Monday, November 25, 2013

Homophobia, Racism and Empire in Putin's Eurasia

As things go, the former Soviet Union is quite a homophobic place.  Over eighty-eight per cent of Russians approve of the law banning ‘homosexual propaganda’, including any assertion that homosexuality might not be deviant or morally reprehensible behaviour.  In other, even more conservative Soviet Republics, hostility against the LGBT community is even more dramatic.  In relatively ‘democratic’ Georgia, one attempt to hold a Gay Pride’ parade, in May this year, was thwarted by a furious mob egged on by extremist Orthodox clerics.  According to recent surveys, ninety-six per cent of Armenians believe homosexuality cannot be justified; and seventy-four per cent of Ukrainians believe homosexuality should ‘not be accepted by society’.   These are disheartening figures; and they provide politicians with dubious democratic legitimacy – like Vladimir Putin – with welcome ways of restoring some form of moral authority, by using a popularly marginalised group as a lightning rod.

In the first decade following the fall of the Soviet Union, newly independent Russia went through a major identity crisis.  Paradoxically, because they had been part of the Romanov Empire and the Soviet Union, the Russians themselves had, over centuries, failed to develop a distinct national identity separate from their subsequent empires.  Was Russia a nation-state? Was it a multi-national federation?  Did it primarily belong to the ethnic Russians (‘Russkiye’) or was it the land of its citizens (‘Rossiyanii’)?  In any case, most Russians agreed it would still have to be a Great Power; but, if it was, what kind of Great Power would it have to be? A ‘normal’ one, indistinguishable from its Western counterparts?  Or the leader of an independent civilizational pole in a world otherwise dominated by the West?

After the uncertainty of the 1990s, and a brief flirtation with the West following 9-11, Vladimir Putin’s government has increasingly answered these questions by defining Russia against the West, both politically and culturally; Moscow’s homophobic streak must be seen within this context, of (re)defining the parameters of political community, of who’s in and who’s out.  The apologists of Putin’s authoritarianism routinely put Russia at the head of a separate civilizational pole, neither Western nor entirely Eastern, a ‘sovereignly democratic’ great power whose identity is based on a curious mix of Tsarist imperial pride – including the restoration of a particularly corrupt, politically subservient and socially retrograde version of Russian Orthodoxy – and the large-scale rehabilitation of Soviet authoritarianism.  Homophobia fits perfectly into both of these elements, as part of an actively promoted Russian self-view as the lone standard-bearer of a curious mix of Orthodox mysticism and lost Soviet might against foreign, Western moral decadence: both these inspirations were relentless persecutors of homosexuality.

This self-view goes much further than, simply, an obsession with sexual orientation; it also entails a fundamentally unequal view of Russia’s relations with the near abroad.  If Moscow indeed stands apart from the West as a Great Power, it requires an exclusive zone of influence, where it can act as this alternative ‘pole’, and perform its pre-destined leadership role.   Thus, while the ‘Eurasian Union’ is outwardly presented as the Russian-led alternative to the European Union, with an entirely economic rationale, the broader societal narratives surrounding it are at times suffused with references to a shared Soviet/Russian cultural past and ‘common values’; that Russia, as a rule, stood and still stands at the core and at the top of these narratives goes without question.

This imperial line of argument leaves little space for self-critique; gone are the days when the Tsars’ genocidal campaigns against Caucasian tribes, or Stalin’s crimes against the Chechens, Crimean Tatars and Meskhetian Turks, were discussed and contextualised as shameful episodes of an imperial past, as they often were in the early 90s.  Any elements within civil society that might actually generate critical introspection are cornered through restrictive funding laws that, in themselves, imply the hostility and foreignness of the West.  Instead, that age-old corollary of empire – racism – has firmly established itself in Putin’s Russia, targeting, as elsewhere, the sub-alterns of the olden days - in this case, ‘dark people’ from the Caucasus and Central Asia migrating to the former metropole in search of precarious menial work. 

Homophobia and racism end up constructing a political community that seeks to legitimise power on two levels: the domestic and the international.  Their mechanics of inclusion and exclusion imply, among others, a rejection of gay rights at home, and a rehabilitation of the country’s imperial past abroad - two sides of the same coin.  Internally, separating Russia from the pernicious, decadent liberalism of the West feeds into those narratives that justify autocracy as inevitable because of sovereign Russia’s cultural incompatibility with Western notions of democracy.  Externally, separating the former Soviet Union from the wider world creates an autonomous geographic space in which Russia can reign supreme.  Not by accident do both these aspects chime exactly with Putin’s view of his, and Russia’s, role in the world.

Conservative and nationalist forces in the near abroad similarly combine homophobia and racism to justify unequal relations with a variety of groups, even without Russia’s imperial element.  From the Ukraine to the Caucasus, any concessions to LGBT, women’s or minority rights are presented by mainly pro-Russian forces as a dark conspiracy to loosen their own ties with an idealised traditional past, revalidated in particularly raw, uncritical form following the fall of the Soviet Union and the failure of its internationalist, universalist political project.  As in Russia, these traditionalists are often associated with local oligarchies and petty potentates, providing a nationalist cultural shield for authoritarianism-as-non-Western-specificity; they also feed on the traditional Russian narratives of 'samobytnost' ('ethno-national authenticity') that emerged in the 19th century, spread throughout the nations of the empire, and revived following the fall of the Soviet Union.

Some – including Stephen Fry – have called for symbolic punitive gestures, like a wholesale boycott of the upcoming Sochi Olympics.  But instead of looking at Russia’s and the former Soviet Union’s troublesome attitudes towards minorities as a short-term aberration that could be solved through one single event, an understanding how these attitudes are entangled with local – and broader regional – relationships of power reveals the complexities inherent in resolving them.  And that will require a much longer-term, concerted effort aimed at opening up and democratising the former Soviet space as a whole.   Homophobic and racist attitudes in Russia – and the near abroad – are the product of a complex entanglement of discourse and power, and will only be resolved if one takes a broad, intersectional view of the country’s – and the region’s – more general democratic deficit.

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