With the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, less than two months away, gay rights activists from around the world are using the games to put a spotlight on Russia’s new law criminalizing the so-called "promotion of homosexuality." The law allows Russian authorities to fine anyone accused of promoting "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors." One provision allows gay or pro-LGBT foreigners to be detained and then deported. We are joined by two prominent Russian LGBT activists: Anastasia Smirnova, coordinator of the Russian LGBT Network; and journalist Masha Gessen, who recently announced she is fleeing Russia due to the country’s repressive laws. Gessen is author of the book, The Man Without a Face: The Rise and Rule of Vladimir Putin, and the forthcoming, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: With the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, less than two months away, gay rights activists from around the world are using the games to put a spotlight on a new Russian law criminalizing the so-called "promotion of homosexuality." The law allows Russian authorities to fine anyone accused of promoting, quote, "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors." One provision allows gay or pro-LGBT foreigners to be detained and then deported. Some LGBT groups are now calling for boycott of the Olympic Games.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two prominent Russian LGBT activists. Anastasia Smirnova is coordinator of the Russian LGBT Network. She recently met with Thomas Bach, who is the president of International Olympic Committee, urging him to launch an independent investigation into the implications of Russia’s anti-gay law during the Winter Games.
We’re also joined by journalist Masha Gessen, a journalist who recently announced she’s fleeing Russia due to the country’s repressive laws. In August, she wrote a widely read article for The Guardian, titled "As a Gay Parent I Must Flee Russia or Lose My Children." Gessen is author of the book The Man Without a Face: The Rise and Rule of Vladimir Putin. Her forthcoming book is Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.
Let’s begin with Anastasia. You just met with the head of the Olympics. What was this conversation? What did you tell him?
ANASTASIA SMIRNOVA: We used this unique opportunity to raise very specific concerns about the implications of the anti-propaganda law for the Olympic movement and for the games in Sochi. There have—
AMY GOODMAN: What does the law say?
ANASTASIA SMIRNOVA: The law—you already quoted the law. It bans promotion of information that may cause harm for moral and spiritual development of children.
MASHA GESSEN: Including forming in them—
AMY GOODMAN: Masha?
MASHA GESSEN: —erroneous impression of the social equality of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations. So it actually enshrines second-class citizenship.
ANASTASIA SMIRNOVA: And not only enshrines second-class citizenship, but portrays LGBT people and also allies of LGBT people as a threat to families, to children and to the whole Russian society, entitling people to violence.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Masha Gessen, you have lived in Russia for 20 years. Could you talk a little about what brought this law about now, so recently, and then your own position there as a person who is openly gay?
MASHA GESSEN: Well, what brought this law about is Putin’s feeling that his power is threatened. He needs to mobilize the society against an enemy, and he has decided that there is nobody who personifies the other better than LGBT people. So, it’s part and parcel of a greater crackdown on civil society, which includes the laws on foreign agents, laws expanding the definition of espionage and high treason, laws paralyzing the work of NGOs, and the homosexual propaganda ban and the ban on adoptions by same-sex couples is also a part of that.
And what has happened to us is that my partner and I have three children together, and one of them is adopted. They made it very clear that they were going to go after him, after the ban on same-sex adoptions was passed, because it doesn’t matter that his adoption has been final for 12 years. They can—there is still a procedure in Russia known as the annulment of adoption. And they’ve also—the chairwoman of the Committee on the Family in the Parliament has announced their intention to create a mechanism for removing children from same-sex families.
AMY GOODMAN: Wasn’t there a bill introduced that was then withdrawn?
MASHA GESSEN: Yes. There was a bill introduced in September. It was introduced by the ruling party. It was withdrawn, but the sponsor of the bill made it very clear that he was withdrawing it temporarily to correct the language. What he actually meant is that he is withdrawing it until the Olympic Games are over.
AMY GOODMAN: Lady Gaga recently added her voice to the list of celebrities calling for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in February. She was talking to host Alan Carr of the British show, Chatty Man.
LADY GAGA: To be honest, I don’t think we should be going to the Olympics at all.
ALAN CARR: Oh, yes, because of, yeah, Putin.
LADY GAGA: I just think it is absolutely wrong for so many countries to send money and economy in the way of a country that doesn’t support gays.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Lady Gaga. Anastasia, do you support a boycott of the Olympics?
ANASTASIA SMIRNOVA: I think we can talk about different types of a boycott. And I’m totally supportive of the point about investing resources into the games, and we are greatly concerned that no Olympic sponsor has spoken up condemning the situation in Russia yet and calling on the International Olympic Committee to uphold its responsibility and to fight discrimination that affects the movement. So far, everyone—all the stakeholders involved in the games have been endorsing the situation in Russia. And in regards the Olympic sponsors, the International Olympic Committee, there has been—there has to be a clear and strong action from people involved in the movement to call them for action. Then, the idea of a political boycott. People sitting next to President Putin at the games means them endorsing these extremely repressive policies.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by political boycott? You mean world leaders sitting next to him?
ANASTASIA SMIRNOVA: World leaders should not sit next to him at the games, because this means endorsement of what is happening in the country.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Masha Gessen, could you comment on that, as well, on the boycott and what you believe ought to happen, and also the changes that you’ve witnessed in Russian society since this law came into being and the kinds of violence that gays in Russia are now confronting?
MASHA GESSEN: Correct. Gays in Russia are now confronting all kinds of violence. There’s vigilante violence. There’s organized-for-the-cameras violence. There’s street violence because people feel entitled. They feel that there will—nothing will happen to them. And nothing does happen to them when they attack and sometimes even murder LGBT people. So, when world leaders—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Have there been murders of LGBT—
MASHA GESSEN: There have been murders, yes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Since the summer?
MASHA GESSEN: Since the summer. When world leaders go to the Olympics, they are, in essence, lending their support to a regime that has declared all-out war on a part of its population, because the reason people are getting attacked, the reason we’re in grave danger, true danger to our lives, is the hate campaign that has been unleashed by the Kremlin. And so, we want all world leaders to follow the lead of the presidents of Germany and Poland, who have already said that they’re not going to the Olympics.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask about these reports that the Russian government is about to grant mass amnesty to about 25,000 people, including Pussy Riot and the Arctic 30, the Greenpeace activists and the two journalists who were covering them.
MASHA GESSEN: Right. OK, I think it would be a mistake to call it a mass amnesty. There is indeed an amnesty bill that is pending that was proposed by President Putin. It will indeed apply, most likely, to—
AMY GOODMAN: This all coming from pressure about the Olympics?
MASHA GESSEN: It’s coming from pressure about the Olympics. It’s also—it’s cynical and transparent, because—and Pussy Riot is the best example of what happens as a result of this amnesty. They will get a month, maybe two, if they’re very lucky, knocked off their sentences. Normally, their sentences run through March 3rd of this year. And it—
AMY GOODMAN: Next year.
MASHA GESSEN: Of next year. And it looks like they’ll get out a month, maybe two months, earlier, right? So, a month or two months out of Russian jail is a really good thing for the women of Pussy Riot, but it is so cynical to have held them in jail for peaceful protest, for 40 seconds of singing—lip-synching, actually—in a church, in conditions that can only be classified as torture, and then try to get points on the world stage by releasing them a month or two early.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, but we will continue the discussion. Masha Gessen, thanks so much for being with us, journalist who blogs for The New York Times, author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. Also, I want to thank Anastasia Smirnova for joining us, as well, coordinator of the umbrella rights group, the Russian LGBT Network. That does it for our show. By the way, Time magazine just named Pope Francis as the Person of the Year.