The world is readying to turn its attention to Sochi next month, and many claim to feel a tangible sense of deja vu. Once again, a confrontation has been set up between the Olympic Charter, which calls for "promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity… requir[ing] mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play," and the host country's policies on minorities.
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Back in 1936, despite the growing persecution of Jews and other ‘undesirables’, Hitler’s Germany was the setting for a celebration of the Olympic spirit, a prologue to genocide. Nearly eighty years later, the echoes of history can be heard in Russian President Vladimir Putin's behavior towards his country’s LGBT community.
In June 2013, Putin signed into law a ban on the "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" among minors. In the months that followed, LGBT rights groups around the globe called for boycotts of Russian goods and support from world leaders in exerting pressure on Putin to repeal the law that has served as an unofficial sanction for acts of brutality and persecution against Russia’s embattled gay community. Despite the notable failure of the International Olympic Committee to take a firm stance in support of Principle 6 of its own charter, which prohibits membership of the Olympic movement to states practicing discrimination "on the grounds of race, religion, gender or otherwise",Russia has acceded to the international furor – to an extent.
In his most recent comments on the status of gay athletes and spectators at the events, Putin has assured the protection of all, as long as they abstain from "propaganda". Putin’s government has taken up the helm of international bigotry and denounced the West’s attempt to impose unnatural and alien views of the normality of homosexuality on the rest of the world. While this rhetoric is dangerous enough, on 17 January Putin told an international audience that anything that stood in the way of Russia’s future [precisely how the LGBT community has been cast] "we must clean up.” Despite his insistence that it would be done "in modern and humane ways", this obvious allusion to the cleansing of impure aspects of the Russian population does little to mask the root beliefs of this leader of nearly 150 million people.
Due to the outspokenness of prominent people and groups like Pussy Riot, Lady Gaga and Madonna, we know that anyone who violates the open-ended terms of the Russian law is liable to punishment. Thanks to the brave work of reporting agencies like VICE, we have been given an unfiltered look into the reality of the situation on the ground. The law has resulted in the denial of individual rights to free speech, police brutality, publicized torture and tacitly approved murder. Yet Putin insists that it "does not hurt anyone", that LGBT individuals do not "feel like second-rate humans." To Putin, this is not discrimination.
The Russian LGBT community has been stripped of its civil rights and of its recourse to the protection a government owes its people. They have been dehumanized. Their plight has not gone unnoticed, and as Stephen Fry’s open letter in August 2013 shows, neither have the obvious parallels with Putin’s twentieth-century predecessor. However, the stubborn refusal to alter rhetoric reveals that Russia has only been willing to succumb (albeit minimally) to the weight of international pressure because of the looming winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Therefore, the window remaining for the Russian government’s susceptibility to reason will not last for long. Now is the time that the voices of equality and liberty need to make themselves heard. Now is the time that we need to prove, once and for all, that we learned from the mistakes of Nazism.
International leaders have voiced their concern over the Russian stance, and the Olympic delegations of key powers like the U.S., France and Germany are notable in their lack of heads of state and/or inclusion of openly gay athletes or symbols. But this is not enough. The shockingly expensive world stage that Russia has constructed at Sochi is a fitting platform for the support of human rights, and it needs to be used as such. The world needs to voice its outrage and intolerance for such blatant and dangerous discrimination to show the Russian LGBT community that they have not been abandoned, to help open the eyes of the Russian people at large to the truth that state-backed propaganda has obscured, and to show the Russian government that the world will not stand idly by.
In his groundbreaking book An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin, Gad Beck notes that 1936 and 1937 were "like a breather for Jews in Germany because of the Olympics." They were "left in peace; at least that’s how it looked from the outside. The Nazis wanted to keep up appearances." As a people and as a world, we promised "never again." If the current situation is the breathing space given to Russia’s gay community, then the future is more dangerous than we thought, and we cannot put off our duty to take a stand and make a statement any longer.
Today marks the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. History tells us that we must act now, when we have the power of influence, to prevent a repeat of the horrors of the past.
James McDonald is a displaced Brooklynite studying for an MLitt in Scottish History at the University of Glasgow.