If you’re old enough to remember Mikhail Gorbachev, with his distinctive birthmark, you might wonder if he was actually just a dream.
Back then, we learned new Russian words such as ‘glasnost’ and ‘peristroika’, replacing more sinister ones such as ‘gulag’. Today, our grasp of Russian centres on two words — homophobia and repression. Oh, and ‘disappearing in Siberia’, if you are a young mother who got shouty about Putin in a church — nobody had heard from Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in almost a month. Lost in the gulags, like Solzhenitsyn.
The Arctic 30 — 28 Greenpeace activists and two journalists — are threatened with seven years’ incarceration. But everyone knows about them, and they have British passports — what is now a hellish interlude in their lives will one day make for book deals and dinner-party anecdotes.
What if, however, you are not an activist, Russian or non-Russian? What if you are just plain old gay? There is no word in Russian for homophobia — you just replace the ‘h’ with a ‘g’, so it is gomophobia. I ask my Russian-speaking Lithuanian lodger what it’s like to be gay in his home country. He says he has no idea, because he doesn’t know any gay people. Not one. That if you are gay, you keep quiet about it. And that, in Russia itself, it is far worse, far more violent.
Putin’s anti-gay laws criminalise “promotion” of “non-traditional sexual relations”, which effectively criminalises actual human beings for existing. Neofascist gangs post fake ads on gay Russian social media sites, luring young people to meetings where they are filmed being terrorised, tortured, urinated upon. These videos are posted online — the most viral showed a 15-year-old boy being set upon for 20 minutes.
The International Olympic Committee is “fully satisfied” in the run-up to Sochi 2014 that Putin’s outlawing of gay people does not contravene the Olympic Charter, because if straight people “promote” “nontraditional sexual relationships”, they too will be persecuted.
So that’s okay then — no-one is being discriminated against. Demonised, assaulted, excluded from mainstream life legally and socially, but not discriminated against. If a straight person shows solidarity, they too are in trouble — but the thing is. you can choose to show solidarity. You do not choose to be gay, or straight.
Last night, at a LGBT literary event in my town, a huge rainbow flag bore the words ‘To Russia With Love’. People read angry poems, collected money. All very well, but the Sochi games are going ahead because countries are supporting them. Isn’t that a bit like sending athletes to apartheid South Africa?
My lodger, himself a sportsman, shrugs uneasily. The word ‘gay’ still makes him nervous.
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