Russia will be Russia

Monday, 21st October 2013 at 17:24 UTC 1 comment

We’ve heard a lot recently about Russia’s anti-gay laws, and whilst they are to be condemned, I think a lot of the discussion around the them in the media and in Western activist circles, is missing out on some key points. I want to put the case that what Russia is doing is about more than just repressive internal politics.

Russia is heading back on to the world stage. After a couple of decades when it has been remarkably quiet, next year’s Sochi Winter Olympics and Paralympics are an announcement that Russia is back, and Putin wants us to know about it. Whilst it is far from returning to full super-power status just yet, its definitely getting back to being, well, Russia.

And that renewed self-confidence, and with it, renewed defiance, are having effects. A major diplomacy win over America on the issue of Syria, the capture and jailing of Greenpeace activists, are just two examples. And away from UK news reports, it is trying to impose itself once again on neighbours such as Georgia and the Ukraine.

That isn’t to say that the country’s future is looking glittering and bright: its economy is pretty dismal and it has few resources beyond its natural gas supply. Interestingly, its the arrival of shale gas, and thus fracking, that means it is looking less economically sustainable. If everyone is producing gas, how is it meant to increase prices by threatening to turn off the tap on Eastern Europe?

What is often forgotten when discussing Russia is that it plays the game of global politics very differently from most other countries. Russia is not interested in being accepted in to some kind of club, and friendship is not its primary aim. As a country, it has always desired to stand out, both by being better and by simply being different. This contrarian attitude, mixed with Russians’ own disdain for what they see as the weaknesses inherent in democracy, make for a big focus on asserting power. Its worth bearing in mind that Russia and America would likely still have fought the Cold War even if the 1917 revolution had never taken place and the Tsar still led the country.

Part of our problem when dealing with Russia is that we’re not overly prepared for the cultural differences that occur. On the one hand, most Russians that matter (i.e. most of those from Moscow) are as Caucasian as the dominant groups amongst Britons or Americans. But how different actions are interpreted changes dramatically. Its a bit like an excited dog approaching a nervous cat and seeing that the cat’s tale is moving from side to side; the dog knows full well that this is a sign that the cat is happy to meet him, and so further antagonises the already nervous cat. In the same way, we in the West imagine that everyone must want to be like us, and yes, some countries do, and some countries reluctantly feel they must, but Russia is in the category of countries that most definitely doesn’t.

And so we come to the aggressive crackdown on LGBT individuals and groups within Russia. As a Russian-born friend observed, its not like Putin is over-ruling the democratic will of the people: its a hugely popular policy. Putin’s near-dictatorship is also very popular, and most Russians are ultimately looking to elect someone strong in the face of all opposition. And in one sense, that has to be OK, because democracy means respecting the will of the populace. And Russia just isn’t a Western country, nor should it have to aspire to be. Western politicians who berate countries like Russia for failing to ‘open up’ are very often in denial about the many things wrong with the West that these countries would do well not to open up to.

And then there’s Russia’s LGBT community. Yes, some of these people want Russia to become more Western. But to paint them all as wanting the West to come save them is a very simplistic idea. In fact, what grates about recent campaigns to get Putin’s laws overturned is how much they feel like Westerners pursuing Western values over the heads of indigenous LGBT communities facing the situation in their daily lives. Ultimately, some seem more about bashing Russia or appealing to a non-existent desire to Westernise based on the automatic assumption that everyone would rather abandon their culture and Westernise. This is patronising and not in the least barbaric, and it must stop.

Whatever acceptance the LGBT community in Russia seeks, it must be backed by other LGBT communities on the terms set by that community, sensitive to the intricacies of cultural differentiation and likely framed in a very different way. Anything else is just cultural imperialism in the name of an already vulnerable community.


Entry filed under: Culture, Gay Rights, Human Rights, Politics, Russia.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. J.  |  Tuesday, 22nd October 2013 at 10:03 UTC

    I asked one of my Russian activist friends about the new “homosexual propaganda” law: “Does musical theatre count?” 😀 For that matter, an amendment would have to be added ordering Putin to put his shirt back on. 😀 Here’s a question, although I think you’ve already addressed it briefly above: If Putin has such wide support, is that really a dictatorship? Do Russians really hate democracy or “hate our freedom,” the way the Tea Party would have us believe? I think more research is needed. This has never been my impression. Homophobia may be another story, of course. Mass ignorance is common in many countries. Think of how many people in the U.S. believe that Obama is a Nazi. That’s one dimension of democracy, protection of the minority from the tyranny of the majority, and in this regard the Russian government are abusing their mandate, irrespective of what public opinion on the LGBT issue actually is. In addition, as you’ve already said, if Russia is a homophobic country, they didn’t suddenly become bigots in time for the Sochi Olympics.

    I remember when I was at uni, one of my Russian friends was baffled at how Americans could be so servile in the face of their own government. I can’t remember her quote exactly, but it was something like: “How could you EVER believe anything the government says? Under socialism, we always knew that you could never believe anything the government said.” Mind you, this was someone who had been in the ruling class under the Communist system, and supported it, hence the use of the term “socialism.” In addition, another Russian friend of mine in the U.S. once corrected an American redneck: “You didn’t free us, we had a revolution!” These are anecdotes, of course, but Fox News wouldn’t even have this much. 😀 My point is that whatever the problems with the Russian government, or homophobia in Russian society, I’m not really convinced that Russians are anti-democratic, or bad at being citizens.

    The Greenpeace case is another situation where I’m struck by both the tactlessness of the current Russian government (the LGBT issue is another good example), as well as how in the West there would be little difference. Skipping over debates about how brutal Russian prisons are versus American prisons, I would recommend comparison of sentencing (look up the Green Scare, for example). Inevitably, had Greenpeace tried the same thing in the Gulf, they would have been assaulted to the point of injury, arrested, and given very long prison sentences in solitary, and the media would have taken the government’s side. Now that the Russian government is responding in a far less agressive manner, the Western media are demonising them (although I should assert that both are wrong). Having said this, RT’s coverage of “Green Hubris,” has seriously discredited that network’s stated goal of impartiality, making them look like hypocrites. The Western mainstream media have always portrayed them as such (citing their direct connection to the Kremlin), and this was a spectacular own goal.


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