This week I had planned to write an article on my experiences of working at a summer school for teenagers learning English. I was hoping it would be a series of funny anecdotes, a few thoughts on the uncertainty of life as a recent graduate and, to add a touch of levity at the end, a mention of the brilliant productions that formed a part of the Globe’s summer season and the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival (which the students have been repeatedly encouraged to attend).
As I sat down to write it I chanced upon this Buzzfeed article and the frothy nonsense I was about to compose suddenly seemed trite and meaningless. The piece describes and depicts (in often horrific detail, so be warned) the actions of the nascent Occupy Paedophilia movement, the latest manifestation of Russia’s complex and deeply reactionary relationship to homosexuality and associated identities.
In essence, the members of these groups pose online as gay men looking for partners. When they meet their victims they are often physically assaulted, humiliated and, as the movement’s website (antipedofil.org) encourages, are filmed and outed online, ostensibly as a warning to those living in their communities. The site says that their aim is to protect children (a macabre extension of the anti homosexual propaganda laws that have been sweeping eastern Europe). In reality, the pictures suggest a loutish triumphalism, an overt sign of power that encapsulates the experience of being gay in Russia as a whole: one confined to the margins of society.
The website has a catalogue of all the attacks and interrogations that have been carried out by its members. It is striking that in the videos uploaded by the group’s members the bullying rhetoric makes little distinction between homosexuality and paedophilia, and even may be said to rely on this blurring as part of the functioning of the campaign. In the video, I watched as a man (incidentally, ethnically Uzbek, adding questions of race into this complex maelstrom), naked and cowering in a bath, was asked (according to my rough translation) “So are you a homo or a paedo?” There is a persistent use of words connected to paedophilia: “pederast” the Russian slang term for a gay man, literally means paedophile and an alternative term is “detoliuba,” which literally means “child-lover.”
This movement therefore capitalises on cultural ideas that are as current on the streets of Moscow as they are in Russia’s houses of parliament: that homosexuality is morally and culturally damaging and is basically the equivalent of child abuse. This intertwining of homosexuality and paedophilia seems to me to be done in such a way that deflects any criticism; because the two terms are rendered basically synonymous, any detractor could be caught out with the question, “So, you approve of paedophilia then?”
It is worrying to watch how these thuggish movements feed off the dominant political rhetoric of Putin’s Russia. As post-Soviet cultural discourse became saturated with talk of a “bright future” in the 1990s, antipedofil’s slogan is “For the future!” The problem is therefore twofold. What first appeared to me to be the actions of a few crazed individuals who are obsessed by ridding the world of the homosexual menace, as they see it, these attacks most definitely have their roots in the corridors of power. These are not the actions of a few, but the refracted tendencies of an entire political system which consistently figures homosexuality a perversion, reaching from the state’s cosy relationship to the Orthodox Church, the anti-gay propaganda laws, the arbitrary arrests at legal pride marches and the recent ban on gay couples adopting Russian children.
I don’t want to get overly sentimental, but the fact that these kind of attacks are becoming more and more common and appear to be met with lessening resistance by those in power in a country that I love and am hoping to call my home in the not too distant future is distressing. I’m planning a further article on the inspiring work of the St Petersburg-based charity Coming Out, one of the country’s foremost LGBT rights groups, but they recently faced closure. This increasing normalisation of homophobic violence proves they desperately need your help. Their donations page is here.