Russia in the shadows, or The Arts of Protest


The reasons behind Russia's decline into the state of homophobic panic defence are discussed along with the marketing analysis of the most effective strategies for NZ and the Western World to encourage tolerance and promote LGBT rights

Russian LGBT rights became the focus of the world media, causing protests around the world including in New Zealand. And what do the latest events show us? Not only the extend of homophobia in Russia, or also awaking of rusophobia in the West – we protest anti-gay law in the far away country where homosexuality is legal and where our voice hardly means anything but we keep quiet about gay rights in NZ dependant countries like Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands, three out of 77 countries that actually criminalise homosexuality.

Here gays are still banned from donating blood, required to abstain from even safe oral sex for at least 5 years to get the clearance, while for example in Russia restrictions for gay blood donations are lifted. Same-sex couples can now adopt as long as they are married, but similar couples in a civil union or de-facto partnership still can't. There is even this weird restriction preventing single man, either straight or gay, from adopting a female child and Air New Zealand still even bans men from sitting on a plane next to an unaccompanied child.

Russian crisis is also shows us not only stories of courage of some individuals facing violent mobs in single pickets but also often the weakness and disorganisation of Russian LGBT movement and its controversial leaders. Western help also comes as a mixed bag of the most sincere and touching messages along with suspicious donation schemes and self-marketing PR campaigns.

Russia is the country lamenting its downgrade from the worlds superpower status to a third world's economy, nation eager to retain its lost masculinity by reclaiming 'traditional' values and rediscovering Orthodox religion. People there were embarrassed with the last two leaders – pro-western Gorbachev who considered to be weak and blamed for the breakdown of USSR and his successor always drunk Boris Yeltsin, who lead the country into the anarchy and civil war. Russians found in Putin what they were looking for - clear guidance, order, power, and masculinity, that country thought was lost. Return to 'traditional', 'unique' Russian values and consolidation against treacherous and decadent West is a natural development though clearly reminding of the Nazi Germany. But Russia is not left alone in its state of gay panic defence, similar LGBT crackdown is happening in many places around the world, specifically in Africa. Overall, LGBT rights are becoming a dividing point between the East and the West, developed and developing worlds.

In Russia, the rise of intolerance towards LGBT can be explained by the increasing influence of its three most homophobic institutions: Orthodox Church, military and the criminal structures. In a once almost entirely atheistic country, the Orthodox Church filled the vacuum left by collapsed communist ideology, converting nearly 80 percent of the population. Patriarch Kiril is heading a crusade against gay rights, claiming 'equal marriage' as a 'sign of Apocalypse'. The Russian military has regained its grip over the country under the presidency of Putin, himself a former KGB officer. With mandatory service for men, institutional homophobia in the Army affects everyone. Young soldiers are routinely subjected to dedovschina - ritual hazing featuring humiliation, torture and at times rape by seniors. And then there are Russian organised crime structures. With a record incarceration rate (over one million inmates) and legalisation of many criminal authorities as MP and businessmen after the USSR broke down, prison culture songs, tattoos and slang has been accepted by Russian society. Now even kindergarten kids shout derogatory prison names for gays to each other. In Russia, imprisoned gays are untouchables, placed next to a common toilet, used whenever other inmates have an urge, but criminal law forbids talking to them or touching their staff, even occasional offenders have to be 'turned' gay as well through ritual prison gang rape.

No wonder gays in Russian society became further marginalised, as last year 51 percent of polled Russians stated that under no circumstances they would agree to live or work next to a gay person. So apparently most remain in the closet, with 90 percent of Russians claiming they have no gays among their friends or relatives. Remarkably the same percentage of Russians support the latest anti-gay laws, proving that people disapprove of someone they do not know. But with the new legislation effectively banning any positive discussion about homosexuality, what can be done to educate and cure this nation so prone to homophobia?

Most Western initiatives seem laughable, like helping Russia by making Putin-themed porn movies. Or showing solidarity by putting rainbow on the ice cream box, or making Soviet-style underwear or fake gay Orthodox calendars. In fact, all of those are clearly marketing campaigns using free publicity in the LGBT media but not actually advancing gay rights in Russia in any way.

And Russians also find funny the Western pick of gay activists like Nikolay Alexeyev and imposed on Russian LGBT fake gay icons like Pussy Riots and Femen as representatives of the Russian LGBT community; these brands are discredited in Russia and association with them is damaging to LGBT.

Take 'Pussy riot', reincarnation of Moscow branch of the Art Project 'Voina' (the war). The first real 'pussy riot' was staged by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova's husband throwing live cats over the counter in McDonalds. Then they had an orgy in the Museum of Biology, 'f-king for the President' while Tolokonnikova was 9 month pregnant. Another unconventional art project from Tolokonnikova with another Pussy Riot member Ekaterina Samutsevich was a staged lynching of a homosexuals and migrants in a Moscow supermarket. Their female colleague from St. Petersburg branch of Voina in another supermarket action stuffed the whole frozen chicken in her vagina – all these 'art' actions were proudly filmed and placed on YouTube along with Pussy Riots masterpieces. Any questions why LGBT Russians are not comfortable to adopt these as they call them 'pussies' to be their gay icon?

