James Kirchick

Sochi Olympics: Why picking on gays has backfired so horribly for Vladimir Putin

This time, Russia's thuggish president has picked on the wrong minority

Sochi Olympics: Why picking on gays has backfired so horribly for Vladimir Putin
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After all the fuss, the billions spent, the calls for boycotts and so on, the Sochi Winter Olympics will begin next week. Given the incredibly low expectations, the Russian Games may even be judged a success — as long as the weather stays cold and no terrorist attack takes place. But Vladimir Putin should not be too smug, because his broader campaign against homosexuality has backfired spectacularly.

The Russian President’s decision to sign a law prohibiting ‘the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors’ last summer probably made sense to him at the time. This measure, along with one that bans the adoption of Russian children not just by homosexuals but also by heterosexuals residing in countries that have gay marriage on the books, is reportedly supported by 74 per cent of Russians. And Putin has for years been able to get away with much worse: invading (and still occupying) Georgia, fuelling Assad’s murder machine, rigging elections, jailing journalists and opposition activists. Other than the odd bleat of protest from the European Union or US State Department, all that has had few serious consequences.

But Putin can’t have anticipated the magnitude of worldwide outrage that would pour forth in response to his gay propaganda law. It has earned Moscow more uniformly negative media coverage than practically anything Putin has done since assuming power in 2000. Anti-Kremlin gay protests have taken place across the world. There’s now a long list of foreign dignitaries not going to Sochi. It will be the first time since 2000 that America has not sent a president, first lady, vice president or former president to an Olympics. The presidents of Germany, France and Moldova, and the prime ministers of Canada and Belgium, have also let it be known that they won’t be going. No one admits that the decision was politically motivated, but there are small signs that western leaders tacitly support Stephen Fry, who called for ‘an absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics’.

Progressive countries have pointedly chosen openly gay athletes to represent them at the opening and closing ceremonies. We should expect demonstrations of gay pride, not dissimilar to Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute at the 1968 Games in Mexico.

The conductor Valery Gergiev, an outspoken Putin supporter, recently felt the brunt of anti-Kremlin feeling in New York when activists disrupted concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera in October. At Gergiev’s opening performance with the London Symphony Orchestra the following month, a tuxedoed Peter Tatchell strode onto the stage and implored the audience to ‘oppose tyranny and show your support for the Russian people’ before being whisked away.

Funnily enough, the Carnegie programme featured three Stravinsky ballets commissioned by the homosexual Ballet Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev, while the Met performed Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky, another friend of Dorothy. But Russia seems to be in a state of official denial about the gayness of its cultural figures. The country’s troglodytic culture minister has denied Tchaikovsky’s well-documented homosexuality, and the screenwriter of a new state-funded film about the composer told a newspaper that Tchaikovsky was merely ‘a person without a family who was stuck with the opinion that he supposedly loves men’.

Putin need only have studied his country’s treatment of Jews during the Soviet era to see what happens when the Russian government oppresses a minority group with a global diaspora of outsized cultural and political influence. In the 1970s and 1980s, the cause of Soviet Jewry became a major headache for Russian leaders, particularly during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who never let a meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev pass without some insistence on the right of Jews to emigrate. The plight of the Soviet refuseniks symbolised for millions of people around the world the cruel and foul system that was Soviet communism. It would be too much to say that this issue won the Cold War for the West. But it certainly played an important role.

Even Putin has realised that he has to dial down his homophobia. His recent interview with Andrew Marr, in which he declared that he has gay friends and said that gays are welcome in Sochi, was a clear attempt to defuse the situation in the run-up to the Games — though he rather spoilt it by adding the proviso that homosexuals should ‘leave children alone’, which is a bit like inviting a black family into one’s home and then greeting them  with a warning that they mustn’t make off with the silver.

While it’s been nice to watch opposition to Russia’s new tsar gather strength in the West, there’s something a little obnoxious in seeing so many liberals belatedly jump on the anti-Putin bandwagon. The crowd now calling for a boycott of the Winter Olympics and sounding positively Thatcheresque in their denunciations of Moscow were the same people who, during the last presidential election campaign, mocked Mitt Romney as an old-fashioned Cold Warrior for saying that Russia was ‘America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe’. That statement was as wise then as it is now: there is hardly any issue, from the Arctic Circle to Venezuela, in which Russia isn’t attempting to stymie the West.

Moreover, as bad as things have become for gay people in Russia, they are hardly the most downtrodden group in that benighted land. In October, a Moscow mob perpetrated what can only be described as a good old-fashioned Russian pogrom against migrant workers, calling for a Motherland cleansed of Central Asians and people from the Caucuses. Racial hatred is hardly new to Russia, of course, and in recent years Putin and his cronies have cynically fuelled it. Unfortunately, Uzbek and Tajik and Kyrgyz immigrants do not have a Stephen Fry.

Regardless, anything that draws attention to the ugliness of what is happening in Russia today is welcome. It’s for this reason that, invited last summer by the Kremlin’s international broadcaster RT (formerly Russia Today) to discuss the sentencing of Bradley Manning, I decided instead to buckle on a pair of rainbow braces and hijack the discussion. My two minute and 30 second harangue about the inhumanity of the anti-gay laws and my scolding the RT employees (who now count George Galloway as a colleague) for taking Putin’s blood money probably did not change any minds in the Kremlin. But it certainly raised some awareness in the West — where RT is disturbingly popular — about the threat Putin poses on so many fronts. Not long after, a New York opera critic asked me if she could borrow my braces for the Met’s opening night.

James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative.