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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

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