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The Russian Question: Why?

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Last Saturday I attended the 'UK Supports LGBT Russia Protest' at Whitehall in London. It was one of the more colourful protests that seems to have occurred down the Downing Street way in recent years. A carnivalesque array of drag queens, Union Jacks painted pink, pictures of Putin in gaudy makeup and a myriad of rainbow flags greeted the eye. Why has the LGBT community centred its symbolism, its international iconography, so intrinsically around use of colour? It seems that it's, in part, about visibility.

Up to the second half of the twentieth century the homosexual was a hidden character in society; up to and even after adolescence young gay people still hide away their sexualities; it is quite probable that there are some men and women living in Britain today married to straight spouses who may yet have kept themselves hidden under years-long masquerades. Who may intend to do so to the day they die. Hence, I feel, the colour for the gay community that is out; it says no more hiding. And perhaps the rainbow, with its array of colours together, is a hope or a wish for integrity.

This claim, or preoccupation, on visibility may explain some of the widespread fury that has flared up across the globe over the 'anti-gay propaganda laws' that have been instigated by Vladimir Putin's regime in Russia. These laws which ban the promotion of 'non-traditional sexual relationships' to minors under the age of eighteen, effectively gag and deny the existence of homosexuality and the LGBT community. To even say the word 'gay' on the street when children are near could land you with a fine or a jail sentence; it makes Russian citizens scared of a word and through that, a people.

As if to make up for this enforced silence, the world is now talking about Russia. This furore has been heightened by two, or possibly three, major events: the upcoming Winter Olympics at Sochi turning global eyes to how gay athletes and visitors to the country will be treated under these laws, and also the fact that the gay community of Russia has not simply lain down and taken this attempted denial of their existence with tail between legs. Gay Prides and demonstrations organised against the law in Moscow and beyond have resulted in alarming pictures of violence and brutality, which have gone viral across the internet.

The reactions to these pictures weren't just from galvanised Western liberals though, and the website that put them together, Buzzfeed, even went so far as to amass together the comments it received from Russian citizens to its previous post, illustrating the extent to which homophobia has instigated itself into the people there. A typical example reading: 'If you were be gay... be it. But not in Russia.' (There were in fact many more far worse than this).

But why is Russia acting in this way? Is it evidence of a need for oppression woven into the fabric of the Russian people's lives, or is there something deeper, more political, behind this law and the scapegoating of its gay citizens? When Vladimir Putin signed this bill into law on the 30th June of this year, he told a band of Finnish reporters who question him: 'We ask you not to interfere in our governance.' More recently, the Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva made the statement: 'It's unrespectful [sic] to our country, it's unrespectful [sic] to our citizens, because we are Russians, Maybe we are different from European people and other people from different lands.' If you read the comments made by Russian citizens on the Buzzfeed piece mentioned above, you may have noticed the amount of anti-American sentiment that sat side by side with the bigotry invoked.

I would wager that the third reason for global, and particularly American, focus upon the Russian situation could well be the recent offer of asylum Russia made to US whistleblower Edward Snowden. Would Barack Obama have spoken out so publicly against Russia's abuse of gay rights and cancelled his political visit to the country, if this event had not happened? It underlines tensions between the two countries that may still tremor back through the past to the Cold War years. I first reported on the possibility of Russian LGBT citizens being potentially used by President Putin as pawns in a bigger game in an article I wrote for QX Magazine a year ago when the anti-gay propaganda bill was being passed in St Petersburg. It does not seem coincidental that when Hilary Clinton made her historic speech 'LGBT rights are human rights' on 7th Dec, 2011, the very next day Vladimir Putin made grave accusations against her of attempting to incite political unrest amongst his opponents on the streets of Russia.

Stephen Fry, who was in attendance at last weekend's protest, says of Putin that 'the fanatical junior KGB officer Vladimir Putin will become, if he is allowed to get away with it, as autocratic as any Tsar or any Soviet chairman.' Let us not forget that Vladimir Putin's grip on power has been dogged by constant accusations of fraudulent votes and rigged elections. Russia is in the G8, it has the eighth largest economy in the world, but the majority of its wealth is confined to an elite few and 16.1% of the population live in poverty; the people are both poor and angry. We have just lived through an Arab Spring where autocratic despots have been toppled in Syria, Libya and Egypt; revolution was globally in the air. It's hardly likely that Putin would have failed to have noticed this.

And with this sudden law, gay people become the symbol of everything that is wrong with modern Russia. They are the symbol of Western moral degeneration, a threat to the traditional Russian way of life. Their debasement is to blame for your disgruntlement.

If those homophobic comments on Buzzfeed relay anything positive at all it's that it appears some of the Russian people are reading Western articles on their politics. Perhaps we should be trying to open the their eyes to the fact that LGBT people are not their enemy; if there is a threat, it lies far above their streets where they can no longer say the word gay. Believe in the power of free speech.