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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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism