On Wednesday, a panel discussed LGBT activism at the Sochi Olympics. However, some students who attended felt that the panel had failed to cover "ways in which the Sochi Olympics could be used to expose LGBT abuses and to help people living in Russia."
The simple response to this is that there is no direct way for the Western world to "help" people in Russia, short of transporting them out. Many, including Stephen Fry and Pussy Riot, support boycotting the Sochi Olympics. However, this would only hurt LGBT athletes, turning their sexuality into a criterion that bars them from participating, while creating a divide between LGBT and heterosexual athletes. Others have taken to boycotting Russian vodka, overlooking the fact that vodka, like many products in this day and age, is produced and manufactured in a number of countries that don't always reflect the product's origin or marketing. Smirnoff is owned and produced by a British company. Stolichnaya is produced in Latvia.
A boycott as the protest of choice against Russia's anti-gay legislation betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Russia. A boycott assumes that the issue at hand is a piece of legislation that can be reversed, after which the problem somehow becomes less of a problem because it is no longer codified. Admittedly, a boycott or a petition is the most that can be done by students, and the effort is admirable. Boycotts are often great catalysts for discourse. However, no boycott, no matter how successful, can change the ideological stance of the overwhelming majority of citizens in a country as large as Russia.
According to the Pew Research Center, only 16 percent of Russians think that homosexuality should be accepted by society. The legislation banning "gay propaganda" passed 436-0, with one abstention. With these numbers in mind, participating in or advocating for a boycott of Russian vodka or of the Sochi Olympics shows profound naiveté and self-indulgence, and is thus ultimately ineffective. A boycott ignores the power the Russian Orthodox Church possesses as Russia's moral arbiter. It ignores countless existing pieces of legislation in Russia that limit LGBT rights, including a 100-year ban on gay pride parades. Perhaps most importantly, it ignores the dramatic differences between Russia and the Western world and the depth of anti-Western sentiment present in Russia.
I spent much of my summer in Russia. One day, when I was driving home with a family friend, a BBC News host on the radio remarked that Russia's anti-gay legislation would increase tension between Russia and the U.S. Our family friend, a Russian journalist, dryly remarked, "There is no relationship between Russia and the U.S."
My friend's comment is reflective of the general attitude toward the West in Russia. Reporters for "Vremya," Russia's Channel One news show, frequently editorialize about the West, making sardonic comments about imperialism and hypocrisy.
The documentary "The Russian Soul," directed by Andrew Hamilton, GS '13, describes how Russians denounce the term "democracy" for its Western connotation but agree with its general tenets when not presented with the actual word. In his recent op-ed about Syria for the New York Times, Russia's President Vladimir Putin wrote, "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation." This is nothing if not an attempt to knock the U.S. down a peg, something Putin does with relative frequency.
Hypocrisy is one of the recurring Russian criticisms of the West. While I'd be hard-pressed to call the U.S. deliberately hypocritical, it wouldn't hurt to reflect on what changes we can make within our own borders before shifting our gaze abroad. We go to school in a country where same-sex sexual activity was made legal nationwide in 2003 (10 years after Russia). To this day, we are shocked when 10 members of the Republican Party actually vote in support of a bill to ban discrimination against gay workers. Barack Obama is our first president to take a strong pro-LGBT stance in office (only doing so in 2012). Gerald Ford is still the only Republican president to speak in support of LGBT rights, having done so in 2001.
I am not advocating that we forget about the struggles of the LGBT community in Russia. However, as Columbia students, our best chance at success requires that we acknowledge a reasonable scope for the change we can bring about. Russia currently resembles a Section 28-era U.K., or the U.S. twenty-five years ago. However, to make the U.S. the standard toward which countries strive in regards to LGBT rights, our goal has to be to fight the abuses perpetrated within our own country, where we have the voice and (if you choose to be optimistic) the power to do so. To help those living in Russia, we must first help citizens here. Our disgust with Russia's human rights environment must energize us and remind us that we, too, have a long road ahead.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore. He is an illustrator for Spectator.
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