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Fascism, Games, and the human rights high horse

Liberal Russians and Western campaigners alike are concerned about LGBTQ rights in Russia but not with the rest of the fascist package, says Anna Galkina

February 16, 2014
6 min read

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(content note: homophobic & racist violence; all links in Russian)

M is 14 years old. Since August she has received constant phone calls from a stranger who says ‘you’re sick, you’re sick, you need to be treated at the psychiatric ward’. The man rang M’s mother, who has since begun beating her. Her headteacher called her in and demanded that M stop writing about LGBTQ activism on social networks. The stranger rang the headteacher again and again, until the headteacher went to the regional commission for minors’ rights. The commission ‘conducted an investigation’ and found that ‘the year 9 student produced propaganda that promoted non-traditional sexual relations among minors … [and] openly identifies herself with a non-traditional sexual orientation [however she] conducted no physical actions that violated the sexual immunity [sic] of minors.’ The commission could not prosecute M under Russia’s recent law against ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ because of her age, but they put M on a sort of equivalent to an ASBO, and M now has to attend weekly monitoring appointments.

The anti gay propaganda law has enabled the persecution of a number of activist groups, LGBTQ support groups, and individuals – M being one of them. The story appears in an article in one of Russia’s liberal-minded opposition news sites, Lenta.Ru. The article identifies M’s stalker as Timur Isayev, founder of something called ‘Action’ Muslim NgO. In the accompanying picture Timur is wearing a combination of a taqiyah and a stripy shirt worn by Russian marines. The article lists a number of other ‘propaganda’ cases: a gay teacher who was sacked, a newspaper fined for writing about the teacher, and the founder of an online support group for queer teens hounded. In all of these examples the state responds to ultra rightwing or ‘traditionalist’ groups reporting those they suspect of ‘propaganda’. We’re presented with a line-up of enemies of Russian liberalism: the bureaucrat, the neo-nazi skinhead, and M’s stalker Timur, apparently a fundamentalist Muslim with probable Central Asian or Caucasus roots. The article makes no claim to know Timur Isayev’s origins, but his image among other reactionary figures risks playing into the stigmatisation of Central Asian or Caucasus migrants in Russian liberal discourse, more on which in a minute.

The most notable thing about the article is that two years ago, Lenta.Ru and the other Russian liberal opposition papers would have been extremely unlikely to devote a full-length feature to homophobia. The liberal press, celebrities and prominent human rights activists have taken notice of LGBTQ rights in Russia, thanks to LGBTQ organisations fighting the ‘propaganda’ law, and pressure from the likes of Stephen Fry. Moscow’s main liberal culture magazines – Afisha and Bolshoi Gorod – came out with rainbow covers in advance of the law being ratified. Whatever the proponents of the Olympic boycott say, President Vladimir Putin has little or no reason to care about the West’s human rights rhetoric – unlike Russia’s liberal elite and middle class, who do care.

The response of the liberal elite to racism is very different. In October 2013 several hundred nationalists smashed up a wholesale vegetable market in Moscow following the murder of Russian Yegor Scherbakov by a supposedly Central Asian looking man. The Moscow police detained 380 people for participating in the pogrom, and 1800 migrants in connection to the murder. 1800 primarily Central Asian men. For one murder. The response of western media darling, opposition leader Alexei Navalny? To start a petition calling for the introduction of stricter immigration controls with Central Asia.

Unlike the widespread support for the LGBTQ community among the liberal elite, defending migrants’ rights has proved far more divisive. In August last year the Moscow police raided a number of markets in the city, rounding up over a thousand ‘illegal migrants’ and placing several hundred people in an extremely basic camp (read: tents on bare asphalt). The leader of liberal democratic party Yabloko, mayoral candidate Sergei Mitrokhin visited the camp and announced that he saw ‘no human rights violations’. Likewise mayoral candidate Navalny kept referring in interviews to an evidently flawed statistic that half of all crimes in Moscow are committed by foreign nationals. Navalny also voiced support for the Russian March – the annual far-right nationalist rally (although he did not dare show up this year).

In late August Navalny’s mayoral election HQ was stormed by anti-fascist activists with a banner saying ‘No-one is illegal’. Their statement read, in part

‘Not only does the government build concentration camps, but the “opposition” do too. The main mayoral candidates for Moscow […] are spinning in a Nazi waltz, trying to out-xenophobe each other, pushing the city and the country deeper into an anti-migrant fit.’

A comment in response, from one of Navalny’s volunteers read: ‘For interest’s sake I asked them to name me at least one black world-famous scientist. They said “there’s quite a lot of them”, but could not remember a single one, lol!’

What I want to ask is, why are the same people in the West who are rightly angry about homophobia in Russia, not outspoken about the fascist attacks against migrants? Why is the rainbow flag more likely to make a Google doodle than an anti-racist slogan? If the same Western institutions and celebrities were to voice their support for migrants’ rights in Moscow, Putin would, once again, not really care. But Navalny and some of Moscow’s prominent liberals would feel a little more shame at using racism for populist purposes. Why are we suddenly so obsessed with homophobia, but not the rest of the fascist package? Perhaps because, when it comes to migrant labour, Europe doesn’t have a moral high horse to sit on.

Anna Galkina tweets at @annatation

Want to read more? Here’s two important critiques of Russia-gay-Olympics memes: kivrpropaganda, transadvocate