Russian journalist and LGBT activist Masha Gessen, author of “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot” answered five questions this week on the recent uproar over LGBT rights in Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political moves in advance of the Winter Games in Sochi and the future of political protest in Russia. Read an excerpt of her book here.
1) Can you explain exactly what Russia’s new anti-gay propaganda laws do and what has been their impact since they were passed?
Gessen: “The propaganda laws are almost the least of it. It’s a huge concerted campaign that’s unleashed by the Kremlin, it’s a campaign of hate and violence. So the propaganda law itself, which was signed into law by Vladimir Putin in June of last year, says it bans propaganda, which is defined as the distribution of information that can cause harm to the physical or spiritual development of children, including forming in them the erroneous impression of social equality of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations. So basically, it’s a law that enshrines second-class citizenship — and combined with the campaign that’s on television, that’s the churches that’s coming from the Kremlin. It’s led to a huge increase in antigay violence, including murders. It’s led to attacks on gay and lesbian clubs and film festivals… and because these laws are passed supposedly to protect children, the people who are most targeted or have the most to fear are LGBT parents. The state has already said it’s going to create a mechanism for removing children from same-sex families. And that legislation hasn’t been passed yet, but the courts have already started to implement it even though it hasn’t passed. So there have already been attempts to remove children from lesbian couples. So, basically, LGBT people have an incredible amount to fear right now, especially if they have children.”
2) Vladimir Putin recently said the Olympics will “take place in full accordance with the Olympic charter without any discrimination.” But are you concerned at all by what will happen when the Olympics are over?
Gessen: “Generally speaking, totalitarian regimes have tried to clean up their act when they host the Olympics. A perfect example is China, which repealed the death penalty in the lead-up to the Olympics and reinstated it immediately after the Games. I think with Russia, we’re going to see something similar. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Olympics went off without a hitch in terms of the antigay legislation. Russia doesn’t want scandals with disciplining any, say, gay Olympians. It also is not likely to be confronted with anything because Sochi is essentially a military zone. It’s going to be very difficult for anybody to speak up or hold any kind of protest in Sochi. The International Olympic Committee is also doing a lot of the policing for Putin. It has repeatedly warned athletes that it considers any kind of statement, including in support of LGBT rights to be inappropriate as part of the Olympics. So I think that we’re not going to see any incidents during the Olympics.
But what happens after the Olympics is I think very scary, because Putin feels humiliated by having had to make some concessions leading up to the Games. In December, he amnestied a number of high-profile political prisoners even while other people were going to prison for political crimes were getting their sentences on the same day as those amnesties. But the high-profile ones got out of prison, he feels that’s a concession. I think he’s going to lash out against some of those people or people he perceives as similar. Another concession was withdrawing the bill on removing custody from same-sex parents from parliament in the fall. It was made very clear on the domestic front that it was being withdrawn only to correct the language and will be reintroduced. So I would expect it to be reintroduced and passed unanimously right after the Olympics…”
3) A lot of Western leaders, including President Obama, are choosing not to attend these Olympics. What is the impact of this, and how is it being perceived?
Gessen: “It’s been very gratifying for many people in the opposition in Russia who have been calling for a political boycott of the Olympics. A political boycott means that athletes go, but state leaders do not go. And I think that’s a very well-chosen strategy because, for Putin, the Olympics are a personal project. He personally went to Guatemala City to lobby the International Olympic Committee in 2007 to bring the Olympics to Russia. It’s very important for him to be able to take pictures with world leaders at the Olympics in the V.I.P. box during the Opening Ceremonies. And it looks like he may be denied that opportunity altogether, which is wonderful news. The presidents of Germany, France, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, and several other European countries have said that they’re not going. And President Obama appointed a delegation that for the first time in decades does not include any highly-placed government officials… It also includes several retired athletes who are openly gay. So it’s both a snub in the sense that Putin will have no one to take pictures with, and a clear message that shows that the United States believes it’s perfectly appropriate and right to send openly gay athletes to represent it during the ceremonies at the Games…”
4) Putin recently released members of the band Pussy Riot from prison, as well as former political rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had been in jail for more than 10 years. Why were those moves made? Were they just part of his public relations efforts before the Olympics?
Gessen: “After President Obama declared the makeup of the delegation to the Olympics, I think that’s when Putin panicked. I think he realized that it may actually be a public relations disaster for him even on the domestic front. So he scrambled to varnish his human-rights image, which is difficult to do because there has been an all out crackdown on the opposition in Russia for the last two years. It started with the arrest of Pussy Riot, which happened on the same day as Putin was reelected, or as they say reelected to his third term as president. And it has continued with a crackdown on civil society in general and with the imprisonment of many opposition activists and sort of rank and file protest participants. So what Putin did was release the high-profile political prisoners. Those included the two members of the protest art group Pussy Riot who got a whole two months knocked off of their sentences. They included the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had served more than ten years in prison, and was likely to be sentenced for a third term… At the same time, people who have not had the kind of international attention that those people had are remaining in prison… So it’s not a sign of an end to the crackdown. It’s a very transparent and actually a very cynical P.R. gesture, which takes nothing away from the benefit of getting out of Russian prison, which is a godsend for anybody…”
5) After they were released, the members of Pussy Riot said they will continue their protests against Putin. What do you think their future holds, and what is the future of political opposition after the Olympics?
GESSEN: “Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova [two members of Pussy Riot] are showing that they feel free to act. In fact, they’re more determined and certainly much more seasoned as activists than they were before they were arrested. When they were arrested two years ago, they were college students who had staged a protest. They had gone to the biggest church in Moscow and performed what they called a punk prayer, praying to the mother of God to chase Putin out. They didn’t expect to be arrested for this. They expected to be noticed, but they didn’t expect to go to prison for two years. Now that they have served almost the entire two years in prison, they have been political prisoners. They have become political activists. They’re not college pranksters. They know exactly what they want to do. They want to found a movement to defend prisoners’ rights in Russia. Just in two weeks out of jail, they have done an incredible job of publicizing and documenting human rights abuses and torture in the Russian penal system. And they plan to continue doing that… So it has the potential to become a broad-based movement. But also they’re showing Putin how little fear they have. The one thing that they might have been afraid of before they went to prison, which is going to prison, no longer scares them. They know how to do that.”