RUSSIA IS SCREWED UP. SO ARE YOU.
So, here are some simple thruths about LGBT, Olympics, bad Putin and homophobic Russia. Dear all, you’re right, but you’re wrong. Yes, homophobia is bad, Putin is an asshole, the Sochi Olympics are a festival of hypocrisy. And no, if you say this, it doesn’t mean you are the ones against hypocrisy here. Most probably, you are hypocrits as well. Because it’s not only the mythic “Putin” who benefits from the anti-LGBT legislation in Russia. You are its beneficiaries as well.
Let’s come back to the homophobic law itself. Actually, it’s funny how no one really thinks about why it was adopted in the first place. Everybody is so outraged by the fact, everybody asks rhetoric questions about whether it’s going to be applied to prosecute every lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* person in Russia, but nobody seems to stop to think about the why.
People, the homophobic law is not there to punish us for holding hands or kissing in public places. It can be used like that, but that is not its goal. Its goal is to make the idea of homosexuality illegitimate. It’s a symbolic goal. Just like it was with the restrictions of the abortion rights that were adopted in 2011 (never heard about it? you probably should look it up if you consider yourselves true supporters of human rights in Russia). In fact, the two pieces of legislation are parts of the same trend of restrictive gender policy that has been present in Russia since at least 2003 (and that’s why the federal homophobic law hasn’t been a big surprise for those of us who had been engaged long enough in LGBT and/or feminist activism). Just like the regional and federal ‛propaganda’ laws, the restrictive abortion laws are not there to make abortion less accessible (to my knowledge, no one ever bothered to write concrete regulations that would ensure that the law is actually applied), they are there to make abortion illegitimate. After a complete laissez-faire approach to gender policy since the ‛90s, the Russian elite has now switched to a pronounced restrictive policy by which it says to the people: you have no right to make decisions about your bodies and your personal lives. You belong to us. You must feel bad about your choices. And that concerns men as well as women, heterosexuals as well as homo- and bisexuals, cis people as well as trans*people.
Many people in Russia say that the restrictive gender policy is being adopted to draw people’s attention away from ‛real problems.’ Like the commercialization of education and healthcare, the growth of housing and community fees, inflation and so on. Well, for one, I can assure you that for me as a lesbian woman living in Russia, gender policy is no less real than money issues. Indeed, I believe that gender policy is central to any state’s policy. Because it concerns the most basic freedom, the freedom to control our bodies and our personal lives.
So, why does the Russian state need to undermine our most basic freedom? It’s obvious, isn’t it? People who don’t feel they have the right to control their own bodies are far less likely to get the idea they can control, say, how the incomes in their countries are distributed. Russia is a country of the Economic South, that is, a country which provides cheap raw material and labour power to the wealthier countries of the Economic North. That’s how neoliberalism works. (Oops, a disappointment for those who still believe the big lie about the ‛developed’ and ‛developing’ countries. Nothing is ‛developing’ in global capitalism. What is happening is exploitation, not development.)
If you live in a country of the Economic North, you can enjoy higher wages and better living conditions, which include democracy, which includes some level of tolerance. All this at the expense of the Economic South, where people are exploited so that you can have the good stuff. Everybody cannot get the good stuff, not in capitalism, not in its neoliberal form.
When you rant about the awful, cruel Putin, you should understand that Putin is really just a cog in the machine. Of course he gets his part of the benefits. Just like you do. Yes, in Russia like in most parts of the world, people work extremely hard for laughable amounts of money, they don’t have a say in who’s governing them, and when they try to protest, they are likely to get beaten up or arrested — all this so that you, sitting comfortably in your nice little bars and cafés (we don’t have such nice and cheap venues, you know, because small businesses are crushed by high taxes), can abuse the oh so uncivilized, backward Russia and pity the poor poor Russian gays (because everybody keeps forgetting about lesbians: they, that is to say, we, make the picture too complicated).
So don’t try to express solidarity by posting rainbow-coloured church towers or kissing matryoshkas on your Facebook. That’s not solidarity. That’s one more step in perpetuating the world where real Russia doesn’t exist, only stereotypes about Russia. Real Russia is much more complicated than the stereotypes. In the real Russia, people don’t split neatly into Orthodox believers and homosexuals. In fact, the real Russia is multi-religious, and there are lots of atheists, too. It’s also multi-national, the fact that is so easily forgettable when you speak English, not distinguishing between the ethnic identity and the national citizenship (try calling a Tatar Russian!). In the real Russia, there is actually a lot of resistance that isn’t noticed, and a lot of successful resistance that escapes state repressions, there is a lot of LGBT activism aside from those who protest in front of the Duma or in the Red Square, and a lot of (different, wow!) feminists aside from Pussy Riot.
I hate to talk about the Olympics, because it’s exactly like talking about the homophobic law or Pussy Riot. It’s supporting the myths about Russia that you like so much because you don’t want to know anything about the real Russia. No one in the Economic North gives a damn about any country of the Economic South until something really scandalous happens that can fit nicely into the stereotypical image of the barbaric, violent, ignorant, exotic land. But when something like that happens, then cool, let’s push it further, let’s exoticize the country and objectify its inhabitants even more! Let’s make interviews with Russian LGBT teenagers (the poor kids against the monster Putin!), let’s repost pictures of the half-constructed Olympics hotels (these Russians can do nothing right, that’s how uncivilized they are)!
Do you want to know about good ways to show solidarity? Well, I don’t know of any ways for you to do it without risking not feeling good about yourselves. Real solidarity is a nasty business. There are no easy solutions. And I strongly suggest you take some time to feel bad about yourselves for a change. That’s how you make me feel everyday: ashamed for the country I happen to live in, unsure whether I have mastered your language(s) well enough. I am now learning to reclaim my right to speak my own English, and if it’s understandable, then screw the accent and the eventual mistakes. And I am now learning not to accept the responsibility that my ‛Western’ interlocutors have tried to ascribe to me so many times, the responsibility for a government I never chose, for the policy that represses and silences me. I don’t deny I too have privileges compared to many people in Russia as well as elsewhere in the Economic South. But if anything, it’s your responsibility much more than mine. Because you profit from it all much more than I do.
Cheers to you all from a snowy Moscow.
Vera Akulova, queer_feminist.
Here’s an example of the invisible Russia and unnoticed activism: a graffiti against the homophobic law painted one year ago (when the law was still a draft) in a residential district in Moscow. The graffiti says: ‘If your boyfriend is an asshole, live with a girlfriend! There’s nothing wrong with propaganda!’