Controversial Russian activists offer controversial solutions like publicly outing closeted MPs and banning anti-gay MPs from entering western countries, specifically for homophobic Mizulina, whose son chose to relocate into gay-friendly Belgium getting job in LGBT supportive company. However similar actions were not much successful in the past. Activist Alexeyev labeled some politicians as gays before, using the word as insult, then settling out deformation claims outside the courts. An real outing would be dangerous for the safety of any gay MP so can be criminally unethical. When several Russian MPs were banned from visiting US, Russian Duma in retaliation banned all Americans from adopting Russian children. Rejection, negativity and hatred would naturally only provoke the same response in defence.

Femen is another example of backfired aggressive tactics. The group, whose website features a girl holding cut off testicles and blooded sickle, has been proclaimed extremist organization and banned in Ukraine. It was initially welcomed in France where it unfortunately gatecrashed and highjacked the equal marriage campaign. Unfortunately, 'support' from Femen came at a high cost for LGBT. 'Sex-terrorists' from Femen used aggressive tactics in the equal marriage debate and their strategy backfired. They turned a peaceful protest into a riot by attacking a 'traditional family' demonstration posing as half-naked nuns and spraying 'sperm' into faces of protesters.
Another time, Femen rioted topless in Notre Dame Cathedral, an act that, according to openly gay mayor of Paris, 'caricatured the beautiful struggle for marriage equality'. Unfortunately such acts contributed to the slide of public support for marriage equality in France, provoking the most furious protests and bitter continuous split in the French society. This also gave birth to Hommen, a group of young straight men who, mocking Femen, also ironically bare their chests but keep their protests peaceful. Ironically, Hommen became a hit with gay magazines worldwide.

With so many marketing made under the flag of helping Russia to repeal 'promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors' law, shall we for a minute consider LGBT rights as a product we could promote so that we could develop our own business plan of action through SWOT analysis, i.e. finding out our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? And shall we follow marketing guidelines by ensuring our set goals are SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based?

If we look at the concept of equal marriage in marketing terms, some countries are innovators (The Netherlands in 2001) while others (New Zealand in 2013) are early adapters, then in theory comes early majority, late majority and the last to recruit are laggards, the most conservative customers. Russia is definitely LGBT rights laggard and promoting equality there is similar to offering i Phone 5 in a medieval market . Marketing for laggards requires projecting new products and concepts in a positive light, patiently eliminating objections and fears by educating, highlighting the benefits and providing guarantees.

So shall we take a positive reinforcement concept and rather than banning anti-gay politicians, sportsmen and artists encourage and welcome those rare-as-gems ones who do dare to oppose the new laws? In marketing, when the direct 'push' strategy does not work, a 'pull' strategy can be effective. New Zealand consumers have the power to encourage 'gay-friendly', 'homophobe-free' cultural and other export products from Russia.

There is a talented Russian named Sergey Lazarev, apparently the only Russian male singer publicly supporting LGBT rights. Lets listen to his records. There is journalist Anton Krasovsky, sacked for coming out on live TV; let's give him a space in NZ media to tell his story. And did you read acclaimed Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya who is in opposition to Putin and was one of a very few to slam the anti-gay law? Why don't we invite her to come to New Zealand as a guest to the Auckland Readers and Writers festival? Or ask for her books in our shops or libraries?

Why don't we promote recently released and already banned, critically acclaimed Russian drama 'A Winter Journey' and select it for the Auckland International Film Festival? And can we encourage more LGBT Russians to come to New Zealand by easing visa/asylum requirements? Can we call on the Fonterra office in Moscow and the New Zealand Embassy in Russia to publicly welcome Russian LGBT employees? NZ embassy has power and resources to engage more with local LGBT organisations, to host LGBT events and educate Russians on LGBT rights, equality and tolerance.

We can also reach out to rainbow Russians personally by getting in touch directly through the social media with the young men and women whose names we learn from the news. Maybe we, as a community, we could even sponsor one of them to come and experience the Auckland Pride Parade next year.

The Russian crisis is a prism that draws attention to LGBT rights across the world, helping us reassess our strategies and find new paths for gay activism. Hopefully if all progressive forces unite in one powerful beam of light, it could break through the glass walls of intolerance and hatred, producing a spectacular rainbow into the safer future.

Alexander Lowë

Front picture: Kirill Fedorov assaulted by homophobic mob during attempted St.Petersburg Pride last year

Second and third pictures: Femen vs Homme: Who would get your vote?


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