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charlotte-green
30th September 2013

The Pussy Riot incarceration, repeated abuses of civil liberties and now damaging anti-gay laws

Charlotte Green explains why the University of Manchester should be at the forefront of student pressure on Russia

Russia has been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the past two years. The imprisonment of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot after an allegedly ‘blasphemous’ impromptu performance in a Moscow Cathedral in February 2012 caused an international outcry and widespread condemnation of Russia’s perceived political and religious intolerance. Subsequent tensions rose over the enduring Russian support for President Assad’s regime in Syria which hindered attempts by the UN to establish a consolidated international taskforce, and created a bureaucratic and political maelstrom within NATO that raged whilst thousands of Syrians were being shot, bombed and gassed. Most recently in June came the news that President Putin (himself recently re-elected after a dubiously ‘honest’ election) had passed a series of fundamentally anti-gay pieces of legislation; banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality and gay ‘propaganda’, crimes that have been made punishable with fines of $30,000, as well as up to fourteen days detainment and ensuing deportation for foreign visitors who breach the new codes.

The anti-gay legislation has caused many gay rights organisations and public figures to demand a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics that are due to be held in Sochi next year.  The call for a boycott intensified when the Russian Minister for Sport, Vitaly Mutko, made it clear that athletes will not be exempt from the ban and the safety of gay athletes could not be guaranteed. A petition asking the International Olympic Committee to relocate the games to Vancouver has gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures and a letter from Stephen Fry written to David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee explaining his opposition to the games went viral over Facebook within a few hours.

But what exactly is ‘gay propaganda’ and how can you legislate against it?  The law against “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” essentially bans not only the act of providing information about homosexuality to minors, but also speaking in defence of gay rights or comparing gay and heterosexual relationships as being of equal standing. The law was enacted in July when four Dutch filmmakers who had attended a conference on gay rights were held overnight and subsequently deported, for ‘exceeding the terms of their “cultural exchange” visas’. The law was passed through the Duma (the Russian Parliament) with only one abstention and the vitriol and fervour with which Putin explained how the new measures would cleanse Russia was sickening to observe.

As an international issue it initially seems unclear what impact Manchester can have in halting the tide of prejudice spewing from Russia. However this city is in fact in a unique position to apply pressure on a key city, as it is ‘twinned’ with St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, and Vladimir Putin’s hometown. During August city councillors used the link to condemn the new legislation with a letter to the governor of St. Petersburg, stating that that “inclusivity and tolerance” are essential for the “enrichment of a city”, although they stopped short of ‘severing ties’ with the city. But more needs to be done. The University of Manchester is an international institution of learning, ranked among the top universities in the world and attracts student from every corner of the globe. We should be the ones to begin a nationwide student campaign against Russia’s current crackdown on civil liberties and human rights.

Businesses in both Manchester and London that cater to the gay community have begun a boycott of Russian-manufactured spirits, one that should be joined by our Student Union. After all, if it can ban Robin Thicke for drearily singing a plagiarised song surrounded by semi-naked women, boycotting Russian vodka is a walk in the park. The university also contains a huge number of sporting organisations, how do they feel about the potential endangerment of athletes during the Winter Olympics as a result of their sexual orientation or simply their support for gay rights? Sport Against Sochi? It’s got a nice ring to it.

Because let’s get one thing straight, no pun intended;  this attack is not about being gay and whether you are one or not. It’s an attack on personal freedom, on liberty, on the right to love who you want regardless of their gender, race, religion, ethnicity, whatever. Personally I fear that the backlash against sexual freedom will, if it is not checked, expand and spread, infecting others with prejudice and hatred until even our government is once again referring to ‘deviants’, ‘perversions’ and advocating sexual correction. If you support the right to choose and to love freely, without fear of persecution, then I ask you to support a University boycott of Russian-manufactured spirits and a national boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Oh, and you can send President Putin a dildo too, just for good measure.


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