When it comes to Russia's draconian anti-gay laws, Nazi comparisons are apt

Usually, comparisons to Nazism are idle and misplaced. But the new anti-gay legislation in Russia, a supposedly progressive democracy, is truly reminiscent of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws.

“First they came for the communists, / and I did not speak out because I wasn’t a communist”, begins Martin Niemöller’s famous poem that so hauntingly critiques the complacence of the German intellectuals who looked on while the Nazis rose to power. Who, eighty years later, is speaking out while Russia comes for its LGBT population?

There’s clearly a loud and desperate voice for gay rights within Russia, as harrowing images of bloodied activists are becoming increasingly common. Further west, Barack Obama recently condemned Russia’s increasingly draconian anti-gay laws in an interview with Jay Leno on the Tonight Show. Meanwhile, this week, Stephen Fry wrote an open letter to David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee calling for a the fast-approaching 2014 Winter Olympics to be pulled out of Sochi. In his letter, which went viral, Fry makes a potent comparison between the upcoming games in Russia and the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. In arguments, comparisons to Nazism are usually idle and misplaced. In this case, however, likening the dead-eyed marsupial Putin to Hitler couldn’t be more apt. In Russia, a supposedly progressive democracy, new anti-gay legislation is truly reminiscent of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws. It is paving 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”. That’s right, this guy has a problem with camp. This guy. Anyone who “looks gay” (cough) is committing an arrestable offence. This now includes tourists. Adults have been banned from “corrupting” under-18s with the idea that homosexuality is anything but sordid and unnatural. Their perpetrators safe from prosecution, homophobic attacks have become pandemic 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. Stalin also famously thought that Holland and the Netherlands were two separate countries - enough to make UKIP’s Godfrey Bloom look like a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Russia’s relationship with its gay population has been complicated for hundreds of years. Homosexuality was first outlawed by Tsar Peter the Great in the eighteenth century. It was decriminalised by Lenin, shortly after the 1917 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 sycophantic desire to buddy-up to the Orthodox Church. Even Stalin, some historians have argued, had the church in mind when he outlawed homosexuality. Putin’s current war on gays is a noxious combination of the authoritarianism of the former USSR and the social conservatism of the Orthodoxy. In the name of traditional Russian values, the former KGB man has stripped millions of Russians of their human rights and facilitated some of the most heinous hate crimes in recent years.

Outrage at Russia’s legalised gay-bashing has been widespread. From calls to boycott Stolichnaya vodka in bars all over the world, to this petition by LGBT rights group All Out, demanding, as Stephen Fry did, that the IOC speak out against Russia’s human rights abuses in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics. The petition has received over 300,000 signatures and was presented to the IOC headquarters in Switzerland earlier this week. A failure by the committee to uphold its commitment to equality and protect gay athletes by pulling the games out of Putin’s cesspool of oppression would be an enormous blow to the global struggle for LGBT rights. The IOC has the power to take a meaningful stand against tyranny and a decision against doing so would be devastating.  

Last month, Desmond Tutu, speaking at the launch of a South African gay rights campaign, said that he would rather go to hell than worship a homophobic God. He added that he is as passionate about this campaign as he was about the one against apartheid, in which he was so instrumental. I accept that the Anglican Church, of which Tutu is a member, is vastly different from that of the Russian Orthodoxy. Yet the bishop pointed out that there is not only a place for gays within Christianity, but that failing to protect LGBT people is simply un-Christian. It may be a long while before the likes of the Orthodox Church, which Putin, while so ostentatiously camp himself, is so keen on placating, recognises this. In the meantime, the persecution of gays in Russia needs to be taken just as seriously by the global powers that be as the discrimination against Palestinians in Israel, or the Rohingya Muslims in Burma. This Saturday, a protest against Russia’s anti-gay legislation is taking place in Westminster. Londoners, I hope to see you there.

Gay rights activists after clashes with anti-gay demonstrators during a gay pride event in St Petersburg. Photo: Getty

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

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage