Putin’s worst crime

Putin’s worst crime
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Every so often, it seems, our planet produces a country with a government so objectionable, so wicked, so self-evidently evil, all of humanity is able to briefly unite in righteous indignation against them.

For much of the 20th century, that country was South Africa, whose racist apartheid government was taken to be so clearly, clearly in the wrong almost no vindictive punishment from the international community was considered too severe. South Africa was booted from the British Commonwealth in 1961, the Olympics in 1964FIFA in 1976, and then finally the United Nations in 1981. For the remainder of the 1980s, much of the western world then became deeply pre-occupied with what was known as the South African “disinvestment” movement, in which any businesses, governments, schools, organizations, or individuals with holdings, clients, franchises, outlets, offices or other commercial ties to the nation were encouraged to further weaken and isolate the country by withdrawing as much financial sustenance as possible from it.

In the post-apathied era, however, the pickings for designated global leper have gotten decidedly slimmer. A disinvestment movement has started to arise in some quarters in opposition to Israel and its occupation of the Palestinian territories (a situation often dubbed, uncreatively, “Israeli apartheid”), but it hasn’t gained much mainstream traction. For all the Jewish state’s warts, after all, Israel is a secular, liberal democratic society in which attempting to resolve the Palestinian question is both a deep anxiety and perennial debate of domestic policy. And the Palestinian resistance, for its part, certainly lacks the appeal of Nelson Mandela.

What good news then that Russia has come along and filled the pariah vacuum. On July 29 of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law — which had been unanimously passed by parliament — criminalizing the so-called “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors.” As NPR notes, the law is worrisome mostly for its vagueness. Though we might sympathize (at least in theory) with the need to protect minors from erotic displays of any sexuality, the Russian law seems to be worded in such an open way as to give law enforcement virtually free reign to crack down on open talk and displays of homoseuality in virtually any place — online or off — on the specious grounds that “children might see it.”

How far the cops will actually go in this regard is obviously unclear at such an early date; NPR says “most activists believe that the law will not be widely enforced,” and Russia-watchers have been similarly quick to deem the law a mostly symbolic act of generic conservative disapproval of homosexuality, rather an actionable agenda. Some good writing has been done on the role of Orthodox Christianity as a cornerstone of Putin’s political machine, as well as the longstanding Russian inclination — dating back to Soviet times — to regard gayness as a disgusting foreign illness of the decadent west. That today’s Russia would produce legislation like this does not seem to have surprised anyone paying attention, in other words.

Yet the international backlash has been extraordinary. Two of the west’s highest-profile gay celebs, George Takei and Stephen Fry have called for a boycott of the looming Sochi Olympics and a petition at Change.org has 158,000 signatures demanding a switch of venue. Gays across Europe and North America have taken to pouring bottles of vodka on the steps of Russian consulates, and many LGBT bars have stopped stocking the stuff at all. On Tuesday, Democratic leaders in the California legislature announced plans to cease investing government employee pensions in Russian companies, while the Canadian immigration minister pledged to make his country a safe haven for fleeing gays.

As a gay man myself, my heart obviously goes out to Russia’s LGBT population, and the truly appalling bigotry many of them face in their daily lives. I was on TV the other day, and the guy in the studio before me was this Russian refugee who had explicitly left his homeland to escape its omnipresent homophobia. He shared all sorts of monstrous stories, including the time he went on a long date only to learn the guy was actually just a liar setting him up, and had lured him back to his apartment so a bunch of waiting thugs could beat him. Such stories are hardly uncommon in Russia. Indeed, they’re often even more bloody and paranoid, like the infamous case of the 23-year-old who was raped to death with a broken beer bottle simply because he seemed gay. This sort of hysterically frightened worldview is what the Russian government now tacitly accepts as reasonable.

All that being said, it’s worth remembering that the Putin administration ain’t exactly a picnic for a lot of other folks, either — inside or outside Russia’s borders. This summer, for example, marks the fifth anniversary of Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia on behalf of the country’s northern separatists, a brazen attempt to intimidate and destabilize a sovereign neighbor. 162 Georgian civilians died in that conflict, while another 150,000 were forced from their homes and have yet to return. It’s hard to say how many deaths in the Syrian civil war we can blame on Russia, but considering Moscow continues to ship weapons to the Assad dictatorship, their responsibility is hardly incidental — much like their culpability in Iran’s quest for nuclear arms.

Putin’s government has been plausibly linked to the poisoning of the dissent Russian spy-turned-journalist Alexander Litvinenko and the anti-Kremlin Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko. Other high-profile critics, from the “Pussy Riot” rockers to chess master Gary Kasparov have been banned from television, jailed, roughed-up, or exiled. And of course questions loom about the not-so-mysterious deaths and disappearances of countless others.

The global democracy monitors at the NGO Freedom House considers Russia “not free” for its rigged elections and largely state-controlled press, while Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented and denounced all manner of government crackdowns on free expression and civic activism. Russian human rights groups would probably say the same, were their leaders not constantly getting beaten up and thrown in prison.

The problem with the modern movement to boycott Russia over its anti-gay laws, in short, is that it elevates one group of the country’s victims above all others, and picks a rather arbitrary standard on which to judge the overall morality of Mr. Putin’s administration. The Russian president has not tainted an otherwise unobjectionable administration with a couple homophobic laws (which, for all their odiousness, are hardly even the world’s most draconian); his government has always been cruel and oppressive to everyone because it’s a paranoid, authoritarian police state and that’s what paranoid, authoritarian police states do. His Russia may be well worth boycotting, but there was no reason for the disinvestment campaigns to start in 2013 as opposed to 2008, or for the Olympic relocation movement to begin now, a few months before the games begin, rather than in 2007, when Russia won the bid.

Like the furious boycotts of South Africa or Israel, it’s hard to escape the impression that much of the west’s aggressive posturing against Russian homophobia is really more about us than them, and our insecure need to demonstrate domestic tolerance by passing sweeping judgments of foreign bigotry. To put it another way, no westerner gets nearly as excited about run-of-the-mill tyrannies because their styles of oppression — rounding up dissidents, censoring the news and whatnot — are unfamiliar and exotic, while the cruelties of racism and gay-bashing are uncomfortably well-known.

There’s thus something more than a little parochial, if not outright insensitive, about using a couple of fashionable western political causes as as the universal ruler for measuring the rest of the planet’s evil; a sheltered perspective that elevates discrimination and intolerance — the worst offenses we can imagine our own governments imposing against us — as the worst injustices that can ever happen to anyone.

It’s a smallness of ambition that guarantees a lot of worse crimes will invariably get lost in the shuffle.

In the case of Russia, a lot already have.


  1. David

    I don't recall South Africa (or any other country, with the exception of Indonesia in 1965-66, but that was voluntary) being booted from the UN during the 80s; searching around the UN Yearbook archives shows me that a proposition was brought forth to boot them (but in 1974), but three Security Council members (France, the UK and the US) shot that down. (http://unyearbook.un.org/1974YUN/1974_P1_SEC1_CH8.pdf). The upshot seemed to be that South Africa was suspended from the assembly but not formally expelled (or "booted out" as you put it), thanks to the UK, France, and the US preventing that. The list of UN members, while it lists Indonesia's leaving, doesn't make any mention at all about South Africa not being in.

  2. ThePsudo

    So you're upset that JJ's description didn't distinguish between a temporary removal from the UN's General Assembly and being ejected completely from the UN entirely and for the foreseeable future? When wearing your same nitpicker's hat, I could criticize you for saying "(or 'booted out' as you put it)" when JJ, in fact, put it as "booted from."

  3. Jake_Ackers

    Booting someone from the UN is a joke. 1) Never tends to happen. 2) Is the laziest thing and the worst thing do to.

    Why? Because then a country says, you have no authority over me since I am not in the UN. So it is carte blanche for them to stop following all the international treaties. Instead you go after them and slam them. Or better yet flood the Russian market with Western goods. Trade with them more, give them more communication. Reagan did it and it helped open up Russia. No point is kicking them out, or boycotting. All that does is hurt the Russian people.

  4. J.j. McCullough

    My point was that South Africa faced the most organized hostility of any modern UN member state. Getting kicked out of the UN assembly is serious business, and it happened to SA three times, as it's noted in the NYT article I posted: http://www.nytimes.com/1981/03/03/world/south-afr

  5. @Kisai

    As I've said before, every time a law is made specifically to "protect children" it's always used to overreach. The fact that it deals with homosexuality basically means that it has passed a law prohibiting all people from "acting gay" , are they going to throw cats dogs and wildlife in prison too?

  6. ThePsudo

    They don't jail wildlife from relieving themselves in public, but they do humans. Tolerance of behavior animals ought to resist but don't know they ought to is perhaps the most widely acknowledged animal right.

    I'm not opining on homosexuality; I'm just criticizing your hyperbolic metaphor.

  7. @Kisai

    I mention it because that was the only time I ever saw "gay" behavior in the context being a child. Male cat and male dog didn't see any humans around, fill in the rest. That was neither shocking or disturbing.

