themselves have said this over the years:

In every way the homophobic tendency in contemporary Russia is riding the coattails of a decade’s worth of ethnic violence and xenophobia.  Even the horrific videos of Russians torturing young people because of their perceived sexual identity are a recent addition to an already crowded field of anti-immigrant videos, in which Russian neo-Nazis beat up, and in some cases kill, people they suspect of being non-ethnic Russians.  They share these videos on the internet for fun.  (If you can bear it, this short documentary on anti-immigrant crime is as eye-opening as it is horrific.)  On their own, these are the acts of fringe neo-Nazis like Maxim Martsinkevich (a major player in the torture video genre, who takes shirtless pictures and sexually violates LGBTs… read into that what you will.)  Taken more broadly, once you throw in mass unemployment, frustration, and malaise, you start to see these hateful, exclusionary beliefs drift more and more into mainstream discourse.

Another important aspect of this is still-widespread nostalgia for the USSR  – not the totalitarian policies per se, but the feeling that, for a couple of decades, Russia was an unchallenged world superpower, secure in its central place in international politics.  Not for nothing did Putin call the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”  This is all of a part with Russia’s attempts to assert itself on the national stage – think oil pipelines, Syria, etc. – as a pathetic echo for the glory days of Soviet power.  The gap between Russia’s (belief in its) former greatness and the inability to assert itself in the contemporary world has led to an ideological vacuum, conveniently filled with desperate nationalism.

Later, he adds:

No exaggeration here: there is a sadly widespread belief that the LGBT movement is a CIA-funded operation à la MKUltra.  For a local example, check out the current wiki page on Patriarch Alexy II, cached here, and note the section on his opposition to homosexuality.

That’s been one of the challenges in dealing with anti-gay politics in Africa, the belief that LGBT rights and that gay people themselves are a product of foreign meddling. Those charges find fertile ground in Africa where  European colonialism — and its import of sodomy laws — still casts a long shadow. That is why public threats of cutting foreign aide (as distinguished from private diplomatic engagement in which the same messages have been delivered) have sometimes been much more disruptive than helpful to LGBT advocates on the ground. The same potential effect could conceivable play out in Russia, where an attack on its laws, however repulsive and oppressive to human rights they may be, is seen as an attack on Russian sovereignty itself. This is where foreign protests can backfire.

That’s not to say that I’m against, for example, the Russian vodka boycott. I personally think it’s been a smashing success, although you won’t be able to measure it in economic terms. I don’t think you will see any impact on Russian vodka producers’ balance sheets, but you do see it in how people are suddenly talking about what’s happening in Russia, and their doing it on a daily basis. The so-called “anti-propaganda” law has been on the books since June, but it wasn’t until Dan Savage issued his call for a vodka boycott a month later that the media decided to take a look. And it has been a daily topic ever since.

Recognizing that this kind of pressure can exasperate Russian nationalism at the expense of LGBT people there doesn’t mean that we should suspend the boycott and call off all protests against Russia’s gross violations of human rights. I don’t see how we can cater to a culture’s xenophobic biases any more than than its homophobic ones. But I do think that there are some smart ways to go about it, and that we should consider following the lead of Russian LGBT activists who know their country and culture far better than we do. I think these examples are good ones to keep in mind:

In responding to the charge that queerness is a Western import, the St. Petersburg advocacy group Vykhod (“Coming Out”) put together an astute set of advertisements aimed at dismantling the rhetoric of Western cultural imperialism by showcasing various figures from Russian history.  It’s hard to argue that homosexuality is a CIA plot when so many famous Russians, particularly in the reasonably relaxed culture of the early 20th century, left such a prominent legacy on their culture while living quasi-openly as gay, lesbian, and bisexual. (Transgender history is less prominent but no less there, especially during the early Soviet years and, surprisingly, the 1960s.)  Tchaikovsky is of course the usual starting point, but actively open and out Russians included a diverse slate of artists, politicians, scientists… names like Georgy ChicherinMarina TsvetaevaSergei DiaghilevSophie Parnok… The list is very long, because turn-of-the-century Russia’s queer history is actually richer than anything contemporary in the West, where it was handled with much more euphemism.  … For their troubles Vykhod was labeled a “foreign agent” and fined 500,000 rubles.  So there’s that.

Quite a lot of Russian LGBTs have not kept silent, risking arrest and condemnation in order to make their existence known.  One worth getting to know is the “404” movement (like their FB page here), a Russian spin on the “It Gets Better” web presence. Celebrity culture, so vital in turning around attitudes in America, has been considerably more muted, but there are exceptions: e.g. actor Aleksei Panin came out as bisexual in an interview earlier this year in order to draw attention to the widespread cultural intolerance; socialite and media figureKsenia Sobchak has been very outspoken against the homophobic law; news anchor Anton Krasovsky came out on air and was immediately fired, etc.  My first and most important piece of advice is this: get to know these people, share their stories, and don’t let them disappear into the memory hole.

