Friday 7 February 2014

From Russia... with love?

The Winter Olympics are about to get underway in Sochi. This is a huge moment not only for Russia, which will take centre stage over the coming weeks, but also Putin. The Russian leader has invested heavily in bringing these games to Sochi. Not only has he thrown money at it, as he did for Eurovision in 2009, even visiting the arena during rehearsals, Putin actively wooed the Olympic committee even delivering a speech in (mainly phonetic) English. These are interesting times for Russia, these games are an opportunity for the country to manage its own image on its own terms. However could the long list of controversies which have come to the foreground cast a shadow over the events in Sochi? 

There is an argument that allowing countries with dubious democratic credentials offers legitimacy to regimes. Look at the Olympics in Beijing, Eurovision in Azerbaijan, and of course Sochi. There is a risk that in hosting such media spectacles serious questions concerning human rights and freedom of speech are all to often swept aside in a blizzard of glitter, pomp and ceremony. However, inversely, by hosting large-scale events, governments set themselves up for scrutiny. In the case of Russia, Azerbaijan, China (and many others) this means that a spotlight is shone on the issues in the country. If it wasn't for Eurovision taking place in Baku in 2012 the international community would not have engaged in such a robust dialogue about human rights and the state of democracy in Azerbaijan. Similarly, with Russia hosting the Winter Olympics, questions have been raised about the anti-gay laws which are now being enforced in Russia. Without Sochi those issues might not have come to the global, mainstream media to such an extent.

The issues facing LGBT people in Russia are serious and very alarming. By othering the gay community, linking them to peadophiles, it draws attention away from other issues. Where there's a scapegoat, governments can literally get away with murder, as the cruel hand of history has shown many many times. Many LGBT people in Russia welcome the Winter Olympics, it's opened up a dialogue among the international community on equality and freedom, really for the first time since the collapse of the USSR. Let's not forget that there are other challenges in Russia, and around the world; racism and Islamophobia is rife in the country, legitimised by Putin's crackdown in hotspots such as Chechnya as part of the global "war on terror".

Russia is a complex, fascinating and contradictory country. The laws in Russia, which are essentially fostering and legitimising hate crimes are causing real harm to LGBT people and their friends. Such laws are not befitting of the many wonderful and hospitable people I met in Russia. They're a downright embarrassment. However, there is a strong, albeit increasingly underground movement which is holding the Russian government accountable. There are also vibrant and strong gay scenes in many Russian cities, providing a safe haven for those under threat. In the UK, and other countries, where gay people are equal, in terms of the law, if not in practice, it's all too easy to forget the major struggles and freedoms which were hard won. What can be done? Should the international community boycott Sochi? Russia? I don't think so. Whilst I understand the arguments for this, by staying away, effectively dismissing the country, nothing really changes. In Azerbaijan I met with several human rights activists, who felt it was incredibly important that the international community visit the country to see things for themselves. Several campaigns have gone viral - the Canadian Institute for Diversity and Inclusion for example, as well as Google's rainbow flag colours, these will undoubtedly make Putin and his friends cringe. Good. Let's continue to support people fighting for freedom of equality. Anti-gay laws work by spreading fear and suspicion, let's show people that we aren't any different from anyone else. Let's shine that torch on these issues through the prism of large-scale events such as the Winter Olympics. Let's make them squirm!

Debates concerning homophobia are very much alive in the EU too of course. Recent developments in Ireland show that issues of representation, equality and freedom of speech continue to be a source of consternation. The well-known Dublin drag queen, Panti Bliss, gave a rousing speech last week and raised an point which is very much at the heart of the issue. How many gay people "check" themselves? Either making sure they don't act or look "too gay", or ensure that they don't show affection to partners in public, through fear that they might be hassled or get strange looks? I know I'm guilty of this. Psychologically such compartmentalised behaviour could be potentially damaging. It's oppression in a sense, it might not be the same as other countries, but it's still there. Worth bearing in mind when debates arise concerning the need for Gay Pride, or torrid tales emerge from Russia and other countries. Perhaps we need to think a little more about what's going on around us, and also, perhaps more difficultly, look a little closer to home.

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