Told you so about Sochi (Part One)

I’m looking forward to saying I told you so. About Russia, about the Olympics. Confidence in your knowledge in any topic can skew your view and make major media reporting frustratingly simplified, but I think I have figured out the problem with even the best reporting about Sochi is lacking. It has nothing to do with Russian citizens.

The people most concerned that there will be unexpected problems, arrests, terrorist attacks or culture classes are not the gay representatives of delegations from Western countries but the Russian people.

I imagine someone living in the US pictures Russia as a vast land inhabited by three categories of people: oppressed gays, reactionaries who like to beat them up, and parliamentarians who implicitly support the reactionaries. Oh and Putin. And nobody in between.

Many of my Western acquaintances have been involved in varying degrees of protest against the Sochi Olympics. The New York Times publishes an editorial, tempers rise about a possible boycott, and then usually the passions usually subside after a couple of days.

I must note that the intention of the anti-gay propaganda law is irrelevant because the government is implicitly supporting violent homophobia and life for gays has gotten tougher in the past months. Americans do not see the law as something meant to be broken, but get over it, amerikosy!. If someone needs to be arrested, he will be arrested.

But the kinds of people who decide to attack gays are not the kind of people who sit with a list of pros and cons about who will be their next victims. You cannot reason with these people, show them their logic is wrong. The passing of the anti-gay-propaganda law  and the public outcry from the West against it have brought attention to gay rights in Russia. This attention in Russia has been entirely negative. It has exacerbated hatred against gays within Russia, and as well as reservations about Russia abroad.

Gay Russians are not empowered by calls from western compatriots because, guess what, they are not in the West. Telling Russians they should not put up with the way the government is treating them is not effective. What are they supposed to do? Vote their Duma representatives out? The consequence of media attention on gay rights has resulted in increased violence against gays.

One acquaintance of mine has a high-school age daughter whom she supports, “no matter what”: “She’s a girl, if she’s gay or not, she’s just a girl, and can figure out what she wants from life and who she wants to share that life with as fast or slow as she wants. But I wish everyone would just shut up because it’s making her life hell.” The problem with the law, she told me, is not a matter of morality. The issue is that her daughter had short hair, liked to draw and play sports. Now, according to some classmates, she’s a dyke and a pedophile. She is undermining the great soul of the Russian people. Because of people like her, Westerners are trying to stop the Sochi Olympics.

Many people I respect and consider my friends believe that homosexuality is an evil choice, one propagated by propaganda from the West. Whether this is a result of the media or just a long-standing feeling left over from another time, I cannot say. What most of these people say about homosexuals and homosexuality is “I wish they would just keep it to themselves.”

Because most people understand that rocking the boat is a bad idea. Take a look at the recent attack on TV-Rain, and you will see why there are certain things you do not talk about. Keeping quiet is a method of self-preservation. It is not that Russian gays “just do not know it is okay to be gay and need to stand up for their rights”. They are actually afraid.

Here is where I say I told you so. The gay law is not sending anyone to the Gulag. Putin has promised to welcome and protect gay athletes, spectators and personnel.  Homosexuality is not illegal in Russia. The Olympics provide the best publicity the Russian Federation has ever had, and nobody is going to ruin it by letting foreigners be killed or sent to the penal colonies, no matter what the law says. Putin has a lot on the line, and probably thinks he has more on the line than anyone.

Police and security are being trained to be nice to foreigners, to keep everyone calm. The facts of international, large scale events outweigh predispositions to unsightly bigotry. As someone who has participated in trainings of volunteers for the Olympics, I can tell you that a huge emphasis is being put on being nice to foreigners, on being friendly and acting courteous.

Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow…