Ever read news stories that just make you feel utter despair? Not anger, not calm collected reason, just despair. Well for me this week, this one did:
Russia’s parliament has unanimously passed a federal law banning gay “propaganda” amid a Kremlin push to enshrine deeply conservative values that critics say has already led to a sharp increase in anti-gay violence.
The law passed 436-0 on Tuesday, with just one deputy abstaining from voting on the bill, which bans the spreading of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors.
The law in effect makes it illegal to equate straight and gay relationships, as well as the distribution of material on gay rights. It introduces fines for individuals and media groups found guilty of breaking the law, as well as special fines for foreigners.
Minutes after passing the anti-gay legislation, the Duma also approved a new law allowing jail sentences of up to three years for “offending religious feelings”, an initiative launched in the wake of the trial against the anti-Kremlin punk band Pussy Riot.
Now there are several levels of unremitting unpleasantness to this story. First there’s the official state-sanctioned homophobia; a Russian Section 28 with teeth. Then there’s the increased theocratisation of the Russian state – a roll back of secular society giving the clergy the most power they’ve had since 1917. If each of these weren’t bad enough, there’s the unanimous vote in the Duma – indicative either of a hideously bigoted electorate, or of a legislature devoid of any opposition voices. All three taken together can only be an affront to all that is modernity and progressive values.
Inevitably there will be apologists who will argue that this is merely Western Media attempting to paint Russia in a poor light; a national character smear. This argument makes a fair point, about the way in which most foreign news and foreign policy contains huge dollops of hypocrisy. Yet strip away the bunker-mentality and insecurity, and you’ll find that a disproportionate criticism can still be a legitimate criticism. The laws, and the Duma votes are cold hard facts that defy spin.
Russia has had a difficult past. I have no faith in determinism, but History seems determined to frustrate and besiege her at every turn. But Russia’s recent troubles have been caused by brutal authoritarianism followed by rampant free market capitalism, and latterly by both. Those troubles won’t be ended by attacking the freedoms of sexual minorities, nor by embracing theocracy.
I want to love Russia. My vision of a united and progressive Europe stretches from Reykjavik to Vladivostok. Russia Today often provides better scrutiny of the British Government than the BBC does. There’s no reason that Russia cannot embrace solid progressive values as indeed they did, ever so briefly, in the 1920s. To do so would not be a surrender to “the West” nor is it something the Russian people should fear.
If it feels like there is nothing we in the UK can do about this injustice… well, there would be the cause of my despair. Short of good wishes and sentiments of solidarity, what can we do to help our brothers and sisters in Russia? I wish I knew.