Madonna’s latest album MDNA has already gone five times platinum in Russia. But when the iconic pop star takes to the stage at St Petersburg’s SCC Arena this Thursday, she may not get the warmest welcome from the city.
In March, St Petersburg – Russia’s second-biggest city – passed a controversial law banning “public actions aimed at propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality, [and] transgenderism amongst minors“.
The 53-year-old pop star said in March she would “speak during my show about this ridiculous atrocity”. But some gay rights activists wish she would boycott Russia instead. Yury Gavrikov, the head of LGBT rights group Ravnopravie (“Equality”) told Al Jazeera that although he likes Madonna, a boycott would be “much more helpful for human rights here in Russia” than “making show, earning money, and giving some general stance statement”.
Members of Ravnopravie have said they plan to stage a protest outside the Madonna concert with signs reading, “Choose! Bread and games or human rights!”
Meanwhile, the law’s author – Vitaly Milonov, a deputy from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party – has vowed to closely scrutinise Madonna’s performance. “We will warn the organisers of the concert that everything should be decent,” he said. “Otherwise they will face the harsh laws of St Petersburg.” The city’s streets are reportedly festooned with posters warning, “Beware Homofascism”, featuring a picture of Madonna wearing a rainbow-coloured swastika on her hat, according to Rosbalt News Agency.
Violators of the St Petersburg “gay propaganda” law can be fined from 5,000 rubles ($156) if they are private citizens, to 50,000 rubles ($1,563) if they hold public posts. Organisations can be slapped with a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($15,635). If Madonna were fined under the law, however, the fee would presumably be immaterial for the Material Girl.
Although Russia’s human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, called the law “strange” in a March report, he has also said he does “not think the publicity of sexual preferences is acceptable” and that the law does not violate gay rights, reported Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta. Lukin could not be reached for comment by Al Jazeera.
The law is “very poorly written and lawyers themselves do not know how to interpret it, making its application very arbitrary.”
– . Manny de Guerre, LGBT activist
As of July 20, 73 people have been prosecuted for violating this law, St Petersburg police chief Sergei Umnov told AFP. Over the course of the past year, several other Russian regions – including Archangelsk, Kostroma, Novosibirsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara and Ryazan – have passed similar measures.
The first to be convicted in St Petersburg was reportedly Nikolai Alexeyev, a prominent Russian gay activist, for carrying a poster riffing on a bon mot made by Soviet-era actress Faina Ranevskaya: “Homosexuality is not a perversion; perversion is hockey on grass and ballet on ice.”
Kevin Moss, a professor of Russian at Middlebury College and a scholar of gay and lesbian issues in Russia, told Al Jazeera a straight man had also run afoul of the law for holding a sign saying a lesbian friend’s way of life “is normal like ours is”. The measure specifically forbids propagating “a distorted perception of social equality of traditional and nontraditional marital relationships”, in the law’s words. “So you can’t claim that a gay couple is equal to a straight couple,” explained Moss.
Before this year, applications for gay pride marches were consistently rejected in both Moscow and St Petersburg. But on July 3, said Gavrikov, St Petersburg for the first time gave its permission for a march the following week. However, when the organisers then distributed information about the upcoming march, authorities deemed it propaganda that fell afoul of the law. Two days later, on July 5, the permit was rescinded. Some marched anyways, and were detained by police – including Gavrikov.
Gavrikov noted that the law only targets public action, not gays and lesbians’ private lives. But many Russians “don’t meet gays and lesbians in their private life”, which is why he believes public events like gay pride marches are important.
Some object to what they say is the law’s vague wording. Manny de Guerre, the founder of the St Petersburg-based Side by Side LGBT Film Festival, told Al Jazeera the law is “very poorly written and lawyers themselves do not know how to interpret it, making its application very arbitrary”. The film festival, which has been held annually since 2008, will be held as usual this autumn in spite of the law, said de Guerre. However, to comply with the law’s “amongst minors” clause, the festival will no longer allow those under the age of 18 to attend.
