During the Cold War, the Soviet Union persecuted leading dissidents, who sought to change Soviet society, and Jews, who simply wanted to emigrate to Israel but were forbidden to leave. They were threatened and intimidated by the KGB, and imprisoned or sent to Siberia after show trials. The American government constantly condemned Soviet human rights abuses (especially during the Reagan Administration), made favorable trade status for the Soviet Union contingent on allowing Jews to leave, and imposed a basket of human rights obligations on the Soviet Union as part of the Helsinki Accords that ratified the post-World War II borders of Europe. Ultimately, the confrontational approach worked. The Soviet Jews were allowed to emigrate, the harsh treatment of dissidents eased, and eventually the Soviet Union collapsed.
Whether we are engaged in a new Cold War with Russia is a matter of ongoing debate. What is not debatable is the Soviet style-violation of human rights in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, except that the victims this time are not dissidents and Jews but gays. And, other than during the run-up to the Sochi Olympics earlier this year, the Obama administration, and other western governments, have not consistently criticized these Russian human rights violations.
One recent example occurred earlier this month when Russia abruptly cancelled its participation in the U.S. government’s long standing Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX). This program brings 8,000 Russian high school students to the United States for a school year(American students do not go to Russia). Russian authorities justified the cancellation on the ground that a 17 year old male Russian FLEX student elected to stay in the United States and apply for political asylum because of his sexual orientation. Yet, the Obama Administration downplayed it, misleadingly suggesting that the cancellation was simply another pretext by Russia to damage ties with the United States. In fact, it was the result of Vladimir Putin’s severe homophobia and his constant emphasis on the moral corruption of the West (and Russia’s moral superiority). The Administration blew an opportunity to call attention to Russia’s oppression of a vulnerable minority.
Putin’s Russia is one of the most viciously anti-gay countries in the world even though homosexuality was legalized two decades ago. Prior to Putin’s re-election in 2012, the hate campaign against gays was typically carried out by lower-level officials. The then mayor of Moscow described gay events as “Satanic” and one regional governor suggested that “faggots should be torn apart and their pieces thrown in the wind.”
After Putin’s re-election, the war against gays went national and, literally, viral on the internet. In October 2013, a Russian lawmaker introduced legislation in the Russian Parliament to forcibly remove children from the homes of their gay or lesbian parents on the ground that “nontraditional sexual orientation” was equivalent to child abuse. In the face of international condemnation and the pending Sochi Winter Olympics, the bill was withdrawn. But a law is on the books forbidding "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" among minors and is so broadly worded that Russian gay parents are frightened that they still will lose their children. Another law was passed forbidding adoption of Russian-born children by foreign gay couples or individuals living in countries that recognize same sex marriage. Yet another law was enacted that classifies “homosexual propaganda” as pornography.
Russian gays who protested these laws were beaten by hoodlums while the police stood by, which Amnesty International termed “state sanctioned violence and discrimination.” According to Tatiana Vinnichenko, the director of Rakurs, a Russian LGBT rights organization, the authorities are putting pressure on banks, landlords, and employers not to do business with LGBT organizations or individuals.
In Russia, the internet is used to incite hatred against gays. As shown in HBO’s documentary, Hunted: The War Against Gays in Russia, which just premiered in the United States, a vigilante organization called Occupy Pedophilia films its members humiliating, beating and torturing gays and then posts the films online (in one scene, a female ringleader of an Occupy group, laughing at the prospect of trapping a gay man, says “we’ll destroy his life as usual.”) Occupy Pedophilia is not a fringe sect; it has branches in 30 Russian cities and its thugs have essentially been given free rein by authorities to go on a rampage against gays. Since Putin’s re-election, over 5,000 people have been arrested in more than 200 protests over anti-gay laws, but members of Occupy Pedophilia are rarely prosecuted, let alone convicted, even though their faces are plainly visible in the films.
Vladimir Putin is the “homophobe in chief,” according to Vinnichenko. Indeed, Putin defends the anti-gay adoption and propaganda laws by equating gays with pedophiles, which Occupy Pedophilia likewise professes to be the reason it assaults gays. Putin also blames Russia’s problems on gays, saying that Russia needs to "cleanse" itself of homosexuality if it wants to increase its birth rate. Putin’s remark sounds chillingly similar to ethnic cleansing, considered by international law experts to be a form of genocide.
Prior to the Sochi Winter Olympics, President Obama and many celebrities and athletes, from Lady Gaga to NBA player and gay athlete John Hamachi, condemnedRussia’s repression of gays. But, when the Olympics ended, and with crises emerging from the Ukraine to ISIS, focus has been lost. As we learned in the Cold War, effective opposition to human rights abuses, especially in Russia, is a full-time commitment. The tepid response of the Obama Administration to Russia’s homophobic tantrum over one gay exchange student is not the way to do it.
Wallance is a lawyer and writer in New York City and a former federal prosecutor.