How we can halt Putin's war on gays

Putin’s war on gays is a noxious combination of the authoritarianism of the former USSR and the social conservatism of the Church. And we must keep paying attention to it.

First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist”: so begins Martin Niemöller’s haunting critique of the German intellectuals who looked on while the Nazis rose to power. Who, 80 years later, is speaking out while Russia comes for its LGBT population?

There’s clearly a voice for gay rights within Russia, as harrowing images of bloodied activists are becoming increasingly common. Since Stephen Fry’s impassioned open letter to David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee, calling for the fastapproaching Winter Olympics to be pulled out of Sochi, protesters have been piling pressure on the Games’ sponsors to withdraw funding. One online petition, demanding that Coca-Cola speak out against Russia’s anti-gay laws, gained 350,000 signatures in October.

It’s hard to say whether Fry’s letter acted as a catalyst for the ongoing condemnation of Russia’s right to host the Games but his comparison of the crackdown on gay rights with anti-Semitic legislation passed by the Nazis was certainly powerful. Comparisons to Nazism are usually idle and misplaced, but in this case likening the dead-eyed Putin to Hitler couldn’t be more apt.

In Russia, supposedly a progressive democracy, new anti-gay legislation is opening the way for a state in which LGBT people are tortured to death, while the authorities do nothing. In a series of bills pushed through the Duma, Putin has criminalised “homosexual propaganda”.

You need only to Google Putin and take a look at his devastatingly camp shirtless photos to see the irony in this (in Russia anyone who “looks gay” – cough – is committing an arrestable offence). With their perpetrators safe from prosecution, homophobic attacks have become routine in Russia.

Many of these are carried out by neo-Nazi gangs who are leading a campaign called “Occupy Paedophilia”. (Russia has a bizarre history of confusing love between members of the same sex with child molestation; in 1933, Stalin outlawed homosexuality for this very reason. Mind you, this is a man who also thought that Holland and the Netherlands were two separate countries.)

Homosexuality was first outlawed by Tsar Peter the Great in the 18th century. It was decriminalised by Lenin shortly after the 1917 Russian Revolution, then recriminalised by Stalin. In 1993, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin decriminalised homosexuality for the second time. The common factor in Russia’s intermittent scapegoating of LGBT people is a desire to buddy up to the Orthodox Church – even in the case of Stalin, some historians have argued. Putin’s war on gays is a noxious combination of the authoritarianism of the former USSR and the social conservatism of the Church.

All calls to withdraw the Winter Olympics from Sochi have been ignored and the games are set to open in February next year. When it comes to gay rights abuses, Russia is in effect a truculent toddler being handed a lollipop by a dishevelled and jaded parent. We fought, we lost.

On the other hand, the international movement against homophobia is now more vocal than ever. As Desmond Tutu said, in response to Russia’s legislated gay hate, “I’d rather go to hell than worship a homophobic God.”

Gay rights activists march in Russia's second city of St. Petersburg. Image: Getty

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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Ansbach puts Europe's bravest politician under pressure

Angela Merkel must respond to a series of tragedies and criticisms of her refugee policy. 

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is supposed to be on holiday. Two separate attacks have put an end to that. The first, a mass shooting in Munich, was at first widely believed to be a terrorist attack, but later turned out to be the actions of a loner obsessed with US high school shootings. The second, where a man blew himself up in the town of Ansbach, caused less physical damage - three were seriously injured, but none killed. Nevertheless, this event may prove to affect even more people's lives. Because that man had come to Germany claiming to be a Syrian refugee. 

The attack came hours after a Syrian refugee murdered a pregnant Polish woman, a co-woker in a snack bar, in Reutlingen. All eyes will now be on Merkel who, more than any other European politician, is held responsible for Syrian refugees in Europe.

In 2015, when other European states were erecting barriers to keep out the million migrants and refugees marching north, Merkel kept Germany's borders open. The country has resettled 41,899 Syrians since 2013, according to the UNHCR, of which 20,067 came on humanitarian grounds and 21,832 through private sponsorship. That is twice as much as the UK has pledged to resettle by 2020. The actual number of Syrians in Germany is far higher - 90 per cent of the 102,400 Syrians applying for EU asylum in the first quarter of 2016 were registered there. 

Merkel is the bravest of Europe's politicians. Contrary to some assertions on the right, she did not invent the refugee crisis. Five years of brutal war in Syria did that. Merkel was simply the first of the continent's most prominent leaders to stop ignoring it. If Germany had not absorbed so many refugees, they would still be in central Europe and the Balkans, and we would be seeing even more pictures of starved children in informal camps than we do today. 

Equally, the problems facing Merkel now are not hers alone. These are the problems facing all of Europe's major states, whether or not they recognise them. 

Take the failed Syrian asylum seeker of Ansbach (his application was rejected but he could not be deported back to a warzone). In Germany, his application could at least be considered, and rejected. Europe as a whole has not invested in the processing centres required to determine who is a Syrian civilian, who might be a Syrian combatant and who is simply taking advantage of the black market in Syrian passports to masquerade as a refugee. 

Secondly, there is the subject of trauma. The Munich shooter appears to have had no links to Islamic State or Syria, but his act underlines the fact you do not need a grand political narrative to inflict hurt on others. Syrians who have experienced unspeakable violence either in their homeland or en route to Europe are left psychologically damaged. That is not to suggest they will turn to violence. But it is still safer to offer such people therapy than leave them to drift around Europe, unmonitored and unsupported, as other countries seem willing to do. 

Third, there is the question of lawlessness. Syrians have been blamed for everything from the Cologne attacks in January to creeping Islamist radicalisation. But apart from the fact that these reports can turn out to be overblown (two of the 58 men arrested over Cologne were Syrians), it is unclear what the alternative would be. Policies that force Syrians underground have already greatly empowered Europe's network of human traffickers and thugs.

So far, Merkel seems to be standing her ground. Her home affairs spokesman, Stephan Mayer, told the BBC that Germany had room to improve on its asylum policy, but stressed each attack was different. 

He said: "Horrible things take place in Syria. And it is the biggest humanitarian catastrophe, so it is completely wrong to blame Angela Merkel, or her refugee policies, for these incidents." Many will do, all the same.