Gay Imperialism and Olympic Oppression Part 4: A Discussion with Jason Cieply about Russian Perceptions of the West and Sexual Politics

by Erika Lynn Abigail Kreeger, ’16

This is the fourth and final part in a series entitled “Gay Imperialism and Olympic Oppression.” The first part is entitled “Russian Sexual Politics and the East/West Divide,” the second “Boycotting Boycotts of Russia” and the third “Challenging the Liberal Fascination with Gay, International Violence.”

The morning of August 8th, the day Part 1 of this series was uploaded onto STATIC, I Skype chatted with Stanford Instructor of Slavic Languages and Literature Jason Cieply and discussed, among many other things, Russian perceptions of the West, American and Western imperialism, homosexuality, sexual politics and the growing limitation of personal freedoms in Russia.

Pretty quickly, it stopped feeling like an interview and more of a discussion among colleagues. Instructor Cieply has a wide knowledge of Russian geopolitics, and he helped shed light on a number of issues I had been curious to know more about. Hopefully, this discussion will help provide more context to the last three pieces I’ve written, especially in how Russians view America and American interventions.

This is a polished, slightly changed transcript of the original interview to make it more cohesive for readers. Any parenthesis you see were originally written by Jason or myself, while any brackets you see I added in for brevity and clarity. All changes to the transcript are minor and approved by Jason before publication.

Erika Lynn Abigail Kreeger (ELAK): Recently there has been a growing tension between Russia and the US, escalated first by Edward Snowden’s asylum and Russia’s support of Syrian state leaders. As more people learn of Russia’s ban on non-traditional sexual orientation propaganda in the US, there have been calls for US intervention, namely from the President and the US Olympic Committee to pressure Russia to repeal the law. How do most Russians, or at least those in St. Petersburg, view America right now, in light of this growing tension?

Jason Cieply (JC): First of all, I have contact with a very particular segment of the Russian population, the educated, middle-class Russians from or living in the cultural center of the country. Gay rights is still a sensitive issue and not as much of a no-brainer or a cause célèbre as amongst young, middle-class Americans.

I would say that the individuals that I know have a far clearer sense of current affairs, international relations, and especially relations with America. They know enough not to be surprised by Snowden’s leak and, what is more, to relate to Snowden’s motives with a measure of skepticism. I wouldn’t say that their relations towards America are as subject to the rhetoric fed from the top as other populations, lower class, provincial. However, in this case, I would say that most people assume the obvious, that Obama’s administration got what it had coming, and in a significant way. The White House’s demands for extradition sound pretty funny from over here, and I don’t think any Russians expect Putin to cave.

Snowden played right into Putin’s hand–this is the kind of stunt Putin needs for his routine image maintenance before the population and most Russians understand how that works. Still, I’d say even more educated Russians morally identify with Putin’s assertion of sovereignty.

ELAK: In a recent Buzzfeed article, a Russian “anti-gay” protester was quoted as saying: “You stupid idiots kill people all over the world, Iraq, libya, afganistan, syria etc. You interfere internal politics of many countries. And now you stupid idiots try to teach us how to live? Go fuck yourself and your president and leave us to decide OURSELVES on how to live and rule OUR country. Just understand that you opinion mean nothing here.” Do you think many Russians share similar (albeit probably more mellow) sentiments about US foreign involvement and interference?

JC: Yes, absolutely. Yes, they have a far more developed understanding of American imperialist foreign policy than most educated Americans. That’s one of the reasons the question of sovereignty in terms of the gay propaganda law touches so many nerves. But, for the West, it has to boil down (and we have to boil it down) to a moral question on par with intervention in the Holocaust.

Still, the question of interference is what makes this something like an effective policy decision for Putin, however crazy it seems to most players in contemporary, global economics.

ELAK: Interesting. On the note of the Holocaust, recently Jay Leno very incorrectly asserted that homosexuality was illegal in Russia and that this was akin to the Holocaust, with Russians rounding up the gays, soon followed by blacks and other peoples. Are most Russians aware of the uproar in America over Russia’s ban on non-traditional sexual orientation propaganda to minor, by and large, and if so, how do they view America’s reaction?

JC: I’m not sure how aware they are. I have been following the Western media and have been vocal about pointing out the glaring inaccuracies in Western representations of the legislation.

The general attitude [in Western media] seems to be, “who cares if we represent it as worse than it is if it’s in the interest of LGBT rights,” which is a big mistake. But I’d say that most educated Russians are aware of the specific Western response, with significant portions of the population having some idea about them being upset and a significant portion knowing that “they [Americans, Europeans] are all f**s.” I’m sure the state-biased media has run some short features on gay bartenders dumping out Smirnoff but I haven’t seen it myself.

From my experience, most Russians who don’t have good access to Western media via the Internet at least watch the Russian news every night and would have probably seen some version of the West being in uproar over the law but that’s just an educated guess.