Putin’s Thug State

Jim Burroway

August 12th, 2013

Scott Long dug into Russia’s social media to uncover the story behind the stories of neo-Nazi gangs abusing (and perhaps killing) young gay men and posting their videos on VK, Russia’s version of Facebook.

Maxim Martsinkevich is probably the place to begin. Nothing about the 29-year-old would-be architect’s page at VK, Russia’s answer to Facebook, suggests a particularly distinctive skinhead. He goes by his nickname, “Tesak,” variously translated “machete,” “cleaver,” or — my favorite — “slasher.” He likes steroids, protein shakes, pointless displays of masculinity (three videos show him having a tooth pulled minus anesthetic), and Adolf Hitler. Yet he’s quite innovative as Nazis go. Early in the Putin years, he was the driving force behind Format18, a violent group that called itself the “armed wing” of Russia’s National Socialist party.

Format18 regularly assaulted immigrants and dark people. Its creativity lay in deciding that visibility — movie cameras coupled with social media — was not its enemy, but its friend. It filmed the attacks, turning them into imitation music videos that went viral on YouTube and VK. Google “Format18″ and “funny” and you’ll figure out why: their savage sense of humor. “Lol, I love those videos,” one European neo-Nazi says. “It’s funny when they beat people up then burn their passports.” Some of the videos showed murders.

Still from a video of a 12-year old (R) being threatened and abused in Tambov; faces not blurred in the original. (Via Scott Long)

The neo-Nazi’s call themselves “Occupy Pedophilia,” in accordance with the mindset that equates homosexuality with pedophilia. While many of the victims in these videos are in twenties to fifties, some of those so-called “pedophiles” appear to be quite young. In fact, the thugs really don’t care about the distinction, but they’re happy to play up the confusion. It’s all a trope to stir hatred against pretty much everyone:

In Kamensk, the online news source Lenta.ru interviewed Occupy Pedophilia members. “Homosexuals are almost sacred in this country,” one leader complained. ”We are against pedophiles, but we also do not like homosexuals. I don’t know why homosexuals protect pedophiles.” He added:

Some representatives of homosexuals came to my home recently … They said we mock people. They asked why we hate them. They said they feel oppressed. It just happened that they both somehow jumped into the garbage cans.

“If you see two young men walking down the street and holding hands, what would you do?” the reporter asks. The answer: “Interrogation. And then it all depends on them.”

That slippage between gays and predators is a common enough prejudice, in Russia as elsewhere. On the other hand, when Western activists redefine the men simply as “gay” victims, they should be aware they’re just reinforcing a widespread Russian belief that gays are identical to pedophiles. They need to note the nuance and stress the difference, not just confirm the belief.

Some may argue that these neo-Nazi groups are criminal fringe groups and in no way represent Putin’s Russia. But that argument evaporates when we see Dmitri Kisilev, the anchor Vesti, the most popular news program on state-owned Russia 1, say that the “gay propaganda law doesn’t go far enough:

YouTube Preview Image

“I think that just imposing fines on gays for homosexual propaganda among teenagers is not enough. They should be banned from donating blood, sperm. And their hearts, in case of the automobile accident, should be buried in the ground or burned as unsuitable for the continuation of life.”

Show Solidarity in Sochi by Holding Hands

Randy Potts

August 11th, 2013

It appears that a boycott of either Stoli or the games in Sochi is unlikely to affect real change in Russia.  On top of that, athletes competing in the games can’t, according to IOC rules, wear rainbow shirts, pins, etc.  So, what to do?  Why not something more subtle but ultimately more powerful, an image that would be broadcast silently across the globe, an unmistakable, but politically neutral act:  same-sex hand holding.  Regardless of orientation, athletes from around the world can grab the same-sex hand next to them and hold it.  While waiting for their turn on the slopes or the bobsled or while receiving their medals — regardless of nationality or orientation, this is something all athletes in the games can do and it would be difficult for the IOC to do anything about it.  It’s not a kiss or an obvious political sign, it’s just two people, of the same sex, holding hands.

What better way to show solidarity with lgbt teens across Russia and the world?  It’d make for some pretty great images that could go viral across the globe.

Maybe Paul McCartney can show up and sing along.  YouTube Preview Image

 

Russian Officials Commit Human Rights Violations While Denying Human Rights Are Being Violated

Jim Burroway

August 8th, 2013

Black is white, up is down, Russia’s anti-gay laws are in compliance with “international obligations”:

On Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry’s rights envoy, Konstantin Dolgov said: “As to the criticism of our law banning homosexual propaganda we have to reiterate that this criticism is absolutely invalid and groundless”.

