The 2014 Winter Olympics open officially in Sochi, Russia, today, and the next two weeks will bring not only feats of athletic prowess but an answer to a major question about the Sochi Games: will there be protests and demonstrations against the anti-gay law Russia’s government instituted in 2013?
In the year before the Games, athletes from an array of countries and sports spoke out against the law, which bans “homosexual propaganda” directed particularly at children. Others, like American middle distance runner Nick Symmonds and two Swedish track and field athletes, challenged the law during the Track and Field World Championships in Moscow last year. And news reports ahead of the Games are filled with LGBT groups and their allies from around the world promising protests against the Russian government and the International Olympic Committee during the Olympics.
It seems almost a given that those protests will occur. The question is whether they will have any effect, particularly in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin and top members of his government have defended the law since it passed.
Among Russians who oppose the law, there is concern that protesting it at the Olympics won’t change Putin’s mind. Instead, they worry, it could have the opposite effect.
“Putin is not the kind of person who concedes under pressure, and has never been,” Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center, said during a roundtable discussion in November. “It’s just the opposite. The more there’s pressure, the more aggressive he gets. I would say this makes him popular. We’re a proud nation. We would not allow anyone to teach us or preach to us.”
In Russia, as The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe has written, “it is Putin — and only Putin — at the wheel, and…his grip is firm.” That was the case in December when he freed political prisoners like Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the members of Pussy Riot, a move meant more to remind the world of his power than as a gesture of goodwill or a sign that looming Sochi Olympics would soften the government’s stance on any of the issues that had earned in criticism in the years and months before the Games. It will likely be the same with the anti-gay law.
“It had been expected or hoped that Sochi would work, that the closer we get the more the government would be concerned with its reputation, the more it would want the world to look at Russia with a wonderful sporting event. It would tone down some of these initiatives,” Lipman said. “It didn’t happen this way. It indicates that the government may care about image and reputation, it may care enough to hire expensive public relations firms, but it does not care enough to change its policies if it feels these policies support the Kremlin’s interests.”
The law itself is not an isolated incident, but part of a broader movement toward social conservatism that has helped Putin consolidate and maintain his power since he retook the presidential office in 2012. Protests filled city squares across Russia then — signs calling for “A Russia Without Putin” were not uncommon — but Putin regained his popular footing among Russians thanks to a familiar political tactic: by defining what it meant to be, in Lipman’s words, “a good Russian.” His opponents were largely young and modernized, a stark contrast from the social conservative bent of Putin and his supporters, and so his definition of “good Russian” followed his social conservative leanings too.
Russia is not necessarily a socially conservative place — public views on extramarital sex and contraception are liberal compared to many other nations, Lipman said. But it has never been positively pro-gay. Homosexuality was outlawed in the Soviet Union. Post-communist Russia maintained a “don’t ask, don’t tell” atmosphere around LGBT issues for more than two decades after the Soviet collapse. Though homosexuality was met with tacit societal disapproval, it was never a topic of national discussion.
That changed when the anti-gay propaganda legislation came up this year, and gay Russians became the subject of verbal and physical attacks as they protested against it. The anti-gay law was only part of the movement to define post-communist Russia, which began with a spate of socially conservative laws and a revival of anti-Western, anti-American sentiment that Lipman said the country hadn’t seen in such a protracted manner since the fall of the USSR. Another Russian law in this vein banned the adoption of orphans by American families. Each push found more support among a population that wanted nothing more than to fit the “good Russian” model, and to avoid being associated with the attributes Putin assigned to his detractors. And each bill pushed the country further rightward, as any new, radically conservative bill led to support among the people and popularity in the media. Those bills also curried favor in Moscow and, most of all, with Putin.
The anti-gay law came in that context, and it came with broad public approval. One poll around its introduction found 88 percent support among the public, making it “the most popular among the people” of any of the conservative laws, Lipman said. And because the entire movement is steeped in anti-Western sentiment, any protest against it during the Sochi Olympics will do little more than reinforce Putin’s position among his people.
“The anti-western strain of the state propaganda works very well,” Lipman said. “[Russia has] always said [Westerners] seek to undermine our traditional values. What do they defend? Gays. Right, because gays undermine our traditional values.”
For all his talk about promoting a “new Russia” through Sochi, it is clear that Putin’s primary aim is to make these Games look like a success to his people, and if Russians view these Olympics as a success, Putin will too. So if Putin’s mind — and the minds of Russians — can’t be changed with protests, is there any sense in protesting?
The answer is yes, though those protests should probably target the organization that handed Russia these Olympics — the IOC — rather than Moscow itself.
This is the organization that handed a country with a long list of human rights violations a major sporting event. And this is the organization that remained mostly quiet over the next seven years as more of those violations, including the anti-gay law, piled up. This is the organization that told athletes to comply with the law of the land even when that law violated basic Olympic principles. This is the organization whose top members scolded President Obama for cheering on gay athletes and including them in his official Olympic delegation. The organization that cares so much more about its finances than its ideals. And the organization that is so woefully out of touch with the history of its own events that it said such a statement from Obama made the Games too political.
And this is the organization that brought an Olympic Movement — and a sports world — that has been increasingly open to openly gay athletes to a country that is increasingly closing its doors to gay people.
The IOC is particularly culpable because it had the power to cause change. It was the IOC’s request for clarification about the law that forced Putin and top governmental officials to publicly address the law in the global media. And yet, as the absurdity of the laws became apparent, the IOC did nothing.
By putting the Olympics in Russia, the IOC failed its athletes, its fans, and its own basic values. For that, it deserves embarrassment, the type that comes along with massive protests, both inside the Games and out, during its signature event.
It’s not that Russia and Putin’s records on human rights and LGBT equality don’t deserve protest and attention. But it will take more than protests to change Russia. That will require political institutions and education campaigns not unlike those that changed popular opinion about LGBT equality in the United States and western Europe (where, it should be noted, full LGBT equality often remains an unrealized reality). Before that, it may require government reform that allows for the establishment of those institutions and other broad rights, like the ability of dissidents to speak out without fear of retribution from the Kremlin or violence from their fellow citizens. Changing Russia into a country that accepts the basic humanity of LGBT people is a long fight that won’t be won through protests at the Sochi Olympics.
Changing the IOC, however, will require far less, and protests at the Sochi Olympics should draw attention to the organization’s failures. Some organizations have already made the IOC a focus of their ire. Athlete Ally, an American group that has enlisted straight athletes who believe in equality, has sold shirts and other memorabilia touting Principle 6, the section of the Olympic Charter that says athletes should be able to participate in sports “without discrimination of any kind.” Google highlighted the IOC’s failures by changing its logo and quoting Principle 6 Thursday night. Other protests pledge to draw attention to the IOC’s failure to speak out on behalf of its athletes and fans and its comfort with relying on Russian assurances that the law wouldn’t be enforced in Sochi.
Protests at the Sochi Olympics should get the attention of FIFA, which decided in 2010 to give Russia the 2018 World Cup (the same year it granted the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal). And they should also get the attention of the IOC, to send the message that its ideals of promoting peace, equality, and tolerance through sport are worthless if it makes nary an effort to live up to them. And it’s important to reinforce that it’s time for these organizations to stop putting their financial interests — and the corruption that promotes them — ahead of the basic human sentiments to which they claim to aspire.
It’s too late for the Sochi Olympics to change Russia. It’s unclear if they ever could have anyway. There’s plenty of time, though, to turn Sochi into an example for the IOC, and to ensure that failures like this don’t happen again.