Russian civil society is viciously imploding
The great Jeff Sharlet on being gay in Russia in 2014.
I went to Moscow and St. Petersburg for two weeks in November because the Olympics were coming to Russia, and for a brief moment it seemed possible that the outside world was interested in the unraveling of civil society in one of the most powerful countries on the globe. Books are being banned—Burroughs and Baudelaire and Huxley's Brave New World—immigrants hunted, journalists killed, a riot-grrrl band, Pussy Riot, imprisoned for almost two years for playing a "Punk Prayer" in a Moscow cathedral; blasphemy is now illegal. Civil society isn't just coming undone; it's imploding. I wanted to visit the bottom of the heap. The golubye. The blues, which in Russia is another word for queer—any way of being other than "Russian," which, under President Vladimir Putin, has become a kind of sexual orientation. I wanted to see what ordinary LGBT life was like in a nation whose leaders have decided that "homosexualism" is a threat to its "sexual sovereignty," that "genderless tolerance," in Putin's words, is a disease of the West that Russia will cure. The medicine is that of "traditional values," a phrase, ironically, imported from the West, grafted onto a deeply conformist strain of nationalism. In Russia, that means silence and violence, censorship, and in its shadow, much worse.
One of the first men I met was Alex, a gay police officer who'd recently quit his job rather than enforce Russia's new anti-gay law. He wasn't always so principled: One of Alex's early assignments on the force was snooping through a fellow officer's computer for evidence of homosexuality. "I was just lucky it wasn't my computer," Alex said one night at a caf� on Arbat Street, Moscow's main thoroughfare of consumer hipsterism.
His boyfriend wasn't as glib: "It's Germany in the '30s," he declared. "Hush, hush," Alex said. "Not so loud." It's not Germany in the '30s, he said; it's Russia now. And that's a subtler problem.
Yes, there are killings. In May, a 23-year-old man in Volgograd allegedly came out to a group of friends, who raped him with beer bottles and smashed his skull in with a stone; and in June a group of friends in Kamchatka kicked and stabbed to death a 39-year-old gay man, then burned the body. There's a national network called Occupy Pedophilia, whose members torture gay men and post hugely popular videos of their "interrogations" online. There are countless smaller, bristling movements, with names presumptuous (God's Will) or absurd (Homophobic Wolf). There are babushkas who throw stones, and priests who bless the stones, and police who arrest their victims.
But such people exist everywhere, said Alex. The difference in Russia now is who's standing behind them.