He added: “It is an attempt to accuse us of violating international obligations that do not exist”.

He also said that Russia is a party to a number of international conventions that prohibit discrimination on any grounds, including the UN’s convention on the Rights of the Child.

“This convention aims in part to protect children from harmful information, and we believe that promotion of homosexuality could harm them. Therefore, we are fulfilling our obligations, but our critics attempt to accuse us of violating some obligations that don’t exist. It is a misleading substitution of notions”.

Contrary to assurances from the IOC, Dolgov issued a veiled warning to athletes and visitors to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi:

Mr Dolgov also stressed that all athletes and guests of the Olympic games in Sochi would be treated “with maximum hospitality,” but Moscow was expecting them to respect the Russian legislation, including the notorious ‘gay propaganda’ law.

…He added: “No one is banning a sportsman with a non-traditional sexual orientation from going to Sochi. But if he goes out onto the street and starts to make propaganda, then of course he will be brought to responsibility.”

And what about the athlete who wears a rainbow pin or carries a flag inside the Olympic venues? Well the New York Times yesterday suggested that the IOC and US Olympic Committee will have Russian’s back there.

Banned in Perm

Meanwhile, Russia s scrambling to clamp down on internal criticism of the Sochi Olympics. Marat Guelman was fired as director of the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art and his offices were raided after he backed the controversial “Welcome! Sochi 2014″ exhibit by Vasily Slonov. Perm was the site of Perm 36, one of the more infamous gulags under Joseph Stalin. And Human Rights Watch says that Russia is going after those reporting on irregularities surrounding the games’ construction projects :

Human Rights Watch has documented government efforts to intimidate several organizations and individuals who have investigated or spoken out  against abuse of migrant workers, the impact of the construction of Olympics venues and infrastructure on the environment and health of residents, and unfair compensation for people forcibly evicted from their homes. Human Rights Watch also documented how authorities harassed and pursued criminal charges against journalists, apparently in retaliation for their legitimate reporting.

“Trying to bully activists and journalists into silence is wrong and only further tarnishes the image of the Olympics,” said Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “One of the non-negotiable requirements of hosting the Olympics is to allow press freedom, and the authorities’ attempts to silence critics are in clear violation of that principle.”

NYTimes: IOC May Do Russia’s Bidding

Jim Burroway

August 7th, 2013

There have been conflicting reports over whether LGBT athletes, officials, and spectators would face harassment or prosecution under Russia’s anti-gay laws by police during the winter games in Sochi. The New York Times reports however that it is the International Olympic Committee which may step in and squelch expressions of support for Russia’s LGBT citizens:

Just as Russia now prohibits “propaganda” in support of “nontraditional” sexual orientation, the Olympic charter prohibits athletes from making political gestures during the Winter and Summer Games.

So it is entirely possible that any bobsledder or skier wearing a pin, patch or T-shirt in support of gay rights could be sent home from Sochi, not by Russian authorities, but by another group that suppresses expression: the International Olympic Committee.

Would the I.O.C. inflict such a public-relations disaster on itself? Perhaps not. But Olympic officials worldwide, including those in the United States, along with NBC and corporate sponsors, have put themselves and athletes in an awkward position by only tepidly opposing the Russian law that bans “homosexual propaganda.”

The Times adds that the US Olympic Committee has been similarly tepid, saying, “While we strongly support equal rights for all, our mission is sustained competitive excellence” and not political advocacy. The Times traces the US committee’s timidity to internal IOC politics as another vote to replace IOC president Jacques Rogge is set to take place next month.

Obama: No Patience For Countries Which Mistreat LGBT People (Updated)

Jim Burroway

August 7th, 2013

Jay Leno: Something that shocked me about Russia and I’m surprised this is not a huge story. Suddenly, homosexuality is against the law. I mean, this seems like Germany. Let’s round up the Jews, let’s round up the gays, let’s round up the blacks… I mean, it starts with that: you round up people who you don’t like… I mean, why isn’t more of the world outraged at this?

Barack Obama: Well, I’ve been very clear that when it comes to universal rights, when it comes to people’s basic freedoms, whether you are discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, you are violating the basic morality that I think should transcend every country. And I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays of lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them. Now, what’s happening in Russia is not unique. When I travelled to Africa, there were some countries that were doing a lot of good things for their people who we’re working with and helping on development issues, but in some cases have persecuted gays and lesbians. And it makes for some uncomfortable press conferences sometimes. But one of the things I think is very important for me to speak out on is making sure that people are treated fairly and justly because that’s what we stand for and I believe that that’s a precept that’s not unique to America. That’s something that should apply everywhere. [Applause]

Leno: Do you think it will affect the Olympics?

