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.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.