    The world needs less "protect the children" laws and more focus on the actual abuse crimes. So far the West is doing no better at protecting their kids from jumping off tall buildings from being egged on by 4chan.

  8. Jake_Ackers

    Lowest hanging fruit. The West doesn't have the balls to fight Russia head on. So they wait for something that isn't was tough and complain about it. Same goes with the West and China and w/e other country. It would be great if they started with the lowest hanging fruit and moved up the tree. But they don't. They might as well pick something off the floor and whine about it.

    I thought this was just one of two things. A distraction. No one is protesting about democracy anymore. Now he has half the country at least on his side. My numbers may be off but he barely won reelection (with fraud too). Meaning quite a few people were pro-democracy/anti-Putin. Now he made a new rift in Russian politics causing a lot more people to come to his side. As if he ever cared what they West thought.

    Or my second point. He just wants more Russian babies. They have a declining population.

    And protesting the Olympics is stupid. Wasn't the biggest finger in the eye of Hitler, a black American man helping a white German man during the Olympics and still beating him? Yah. So how about we actually go to the Olympics and own them in the face.

  9. KKoro

    Actually…that black man faced more racism at home than he did from Hitler.

    Sadly, if those Games said anything about insitutional racism, it was that America was (is?) a pretty fucked up place.

  10. Jake_Ackers

    Yes because a country who has gov't backed segregation is much worst than one who has gov't backed genocide.

  11. Steve

    "Putin’s government has been plausibly linked to the poisoning death of the dissent Russian spy-turned-journalist Alexander Litvinenko and the anti-Kremlin Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko"

    Viktor Yushchenko is still very much alive.

  12. J.j. McCullough

    I didn't mean to imply that, but I've deleted the word "death" to make it clearer.

  13. Trenacker

    In the field of International Relations, the economic and social embargo of apartheid-era South Africa is usually (and, I think, correctly) regarded as an interesting anomaly.

    Embargoes are taken to be largely ineffective on grounds that they are (A) often selective, targeting only ruling elites who are already fully vested in their government's misdeeds, and (B) rarely unanimous, causing the economic equivalent of hunger but never starvation. Many countries unable to shake their pariah status in the West did (or still do) brisk business elsewhere in the world, almost always with Russia and China: Syria, Libya, Iran, Sudan, and Vietnam come to mind.

    Embargoes are most effective in concert with other pressures that amplify the hurt caused by economic constriction. Let's take the case of Rhodesia. The end of minority rule in Rhodesia was made possible first by the collapse of fascism in Portugal. Portuguese Africa provided outlets to the sea for critical Rhodesian exports, mainly tobacco. Once reduced to a client of South Africa and surrounded by unfriendly regimes that harbored guerilla fighters, Rhodesia found counter-insurgency that much more difficult. Eventually, denied even of South African backing (Pretoria's bizarre hope was that, in abandoning Rhodesia, it could earn an individual reprieve from the West for similar misdeeds) and realizing that, without such support they would be unable to cope militarily while still maintaining a desirable standard of living, the settler government made way for majority rule.

    South Africa is the most complex case. First, international opprobrium cost them the ability to forge open alliances even with governments that allegedly shared a private interest in opposing Soviet hegemony. Thus, they entered the civil war in Angola with only token support from the United States, found that they couldn't push "their" clients to victory, and were forced into a series of increasingly expensive rear-guard actions that slowly bankrupted and demoralized the whites at home. Eventually, the loss of an Angolan buffer resulted in Cuban encroachment on South West Africa (now Namibia), where history repeated itself. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 eliminated a major source of existential worry for the whites, but at the same time robbed putative supporters in the West of the last good argument they had for avoiding punitive action over apartheid. By 1994, it had become clear that the whites in South Africa were facing the same problem that they had previously imposed on Rhodesia: they were staring down the prospect of a long, worsening counter-insurgency while at the same time being denied any chance of future prosperity.

    The rub in this example is that South Africa's isolation was complete. Where else could that be the case?

  14. Jake_Ackers

    Very true. Even a complete isolation doesn't always work. North Korea (although not complete complete isolation) and to a lesser extent Cuba. The leaders can still survive, it's the people that suffer. Plus a lot worst things happen to gay people in other countries. Yet, no one does anything about it. It's easy to protest Russia, now go do that in some 3rd world hell hole with genocidal dictators.

  15. HeartRight

    A great deal of the crimes of Putin are in the eye of the beholder.

    To name but one: selling, leasing, lend-leasing, renting, whatever term you wish for, weapons to Assad.
    That is my yes not crime but rather commendable: the so-called Syrian Oppsition is ridden with Jihadis and Idslamists. Arming the Syrian Government is a no-brainer. We require Jihadis and Islamists dead. Whether they are killed by crocodiles, snakes, socialists, zionists, drones or Assad is beside the point .