Obama: You know, I think Putin and Russia have a big stake in making sure that the Olympics work, and I think that they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn’t tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently. They are athletes. They are there to compete. And if Russia wants to uphold the Olympic spirit, then every judgment should be made on the track or in the swimming pool or the balance beam and people’s sexual orientation shouldn’t have anything to do with it.

That exchange between Leno and Obama took place last night on the Tonight Show. This morning, the White House has announced that Obama is canceling the planned summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin which had been scheduled to take place next Monday ahead of the September G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. While press secretary Jay Carney cited “lack of progress” on a broad range of issues over the last year, the cancelation is seen as a display of White House anger over Russia’s decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum.

Update: A White House official confirmed to John Avarosis that Russia’s anti-gay law was one of many factors leading to the cancellation:

An Obama administration official just confirmed to me that today’s sudden cancellation of President Obama’s anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during next month’s G20 meeting in Russia was in part due to the President’s concerns about the deteriorating gay rights situation in Russia.

The official told me that among the concerns leading to the cancellation of the bilateral meeting with Putin was the worsening human rights situation in Russia, which specifically included the Russian government’s recent crackdown on the gay and trans community.

The Washington Blade confirms the statement.

Why Stoli’s protestations are not compelling

Timothy Kincaid

August 1st, 2013

SPI Stoli

Last week Val Mendeleev, the CEO of SPI Group, the makers of Stolichnaya Vodka (Stoli) outside of Russia issued an impassioned plea that the gay community not boycott Stoli. He insisted that Stoli was a supporter of the community and not responsible for the “recent dreadful actions taken by the Russian Government”. His appeal has been a colossal flop, and here are some of the reasons why.

First, Mendeleev confuses advertising with alliance. He lists, in Stoli’s defense, a number of sponsorships that Stoli has made recently of gay events and groups.

That does not impress us much anymore. While it truly would have been an act of courage – one deserving of loyalty – to sponsor gay pride events in 1993 or even to advertise directly to the gay community in 1983, there no longer is a social, political, or economic price to be paid for such action.

Placing your brand before one of the most influential trend-setters (when it comes to high end spirits) has no correlation with support. It’s marketing. Stoli doesn’t automatically deserve much more appreciation for target-marketing to me than does Christian Mingle for placing their advertising on television shows that I watch.

Secondly, Mendeleev demonstrates a lack of awareness of global attitudes impacting gay people. He insists that Stoli is not really all Russian, but really kinda more Latvian, you know. Which is a bit like insisting that your political alliance is not to Stalin, but to Stalin’s little brother.

Announcing that one of your main production facilities is in Riga, Latvia, does little to alleviate my concerns. Rather, it demands an explanation of what Stoli did in 2006 when local attendees at a Riga pro-gay worship service were pelted with feces or in 2009 when the Riga city counsel voted to ban Gay Pride. Did Stoli object?

Third, Mendeleev demonstrated a sense of separateness and otherness. Stoli fully supports and endorses “your objectives” in fight this vile situation. But it isn’t really their objectives. They passionately stand on your side, but their role is cheer-leader, not advocate.

Mendeleev did not offer to join forces in a campaign to educate the public about the abuse of gay people in Russia. They did not promise to fight for better treatment in the Baltic States. They did not own the problem in any way. Rather, they were offended that we were insufficiently grateful for their nominal support.

Finally, the most important reason why Mendeleev’s argument is not compelling, the strongest reason why I have little sympathy for SPI group, is that they are trying to have it both ways.

Russian Stoli

Stoli banks its image on linkage to Russia. For decades Stoli has used imagery and advertising to portray their product as traditional Russian vodka. And while they may insist that they are not the same as the Stolichnaya Vodka made in Russia, their bottling is as close to that of the “other” Stoli as it can get.

And it was successful. In fact, a measure of that success is that while Latvia was attacking gay people, it did not immediately result in a Stoli boycott. “Stoli” equaled “Russian”.

And that’s the tricky thing. Adopting and presenting a connection to the traditions of Russia – furry hats, icy weather, and the pure vodka that burns its way down your throat staving off the Siberian cold – means that you build a connection to the traditions of Russia – homophobia, human rights violations, and oppression.

And, as yet, SPI Group is not willing to give up that connection. They want to be not-Russian in the eyes of the LGBT community, but they still want to extol the virtues of Mother Russia – when we aren’t looking.

Yes, they’ve put a statement on the Stoli webpage. Yes, they have assured us that they are appalled. And I do not doubt that Mendeleev and the corporate structure at SPI Group are not personally in favor of the Russian legislation that essentially makes being openly gay a crime.

And yet, the SPI Group website has this to say about another of their products, Kaznacheyskaya Vodka:

Kaznacheyskaya is a quality brand created for the Russian market, designed to evoke a sense of national status. But since its launch in 2003 it has also proved to be a hit in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Austria.

Kaznacheyskaya is all about pride in Russia. The early 19th century was a golden era for Russian vodka when quality, solidity and strong character could all be taken for granted.

Having tied themselves to pride in Russia, SPI Group now owns it.

Russian Sports Minister Threatens Gay Athletes At Sochi Olympics

Jim Burroway

August 1st, 2013

The IOC insisted last week that gay athletes and spectators at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi will have nothing to fear from Russian’s “homosexuality anti-propaganda” law, which prohibits all public expressions of support for LGBT people. But Russia’s Sports Minister is sending a different message:

“The law talks not about banning a non-traditional orientation but about other things, about propaganda and implicating minors,” Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko told the R-Sport news agency.

“No one is banning a sportsman with a non-traditional sexual orientation from going to Sochi. But if he goes out onto the street and starts to make propaganda, then of course he will be brought to responsibility.

“As a sportsman, he should respect the law of a country,” Mutko added. “Come (to Sochi), but don’t get young people involved, don’t make propaganda. This is what we are talking about,” Mutko said.

Those found guilty of “making propaganda,” however ill-defined that term is, will be subject to fines and jail terms.

Gay speedskater Blake Skjellerup from New Zealand has announced that he will be wearing a rainbow pin while in Sochi: “If it gets me in trouble, then so be it.”

Will LGBT Athletes Be Safe in Sochi? IOC Says Yes, Russian Pol Says No

Jim Burroway

July 31st, 2013

Following the passage Russia’s new law outlawing all advocacy by or for LGBT people, a law which includes hefty fines and potential jail sentences, there have been reports of increased violence against people perceived to be gay. This has led to worldwide concern over Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Calls to boycott the games themselves have stalled, but a boycott of Russian Vodka and other products is picking up steam. It’s doubtful that the boycott itself will have much of an economic impact, but it has succeeded far beyond most boycotts in drawing attention to the problem. Meanwhile, one Russian LGBT group led by Nikolai Alekseev have announced a Pride event in Sochi to coincide with the games’ opening day. The International Olympic Committee on Friday released a statement reassuring the world that LGBT athletes competing in the games will be safe:

“The IOC has received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games,” according to the statement emailed to USA TODAY Sports.

…”This legislation has just been passed into law and it remains to be seen whether and how it will be implemented, particularly as regards the Games in Sochi,” the IOC said. “As a sporting organization, what we can do is to continue to work to ensure that the Games can take place without discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators and the media.”

Those assurances, obviously, miss the point. Conspicuously missing from the list of people who will not be affected by the new law during the games are LGBT Russians. And besides, St. Petersburg legislator Vitaly Milonov, the co-sponsor of Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” bill, says that the law cannot be selectively suspended:

The man behind the anti-propaganda law, Vitaly Milonov, reportedly said in an interview with Interfax that “if a law has been approved by the federal legislature and signed by the president, then the government has no right to suspend it. It doesn’t have the authority.”

Milonov also reportedly said he’s received support from both American and German politicians for his stance.

…Even if the laws are not enforced during the Olympics, gay visitors may face a local backlash. Three-quarters of Russians say society should not accept homosexuality, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Just 16 percent say society should be accepting of the LGBT community. The numbers aren’t much different among young Russians, either: Just 21 percent of those polled under 30 thought homosexuality should be accepted.

This Post Is Illegal in Russia

Jim Burroway

July 26th, 2013

This story from from Pink News illustrates what LGBT people in Russia are up against:

A Neo-Nazi Russian group has taken to social media to publicise images and videos of gay teenagers lured in on the promise of a date, before torturing them and forcing them to come out to friends and family on video. Gay victims aged 12-16 are reportedly lured in by the group Occupy-Pedofilyay, led by Maxim Martsinkevich, known under the nickname “Cleaver”. Videos are then circulated of the victims being made to come out as gay, with a view to parents, schools, or friends finding out about their sexuality.

An uncensored image of one of the victims holding a sex toy, covered in red paint, and being held down, appeared on the Spectrum Human Rights Alliance blog. The accompanying report also included a video of the torture of one victim who was sprayed with urine in public, however YouTube has now removed the video.

…The group was established with the intention of revealing the identities of paedophiles, but after turning to adult gay men, it has now begun targeting young teenagers. The Spectrum report says that no police action has been taken against the incidents, despite numerous victims, and that over 500 similar groups have been formed across Russia using the VK social networking site.

The Spectrum report is here, and the video is back online.

Short narrative in English: Age of consent in Russia is currently 16 years old. On video one can see allegedly a 15 year old teen lured by an organized Neo Nazi gang of self-proclaimed “pedophile fighters” who posted a fake personal ad from allegedly an older man (named “Uncle Dima”). This teen was forced to give out his full name, address, school name, parents names and etc. They laughed about his sexual preferences, bullied him, poured urine on him and kicked at the end. We would never know what occurred after the camera went out. Naturally, all his personal details were released to the general public and viewed by millions in Russia.

One teen committed suicide in May after having his sexuality was revealed online. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin insists that there is no anti-gay discrimination in his fiefdom, and Russian law makes it illegal for Russians or foreigners in Russia to denounce violence against LGBT people.

Boycott of Russian Vodka Spreads

Jim Burroway

July 26th, 2013

Buzzfeed on Monday published a photo essay titled “36 Photos from Russia that Everyone Needs to See,” which depicts the violence that broke out during St. Petersburg’s gay pride march last month. That violence took place on the very day that President Vladimir Putin signed a law which effectively bans all advocacy by or on behalf of LGBT people. Dan Savage finally decided that enough was enough. Six months from now, Russia will be hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics on Sochi, with many calling for a boycott. Dan Savage reviewed the pros and cons of boycotting the Olympics and proposed an alternative:

If there isn’t a boycott—if gay and pro-gay athletes compete at the Olympics in Sochi this winter—there must be a protest during the Sochi Olympics that is as powerful and indelible as Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s protest during the Mexico City Olympics. It should happen on the medal stand while the world watches.

But boycott or no boycott there is something we can do right here, right now, in Seattle and other US cities to show our solidarity with Russian queers and their allies and to help to draw international attention to the persecution of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and straight allies in Putin’s increasingly fascistic Russia: DUMP RUSSIAN VODKA.

Here is a list of Russian vodkas currently available in the US: Dovgan, Gold Symphony, Standart, Hrenovuha, Kauffman, Kubanskaya, Moskovskaya, Narodnaya, Pyatizvyozdnaya, Putinka, Rodnik, Ruskova, Russian Standard, Shustov, Starka, Stolnaya, Youri Dolgoruki. The two best known Russian vodkas? Russian Standard and Stolichnaya.

That was Wednesday. It only took Stolichnaya’s CEO, Val Mendeleev, a day to respond with “an open letter to the LGBT community”:

Letter from Stoli. Click to enlarge.

The recent dreadful actions taken by the Russian Government limiting the rights of the LGBT community and the passionate reaction of the community have prompted me to write this letter to you.

I want to stress that Stoli formly opposes such attitude and actions. Indeed, as a company that encourages transparent and fairness, we are upset and angry. Stolichnaya Vodka has always been, and continues to be a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community. We also thank the community for having adopted Stoli as their vodka of preference.

In the US, the brand’s commitment to the LGBT community has been ongoing for years. Among the best examples, I can cite the series produced by Stoli in 2006 called “Be Real: Stories from Queer America” which featured short documentaries on real life stories depicting the challenges and accomplishments of the LGBT community in the United States.

Stoli is very proud of the current exclusive national partnership with Gaycities.comand Queerty.com in search of the Most Original Stoli Guy. .. Previous national initiatives included serving as the official vodka of the Miami Gay Pride Week as well as ongoing events with focus on Pride month.

…This letter also gives me the opportunity to clear some of the confusion surrounding the Stolichnaya brand, based on facts found online that often inaccurately link our company to the Russian Government. The Russian government has no ownership interest over the Stoli brand that is privately owned by SPI Group, headquartered in Luxembourg in the heart of Western Europe…

(Update: Queerty, perhaps because of their entangling alliance with Stoli, has been practicing radio silence where the boycott is concerned, except to post Stoli’s open letter.)

Savage countered:

For the record: Regardless of where SPI Group’s corporate offices are located, the company is owned by Yuri Scheffler, one of the 100 richest men in Russia. SPI is a Russian corporation, Stoli is a Russian vodka. And while it’s nice that SPI is willing to market to homos who are lucky enough to live in Austria, the US, and South Africa, what has SPI done in Russia? The group has sponsored gay pride events in Vienna and Miami. That’s nice. But have they sponsored gay pride events in Moscow or St. Petersburg? Val says that Stoli is upset and angry. That’s nice. So has Stoli said anything to the Russian authorities? Has Yuri Scheffler expressed his anger in an open letter to Vladimir Putin? Did the SPI Group speak the fuck up before the Russian government passed a law that made it a crime to be openly gay and a crime to publicly support someone who is openly gay? Frankly I’m not interested in Stoli’s marketing efforts in the West. I’m interested in what this Russian-owned company is doing in Russia. And from this letter it’s clear they’ve done and they only plan on doing squat.

