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Politics and Repression

This article was originally published by Coda Story.

By Leonid Ragozin

When the First Cou­ple of the United States trav­elled to Moscow to se­cure the re­lease of an Amer­i­can ac­tivist jailed un­der Rus­si­a’s gay pro­pa­ganda laws, the cam­paigner up­set their plans. He hanged him­self in his cell rather than pub­licly apol­o­gize for protest­ing, though not be­fore he told the First Lady about dozens of in­car­cer­ated Russ­ian com­rades on hunger strike.

That, at least, was how the scriptwrit­ers of Net­flix’s “House of Cards” portrayed the im­pact of anti-gay leg­is­la­tion in Rus­sia.

The 2012 law, which is os­ten­si­bly aimed at pro­tect­ing chil­dren from “gay pro­pa­ganda,” be­came a cause célèbre in the U.S. and Eu­rope. Cou­pled with the jail­ing of mem­bers of the punk band Pussy Riot, it left lit­tle space for any­thing else in the West­ern me­di­a’s cov­er­age of Rus­sia.

Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin mean­while ini­ti­ated a crack­down on or­ga­nized po­lit­i­cal dis­sent, qui­etly but ef­fec­tively sup­press­ing the protest move­ment that had flared up in De­cem­ber 2011.

The Union of Sol­i­dar­ity with Po­lit­i­cal Pris­on­ers lists 59 peo­ple cur­rently in prison or un­der house ar­rest, and 297 who have been sub­ject to po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated pros­e­cu­tion un­der crim­i­nal law since 2008. The list of pris­on­ers in­cludes na­tion­al­ists, left-wingers, lib­er­als, Is­lamists, pro-Ukrain­ian activists, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, blog­gers, and many oth­ers, but no one has yet been pros­e­cuted specif­i­cally for LGBT ac­tivism.

Rus­si­a’s LGBT ac­tivists have un­doubt­edly suf­fered un­der Putin. But rather than help­ing them, me­dia hype in the West might have helped the Krem­lin to ob­scure the broader pic­ture of po­lit­i­cal re­pres­sion.

Niko­lay Kavkazsky is that rare breed–an LGBT ac­tivist who has seen the in­side of a Russ­ian prison. He spent 12 months in a re­mand cell with three other in­mates in 2012, and was de­clared by Amnesty In­ter­na­tional to be a pris­oner of con­science. Yet there have been no pro­files of him in the Western me­dia, be­cause it was not Kavkazsky’s sex­u­al­ity that in­curred the wrath of the state.

Kavkazsky took part in the Bolot­naya move­ment–a se­ries of mas­sive protests in Moscow that be­gan in De­cem­ber 2011, prompted by Putin’s deci­sion to run for pres­i­dent for the third time. The demon­stra­tions came to a head on May 6, 2012, the day be­fore Putin was due to be in­au­gu­rated.

The May 6 march was head­ing for Bolot­naya Square, which sits on a river is­land op­po­site the Krem­lin. Re­flect­ing the fact the anti-Putin op­po­si­tion en­com­passed a broad spec­trum of forces, the pro­test­ers di­vided themselves into columns, each rep­re­sent­ing a spe­cific po­lit­i­cal flank. There were left-wingers wav­ing red flags, na­tion­al­ists clad in black uni­forms, an­ar­chists wear­ing bal­a­clavas, and the con­sid­er­ably more nu­mer­ous lib­er­als, sport­ing white rib­bons, which be­came syn­ony­mous with the protest.

Kavkazsky joined a small col­umn that went un­der rain­bow flags at the rear­guard of the march. It was com­prised of LGBT ac­tivists, fem­i­nists, and sup­port­ers of Pussy Riot, who had been ar­rested two months ear­lier. Russi­a’s small LGBT move­ment was di­vided at the time. Its most prominent leader, Niko­lay Alek­seyev, chose not to par­tic­i­pate in Bolot­naya move­ment. But other, mostly left-wing LGBT ac­tivists, such as Kavkazsky, were en­thu­si­as­tic.

Shortly be­fore they started mov­ing, the march abruptly stopped. They were stuck for a good hour. Kavkazsky even­tu­ally went to in­ves­ti­gate. When he made it to Bolot­naya Square, he saw riot po­lice bru­tally dis­pers­ing the crowd and de­tain­ing peo­ple in the dozens. “They started beat­ing peo­ple up,” he re­calls. “I could not watch it idly, so I ap­proached the po­lice and asked them to stop their il­le­gal ac­tions.” A riot po­lice­man re­sponded by hit­ting him with a ba­ton. Kavkazsky claims that at this point he raised his leg to pro­tect him­self, an episode that was cap­tured on po­lice cam­era and later used to charge him with at­tack­ing the po­lice.

The sup­pres­sion of the May 6 demon­stra­tion was ex­ten­sively re­ported on by the West­ern me­dia, but they were less good at cov­er­ing what hap­pened next. For Kavkasky, life con­tin­ued as nor­mal un­til July 25, when he went shop­ping and got ar­rested by agents from the In­te­rior Min­istry’s Cen­tre E Di­rec­torate (the E stands for “ex­trem­ism”).

Ac­cord­ing to Kavkazsky, the man who ar­rested him was agent Alek­sey Okopny, a leg­endary per­son­al­ity known to vir­tu­ally every full-time opposition ac­tivist in Moscow for his thug­gish, heavy-handed style. “He did­n’t threaten me di­rectly, but he told me how he had beaten up and tortured peo­ple,” Kavkazsky says. “Guess he hinted that I was fac­ing the same if I did­n’t co­op­er­ate.”

Many of the May 6 pro­test­ers were ar­rested around the same time. The selec­tion of the pris­on­ers seemed quite ran­dom. There were ac­tivists of all shades as well as those who had never at­tended a protest be­fore in their life. Charges were al­most en­tirely based on po­lice video and con­tra­dic­tory tes­ti­monies by riot po­lice­men, who of­ten ap­peared to see the de­fen­dants for the first time in their lives.

Kavkazky says the agent who ar­rested him threat­ened to have him put in to a so-called rooster cell, where the vic­tims of prison rape are clois­tered “since I was a gay ac­tivist.”

But this never came to pass, and the in­ter­roga­tors he sub­se­quently dealt with did­n’t seem to have had a prob­lem with his LGBT ac­tivism, which he dis­cussed with them.

“They some­times ar­gued with me, some­times agreed. They were re­spect­ful and did­n’t threaten me in any way,” he re­calls. Al­most as sur­pris­ingly, his fel­low pris­on­ers did­n’t give him any prob­lems for his LGBT ac­tivism.

Thirty-four peo­ple were pros­e­cuted in the Bolot­naya Square case, of which 21 spent be­tween one and three years in prison.

Kavkasky has since been re­leased on amnesty, but seven Bolot­naya prisoners are still serv­ing sen­tences or await­ing trial. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion is far from over–the last ar­rest in the case took place last De­cem­ber. One of the Bolot­naya pris­on­ers, left-winger Leonid Razvoz­zhayev, was kid­napped in Ukraine and brought over to Rus­sia, where he claims he was tor­tured.

The gay pro­pa­ganda laws, by con­trast, have sent no one to prison. While the “House of Cards” scriptwrit­ers were busily spin­ning hunger-strike scenar­ios, the most any in­di­vid­ual faced from the law was a fine of 5,000 rou­bles (around $67). For le­gal en­ti­ties, such as TV sta­tions or cin­e­mas, it is 1 mil­lion rou­bles ($13,300).

Ac­cord­ing to An­drey Obolen­sky of Rain­bow As­so­ci­a­tion, which mon­i­tors anti-LGBT dis­crim­i­na­tion, only a hand­ful of ac­tivists have even been fined so far, though the laws have been used to shut some or­ga­ni­za­tions down as well as to fire sev­eral school teach­ers in­volved in LGBT ac­tivism.

Sport­ing long hair and a flam­boy­ant, mul­ti­col­ored scarf, Obolen­sky appears to be cel­e­brat­ing rather than con­ceal­ing his iden­tity. But even he must be cau­tious. He does­n’t like peo­ple to know where his of­fice is.

