Beyond the Boycott of Sochi

Beyond the Boycott of Sochi

Doesn’t a truly effective fight for LGBT rights in Russia need to be led by Russians?


Gay rights activists hold a banner reading "Homophobia – the religion of bullies" during their action in protest at homophobia, on Red Square in Moscow, Russia, on Sunday, July 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Evgeny Feldman)

In the run-up to Sochi, Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympics, the Kremlin is getting torched. An international chorus of critics has assailed the Russian government for enacting a law that bans any promotion of LGBT relationships, rights and issues wherever children might be present. Many protesters are calling for a global response. Opponents like actors Harvey Fierstein and Stephen Fry, among many others, have urged countries to boycott the Olympics. American author Dan Savage launched a popular #dumpRussianvodka campaign.

There is a reason that everyone from Lady Gaga to President Obama has spoken out against Russia’s new anti-gay law: it is discriminatory and inhumane, and many people are desperate to do something—anything—to show solidarity with Russia’s LGBT community and help get the law repealed. Yet it’s not all that clear whether today’s clamor, however well-intentioned, will improve the situation—in this case, the lives and human rights of gay people in Russia. Unless we take the time to understand the reasons behind the ascendance of hyper-conservative traditionalist values and develop a more strategic response, we may instead strengthen the already powerful nationalist forces there.

Russia is a deeply divided, complex country. While the LGBT community has enjoyed increasing acceptance in cosmopolitan areas—homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993—there is still entrenched homophobia and support for anti-gay policies. The legislation in question was passed unanimously by Parliament. The independent Levada Center found that almost half of Russians believe that gays should not have the same rights as heterosexuals, and 85 percent oppose same-sex marriage.

Reform within Russia is already an uphill battle, yet it will become downright Sisyphean if a pro-gay-rights campaign is waged from outside Russia, without a careful understanding of that country’s social and cultural history. Moreover, the United States’ minimal leverage over Russia is further limited by the fact that, as reporter Julia Ioffe has noted, many people in the country already see homosexuality as a “Western import,” part of an “international gay cabal imposing its will on Russia.”

A powerful wing of Russia’s political class, in alliance with a rising Orthodox Church, is forging a politics that rejects the supposedly corrupting influences of the United States and the West in favor of traditional conservative values rooted largely—but not exclusively—in the heartland. This same anti-Western politics was behind the December 2012 ban on the American adoption of Russian orphans. The anti-gay sentiment is embedded in this broader shift toward social conservatism; it’s also a tactic to brand modernized Russians—usually those in the major cities who have opposed Putin’s authority—as a threat to traditional values.

As Russian politics scholar Mark Lawrence Schrad recently wrote, “a perceived threat, even symbolic, from the liberal West would be a blessing for Mr. Putin, who can portray himself as the defender of the traditional Russian family, Orthodox Christian values and national pride all at once.” A boycott, in the end, may be a prize, not a punishment.

Furthermore, as my colleague Dave Zirin has pointed out, boycotting the Winter Games in Sochi would hurt all the wrong people—such as the athletes who have spent a lifetime training for this event—and would deprive the West, and the United States, of the opportunity to showcase the talents of LGBT Olympians. And to what end?

It is also unlikely that refusing to buy Russian vodka will have any desired effect. For one thing, vodka is no longer a substantial source of revenue for the country, which means the boycott will not measurably impact Russia’s economy. For another, Stolichnaya (one of the pariah brands) is bottled in Latvia, not Russia, and the owners of the company are avowed supporters of LGBT rights. This is more than an inconvenient fact: it exposes the boycott as a rather blunt, and ineffective, instrument for change.

This is not to say that Western agitation around Russia’s oppressive law is not important. As Russian journalist Masha Gessen (an openly gay mother of three) recently argued, “The reason that Russia has done as much, as fast, as hatefully, as violently, is because it felt like nobody was watching.” The fact that the world is paying attention is undoubtedly causing Putin and the Russian political class to take notice. But in our rush to deplore this horrible anti-gay law, are we asking the right questions? Perhaps a fundamental one, as blogger Mark Adomanis pointed out, is this: “What do you say to ‘be heard’ in a country with a culture that is very different from America’s?”

Doesn’t a truly effective fight for LGBT rights need to be waged, in Russia, by Russians? Many in the Russian LGBT community understand the need to build their own movement. They and their allies are already on the streets, holding protests, collecting signatures and laying the groundwork for broader change. They deserve our solidarity. They deserve our support. And they deserve constructive international attention that helps to expand their domestic efforts, as well as a thoughtful strategy that aims to fortify those inside the country leading the fight to secure the human rights of Russia’s LGBT community.

This editorial was adapted from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s August 27 column in The Washington Post.

In August, Dave Zirin reported on the Russian Olympics, and “the smooch heard round the world.”

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