But Scott Shackford at Reason posted a counter argument. He noted that there is a battle going on between Scheffler and Russia, which is trying to nationalize the company, which seized the internal brands and nationalized them in 2001.

There is a big, nasty battle between Russia and the private Stolichnaya company and its owner, Yuri Scheffler…. t doesn’t take that much research to see how difficult a position Scheffler is in. Russia wants his company. This story from The Guardian from 2002 makes it very clear that Scheffler is no friend of Putin’s … Scheffler himself is wanted for “questioning” for allegedly threatening the director of the parts of the Russian company that were renationalized.

What’s sad about this effort is that if Russia succeeds in getting its hands back on Stoli, then a boycott actually makes sense. But the consequence will be that a powerful businessman who does support the gay community will lose his company. Boycotting Stoli now is a very bad idea. Scheffler is an ally who the gay and lesbian community needs to work with, not alienate. From a Western perspective it may be hard to realize that an incredibly rich person like Scheffler has the potential to be a victim of Russia’s authoritarian regime like its gay citizens or members of Pussy Riot, but it’s extremely important not to look at the nature of power and influence there the way we do here.

Nevertheless, the Russian vodka boycott — which goes beyond Stolichnaya, although Stoli is the biggest, most well-known brand — is spreading like wildfire. At least two bars in the Castro have pulled Russian vodka from their shelves. Seven Halsted-area bars in Chicago have stopped selling Russian booze, as have bars in West HollywoodVancouver, Toronto, London, and San Diego. Dallas-area bars are still considering whether to join, but The Dallas Voice reports that, contrary to Stoli’s letter Thursday, the company had already decided to “pull out of the gay market“:

(Bar owner Howard) Okon said Razzle Dazzle Dallas, the city’s June LGBT Pride Month celebration, was hit hard earlier this year when Stoli representatives said they wouldn’t sponsor the event, after they’ve been the major liquor sponsor the past two years. Okon, who was in charge of sponsorships for Razzle Dazzle, said the company told him they were realigning their outreach and pulling out of the gay market.

Putin Signs Anti-Gay Law Amid Clashes in St. Petersburg

Jim Burroway

June 30th, 2013

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a measure which effectively bans all advocacy for LGBT people:

The law introduces fines of up to 5,000 rubles ($166) for citizens who disseminate information “directed at forming non-traditional sexual setup” in minors or which may cause a “distorted understanding” that gay and heterosexual relations are “socially equivalent”, the publication showed.

The fines go up to as much as 200,000 rubles ($6,600) for officials if such “propaganda” is disseminated through the media or internet. Foreigners will not only be fined but face administrative arrest up to 15 days and eventual deportation, the law says. Organisations face fines of up to 1 million rubles and shutdown of their activity for 90 days.

Meanwhile, a pro-gay Pride march in St. Petersburg was violently broken up by police and Russian nationalists:

Media reports estimated that several dozens of LGBT activists came to the Field of Mars (Marsovo Pole) in the city’s downtown to rally for gay people’s rights in Russia. The event was attended by some 200 of anti-gay activists urging to ban the rally and throwing eggs at their opponents.

“After the complaints of local residents, representatives of the local administration and the police warned the protestors that their protest was illegal and asked them to leave,” a police spokesperson said. Police officers then broke up the protest and arrested dozens of gay rights activists, the spokesman added.

The Russian LGBT network said on its Facebook page Saturday that several activists were beaten up by their opponents during the event, and more than 50 were held by the police. Eight of the anti-gay activists were detained as well, the police said. One of the police officers was injured while trying to detain an anti-gay activist, local Fonatanka.Ru news website reported.

The AP reports that “About 200 nationalists also gathered at the rally, chanting slogans such as ‘Sodomy will not pass,’ and throwing eggs and rocks at the gay-rights activists, who numbered about 40.”

Violence Breaks Out As Russia’s State Duma Bans LGBT Advocacy

Jim Burroway

June 11th, 2013

Police break up a fight between LGBT activist and anti-gay protester. (Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov)

Russia’s State Duma gave its unanimous approval today to a federal law banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors. The law prohibits advocating the moral equivalency of gay relationships to straight ones, as well as the distributing of material advocating for gay rights. The Duma vote was 434-0, with one abstention. Similar bans are already in place in several Russian regions and the city of St. Petersburg. The bill now goes on to the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of Parliament, where passage is expected. As RIA Novosti reported:

There are a total of 450 deputies in the State Duma, and a majority of 226 was needed for the bill to pass.