Educated Russians I’ve spoken with have heard about the western response and have said things like “I’m so ashamed…” They think highly of the West (as they always have… as a model to imitate), and hate to think of their country being known for this. A lot of Russians I’ve spoken with associate this particular law with a whole host of other laws drafted in the Duma since the post-protest reaction set in. [Opposition protests during 2012 started as a reaction to presumed election fraud in the 2011 Duma elections, the presidential elections, the 2012 inauguration, the Pussy Riot incarcerations and the ongoing Bolotnoe delo trials.]

For them, it’s another example of conservative measures, especially prohibitions, being implemented in the past few years. Some of the other [laws and prohibitions] may have more precedence for them in terms of their immediate interests, everyday life, etc

ELAK: What types of laws and prohibitions specifically have been drafted recently in the Duma that are generally associated with the ban?

JC: A massive internet censorship law just came into place giving a state organization the ability to shut off sites, as far as I know, with minimal oversight and little or no judicial process. It was marketed as pertaining to extremism, propaganda of suicide, and pedophilia (not distinct from homosexuality for many Russians).

This year the laws pertaining to registration (a leftover from the Soviet Union, restricting the movement of citizens about the country, facilitating state control of the population) instituted more stringent, increased fines. Companies issuing fake registrations, landlords and tenants caught violating the registration laws, will all be punished with heftier fines, prison sentences, etc. A lot of that is related to a crack-down on illegal immigrants who are currently being rounded up and held in temporary detention camps in Moscow waiting for deportation.

A lot of the laws involve banning the sale of certain types of alcohol in certain places after certain hours, [there is now a] public smoking bans, [as well as] increased fines for traffic violations [and the] banning certain foreign products for political reasons.

The adoption bans, I’m sure you heard about, there’s talk about banning abortions.

ELAK: So it seems this law is not part of an effort to single out LGBT Russians but part of a larger, systematic limitation of personal freedoms. Would that be correct?

JC: Well, it’s both, but I’d say the ultimate intention is more systemic. It’s to disenfranchise the pro-west, liberal opposition by drawing a line between them and the population in terms of traditional values, rather than questions of political reform. LGBT Russians are a convenient victim, like the Jews were after WW II.

But the history of application of these laws shows both how loathe the government is to get too embroiled in individual cases of incarceration (that could cross the line with Western activists and governments) and that homosexuality is not the major issue.

ELAK: And I’m guessing Western involvement and interference over the last two decades in LGBT Russian activism has made it easier for the Russian government to align the LGBT Russian activists and LGBT Russians with the West.

JC: Sure. Everyone saw radical LGBT activists front and center among the ranks of the protesters in 2012 [following reported mass election fraud in the Duma and presidential election campaigns]. Rainbow flags flying along with bits of stone on May 6.

The opposition coalition can’t afford to speak out against homosexuality and risk losing its supporters from the far left. They couldn’t even risk excluding the nationalist fascists when it came down to it; only when it was clear that Putin was staying in power did they split with them.

And the West’s reaction, every word of condemnation from Western leaders and celebrities, helps to consolidate Putin’s role as a defender of Russian values and national identity.

I haven’t finished your article, but I gather that you oppose the Olympic boycotts. I’m glad. They are off-base for a number of reasons.

ELAK: Yes, I’m totally against the boycott and the extreme condemnation.

JC: For one, their proponents (Dan Savage and the like), fundamentally do not understand the legislation (either their wording or the context) and have been misleading Western audiences… article after article, editorial after editorial, have been reproducing, spreading, disseminating the same erroneous information, with no sources or support.

Secondly, they miss what is more important–real instances of atrocious violence committed against LGBT individuals by ordinary Russians… of course, Putin’s rhetoric is throwing fuel on the fire, but Western journalists seem egocentrically concerned with imagining themselves as the victims of this violence as hypothetical spectators at the Olympics.

Most importantly, as I’ve said, it plays right into Putin’s hand–it’s exactly the image he wants to portray of the West. Not that we can’t afford to take a stand

There is a new article in the New Yorker that offers a much better angle. Why boycott when the Games will provide a litmus test and a venue for LGBT activists to conduct the very propaganda work that has been banned. It’s exactly the kind of point of confrontation activists need.

ELAK: Are you in favor of LGBT activists, either from Russia or the US, using the Olympics as a venue to challenge the law? If so, why? And what do you think of speed skater Blake Skjellerup of New Zealand pledging to wear a pride pin during his races?

JC: First of all, I think it’s inevitable. Secondly, it’s free speech and there’s no basis to oppose it. The strategic value for Russian LGBT individuals is a different question.

ELAK: What do you think of the Olympics’ self-imposed ban on political discourse by the athletes?

