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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Olympics in Sochi cause for concern

I always look forward to the Olympics. For a two-week period every two years, they give me the opportunity to care about things like speed-skating, curling, diving and gymnastics. I don’t ordinarily care about these things. But the Olympics have this amazing power to make me care.

However, I have mixed feelings about Sochi. The Olympics are sometimes hosted by countries with poor human rights records (see: China), or policies and leaders I could do without. But this year’s winter games provide myriad things to object to, from the platform they’ll give the loathsome dictator Vladimir Putin, to the environmental and human costs of getting ready for the games to Russia’s persecution of LGBT citizens. There’s an ugly undercurrent to Sochi that I’m finding impossible to ignore.

The impact of Russia’s brutal crackdown on gays and lesbians is chronicled by Glenville native Jeff Sharlet in a long article in GQ titled “Inside the Iron Closet: What it’s Like to Be Gay in Putin’s Russia.” The piece paints an unpleasant portrait of a country in the midst of a brutal and violent crackdown on LGBT citizens, where being gay or openly supportive of gays can land you in prison.

Sharlet explains that he “went to Moscow and St. Petersburg for two weeks in November because the Olympics were coming to Russia, and for a brief moment it seemed possible that the outside world was interested in the unraveling of civil society in one of the most powerful countries on the globe. Books are being banned — Burroughs and Baudelaire and Huxley’s Brave New World — immigrants hunted, journalists killed, a riot-grrrl band, Pussy Riot, imprisoned for almost two years for playing a “Punk Prayer” in a Moscow cathedral; blasphemy is now illegal. Civil society isn’t just coming undone; it’s imploding.”

Of the violence that gays and lesbians are experiencing, he writes, “Yes, there are killings. In May, a 23-year-old man in Volgograd allegedly came out to a group of friends, who raped him with beer bottles and smashed his skull in with a stone; and in June a group of friends in Kamchatka kicked and stabbed to death a 39-year-old gay man, then burned the body. There’s a national network called Occupy Pedophilia, whose members torture gay men and post hugely popular videos of their “interrogations” online. There are countless smaller, bristling movements, with names presumptuous (God’s Will) or absurd (Homophobic Wolf). There are babushkas who throw stones, and priests who bless the stones, and police who arrest their victims.” He adds that “The Russian closet has always been deep, but since last June, when the Duma began passing laws designed to shove Russia’s tiny out population back into it, the closet has been getting darker. The first law banned gay ‘propaganda,’ but it was written so as to leave the definition vague. It’s a mechanism of thought control, its target not so much gays as anybody the state declares gay; a virtual resurrection of Article 70 from the old Soviet system, forbidding ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.’ Then, as now, nobody knew exactly what ‘propaganda’ was.” (You can read the whole article here.)

Meanwhile, human rights groups and news organizations have reported that Sochi residents have been evicted from their homes without compensation, and that migrant workers have been abused. The games are the most expensive in history, and also, possibly, the most corrupt, with a reported $30 billion of monies allocated to the games having vanished. The environmental degradation includes the destruction of wetlands and illegal waste dumps, while animal rescue groups are appalled by reports that exterminators have been hired to kill stray dogs. There are also concerns that Sochi is vulnerable to terrorism.

Because the Sochi games are so problematic, they also have the potential to be compelling and important — to provide a platform for those opposed to Russia’s anti-gay laws, and to make people aware of other troubling developments, like Russia’s continued suppression of journalists. I will watch the games, as I always do, but this year I’m more interested in the politics and controversy surrounding the event.

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