The Sochi Olympics Are a Year Away But Russia’s Still Living in the Past

Feature Image via RIA Novosti

In exactly one year, I’ll be sitting on my couch wrapped in a Canadian flag, screaming at a television cuddling my Quatchi(s). If my previous Olympics experiences have taught me anything, it’s that as soon as that cauldron lights up, the world becomes one massive smorgasboard of facepaint, alcohol, flag inspired outfits and vuvuzuelas. Sochi is set to rack up a fifty billion dollar tab, making it the costliest Olympics to date. Will there be giant blue bouncing balls this time? Or supermodels in snowglobes? Only time will tell. But unlike other host countries that did their social spring cleaning before the world’s attention turned to them, Russia is taking a different approach. They’re pulling their skeletons out of the closets and stuffing their citizens deep inside.

Russia is brazenly pushing through its gay propaganda law in the face of mounting international criticism. The bill is supposed to “protect” impressionable children from the homosexuality by banning and severely fining any groups that are depraved enough to show that LGBT people exist. A similar bill already passed in St. Petersburg and now is now poised to go country-wide. In its first reading last month, the draft law passed 388-1. Yes, one. Sergei Kuzin, the deputy behind that lone vote asks a simple question, “Do you seriously think that you can foster homosexuality via propaganda?” Elena Mizulina, the chair of the Duma’s family issues committee apparently thinks so. She’s quoted as saying that”the spread of gay propaganda among minors violates their rights. Russian society is more conservative so the passing of this law is justified.” Even though the bill still has to make it through two more readings before it gets Putin’s signature, this Russian society has already proven itself to be an inhospitable host.

Whistler's Pride House

Whistler’s Pride House

For the past two Olympics and Paralympics, Pride House has existed as a place of refuge among the other international pavilions. Created for the 2010 Olympics, the organization set up houses in Whistler and Vancouver to provide LGBT athletes and allies with spaces to relax, unwind and be themselves. The venues also provided resources and support services for international athletes that sought asylum from their homelands. It was a safe space that allowed queers from all over the world come together to share their experiences, kind of like the Olympics themselves. London followed suit this past summer with two weeks of events celebrating and educating queers in sports. The games were so queer-inclusive that many said that the Olympic gaymers trounced their straight competitors. But sadly, the legacy ends there. Plans for an LGBT friendly space in Sochi were scrapped when a judge asserted that the Pride House would undermine Russian society. Of course, this bigoted view underscores the need for an LGBT sanctuary at Sochi.

There has been a huge amount of backlash when past Olympic athletes were caught in immoral acts during the games. When a Greek athlete sent a racist tweet before the games, her Olympic committee stopped her from competing. Even though she could have brought home a prestigious medal, they still exposed her since she “showed no respect for the basic Olympian value.” This value being that everyone should be able to play sports without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit. But what if it’s the host that’s spouting the hateful rhetoric? So far: nothing. Confronted with questions surrounding Russia’s gay propaganda law, the International Olympic Committee wouldn’t take a stand. Sandrine Tonge, their spokesperson said, “The IOC would like to reiterate its long commitment to non-discrimination against those taking part in the Olympic Games. The IOC is an open organisation and athletes of all orientations will be welcome at the Games.”

How welcome can athletes feel at Sochi next year? USA Today spoke to several out athletes about their experience and concerns for LGBT acceptance in the Olympic Games. Johnny Weir really loves Russia and Russia loves him right back, but even he acknowledges that his sexuality puts him at odds with their society. His advice for queer athletes that aren’t as knowledgable about Russian culture is to tone down the flamboyancy; “if you don’t call attention to yourself, attention won’t come to you.” But in a country where homosexual propaganda might be outlawed, will everyone be afforded that luxury? Even though Weir has traveled Russia with his husband, the journalist acknowledged that his case may be special. Not all queers can hide behind their celebrity (or the country’s love of figure skating) and get a pass.

Blake Skjellerup, a New Zealand speedskater that competed in Vancouver, feels differently. “I don’t want to have to tone myself down about who I am,” he said, “That wasn’t very fun and there’s no way I’m going back in the closet. I just want to be myself and I hate to think that being myself would get me in trouble.” After visiting Vancouver’s Pride House, he was inspired to come out and show others it’s okay to be gay. “If I had felt like I needed a space to be myself away from the Olympic village, it would have been there. I hope the idea can grow from Olympics to Olympics.”

Louise Englefield, the London Pride House coordinator, still wants to pass the queer torch onto Sochi. Since there’s no set venue, she hopes that the national houses will do their queer citizens proud by taking a day to host their own Pride House. And maybe a few more Skjellerups will come out of the closet, a few more Weirs can convince the Russian government that gays aren’t so bad and these out female athletes can continue to take their rightful place on the podium.

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Hailing from Vancouver, Kristen's still trying to figure out how to survive Montreal's Real Legitimate Canadian Winter. So far she's discovered that warm socks, giant toques and Tabby kittens all play a role in her survival. Her ultimate goal is to rank higher than KStew in the "Kristen + Autostraddle" Google Search competition.

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  1. This whole deal is really sad and terrifying. I’m not Russian, I’m Canadian. I studied Russian in school. I absolutely love Russian art,film, music, literature, food, dance/skating etc. Seriously I have a massive crush for Russia especially 18th- early 20th century. Russian people are incredibly lovely and funny, there of course are bad people everywhere. The political face of Russian is changing again and I have no idea what direction it will go in. It seems to be reversing back to conservative (restrictive and controlling)values. I heard from some of my Russian friends that even literature and historical documents are being altered to a more “kind” view of the Soviet Union.
    Once the union fell it was amazing for people barely living in those restrictions and law. For others it was a very good system and they survived and had many ways to live. I’m not trying to stand up and defend their inhumane laws and actions, I’m just trying to say there are many issues underlying this new government. They have a very old and complicated history and are still working out (which ever way they will go) which system or a combination of systems works for their incredibly large population. I know many Russians are very strong and brave people, but ultimately the government is and has been very powerful in every aspect of authority. There is still fear of what can happen and fear is sometimes (not always) represented in hatred and oppression.

    Again I don’t know everything just wanted to state a little IMO.Just in case you got the impression, I do not agree with Russia’s laws against lgbtq persons. thanks.

    • edit: . For others it was a very good system and they survived

      I meant those who thrived/survived under the Soviet Union. They didn’t want to system to totally disintegrate.

    • Im also still suprised the IOC hasn’t discussed the issues of hosting this in Russian especially post January 2013. Also not countries and teams have discussed boycotting…

  2. I don’t know what’s more disheartening – the fact that Russia is passing these laws, or that they’re not being penalized for it from the Olympic community. Way to take a stand, IOC.

  3. Honestly, if the IOC was more committed to equality and good sportsmanship than it was to money, they would just outright prohibit countries with overtly discriminatory shit like this on the books from ever hosting the games.

    /perfect world

  4. I also want to mention another reason for not looking forward to the Sochi games (apart from the government scapegoating of LGBT people and collusion with the uber-conservative Orthodox Church)… most of the games are happening in the region of the Caucasus Mountains, but also includes much of the area bordering the Black Sea, including Sochi. This is an area which was stolen from its indigenous population in much the same way white settlers and governments stole land from the Native American/First Nation people. They did this by over 150 years of ethnic cleansing (which is still going on) and by moving right-wing russian people (mostly cossacks) into this region. A number of the events at these games are going to be held on sites sacred to various people indigenous to the Caucasus, and Russia is already ignoring any legitimacy to protests surrounding this issue. Nor has Russia or the Soviet Union ever even vaguely acknowledged what they’ve done to these people and their culture. Here’s an interview with some of the protesters:

    • -good point ginapdx

      they have had a lot of issues with terrorist bombings in the past few years as well. I’m not saying it will happen, but they have swept a lot of issues (most of the true history) under the rug so to say. There is definitely a lot of tension between Moscow and certain groups.

    • Russian also tends to sweep their major cities of homeless, addicts, orphan children during high tourist times. It’s really constant displacement and uprooting and crazy that the IOC hasn’t accounted for the numerous questionable methods the government has in “dealing” with their “problems” or unfavourable citizens. Its gross.

      • In all fairness, most Olympic hosts have swept their social issues under the carpet (and enforced that invisibility with police/army). Nor did we see the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics discuss homophobia/racism in the Mormon church nor the sordid history of their treatment of native peoples. But I do think that Russia is in a unique period in their history, where they can either return to a ‘capitalist’ version of the oppressive Brezhnev era or truly become the diverse country they were meant to be. Russia has so much going for it in terms of incredible cultures, skilled populace, natural resources and outstanding alent… I would hate to see them go backwards and embrace the worst parts of their past.

    • Not to dispute your comment, but what exactly is this definition of “cossack” that you’re using for the conservative, right-wing Russians?

      • They were mostly slavic-background peasants who lived in military tribes and eventually became informally absorbed into the Czar’s troupes. The Cossacks in Russia, apart from guarding the borders of the Russian Empire, were extensively used to do ethnic cleansing in many portions of that empire including against the Jews, people from the Caucasus and other groups like the Crimean Tartars. In today’s Russia, the Cossacks are overwhelmingly connected to ultra right-wing and racist parties in that country and continue to have paramilitary organizations which the government tolerates and exploits (unlike how it reacts to any Muslim or Central Asian person who is armed). It’s usually acknowledged that cities like Krasnodar and Rostov-na-donu (which have large Cossack populations and are the closest cities to Sochi) have the most nationalistic and conservative bent of any cities in Russia including a sizable number of neo-nazis.

  5. These problems are just a start, unfortunately. Russia under Putin has become deeply and often violently racist. They call Caucasians (people from the Caucasus) “blacks” in a very perjorative sense. Beatings and murders of migrant workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus are not uncommon and never punished. Then there should be a real concern with corruption and shoddy building of Olympic venues. Is the IOC paying attentionq

  6. I don’t understand how countries with such human rights violations can even be considered for hosting the Olympics. But I guess money is king.

  7. As an Eastern European / Romanian queer immigrant articles like this make me so uncomfortable because they’re always fodder for the right wing anti-immigration and benevolent ‘let’s invade and teach them human rights’ imperialist lobby. You don’t want to know how many times straight white Brits have told me that ‘Eastern Europeans’ shouldn’t be allowed to come to Britain because we’re too homophobic and we’ll ruin their progressive country. Far be it from me to say that there’s no homophobia in Russia, Romania or any other countries in the region (though the difference between C/EE and the West when it comes to homophobia is not as significant as many Westerners like to think), but the way it’s reported in Western media is usually tinged with xenophobia and not that helpful for queer people who actually live in C/EE.

    I don’t know, I do think sometimes international pressure can lead to countries taking important measures against homophobia, but I’m not sure if it will work this time because Russia is such a large and powerful country, the West doesn’t have any kind of leverage. But perhaps this is just my Eastern European pessimism.

    • Well, on the flip side of that, my parents are from Hungary, they came to Canada in 1975 a few months before I was born. Maybe it is my being Canadian of Hungarian extraction as opposed to being a Canadian Hungarian, but each time I go to Hungary (last time was 2003) I can’t help but think that it would be nice if we could somehow magically instil Canadian values onto Hungary, but then I’ve always found Hungary to be really homophobic, transphobic, and really just about everything-non-Hungarian-phobic that I’ve never felt comfortable there at all.

      I don’t know about Romania (my connections in the region are mostly to Hungary and ex-Yugoslavia, I’ve got relatives in Romania but I’ve never met them), but I’m not sure I’d agree that the difference between C/EE and Western Europe isn’t all that big. Just think over the past few years what we’ve seen there – skinheads attacking Budapest Pride, football hooligans firebombing a Pride event in Split, banning ‘for safety’ of Belgrade Pride. I think there’s a long way to go yet before we can say the difference isn’t great.

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