JC: Has the committee asked athletes to avoid speaking on this particular issue or is that a long-standing policy?

ELAK: Long standing policy.

JC: I think it’s trash

ELAK: It’s been this way since before the 1936 Germany Olympics. (I’ve covered Olympics stories for a while haha)

JC: I gathered that from the beginning of your article, and I’ll be glad to benefit from your knowledge! I’ve strangely found myself in a minority fraction regarding these Olympics, so I can use all the background I can get.

I assume that policy 1) helps keep the wheels going and 2) serves the interests of the major world powers who (I guess) tend to dominate the games

ELAK: Yes, [absolutely]. The Olympics is adamant that the Games are an apolitical event which, as you can imagine, is impossible– a collaboration of so many nations, including nations who have diplomatic and militaristic tensions between them, will be an incredibly political event, as nearly all have been in the past.

JC: About Russians’ relations to America, here’s a brand new music video joking about how Putin’s regime blames America for all of Russia’s social woes (and connecting the policy to traditions from the Soviet Union). Not sure if we can find a translation, but it’s very popular now and shows the healthy skepticism about the anti-American rhetoric being disseminated now. Although the author overlooks many of the important ways in which American foreign and economic policy do do explicit harm to Russia. I’ve come to abandon my internationalism to a certain extent… Russia has needed and still does need, to a lesser extent, someone like Putin capable of standing up to the West.

ELAK: Going back to the New Yorker piece, do you believe that gay athletes showing up and competing, without wearing a pride pin or other visible mark with protest, will be protest enough? Or do you think that gay players should protest more visibly? And if they do protest more visibly, how do you think that will impact Russia’s view of the West and the treatment of LGBT Russians?

JC: I would describe the Russians’ attitude towards homosexuality, at least on a general social level, as “don’t ask, don’t tell” and it seems like it’s always been that way and I would assume that the enforcement of the law at the Games will follow those lines at the very worst.

Although I did misjudge them. I would have thought that even a pin would be fine, but then one of the higher-ups last week insisted that the law would be enforced. So far, it has been enforced or they have threatened to enforce it only in cases explicitly directed at minors (as in the case of the 4 Dutch film makers or others.)

8-12 Gay ImperialismHere’s a Facebook post of mine you might find useful: “Russian LGBT activist Alexei Davydov, one of the participants in the previous action at which activists displayed a banner reading “Homophobia is the religion of trashy people,” has been arrested for an act of solitary protest carried out on Kaluzhskaya Square. Davydov unfurled a banner displaying the words, “Being gay is normal” in front of a children’s library. Davydov had previously applied for permission to hold the action and was denied on the basis of the new law prohibiting the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations amongst minors,” making this refusal the first official application of the federal law.

This courageous action can be considered one of the first steps towards establishing the range of applicability of the new, ambiguous law. So far, it confirms the law’s symbolic nature, as it has been applied only in a situation deliberately designed to provoke it into effect. It has not been reported whether he will actually be charged under the new law.

ELAK: I want to move on to a related question. How have most Russians interpreted the ban on non-traditional sexual orientation propaganda to minors, as well as the ban on adoption in countries where same sex marriage is legal? Most importantly, how has law enforcement interpreted and applied the ban?

JC: Hmm, it’s hard to answer, because every person interprets it in a different way and I could only make guesses as to general contingents. I think most Russians who do oppose homosexuality, for whatever reason, identify with the sentiment that they don’t want their children exposed to homosexuality, especially its active “propagation.”

Another relevant piece of context:  the adoption ban has a pre-history.

For a long time Russian television has been airing stories of Russian orphans adopted by American parents and being neglected or abused often dying in the care of their adoptive parents, who were not punished.

These stories are constantly shown on TV and many Russians do feel strongly about it–more educated Russians know that a far greater percentage of children and orphans undergo a similar fate in Russia, but the result is a belief, amongst certain segments of the population, that Americans, and American culture are pedagogically dangerous for Russian children.

A lot of this has to do with national pride, a sort of inferiority complex–it’s shameful that citizens of other countries can provide care for Russian children in a way that Russia can’t.

So, in a way, fighting gay propaganda amongst children is a way of fighting back against Western parenting, Western culture, and Western values.

That’s the connection with the second law (prohibiting adoption by parents of a non-traditional sexual orientation).

ELAK: That’s really interesting.

JC:  That’s part of the reason the [ban on propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientations] specifically pertains to minors. Putin’s more prominent crusade is “anti-pedophilia,” something that has more currency in the rest of the world, but from the Russian perspective, pedophilia and homosexuality are related, and it’s assumed that homosexuality is a social illness related to environment, education, etc.

[Speaking more about implementation of the law by law enforcement officials,] I had found an article on the implementation of the (older) Petersburg-specific ban (haven’t been able to track it down again) and I remember there being very few instances of implementation. But, as in my Facebook post, outright acts of pro-LGBT protest, even on Red Square, have not elicited implementation of the law. Violation of the peace is far less problematic. Sometimes activists are detained and not presented with any charges just for the sake of preventing anti-LGBT activists from doing  them serious harm.

They’re detained by the police, in an attempt to appease the crowd (although, as we saw in the case of the paratroopers [in the video he posted on Facebook, discussed in Part 2], this is rarely enough to satisfy the anti-LGBT protestors), held for a short period of time, and let free.

ELAK: On that note of preventing the murder of LGBT activists, [as discussed in Part 2], on Facebook, you recently posted about fellow bus riders laughing at a video of a gay activist being nearly brutalized by paratroopers. In the video, while I don’t understand the Russian, it seems that while the gay activist was placed in the police car, if the police hadn’t intervened, he would have been hurt much worse—after he was placed in the car, there seemed to be a fight between the paratroopers and the police trying to detain them. Does there appear to be an effort to protect LGBT Russians and apprehend their assailants, or was this more of an isolated occurrence?

JC: The general situation is the police unwillingly step in when things get out of hand, usually detaining or arresting the activists and not their assailants. This was a rare occasion in that they arrested two of the paratroopers.

But as I understand it they were arrested because they were offering violent resistance to police officers. Rarely are the assailants detained. And even in this case, we saw dozens of enormous ex-military types engaged in hand-to-hand conflict with police special forces, and only two were arrested, whereas non-violent opposition protests [namely those in 2012] sometimes see arrests numbering up to 700.

ELAK: Wow.

JC: Typically, the police steps in after letting the victims sustain some serious injuries from the crowd. That is, as I have observed, they let the crowd have a bit of fun before stepping in.

ELAK: non-violent opposition protest meaning LGBT protests?

JC: Not necessarily. I’m talking about when the united opposition rallied around [Alexei] Navalny [the main opposition leader to Putin, who in 2013 was suspiciously proclaimed guilty on 3 counts of embezzlement] and a few other figures.

ELAK: Gotcha.

JC: I believe there were several hundred (maybe even close to 700) arrests in Moscow when they were protesting Navalny’s arrest.

I think there were between 100 and 200 [arrests] at the recent [St.] Petersburg rally. Typically, at least earlier, LGBT had a presence at those rallies as an allied group, you know: you had the Left party, the liberal party, the anarchist block, the LGBT block.

This was around the time that Pussy Riot [a feminist guerrilla punk band inspired by Madonna] was getting big, and as a casual observer, it seemed like it was a high point for LGBT activism. They had a place at the protests and were not specifically harassed, as far as I could tell.

ELAK: Just out of personal curiosity, how do most Russians view Pussy Riot? Have they effectively started dialogue?

JC: It’s hard to say for me. I was in America most of the time. My impression is that they are pretty far left of the general opposition consensus. Navalny himself is pretty right-wing by Western standards. I think the world made more of Pussy Riot than Russia did.

ELAK: Gotcha.

JC: It was a sensation, but I think even a lot of educated, upper-middle-class Russians related to Pussy Riot with a measure of ambivalence. It was an impressive spectacle, they identified with it in a certain way, but they felt it was crossing some lines that shouldn’t be crossed. I would say that the general consensus amongst educated Russians was that it was a stupid stunt, but that it shouldn’t have been punished so severely.

ELAK: Ok.

JC: Broader segments of the populations might have supported burning them at the stake, as some Cossacks and priests publicly suggested. The urban intelligentsia was probably their greatest support. A lot of people, especially people outside Moscow or Petersburg, could probably have cared less.

ELAK: Well, I should probably get going, and let you go as well, but that you so much for your time and information!

JC:  [One last thing before you go. Russian officials] made a raid on the organization Occupy Pedophilia that had been luring gays and supposed pedophiles to meetings and then harassing them. They found all kinds of horrible torture weapons, Nazi propaganda, and the like. It’s a new story that might be of interest to show the real side of enforcement. Apparently the individuals are all still free but are undergoing investigation

ELAK:  Wow. That’s super scary and important to know about– the real enforcement, I would argue, is not from the state as much as the reaction inflamed by the state’s actions. Would you agree?

JC: Absolutely. The population has a certain set of values, but these kinds of things were not happening as frequently, as widely or as well known until Putin started throwing fuel on the fire. There is a strong parallel between the traditionalist rhetoric from the top of the Russian government, coupled with soft legislation in the case of the anti-gay law, and popular, vigilante violence against gays, who are perceived as non-Russian, ethnic minorities and illegal immigrants.

Erika Lynn is a white, feminine of center organism and a rising junior taking a year off to relax and read more. She loves to frolic in fields and splash in the ocean, and enjoys a vegetable sandwich more than anything else for lunch. Currently, she is beginning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.

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