Putin's "war on gays" is a desperate search for scapegoats

Russia is not a particularly homophobic culture, but its government is looking to divert attention from recent political discontent.

Now that Russia’s “war on gays” is an established narrative, one aspect of it still leaves global observers thoroughly confused: the timing. A mere eight months stretch between the enactment of a law that bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” and the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, the costliest spectacle of its kind in history.
 
Unlike China, which was on its best behaviour in the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics, Russia, with no discernible provocation, is enthusiastically supplying the world with reasons to boycott, sabotage or mock the Games, or protest at them.
 
The Winter Olympics were supposed to be President Putin’s big – how shall I put it – coming-out party: a planetspanning, fortnight-long infomercial for the Russia he had, over 14 years, remade in his image. Viewed in this light, the event’s reported price tag of £33bn begins to seem almost reasonable. To Putin’s Russia, obsessed with its standing in the western world even as it does everything to torpedo it, this kind of publicity is priceless. But the one thing most of the world will now be watching out for is the flash of a rainbow flag on the podium. What was Russia thinking?
 
To put it simply, it wasn’t. The war on gay people is one part of a broader crackdown on civil rights that got out of control. Ever since a wave of mass protests in December 2011 shook the Kremlin, the Russian Duma has passed a staggering number of restrictive laws: new regulations that make it harder for people to congregate freely; a rule that requires all NGOs that receive funding from abroad to label themselves as “foreign agents”; a stultifying ban on US adoptions of Russian children; and a suite of decency and anti-piracy bills that makes it easier to shutter inconvenient websites.
 
Some of these laws, such as the ban on adoption, are projects pushed by Putin himself. Others, owing to the bizarre way in which the Duma operates, are more like the self-fulfilling side effects of demagoguery. Putin says something off the cuff; an obscure Duma deputy looking for a publicity boost introduces a slapped-together bill; the rest rubber-stamp it; the law gets an equally ramshackle enforcement arm (Roskomnadzor, the feared digital-censorship body, is just a few people in a room tasked with monitoring the entire internet for offensive and pirated content); a few unlucky test cases go to trial, with the aim of frightening the rest.
 
This is the dreary context in which we should view the two anti-gay laws (the other one bans adoption of Russian children by gay couples and single citizens from countries where same-sex marriage is legal). Ironically, Russia, when it is not being whipped up into paranoid frenzy, is not a particularly homophobic culture. Its motto on the subject is something along the lines of “Whatever you do behind closed doors is fine”. (In Russia, everyone is doing something behind closed doors.) With new laws against gay people, Americans and the internet, Putin has used the classic dictator’s gambit of shoring up the most backward elements of his base by demonising everything they don’t understand about the protest demographic.
 
Homosexuality, in this case, is just one part of the semiotic cluster of otherness. “Americans” are “Jews”, “Jews” are “gay”, “Americans” are thus also “gay”. “Liberals” may stand for US stooges (as in Putin’s speeches) or Jews (as in the spreading nationalist rhetoric), but their defining traits are feminine – softness, pliability, indecisiveness – so they are “gay” above all (cf: “liberast”, the popular conflation of “liberal” and “pederast”). And so on.
 
So why has the mistreatment of gays in Russia caught on as an international cause when the other scarecrow laws have not – to say nothing of the jailing of Pussy Riot and other protesters? The answer is partly that it provides a black-and-white narrative, something Russia has in short supply. And it comes with villains so outrageous that casting the inevitable movie would be a breeze: from the author of the “propaganda” law, Yelena Mizulina, a bespectacled schoolmarm with hair in a bun, to Dmitry Kiselyov, a federal TV executive and presenter who has proposed “burning gays’ hearts” so they don’t end up being donated for transplants.
 
The international backlash has focused on Sochi because it’s the next big event; were Russia about to host, say, Eurovision, as it did in 2009, there would be calls to boycott that. For those wishing to protest against Russia’s anti-gay laws, however, the timing may be fortuitous. Villains rarely realise their villainy. That’s what would make spoiling Putin’s Olympic party so satisfying: it’s the closest the world can get to staging an intervention against the man.
 
Michael Idov is the editor-in-chief of GQ Russia 
The Russian president Vladimir Putin. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt