The mayor of Sochi, Anatoly Pakhomov, recently claimed that the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics has no gay people. Thanks in large part to international LGBT activism, the dangerous affront to human rights that is Russia’s ban on the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors has flooded the democratic consciousness. The Games open today, and major corporate sponsors like McDonalds and Coca Cola have faced a backlash over their continued support of Russia and alleged use of anti-gay marketing campaigns. Calls for boycotts, high profile snubs from heads of state, and LGBT-heavy Olympic delegations have succeeded in forcing Russian officials to address the status of gay citizens and visitors to the country.
President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly assured international audiences that gay people are not discriminated against, that they are not treated as second-class citizens. Pakhomov asserts that gays are welcome to the Olympic Games and that gay people don’t have to hide their sexuality in the city. Evidence shows, however, a very different story. Throughout the country, the anti-gay law has become a means of depriving individuals of their personal freedoms and threatens to tear families apart. In effect, the law has granted a blanket amnesty to vigilantes, neo-Nazis and police to harass, brutally beat, torture and kill LGBT people.
Putin’s call for the ‘clean[ing] up’ of the LGBT ‘impediment’ to healthy national growth is harrowing in its clear allusions to Hitler’s ethnic cleansing in pursuit of a ‘purer’ German race. But historical precedents don’t stop there. As comical as Pakhomov’s statement might seem – its sheer ridiculousness – a cursory look to the recent past reveals signs of what such claims promise. Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced in 2007 that there were no gay people in his country. Not long after, photographs went viral of gay men being hanged in the streets. In 1943, Joseph Goebbels surprised Hitler for his birthday with a Berlin free from Jews. The seismic destruction of the Holocaust, which saw six million Jews perish along with five million other ‘undesirables’, is as incomprehensible today as it was nearly seventy years ago.
This has all happened before. The rhetoric being used in Russia today is the same that is being used around the world to incite hatred and justify discrimination. It is the same language that was used to propagate one of the greatest human tragedies the world has ever seen. The international community has an abysmal record on the prevention of crimes against humanity: one need only look to the Nazis, to Cambodia, to Rwanda, Kosovo and Darfur. Yet here we have a unique opportunity. The signposts are visible and the world has taken notice. Rising furore has forced Russia to acknowledge international concerns. It has forced Putin and his government on the defensive. Repeatedly citing freedom, non-discrimination and human rights proves that they are susceptible to pressure. However, that won’t last long.
Under Putin, we have seen Russia lurching towards a Soviet state of mind. Homosexuality has been lambasted as a corrosive Western, European import. Ukraine has devolved into a Cold-War-style battle between West and East; each side is simply playing under a new name – the European Union and Russia rather than NATO and the USSR. Putin has made it clear that he plans to steer Russia along a Russian path, which he distinguishes from a Europe now free from legislation criminalising homosexuality. Concern with international opinion and perception comes down to his need to make his estimated $50 billion Olympic Games a success. Once the medals have been tallied, Putin will walk away with heightened estimation abroad and at home, and he’ll have a freer hand to pursue his political agenda. History tells us what fate awaits Russia’s LGBT community if the world doesn’t take a stand now. Blood has already been spilt, and it won’t be easy to rectify the skewed image of gay people that is being so forcefully promulgated in Russia, but with action there is hope in preventing the escalation of this looming human tragedy.