The Incoming Russian Roulette

The rapidly evolving equal rights crisis in Russia is prompting Olympic anxiety and may trigger an international civil rights crackdown — or breakthrough.



At left: Police detain activist outside Sochi’s Olympic headquarters

The IOC’s confused response hasn’t surprised its many critics, who have long complained about the organization’s incompetence and corruption. More surprising has been Russia’s hap- hazard reaction; the government hastily issued reassurances that LGBT athletes and visitors needn’t worry about harassment, but the Russian sports minister’s warning that any athlete who “goes out and starts to propagandize will be held accountable” was vague enough to cause widespread con- cern. Russia was forced to include a promise in an official United Nations Olympic truce that it would “promote social inclusion without discrimination of any kind” and asked the IOC to try to “stop this campaign and speculation.”

“Russians are insulted by the pro- tests,” Tanya Domi, a Russian specialist at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and board chair of LGBT activist group GetEQUAL, told The Advocate. “It shows, on the one hand, how unconnected from Western developments regarding LGBT rights they are, and on the other, a very common thread through Russian history is: ‘We don’t really care what you think in the West. Your values are not our values.’”

What worries Russians and the IOC more than disruption at the games themselves is a potential loss of income from the sponsorships that have made the once altruistic Olympic movement one of the world’s most lucrative franchises. McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and NBC, which will broadcast the games, have all issued care- fully worded statements criticizing Russia’s crackdown and defending their own records on LGBT issues. But what is usually a triumphant marketing bonanza still looms as a potential public relations disaster. News photos of protesters underneath the giant Coca-Cola sign in Times Square pouring the drink down the sewer hardly jibes with the warm and fuzzy image the company has nurtured over the years.

Above: Dumping Russian vodka at Russian consulate in New York

Whatever happens in Sochi, this has been “a global breakout movement for LGBT human rights,” Domi notes. “This is what you would call a beautiful problem. Russia is hosting and enacts a crack- down on a discrete group; meanwhile, all these international institutions are taking up LGBT human rights and it is being mainstreamed.”

“This is a global breakout moment for LGBT human rights,” longtime New York activist Bill Dobbs says. “It’s not easy get- ting people excited about politics. We’ve seen a burst of grassroots organizing. We started something that’s caught fire in the wider world.”

Harvey Fierstein, in an opinion piece in the New York Times, spoke for many when he compared what is happening to LGBT Russians to the Holocaust. But unlike the Nazi genocide, today’s world leaders have been put on notice that this time, their citizens expect them to do more than just sit by and watch.