Obolen­sky says that rather than un­leash­ing a wave of re­pres­sion from the au­thor­i­ties, the adop­tion of the anti-gay law al­tered the at­mos­phere in soci­ety, prompt­ing more ho­mo­pho­bic rhetoric, dis­crim­i­na­tion, and vi­o­lent at­tacks on pro-LGBT pro­test­ers by thugs from or­ga­ni­za­tions linked to the Krem­lin and the Russ­ian Or­tho­dox Church. “Ha­tred is be­ing in­cited and the at­ti­tude of so­ci­ety has changed to worse,” he said.

Real though these con­cerns are, they have had a dis­pro­por­tion­ate influence on West­ern me­dia cov­er­age. Over a thou­sand sto­ries were published on the New York Times web­site in­clud­ing the words “Rus­sia” and “gay” be­tween 2011 and the time of writ­ing, while items fea­tur­ing the word “Bolot­naya” num­ber just 67. The ra­tio is 945 against six on CN­N’s web­site. Cer­tain is­sues, Putin has learned, can bump the sup­pres­sion of dis­sent off the news agenda no mat­ter how mar­ginal their ac­tual im­pact.

It’s doubt­ful that those who first started play­ing the LGBT card re­al­ized the ex­tent of its use­ful­ness. The first anti-gay ini­tia­tives emerged in Sep­tem­ber 2011, when Putin de­cided to run for pres­i­dent for the third time. His popular­ity was at a record low. He was ex­pected to en­gage the so­cially conser­v­a­tive part of the elec­torate at the ex­pense of the lib­er­als, who did­n’t want him back.

A law ban­ning gay pro­pa­ganda was adopted in the north­ern Arkhangelsk re­gion four days af­ter Putin an­nounced he was run­ning. On No­v. 16, the city of St. Pe­ters­burg adopted a sim­i­lar law, which caused an an­gry reaction in the West­ern me­dia. But it took an­other few tu­mul­tuous months be­fore the Krem­lin made the LGBT is­sue a cor­ner­stone of its do­mes­tic polit­i­cal strat­egy.

In No­vem­ber 2011, Putin’s long-time ally Vladimir Yakunin, who headed Russ­ian Rail­ways at the time, took an an­cient Chris­t­ian Or­tho­dox relic known as the Vir­gin’s Belt and kept in a Greek monastery on Mt. Athos, on a tour of Rus­sia. As it reached Moscow, around a mil­lion peo­ple braved the bit­ter cold weather, queu­ing for up to eight hours only to spend a few sec­onds mar­vel­ling at it in­side the Cathe­dral of Christ the Sav­iour.

The par­lia­men­tary elec­tion took place just a few days later, on De­c. 4. Mon­i­tors rep­re­sent­ing anti-Putin groups un­cov­ered gross vi­o­la­tions, in­clud­ing bal­lot stuff­ing and peo­ple be­ing bussed from one polling sta­tion to an­other in or­der to vote mul­ti­ple times. The out­cry on so­cial net­works sparked a se­ries of ral­lies, most of which took place in Bolot­naya Square (where Kavkasky would find him­self in the midst of a crack­down six months later).

Un­prece­dented though they were, these ral­lies were draw­ing no more than 100,000 peo­ple–a far cry from the con­ser­v­a­tive crowd that lined up to see the re­li­gious relic just across the river. It was im­me­di­ately ev­i­dent which ide­o­log­i­cal par­a­digm served as a bet­ter tool of mo­bi­liza­tion. A war of values was born.

Putin set the nar­ra­tive for his pro­pa­ganda ma­chine by hint­ing that all of the peo­ple in Bolot­naya Square were gay ac­tivists. Dur­ing a live broad­cast on De­c. 15, he men­tioned the white rib­bons which be­came the move­men­t’s in­signia: “I thought it was some kind of an anti-HIV cam­paign, that they were con­tra­cep­tives.”

Pussy Riot crys­tal­lized Putin’s strat­egy. The pre­vi­ously ob­scure all-fe­male col­lec­tive shot to fame in Jan­u­ary 2012 by di­rectly in­sult­ing the pres­i­dent in a song called “Putin Wet Him­self,” which sug­gested that the protests made him panic. The gov­ern­ment chose to ig­nore it.

But in Feb­ru­ary, Pussy Riot stormed the cathe­dral the Greek relic had been dis­played in and sang a song called “God’s mother, get rid of Putin.” The au­thor­i­ties de­cided to ar­rest them. The stunt cre­ated reams of outstandingly rich ma­te­r­ial for the Krem­lin’s pub­lic re­la­tions war.

