I wrote this piece back in May, hoping for publication with the Divinity School's Sightings column. But writing about current events is like trying to hit a moving target. Before it could be published, there were new developments in the case, requiring significant revision to remain under a 750-word limit. So I've decided to post here. This is the first installment on this subject.
May 15, 2013
This past weekend Russians marked Victory Day with celebrations that included military parades, fireworks, and lots of drinking. Things turned violent sometime in the night of May 10 in the city of Volgograd, where 23-year-old Vladislav Tornovoi was brutally murdered by his drinking associates.
The initial Reuters dispatch was sketchy, but the Russian yellow press immediately reported that the victim was repeatedly stabbed, sodomized with beer bottles, and bludgeoned to death. The assailants then tried to burn his body… all by a playground and an apartment building while multiple passers-by neither stopped nor called the police. When asked by the police why they had murdered their friend, one of the assailants explained: "Because he said he was a fag."
Cultural bias against homosexuals, coupled with the current political climate and recent pronouncements from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), has produced an atmosphere in which even religious Russians are likely to suggest that the victim's plight was to be expected. How have things come to this?
In Soviet times, same-sex acts between men were punishable by up to five years imprisonment. But with the collapse of the USSR, the Russian Federation repealed its inherited sodomy law in 1993 and adopted a completely rewritten penal code in 1997 that also allows for consensual same-sex relations between consenting adults.
For a brief period in the 90s it was trendy to be gay in Russia. Clubs and cabarets catering to gay clientele sprang up in major Russian cities. Popular music videos portrayed lesbian love and drag queens, and the media began an open discussion of LGBT issues.
But things have changed over the past decade. While consensual same-sex activity remains legal, lawmakers in 12 administrative regions of Russia have enacted legislation proscribing exposure of minors to "propaganda supporting homosexuality."
Some of the regional statutes also prohibit propaganda supporting various combinations of lesbianism, bisexuality, transgenderism, and pedophilia, while one region has also tellingly proscribed "propaganda supporting religious sects." In addition, "insult of religious feelings" in Russia (including "the desecration of their venerated objects, signs, and emblems of ideological symbolism") is an administrative offense. Violators currently pay a fine, but a recently proposed amendment seeks to add incarceration as an option.
The new laws have passed with ease in a country where homosexuality is still commonly pathologized and gay men are conflated with pedophiles, allegedly increasing their numbers by recruiting children and youth.
Seven other administrative regions are currently considering anti-propaganda legislation, and a national bill, introduced in January, is expected to pass its final reading and proceed to President Putin within weeks. While legislators present these measures as protecting children, the national law would also have the far-reaching consequence of a virtual ban on coverage of LGBT issues in the media.
The Russian Orthodox Church has released its own statements regarding homosexuality, transsexuality, and other attendant issues. And in 2011 the ROC joined a statement of the Interreligious Council of Russia (a group uniting leaders of the ROC with national leaders of the Jewish, Islamic, and Buddhist religions) calling the government to protect not only the rights of minorities, but the majority as well, by preventing "actions that might knowingly offend the moral feelings of citizens who understand that only the union of a man and a woman form a normal family."
In his Paschal interview last week, Patriarch Kirill declared that "an emancipated consumer society isn't up to the task of restraining vices." He went on to suggest that the state is unable to curb the sins of the human soul and its problems: "same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and now possibly pedophilia." While his last comment is an allusion to the Dutch pedophilia advocacy group Martijn, His Holiness appears to willfully conflate a host of issues, feeding the anxiety of the faithful by insinuating this movement has taken root on Russian soil.
So it should come as no surprise that when Volgograd officials interviewed one of the alleged assailants this past weekend, he claimed the victim had "offended [his] patriotic feelings." In a country where church and state are so intertwined, the fusing of patriotic feelings and legally protected religious feelings is but the next rhetorical step.
While no official statements have been made, the Orthodoxy and the World website currently hosts an op-ed by Elena Zelenskaya, Vice-president of MediaUnion, a nonprofit consortium of Russian media advocating for journalistic freedom. Speaking of the murder in Volgograd, she writes
[Our] population absolutely correctly reads the signals their leaders send them like dolphins. And the signal was dispatched: go ahead, tear into them, guys!
While the ROC would surely like to distance itself from these "leaders," its own signals are, unfortunately, often indistinguishable from those of the politicians.
To be continued in Part 2...
Special thanks to Inga Leonova for directing me to the link about the Dutch group Martijn.
Some useful links:
"Killing in Russia adds to concerns over treatment of gays"
"In Volgograd They Celebrated May 9 with the Brutal Murder of a Gay Man" (in Russian, Moskovsky Komsomolets qualifies as yellow press)
"Legislative bans of homosexual propaganda in Russia" (in Russian, for a map showing regions in question)
"Protecting the feelings of believers with 'amendments'" (in Russian)
"Clarification of the Chairman of the Synodal Department for Church and Society Relations regarding the Church's position on the promotion of homosexuality and LGBT organizations" (in Russian)
"His Holiness Patriarch Kirill: An emancipated consumer society isn't up to the task of restraining human vices" (in Russian)
"Dutch Court Says Pedophilia Advocacy Group Martijn Can Continue"
http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/04/05/dutch-court-says-pedophilia-advocacy-group-martijn-can-continue.html (Thanks to Inga Leonova from providing this link.)
"Murder in Volgograd" (in Russian)