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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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.