Follow the Rainbow-Bricked Road: The Olympic Flame’s Journey through Russia’s Antigay Provinces

By Innokenty Grekov, Fighting Discrimination Program

This page will be updated as the torch lighting events arrive in the cities below.

Homophobia is widespread in Russia, you all know that by now, and President Vladimir Putin’s government has proved itself willing to exploit it. The federal law banning “propaganda” of nontraditional sexual relations to minors seems like Russia’s top branding item in the world today, and while we have yet to see a prosecution under this ambiguous and discriminatory law, its regional precursors  have been used by authorities to deny LGBT Russians the fundamental rights to assemble, associate, and speak. Unlike the federal law, the regional bans explicitly mention homosexuality.

As another well-known Russian brand—the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics—approaches, the Olympic Flame is on a journey through the country, from Moscow to Siberia to the Krasnodar region, where the Black Sea resort town will play host to the winter games starting on February 7. In this project, we’ll highlight when the Flame casts its glow on the 10 regions that have adopted bans on homosexual “propaganda,” which we identify in Convenient Targets: The Anti-‘Propaganda’ Law and the Threat to LGBT Rights in Russia.

On this fantastic 40,000-mile, 123-day journey through 2,900 villages and cities situated on the longest route in Olympic history, there’ll be many tales to tell, and the official Torch Relay Diary is updated daily with information about local customs, celebrations, and torchbearers. But we also need to hear about the legal attacks on human rights and the courage of LGBT activists. We begin in Ryazan, where the anti-LGBT story began, and end with Krasnodar Krai, where Sochi is located.

Next up:
November 11: Magadan Oblast
December 6: Novosibirsk Oblast
December 16: Samara Oblast
December 22: Bashkortostan Republic
February 4, 2014: Krasnodar Krai

November 1: Archangelsk Oblast

In 2011, Arkhangelsk became the second region in Russia to adopt an anti-“propaganda” statute, banning public actions aimed at “propaganda” of homosexuality among minors. Since then, the law has been used against activists who were denied one-person pickets, a constitutionally protected right in Russia.

While the Olympic flame is in Arkhangelsk today, Russian activists from the region affected by the anti-“propaganda” law are currently in Portland, Maine, the U.S. sister city of Arkhangelsk, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the partnership. Many cities across the world have severed ties with their sister cities in Russia over the anti-“propaganda” laws. But Portland, Maine’s Mayor Michael Brennan, though he considered dropping ties with Arkhangelsk, concluded that “Portlanders would have more influence on the issue by maintaining the connection.”  Russian activists from Rakurs  are hoping to use the sister-city relationship to foster dialogue and ensure that Americans raise this issue and promote Portland’s own pro-LGBT history in conversations with Russian officials.

Human Rights First is facilitating the trip and will join a range of meetings with Portlanders, ranging from high school students to city council members. Undoubtedly, our visitors from Arkhangelsk will be treated with the respect, dignity, and admiration they deserve. Next week, Human Rights First will bring the activists to Washington, D.C. to meet with White House officials.

October 29: Kaliningrad Oblast

Kaliningrad Oblast is an exclave of Russia surrounded by Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea. Its capital city used to be called Königsberg and it was the original capital of Prussia, which became a part of the Soviet Union after World War II. Immanuel Kant was a Königsbergian to the core, and up to this day Russians take Kant very seriously: recently, a man was shot during a heated philosophy debate in a supermarket line.

This year, the Oblast became the latest Russian region to adopt an anti-“propaganda” law. The newly crafted article in the administrative offenses code banned “propaganda” of pedophilia, sexual relations with minors, sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality among anyone (not just minors). Though the law hasn’t been used yet, the administrative code article promises higher fines for “repeat offenders.”

Kaliningrad’s lawmakers’ most significant contribution to the government-led squeeze on LGBT rights in Russia is banning this type of “propaganda” among anyone—the federal and all the other regional bans focus on “protecting the children” from “nontraditional sexual relations.” In Kaliningrad, the authorities wanted everybody to be free of “propaganda.”

October 27: Saint Petersburg

In advance of the G20 summit near Saint Petersburg, we urged President Obama to show support to LGBT activists. The U.S. president ended up meeting with representatives of nine organizations, two of which focus specifically on gay rights: Vykhod (Coming Out) and the Russian LGBT Network.

As pointed out by the Network’s chairman Igor Kochetkov, who was at the meeting, it is impossible to discuss human rights without discussing the violations against LGBT persons, and activists around the globe welcome the Obama administration’s comprehensive political and diplomatic leadership on LGBT rights.

In 2011, the municipal authorities passed a regional ban on public actions aimed at “propaganda” of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality, transgenderism among minors. The ban has been mostly used to deny public events to gay rights campaigners. A parallel ban also targets public acts promoting pedophilia—which is criminalized in Russia while same-sex relations were decriminalized in 1993. Yet, even with the regional ban in place, activists are able to organize events like the recent Queer Festival, where “the atmosphere of a true pride celebration” reigned for nine days.

October 18: Kostroma Oblast

The state-owned RIA news agency’s coverage on the Olympic flame’s passage through Kostroma Oblast notes that “nontraditional modes of transportation” are used there, including an imperial carriage from Catherine the Great’s times, a good old Russian troika, and a galley. What a trip!

Not everything “nontraditional” is celebrated in Kostroma. In 2011, the region amended its administrative offences code with articles 20.1 & 20.2, banning “propaganda” of pedophilia and “propaganda” of homosexuality (sodomy and lesbianism), bisexuality, and transgenderism among minors. Kostroma’s regional law expanded the “ground-breaking” work by the legislators in Ryazan, adding bisexuality and transgenderism to the mix, but also equating pedophilia with homosexuality.

The regional law in Kostroma has been used to deny public events to LGBT activists. Yet, earlier this year a regional court in Kostroma declared illegal two bans on public demonstrations in March 2012. Both events were planned as protests against the regional ban on “propaganda” in Kostroma. The same regional court also upheld the banning of public events in front of a children’s library and a youth library, citing the non-admissibility of promoting homosexuality among minors. This ruling is currently being challenged in a higher court.

October 15: Ryazan Oblast

No better place to start this “antigay” relay overview than Ryazan, where in 2006 Article 3.10 of the administrative offences code banned “Public actions aimed at ‘propaganda’ of homosexuality (sodomy and lesbianism) among minors.” The article’s primary purpose was to deny public events to gay rights and human rights activists, some of whom are now suing Russia in the European Court of Human Rights.

In March 2009, Irina Fedotova’s and Nikolai Bayev’s protest near a Ryazan school building was interrupted by police, and the activists were fined 1,500 rubles (less than 50 USD) by a local court for participating in a public action aimed at “propaganda” of homosexuality. Having exhausted possible domestic remedies, Irina Fedotova pleaded her case at the U.N. Human Rights Committee, which determined that Russia had violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, arguing that she “was giving expression to her sexual identity and seeking understanding for it.”

This international victory has, to the astonishment of international observers, translated into a domestic verdict upholding the United Nations’ ruling. In September, the Ryazan Regional Court overturned the administrative charges against Fedotova and Bayev, who demonstrated with signs saying that “Homosexuality is Normal” and “I am proud of my homosexuality.” The ruling is a major victory for gay rights, expanding the “wiggle room” for advancing human rights in Russia.


Published on November 1, 2013


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