Barriers to Entry: AIDS, Condoms and Rank Stupidity in Russia

by Eliot Borenstein


Forget strategic weapons and missile shields: in the race towards deliberate, self-destructive ignorance, Russia and the United States are, as usual, neck and neck. While the American South is working itself up into a frenzy over nonexistent transgender predators (“Is your washroom not breeding breeders?”) and Texas State Senators fight the scourge of gay space colonies, representatives of a Russian government think-tank remind us once again that the spread of AIDS is really the wages of sin.

Washroom breeding

Yes, throw out your condoms and pick up your Bibles (but try not to confuse the two, or you’ll run afoul of Russian laws protecting the delicate feelings of religious believers):  HIV is a medical problem whose only solution is spiritual.

As reported by Kommersant and TV-Rain (and conveniently summarized by Meduza and translated by The Russian Reader), a delegation of “specialists” without a single medical or scientific qualification to their names informed the Moscow City Duma this Monday that AIDS is simply one more weapon in the West’s “information war against Russia.”

Bareback Mountain

Appropriately enough, the Chair of the Moscow City Duma’s health care committee framed the visit from the Russian Institute for Strategic Research (RISS) in geopolitical terms, rather than simply as a matter of public health, reminding her audience that RISS had previously issued a “stunning report on various NGOs funded by the West.” HIV/AIDS, in other words, is the medical equivalent of the so-called “foreign agents” targeted by the anti-NGO-legislation: alien contaminants attacking the healthy, innocent Russian body politic.

Much of the RISS presentation is old news to those who followed American right-wing responses to the AIDS crisis at the end of the last century:  contraceptives encourage debauchery, abstinence is the only solution, and people with HIV/AIDS implicitly deserve whatever happens to them. The reason it all sounds so familiar is not a lack of imagination, but the longstanding pipeline between American “family values” think tanks and Russia’s crusaders for morality.

But the geopolitical aspect of the Institute’s retrograde approach to epidemiology may strike some Americans as novel. Though the management of AIDS in America has had its fair share of remarkably stupid xenophobia (starting with the stigmatization of Haitians and continuing in a ban on HIV-positive visitors or immigrants that lasted until 2010),  the family values crowd tends to see HIV/AIDS as a domestic threat to public morality.

RISS, on the other hand, is an institute whose official mission involves “issues of national security” and “preventing the falsification of history” (a phrase  that would be better understood as “promoting the falsification of history,” but that’s a matter for another day).   Paraphrasing a hundred trite term papers on the Russian soul,  the experts explain that AIDS is more of a problem in St. Petersburg, which is a “symbol of Western values.” The “earthy primordially of the spontaneously emergent holy lands of Moscow,” on the other hand, are much less hospitable to HIV.

Safer Sects

This rhetoric performs the typically authoritarian shift from the body of the individual to the body politic of the nation. RISS is far more concerned with the country’s metaphorical immune system (its spirituality) than with anything biological.

Emily Martin has written persuasively on the exploitation of “immune system” metaphors in the wake of the AIDS crisis, but here, immunity has lost all connection to its original, medical context. On the contrary, condoms are said to somehow cause AIDS rather than prevent HIV infection (“five [sexual] contacts involving a condom during adolescence are the equivalent of one unprotected contact.”)

Instead, it is the “contraceptive industry” and the purveyors of pornography who are the truly infectious agents undermining the Russian body: condom use encourages as part of wide-ranging campaign to promote tolerance of LGBT people (which is, of course, a bad thing).

By shifting the focus from the physical body to a purely imaginary one, the RISS delegation can conveniently ignore biology altogether. They prefer to operate in a world of pure abstraction: why discuss embarrassing bodily fluids when you can talk about “information warfare”?  Once the battle against AIDS serves as a metaphor for the fight against foreign values, the physical and the spiritual get swapped back-and-forth in a rhetorical shell game.  Susan Sontag must be spinning in her grave.

This approach is, of course, magical thinking, and it is not limited to public health.  In fact, the RISS explanation of the spread of HIV  should be familiar to readers of contemporary Russian children’s books.  Last year’s release of the animated trailer for Children versus Wizards (Дети против волшебников) has revived interest in a series of nationalist Russian novels that began in 2004. Here the world’s children are seduced by none other than Pottermania: the widespread popularity of Harry Potter and other children’s fantasy stories are actually part of a (primarily Jewish) international conspiracy to hand the world over to the forces of Satan.

Only Russia has been spared so far, thanks to a mysterious, metaphysical “Russian shield” preserving the nation’s morality  That shield turns out to be none other than Russian Orthodoxy itself.

As barrier methods go, it’s not a bad metaphor for the current Russian cultural climate, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

Fortunately, even the most virulent metaphors are powerless against latex.

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