Im­ages of one of their ear­lier protest ac­tions, in which they im­i­tated sex inside a mu­seum, were splashed across the pro Krem­lin tabloid me­dia. Words like “sac­ri­lege” and “blas­phemy” in­ter­spersed with juicy im­ages filled TV broad­casts and news­pa­pers. A poll con­ducted by the in­de­pen­dent re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion Lev­ada Cen­tre at the end of the same month showed that 46 percent of Rus­sians ap­proved of them be­ing jailed for any­thing be­tween two and seven years, as en­vis­aged by the Russ­ian crim­i­nal code.

It was at that time that a fed­eral law ban­ning gay pro­pa­ganda was introduced in Rus­si­a’s State Duma, prompt­ing an up­roar in the West that ren­dered the stand­off be­tween Putin and de­mo­c­ra­tic op­po­si­tion insignificant by com­par­i­son. The word­ing of the draft and the very no­tion of gay pro­pa­ganda seemed so vague that many at the time won­dered how the law would even be en­forced af­ter adop­tion.

Kir­ill Petrov, a Russ­ian po­lit­i­cal ex­pert who works at Minchenko Consulting, a group that ad­vises many pro-Krem­lin clients, de­scribes such laws as “heat flares”–the in­frared de­vices that war­planes fire to avoid being shot by mis­siles. “It’s a rou­tine prac­tice,” he says. “A law comes up, which on the face of it makes no sense and can’t re­ally be im­ple­mented, but it helps to cover up some­thing more sig­nif­i­cant, such as an un­pop­u­lar eco­nomic mea­sure or a po­lit­i­cal protest.”

Not all of the pro-Krem­lin MPs saw the point of the law. “We are dis­cussing is­sues that pro­voke mass in­ter­est be­cause they have to do with phys­i­ol­ogy. I don’t think they should be our pri­or­ity,” MP Vladimir Ovsyan­nikov said dur­ing the de­bates.

The mass in­ter­est only grew. It took al­most a year for the Duma to pass the anti-gay leg­is­la­tion (in­fi­nitely more than other re­pres­sive laws), with every new step in the dis­cus­sion cre­at­ing furor in both Russ­ian and West­ern media. Pub­lic fig­ures from Madonna to El­ton John joined in the cho­rus con­demn­ing Rus­si­a’s treat­ment of gays. Me­dia cov­er­age of the is­sue reached its peak in the run up to Putin’s show­case 2014 Win­ter Olympics in Sochi. Such was the fer­vor of the at­mos­phere that some West­ern gay ath­letes feared for their safety, much to the be­muse­ment of Rus­sians.

Po­lit­i­cal protests car­ried on through­out this time, but seemed to be los­ing mo­men­tum. Peo­ple were in­tim­i­dated by a whole host of new laws clamping down on po­lit­i­cal dis­sent. The tri­als of the Bolot­naya pris­on­ers played out unglam­ourously.

Maria Baronova, once an un­of­fi­cial spokesper­son for the protest move­ment who nar­rowly avoided im­pris­on­ment in the Bolot­naya case, says the fuss over the gay pro­pa­ganda law was largely spurred by do­mes­tic agen­das in the U.S. and Eu­rope. “Putin fit­ted neatly into the im­age of the bad foreign guy who hates the gays,” she says. Baronova is pro-LGBT and was actively in­volved in de­fend­ing Pussy Riot.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Putin and gay rights ad­vo­cates in the West is a piece of po­lit­i­cal the­ater wor­thy of “House of Cards.”

Left out of the script are the real po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, peo­ple like Il­dar Dadin. Last De­cem­ber, Dadin was sen­tenced un­der the new dra­con­ian law on pub­lic as­sem­blies to three years in prison for a se­ries of one-man protests against the war in Ukraine and sup­pres­sion of the op­po­si­tion. He also hap­pens to be an LGBT ac­tivist, but this is ir­rel­e­vant to his imprisonment. Will Madonna and El­ton John speak out for him?

*****

*****

Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Riga, Latvia.

[Photo by Pascal Dumont]

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