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Q&A: Sochi 2014, Russia’s Gays and the Jewish Response

By Josh Tapper

The White House announced earlier this week it will not send President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama or Vice President Joe Biden as part of the U.S. delegation to the Sochi Winter Olympics next February. Instead, the delegation will include two openly gay athletes, including tennis great Billie Jean King. The snub is not entirely surprising, and represents an obvious, yet subtle, stand against the Kremlin’s treatment of gay people, notably a controversial law passed over the summer making it illegal to spread “homosexual propaganda” to minors. German President Joachim Gauck and French President François Hollande have also backed out of Sochi, and while a full-fledged Olympic boycott is unlikely, the high-profile rebuffs are a significant salvo in the international community’s ongoing condemnation of Russia’s treatment of its LGBT community. With the Games just over two months away, Moment talked to Yelena Goltsman, executive director of RUSA LGBT, a support group for Russian-speaking gay people in the United States, about the origins of President Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay policies, whether a comparison can be drawn to Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany and the efficacy of a Sochi boycott.

Yelena's head shot - largeFor those unfamiliar with Russian politics—and the way society has functioned since Vladimir Putin came to power—but see Russia as a growing economy with increasingly Western cultural norms, the anti-LGBT policies seem backward, if not downright shocking. Where did they come from?

It starts with Putin, whose recent reelection [as president in 2012, for a third term after four years as prime minister] was widely seen as rigged. In response, there were huge civil disobedience-style protests. From that point on, Putin has felt that everything done against him is also done against Russia. The regime has therefore become harsher, and when a regime becomes harsh you need scapegoats.

There are three groups of scapegoats that are clear in Russia right now: One is gays, another is migrant workers and the third is the West, in general. The Western-minded Russian intelligentsia has rejected Putin, and his response has been to withdraw from a Western-oriented worldview and move toward “traditional values” based on Russian Orthodoxy.

And this invocation of “traditional values” is a relatively recent phenomenon, correct, even in post-Soviet terms?

For many years, those traditional values weren’t upheld—and are no longer upheld—by many people in Russia. For example, Russia has a very high rate of aborted pregnancies and a very high rate of divorce, so it’s not a traditional country in the way that some Muslim countries are. But Russia wants to withdraw from the West, and they’ve picked gay marriage and gay issues, which they see as part of the West’s value system. It’s a very easy target in a country that has basically no education in this matter. Russians’ attention is being diverted to the issue of homosexuality in terms of protecting their children.

Right. Over the summer, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko caused a stir when he mentioned homosexuality in the same sentence as drugs and alcohol, as something Russians should keep their kids away from.

Often enough, people talk about homosexuals, drug dealers, alcoholics and pedophiles all in one sentence. For Russians, pedophilia and homosexuality is very similar in their minds. But the law won’t protect children. It’ll hurt gay children because kids growing up with this will only know that there’s something mentally wrong with them.

British actor Stephen Fry, who’s gay and Jewish, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee, comparing the Kremlin’s anti-gay law to Jewish persecution under the Nazis. While some have called the comparison a stretch, others have been emboldened by it in their calls for a full-fledged boycott. Treatment of gays in Russia has also been compared to the persecution of Soviet Jews. Is it appropriate to make these comparisons? 

I don’t think Nazi Germany it’s a far-fetched comparison. They’re very different because we know the atrocities that happened after the Nuremburg Laws came into effect in Germany had greater consequences for Jews than the oppression of Soviet Jewry—although as a part of it, I will tell you it was oppressive! But do I think we can compare what is happening right now to the human and civil rights of gay people in Russia to what happened in Germany? Yes, we can. What happened in Germany progressed rapidly. What is happening in Russia is a rapid progression of taking away the rights of citizens and basing it on the protection of another group of citizens. We can’t just take it lightly, because the next step will be an escalation of the step that came before. Again, I don’t think it’s far-fetched, and we all hope it won’t go there. I do believe the critical difference is that the world is not standing silent.

That may be true, but I think it’s fair to say at this point there won’t be a large-scale boycott of the Sochi Olympics. The IOC is reluctant to enter the fray. And Russian officials have simply brushed off the criticisms and concerns.

I don’t agree with you on your statement about a boycott—it probably depends what we mean. If we say, “boycott,” from the point of view that the Games will not be Sochi, I would agree with you. It’s too late. But there are many other ways of expressing solidarity with gay people in Russia, still using the Olympics. I’m hoping dignitaries won’t go to Sochi, or send less important executives to be there. Another way is not going to the Olympics as a visitor. Without boycotting, countries can let Putin know that what he’s doing is something we don’t tolerate. The eyes of the world are usually on the country that holds the Games. This is a really good opportunity to raise awareness of what’s happening in Russia.

Aside from a few institutions, the Jewish community has been silent on the issue. Do Jews have a moral obligation or responsibility to act or speak out against the Kremlin or the Sochi Olympics?

As with any civil rights issue, Jews have an obligation to seek a higher ground because of what was done to us. We shouldn’t turn our backs and not look at what’s happening to other people, whether it be in the United States, Israel, Russia—we must always remember we can’t be Jews of silence anymore. We have to make it known that we will not let atrocities take place again, that we’ll always be on the side of justice. I’m sure other nationalities and other religions also have this obligation, but I’m a Jew and I’m speaking from where I’m sitting. What we’re really saying is: “Let’s not forget what happened to us, but let’s also not let it happen to anybody.”

About Josh Tapper

One comment

  1. The emphasis on homosexual rights in opposing the Sochi Olympics seems an odd priority. Russia is not a modern western country, so such relatively new non-traditional views will take a few more decades. Their views are similar to those in the U.S. as recently as the 1980s.

    On the other hand, we should be encouraging not traveling to or watching the Olympics because of Putin’s personal history as a murderer and his virulent anti-American and anti-Western activities and values. As a young KGB officer, he participated in putting down the 1968 Prague Spring. As a KGB general, he led the violent sacking of Chechnya in their legitimate effort to throw off Russian colonization. The result of his cruelty has been to exacerbate Muslim extremism in that part of the world. Putin has ended the minimal press freedom of Russia, and has led vast corruption to assure his KGB buddies have economic interest in major industries. Those actions would seem to be the best reason to dismiss the Sochi games.

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