De Guerre said the law is “giving licence” to those ready to use violence against gays and lesbians in Russia. “The festival is feeling this change in climate. This year we have had constant threats of physical violence and groups picketing outside the venues during screenings.”
During Tsarist times, homosexuality was technically illegal in the Russian empire, but the government “had a kind of laissez-faire attitude”, said Moss. But in 1933, homosexuality was again criminalised and remained so until 1993, after the fall of the Soviet Union.
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Anatoly Karlin, a blogger on Russian politics, cited polling data showing that in 2010, 74 per cent of Russians viewed homosexuality as either a degeneracy, a disease or a mental disorder – numbers that have not significantly changed for 20 years. Eighty-two per cent of Russians do not support allowing gay parades. The “gay propaganda” law, he told Al Jazeera, is “simply a reflection of the fact that Russian society is where many Western societies were” on social issues in the 1960s-80s.
The “gay propaganda” law’s passage in St Petersburg was surprising to some because it has long been considered among the most Western-orientated cities in the country.
But “even though it’s been traditionally associated with the more liberal and tolerant and pro-Western side, there are also other strata in the city’s population,” explained Vitaly Chernetsky, an associate professor of Russian at Miami University in Ohio. The city council, he said, is “dominated by forces loyal to the president” who voiced few complaints against the law before it was passed.
Or, as Karlin put it, “Just because it has a lot of Baroque architecture and German tourists doesn’t mean that St Petersburg is some cosmopolitan oasis”.
As in many other countries, opposition to gay rights is frequently cast in religious terms: Yury Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow from 1992 to 2010, described gay pride marches as “satanic”, and the Russian Orthodox Church youth organisation termed them “spiritual terrorism”.
‘Like a prayer’
Vitaly Milonov, who introduced the St Petersburg bill, “always cites Orthodoxy as the main reason for introducing the law”, Moss said. Al Jazeera could not reach Milonov for comment.
The “gay propaganda” laws have provoked a firestorm of criticism from Western governments and activists, with the US State Department issuing a statement saying the legislation “would severely restrict freedoms of expression and assembly” in Russia.
The laws are not the only recent flashpoint between Western countries and Russia: The US and its allies have also lambasted Russia for its refusal to take a tougher line on Bashar al-Assad’s embattled government in Syria. And Western activists and musicians – including Madonna – have criticised the prosecution of three members of punk group Pussy Riot for playing an anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral.
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Whether this criticism is effective is debatable. “Part of the argument that people like Milonov use in favour of the law is the fact that the West is against it”, Moss said, causing nationalists to rally to support their country.
Vladimir Roslyakovsky, the leader of an Orthodox organisation in the southern Russian city of Saratov, for example, perceives Western opposition to the laws as an attack on Russia itself. “The US goal is that Russians stop having children,” he declared, according to Russia Today. “[They want] the great nation to turn into [a] likeness of Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Interestingly, the Church Herald, an official publication of the Russian Orthodox Church, published an analysis in favour of the St Petersburg law noting that other countries also “inform pupils about the fact that homosexuality is not a socially acceptable way of life and is suppressed by the government” – citing educational codes in the US states of Alabama and Texas.
Yet Chernetsky believes the criticism, if done “politely but firmly”, could have an effect, especially on the Russian elite. “These are people who very much are interested in maintaining contacts with the West… They do not want to be pariahs on the world stage.”
Karlin, however, said he thought Western critiques will “neither change much, nor will there be a backlash. Both sides of the debate already have their minds made up because this is essentially a culture war. Did the Dixie Chicks have an impact on the culture war over the war with Iraq?”
Despite the calls for a boycott, some say Madonna’s support will help their cause. “Maintaining dialogue within the public space on these issues is important,” de Guerre told Al Jazeera. “If Madonna is able to use her time here in this way, making a public statement about homophobia, [and] about Pussy Riot, then that would be great.”
Natalia Zavadskaya assisted with translation from Russian.
Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier