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Equality Forum Day 4 (Part 2): Politics 101 (Russian)

Everything about Russia seems difficult to me. In college, I took five semesters of Russian to no discernible end. Neither French nor Spanish had proven too challenging, but this was a different critter. Each noun comes with six different endings, one for each “case.” Russian verbal aspects can’t be fully mastered by anyone without  a Ph.D. in linguistics. Even the syntax is foreign to English-speakers (even though both are Indo-European languages), so if language reflects thought, the notion of  “foreignness” becomes stronger.

Here’s the mid-20th century linguist Benjamin Whorf on the subject:

“[A]ll observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar….”

Less abstractly: Political reality, no less than language, is a different animal in Russia.  This point was made abundantly clear during Thursday’s panel entitled: “Challenges of the Russian LGBT Community.” According to Polina Savchenko, founder of Russia’s first legally registered LGBT organization (“Coming Out”), Russians have “very low ‘rights’ awareness.” Savchenko, who spent many years living in the U.S. and Europe before returning home, did a good job explaining the deep differences between Western and Russian values: While we focus on rights, Russians combine a communal sense (why do you “need” individual rights?) with a practical, work-and-stay-out-of-trouble mentality.  Even within the LGB(and barely “T”) community, people ask her: Why do you organize and agitate? Given the political climate, practicality  counsels against activism. Stay underground, and you stay out of trouble. Pop up, and down comes the Whack-a-Mole mallet.

Interestingly, I found Savchenko’s points to an extent confirmed by a chance conversation  after the conclusion of the evening’s events. I spoke to a young Russian man, here in Philadelphia to study English, who was politely perplexed by the entire panel. Hailing from St. Petersburg, likely the most “Western” city in Russia, he said that he could pretty much  do what he wanted now; there is a “scene” that he’s part of back home. I almost  expected him to repeat Savchenko’s rhetorical  question: “Why do I need rights?”

Despite these formidable obstacles, not to mention the increasingly repressive policies and actions of the government, Savchenko and fellow panelist Ruslan Porshnev are tasting success — so much so that the third panelist, the expatriated Russian and D.C. resident Dmitri Chekaldin expressed outright astonishment at their progress. While Savchenko organizes and pushes for political change through her network (her group has what appear to be “chapters” in 13 regions of  Russia), Porshnev has established  the Anti-DOGMA Info Project, an on-line initiative “dedicated to the social, moral and spiritual well-being of the Russian LGBT community.”

The two see education as the foundational component of their mission; and the starting point is dismally low. For example, most Russians — including the police — don’t know that the law criminalizing gay sex was repealed in 1999. So gay bars are raided, people arrested and jailed overnight —so pre-Stonewall. So 2009 has been proclaimed, by Savchenko’s consortium of LGBT groups, The Year of Remembrance, dedicated to those prosecuted under the now-repealed law. Coming Out is asking for an official apology, hoping thereby to both  educate and to stave off a proposed law that would ban “gay propaganda,” a move that would of course be devastating to the nascent LGBT movement.

One great story to close: Russian law prohibits mass demonstrations without a permit, and as a practical matter you can’t get one as an LGBT group. “Mass” means “more than one.” But these laws can’t counter the human capacity for creative resistance.  Flash mobs (not considered a “demonstration”) are one way around the law. Then, there was the “demonstration of one.” On the Day of Silence, the leader of their group stood, alone, in a large public area with tape over his mouth. The rest of the demonstrators sat, nearby, on park benches, also with their mouths taped. The police were flummoxed. Imagine this exchange, or something like it:

“This is a demonstration!”

“There’s only one person standing there.”

“But all of these others are sitting nearby on park benches.”

“It’s a nice day! Can’t people sit on park benches on a nice day?”

“But they are all wearing tape on their mouths.”

“Why can’t they do that? Is there a law against it?”


  1. May 14th, 2009 at 13:39 | #1

    Hi John!
    This is Ruslan speaking. Thanks for your thoughts on the panel. I remember you taking some pictures during the panel, if i’m not mistaken. Is it possible to share them with us please? 🙂 Alternatively, you can take a look at our report, however it’s in Russian, but pictures do not need any translation 🙂 http://community.livejournal.com/ru_antidogma/478702.html

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