    Since South Africa is brought up – looking back, it's kind of obvious that the biggest loudmouths in those days were the kind of people who were less than totally committed to Total Victory in the Cold War. Which is to say, they were traitors.

    Yesterday, I was treated to an unsigned article by proponents of the peaceful religion [ no further ID needed, I think ]- which called Anne Frank a Jewish whore, lauded Hitler for killing her, and most coindentally made the equation: anti-immigrant + gay-rights-advocate = Nazi.

    Perhaps a bit of an issue with at least SOME members of the LGBT community?

  16. KKoro

    We don't require jihadists and Muslims dead, and that kind of mindset is the one that leads to much of the violence.

    The crimes are only "in the eye of the beholder" for supremely warped worldviews.

  17. HeartRight

    I said Islamists, not Muslims. As the Egyptians are showing us today, that is a BIG difference.

    Until such time as Jihadists and Islamists respond to a secular goverbment with submission and obedience, the naked fact f their existence is absolutely unacceptable..

  18. Reid Standish

    I think JJ's view hits the nail right on the head. While the new law is quite horrible, it is part of a larger trend of human rights abuses. Moreover, the recent backlash against Moscow, though warranted, is shrouded in hypocrisy and is suffering from a serious case of Occupy Wall Street syndrome.

    The boycott against Stoli vodka doesnt make too much sense, seeing as how it is only a partly owned Russian company and Stoli consumed in North America and Western Europe is actually produced in Latvia (an EU member state). It would make more sense to boycott Russian Standard vodka or something. Also, it would make more sense to boycott something else completely than vodka, because it is only the fifth largest import of Russian products to the US. Russian products like crabs, diamonds and firearm cartridges far outpace vodka, as does America's top Russian import, petroleum products, which have actually been increasing over the last decade. Vodka companies in Russia are privately owned anyways and it doesnt really send any kind of real message to Russian authorities other than that the West is full of it and doesnt understand Russia. Petroleum, with its deep ties to the state would have been a far more effective boycott and actually hit where it needed to, but because of the complexities of the product and the fact most Americans would rather drive than walk anywhere means that no effective boycott against this LGBT law will occur.

    If people really care about what is happening in Russia, it is better to keep the spotlight fixated on the country and have this same level of popular outrage against the far greater abuses that take place.

  19. Awnman

    I don't think the idea for the vodka boycotts was to actually hurt the Russian economy but rather to make a political statement by boycotting something inherently Russian. See when you think of oil you think of the mid east for better or worse. its like that with vodka and Russia. By boycotting vodka you are saying i don't support Russia or anything linked to it.

  20. Eric Stimson

    Why is he eating a chocolate bar?

  21. Marcus_Ozius

    Because chocolate is delicious.

  22. HeartRight

    Or because the Wst is ridden with self-indulgent consumerists who behave like spoiled brats.
    Strik that – who ARE spoiled brats.

    But actually, I think it's icecream-on-a-stick, covered with chocolate.

  23. Psudo

    It's a Fudgsicle. They're chocolaty all the way through.

  24. asdfgh

    Perhaps it is a reference to the stance taken by the west toward Ukraine/the "milk wall" – or the conflict over dairy products (including chocolate)…

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  26. Mikael V. Schoots

    The potential gravitation of any law in any direction of such a touchy subject is only vicarious to what degree, since it seems approached by those disdained at the oddity of such as ill natural as it may or may not be. People proffer themselves up as esteemed in what regard they live, but really life unfolds its self however one choose to look at the world for what it is.Will countries social structures sustain themselves if they were for somehow to overtake the world with their views?I mean gosh,how come such a minor thing as this is even coalesced against the scape of the ominous threats of terrorism,nuclear weapons, and the ever present global warming? I see this as a minor issue that is dealt with in the best possible realm available.
    As we all know war stinks,but what to do with stench that is left behind? History has probably readily shown the powers that be had already forged plans should there side win against their adversaries and the parade is played out with its troops in tow on their way home. No matter how much the NEWS may offer the facts,it will be digested according to the consumers liking,although the grievous part is the plate is made with condiments on the table.

  27. Mikael V. Schoots

    I hate to say with all the turmoil going on in the world how one would be upset with vodka issues especially when it brings the joy it does.So let the sound of bottles popping drown out all other woes.

  28. Bobby Doleful

    What a ghastly man that Putin is.


    Russia: 681,600

    USA: 2,239,751


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