At the close of the Sochi Olympics this winter, international media lauded Russia’s success in running such a huge sporting event. Throughout the closing ceremonies, wonder at Russian culture, athleticism, and power shone in every spectator’s eyes. Some went so far as to suggest that this year’s Olympics might have implications for oppressed minorities in Russia.
Unfortunately, though the ballerinas and violinists were beautiful, this last joyous exclamation now appears to have been false hope. Continued violence – such as an altercation last week in Siberia that left students and teachers badly injured – reveal the ugly truth: sexual and gender minorities in Russia continue to live in a very real state of terror.
Anti-LGBT+ legislation in Russia has long been considered standard. Russian law takes an aggressive stance against “gay propaganda” – a nebulous term that may include anything from kissing to gathering in protest – under the pretense of “protecting its children”. Under several laws affirming this position, any Russian court that can prove use of “gay propaganda” is fully capable of detaining or excessively fining LGBT+ individuals or organizations. These propaganda laws are only some of the hundreds of legal barriers on living as an LGBT+ person in Russia.
Cultural aversions to LGBT+ people are a large part of Russia’s problem. Those will take longer to resolve, but the Olympic hope stems from another reform-inhibiting factor- lack of international focus on Russia’s oppressed minorities.
The Olympic Games in Sochi this winter guaranteed an international audience to the atrocities committed in Russia every day. Human rights groups held out hope that governmental agencies might feel compelled to intervene. The international community took notice of its host country, and for a short time a decent opposition to Russia’s anti-LGBT+ laws began to grow. Prominent writers from all over the world published critiques of Vladimir Putin’s discriminatory legislature. As the Sochi Olympics progressed, pressure continued to build on the Russian government to repeal its anti-LGBT+ policies.
The incident last week, however, gives some insight on how well the international authors’ letters have worked. A Siberian flash mob on Saint Patrick’s Day, with no affiliation to LGBT+ activism, was verbally and physically attacked because members were mistaken for LGBT+ rights activists. The assailants were not associated with the Russian law enforcement; however, had the students and teachers actually been LGBT+ activists, the local police would no doubt have stepped in to help beat them up. Abuse on the level of killing or severely injuring LGBT+ people or allies remains completely legal in Russia. International media seem to have ceased to care when they packed their bags and cameras and left Sochi. Angry writers’ words fall on deaf Russian ears and hang, useless, on pieces of paper that cannot defend human rights. LGBT+ Russians suffer and die daily in this post-Sochi world.
Perhaps the international media and scholars think themselves successful. Perhaps they pat each other on the back, proclaiming that “they have solved all the gay Russians’ problems!” Perhaps they haven’t left because they don’t care about the problems in Russia, but worse yet – because they think they’ve fixed them.
If that is why they have left Russia to wallow in inequality, the LGBT+ plight in a post-Sochi world is worse than it was to begin with – not necessarily because conditions have gotten worse, but because the rest of the world believes they have gotten better. The international community has turned its self-satisfied back on the still-suffering, still-dying LGBT+ people of Russia. Who knows, now, when all Russian individuals might be guaranteed basic human rights?