By LARRY POLTAVTSEV
Ronald Reagan famously called the USSR an “Empire of Evil.” While such language now seems a laughable relic of the Cold War, many Russians fear that President Vladimir Putin is building a new empire — one characterized by repression of basic freedoms and intolerance of dissent. As Russian authorities crack down on those who dare to express beliefs that question the status quo, Russia’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community has become one of the primary targets. In fact, President Putin recently signed into law a measure outlawing “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” effectively criminalizing any public activism from the LGBT community. The space for free expression is shrinking before our eyes.
I left Russia to attend an American university several decades ago, after coming of age during the old days of the USSR. Since then I’ve spent years trying to help Russians persecuted for their political beliefs or sexual orientation. It was about two years ago that I realized how much parts of modern Russia have come to resemble the Soviet past. I was listening to the stories of a gay Russian friend who had come to visit. A successful professional, he described the fear and threats that forced him to lead a double life —pretending to be straight by day and living a deeply secretive existence at night. He had no peace, and each day was permeated by the fear of being discovered.
His experience is all too common. As is well documented in Amnesty International USA’s timeline on the increased crackdown on freedom of expression and restrictions on LGBT rights in Russia, a new wave of government-sanctioned homophobia has swept through Russian society since Putin’s most recent election. Each month, new reports of hate-based violence reinforce that things are deteriorating.
Meanwhile, prominent officials like St. Petersburg City Council member Vitaly Milonov and Member of Parliament Elena Mizulina continue their persistent calls for discrimination against the Russian LGBT community. It’s not hard to understand how such virulent calls from the government level can mutate into brutal hate crimes in towns and villages all over Russia.
The most recent crackdowns on the LGBT community have changed the lives of ordinary citizens. Spending time in a gay club or even attending a private LGBT event now comes with the omnipresent threat of raids or attacks. Accomplished professionals risk being fired from their jobs for being gay or defending the LGBT community. Homophobia is so commonplace that Russian social network Vkontakte.ru condones the myriad groups that lure LGBT teenagers into traps with fake personal ads. When they respond, children are bullied, outed, assaulted and even urinated upon in video recordings, which are then broadcast online.
It’s even hard to trust friends in such a climate of hatred. Just last month, two men savagely beat a 23 year old, crushing his ribs, sodomizing him with beer bottles and attempting to burn him alive. The man had revealed his sexual identity while the three were drinking together and, according to the assailants, it was their “patriotic duty to kill a gay man.”
Looking at my native country from abroad I see a nationwide witch hunt. The police turn a blind eye to the assault of LGBT protesters and choose instead to arrest and fine the activists. This is not merely a battle for ideology, it is a battle for control. Legislation curtailing LGBT rights serves the Putin-led government’s strategic goals as much as it serves ideological ones. Inciting hatred and violence helps divide civil society and maintain control. The Russian authorities have faced hundreds of protests in the past two years, culminating in thousands of arrests. Yet, the liberal opposition movement remains divided around the issue of LGBT rights. Persecution of the LGBT community distracts Russians from draconian new policies aimed at all forms of free expression when, in reality, such legislation is cut from the same cloth.
This deteriorating situation, and Hillary Clinton’s 2010 speech in Geneva announcing U.S. support of LGBT rights worldwide, moved me to establish a human rights organization and start lobbying for LGBT rights abroad. I hope you will join me in this struggle. Though the Cold War is over, government-sanctioned human rights abuses are flourishing in Russia. Unlike Vladimir Putin’s predecessors, however, the current president enjoys almost “white glove” treatment from the West and our mass media. We can’t afford to let him get away with it any longer. It is imperative that we hold Russia accountable for human rights violations.
Larry Poltavtsev is president and CEO of Target Labs in Vienna, Va. He founded Spectrum Human Rights, a non-profit organization dedicated to advocating for LGBT rights in Eastern Europe.