As the Sochi Olympics approach, one of the biggest lingering questions of the Games is how Russia’s laws that ban so-called “gay propaganda” and allow foreigners who are accused of promoting homosexuality to be held for two weeks and then deported, will be enforced with regard to foreign athletes, many of whom have expressed disgust with Russia’s anti-gay policies. Some Russian officials have said that the law will effectively be suspended for the games. Others have pledged to enforce it. And the United Nations has drafted a new version of the Olympic truce that’s meant to be wider-reaching, explicitly saying that the goal of the Games is to “promote social inclusion without discrimination of any kind.”
But a recent lawsuit about a very different subject offers some insight on how Russians and Russian courts might respond to athletes who stand up for gay rights in Sochi, and how the “gay propaganda” laws serve to draw a distinction between so-called Russian values and foreign cultural imports.
After Lady Gaga performed in St. Petersberg last year, Nadezhda Petrova, whose thirteen-year-old daughter attended the concert, sued Gaga’s local promoters on the grounds that, as the Hollywood Reporter puts it, “her 13-year-old daughter was exposed to an imitation of sexual intercourse between women and advocacy of alcohol consumption.” Now, it would seem reasonable to ask what Petrova thought her daughter was going to get out of a Lady Gaga concert, and why she was so powerless to stop her own child from attending if she thought Gaga was such a threat to her morals. But this is Russia, and as the Hollywood Reporter explains:
Judge Olga Rositskaya ruled that the show’s organizer, the promoter Planeta Plus, had violated a clause in Russia’s administrative code on “protection of children from information that could harm their health and/or development.” Although the amount of the fine is rather symbolic, $614 (20,000 rubles), the ruling will allow the complainant to sue Planeta Plus in a criminal court, demanding millions of rubles in damages for “psychic trauma” suffered by her daughter at the show at St. Petersburg’s SKK, which they both attended last December.
In other words, the “gay propaganda” laws are a way of punishing Russians who collaborate with outside artists, and potentially athletes, who are seen to be importing values that are in contravention with Russian culture. If you can get sued and bankrupted for booking an artist who voices support for gay rights, that’s a strong disincentive for bringing anyone with any stance on gay rights whatsoever into the country. Even if foreign athletes aren’t detained or deported for voicing support for gay rights or wearing gay rights regalia during the Olympics, the Gaga case opens up the possibility that Russians involved in the Olympics could be sued for damages if Olympics become a platform for a discussion of Russia’s policies. The question of whether or not non-Russians can speak their minds is only one part of the equation. If the “gay propaganda” laws chill Russians’ willingness to engage with non-Russian figures, or make it financially ruinous to do so, those are enormous and enormously dangerous consequences.
And the laws are also a way of blunting the impact of arguments in favor of gay rights by portraying them as an invasion of Russia, an incursion by secular actors from the West meant to undermine Russians’ own beliefs and family structures. An appeal for Russia and Russians to come into compliance with international norms may have a limited impact if Russians have been convinced that the best way to preserve their country is to resist the blandishments of a fallen outside world. As a result, Russia doesn’t have to silence the athletes coming to Sochi to make their point. Instead, if athletes speak out, anti-gay Russians can point to their actions as proof of how little respect the outside world has for Russia’s right to self-determination, and for Russian values.
In other words, the “gay propaganda” laws are a perfect trap for Russian gay rights activists, foreign gay rights activists, and even Russians whose only crime is to want to engage with international culture. Sochi may be a spotlight for the rest of the world to look askance on Russia’s gay rights record. But Russia’s built a policy designed to help it win a long, internal war.