If the bill is signed into law by Putin, the “promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships” will be punishable by fines from 4,000 ($120) to 5,000 rubles ($160) for individuals, from 40,000 ($1,200) to 50,000 ($1,500) for officials, and from 800,000 ($25,000) to 1 million rubles ($31,000) for organizations.

There will also be tougher fines for promoting such relationships in the media or on the Internet: from 50,000 rubles to 1 million rubles, or even 90 days of arrest for people involved in organizations found guilty of the offense.

Violent clashes broke out between LGBT advocates and Orthodox anti-gay protesters outside the State Duma as the body began considering the bill:

A RIA Novosti reporter at the scene witnessed how the demonstration started peacefully, with a police cordon separating anti-bill LGBT activists from those backing the bill.

When some of the gay couples protesting against the bill to restrict “the promotion of same-sex relationships” started kissing, pro-bill activists responded by hurling eggs and bundles of nettles.

Some anti-bill protesters chanted “Moscow is not Baghdad” (seemingly more of a reference to a generic anti-gay, conservative, religious society, than a specific comment on today’s Iraq) while pro-bill demonstrators shouted: “Moscow is not Sodom.”

…Masha Gessen, a prominent Moscow-based journalist and outspoken defender of gay rights, was one of those taken to a police station. She tweeted that she was detained after a pro-Orthodox Church activist attacked her “physically” but was not detained by riot police.

Reuters reports:

The gay protesters were far outnumbered by around 200 anti-gay activists who surrounded them, chanting “Russia is not Sodom”, singing Orthodox Christian prayers and crossing themselves. They threw rotten eggs at the gay protesters.

After scuffles in which one man was knocked to the ground and kicked by the anti-gay activists, police began detaining the gay protesters and bundling them into waiting buses.

The State Duma will also consider today another bill which would make “insulting religious believers’ feelings” a criminal offense, punishable with finds of up to $15,000, 200 hours of compulsory labor, or up to three years’ imprisonment.

In February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the proposed ban would not infringe on the human rights of LGBT people in Russia:

We’re not discriminating against anyone, we just don’t want reverse discrimination, when one group of citizens gets the right to aggressively impose their values, unsupported by most of the population, especially on children,” Lavrov said in Moscow.

In April, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated those sentiments and blamed gay people, in part, for Russia’s declining population.

Pride in Russia, Putin Style

Randy Potts

May 29th, 2013

Last Saturday in Russia, activist Nikolai Alekseev and a small group of compatriots held yet another banned Pride event in Moscow in front of the State Duma.  Two days before the announced (but banned) event, the police visited Nikolai’s home to warn him from carrying out the protest and published their warning in the paper.

Amazingly, today Nikolai and his team have released a video made from several small cameras pinned to activist’s clothing showing what “Pride” looks like in Putin’s Russia — one big, homophobic mess, complete with Orthodox onlookers praying and what appears to have been a punch thrown at Nikolai as he was dragged to the police van.

According to the video, 39 activists were arrested.  With my extremely weak college Russian and the help of Google, some of the signs protesters held up said things like the following —

“Homophobia – cover for dictatorship!”

“Homophobia is killing!”

“Discriminating against the minority is oppression of the majority.”

“We don’t need homophobic legislation. Children need nurseries, kindergarten, education.”

That last sign refers to recent legislation, passed in state after state within Russia, banning homosexual “propaganda” from minors.  Recent polls indicate that over 70% of the Russian population favors the ban — much like, say, the U.S. in the 1950s.  Nikolai has been called the Russian Harvey Milk but he reminds me more of Frank Kameny, for whom announcing “gay is good” was a bold and brash thing to do.

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I was really struck by the two young women in the video shown holding up this rainbow flag which reads “Lyubov’ sil’neye” or “love is stronger than.”  They were arrested moments later.

Russian Military Has Foolproof Method for Finding Gay Soldiers

Jim Burroway

January 25th, 2013

I’m not sure what it is, but it somehow involves tattoos:

The new guidelines, based on a psychology textbook published by a military university in 2005, call for carrying out a physical examination and recommend checking for tattoos in intimate places on the new recruits’ bodies, Izvestia reported, citing a copy of the guidelines that it obtained.

Special attention is recommended for tattoos near the face, sexual organs and buttocks, as the author believes that such tattoos reveal possible sexual deviations.

“The reason for getting tattoos could indicate a low cultural or educational level. If an influence by external factors is determined, for example, persuasion or direct coercion, this indicates the malleability of the young man, his disposition to submit to another’s will,” the text says.

The guidelines also include a wide range of warning signs indicative of mental instability, including early sexual experience and ‘uncontrolled sexual behavior,’ both of which are included in the same category as alcohol abuse, running away from home, suicidal tendencies and theft.

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