The first sign that Russia’s march toward freedom was on a downward spiral came on June 16, 2001, when George W. Bush said of Russian President Vladimir Putin, "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
It turns out that Bush’s judgment on Putin was only eclipsed by his decision that fateful summer to add “My Pet Goat” to his reading list at the exclusion of a memorandum titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.”
Sixteen years after the collapse of communism and only seven years after Putin’s coming to power, Russia is headed in the wrong direction. Putin’s crooked authoritarianism threatens to set off a new Cold War and erase the hard-won era of peace. Indeed, Alexei Bayer, a guest columnist in the St. Petersburg Times, said Putin’s rule is noted for its “endemic corruption, rollback of democracy, blatant confiscation of private property and murky political murders.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists described Russia as one of the 10 countries that had seen the greatest decline in media freedoms during the past several years. Since Putin came to power, at least thirteen journalists have been whacked, turning Russia into a “Soprano-state.”
In any dictator’s playbook, the way to justify grotesque abuses of power and gain legitimacy is to wrap oneself in the flag and claim to be the great defender of traditional morality. Thus, it is perfectly logical that gay pride marchers were met with deplorable state-sanctioned (or at least supported) violence last week in Moscow.
A rule of thumb is that the less freedom a nation offers, the more a regime cracks down on its gay population. The more liberty enjoyed by gay citizens, the more freedom shared by the general citizenry. With Putin’s regressive Russia having little to offer other than fiery nationalism, it should be no surprise that flag waving hooligans confronted the brave gay men and women that stood up for their civil rights.
The chaotic scene at the unauthorized Moscow rally was an appalling example of naked right wing brutality. The peaceful marchers were met by neo-fascists and loving churchgoers who hurled insults, Bible verses and eggs. Several of the demonstrators were slugged on film, while the police sat by idly. When they finally did get off their totalitarian asses, it was to arrest the innocent gay rights advocates, while the attackers were allowed to waltz off into the sunset.
Many of those arrested (and punched) were foreigners who came to support Russia’s oppressed gay community. The contingent included British singer Richard Fairbrass, of the band Right Said Fred and London activist Peter Tatchell. Also arrested were German Green Party MP, Volker Beck, and a European Parliament deputy from Italy, Marco Cappato.
Watching the gay rights activists get beaten boiled my blood. In essence, an estimated one hundred violent anti-gay punks were intimidating an entire population of gay Russians with the message: Stay in the closet or face violence. I’m traditionally for peaceful protests, but we can’t forget that Stonewall included fighting back. A part of me thinks we should show up next year in larger numbers with the idea that we are going to finally put our overpriced gym memberships to good use.
Of course, my retributive thoughts are tempered with the realization that after Stonewall, the rebelling drag queens were not iced with polonium-210, like former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko. Nor, were they gunned down in cold-blood like journalist Anna Politkovskaya. A Russian Stonewall might very well end up as a row of headstones, in remembrance of dead activists.