As conversations (and various calls for boycott) have circulated regarding Russia and its treatment of LGBT people, I’ve witnessed quite a few comments on my Facebook feed pointing out Russia’s Whiteness—that for once, the country being accused of homophobic violence is not one full of POC. This is partly for good reason. I feel like just about once a week a Western newspaper reports on homophobic violence operating in [insert global South nation here]. Such reporting is often super problematic, and full of the colonial impulse to ‘save’ the gay people in this nation (usually with no mention of histories of imperialism, Victorian sodomy laws, etc that have worsened the sexual and gender policing in much of the global South). Western reports also usually assume that ‘LGBT’ translates to gender and sexual variance the world over—again, a colonial impulse.
The situation in Russia is not reducible to Whiteness, however. To talk about Russia right now with a White/POC binary would not only be missing the point, it would be in direct service of imperialism. US imperialism’s most fabulous strategy includes using gay rights as a distraction from its own state terrorism, both domestically and abroad. US imperialism’s strategies also include erasing racial systems operating in other political contexts and using POC representationally (eg Obama) to defray accusations of racism. All of these strategies are at play with regards to Russia. A ‘white people, am I right?’ analysis on its own is totally insufficient here. Mostly because empire is not only about skin; it’s about, well, empire.
A US-centric race analysis (one based largely on color) has an incomplete understanding of Soviet and post-Soviet political history. This is because Russia, and the rest of the former USSR, has been historically dominated and exposed to violence by Western Europe and the West more broadly. Right after the Boston Marathon bombings, when it was revealed that the bombers were both Chechen and Muslim, the media and government both displayed hesitation around how to racialize them. Salon featured a piece asking if the Tsaranaev brothers were White. The brothers were quite literally Caucasian (from the Caucasian) but the right-wing sought to racialize them as non-White, in line with the profiling of the whole category of ‘terrorists’ as non-White. But this racialization falls only into contemporary understandings of US Whiteness in relation to the figure of the terrorist, and does not speak to the historical relation between the US and Russia. The history of Eastern Europe and Russia in relation to the West has almost always been one where the former is framed as ‘backwards’ and ‘less than’.
This is true also in the realm of sexual politics. Erika Lynn offers a short history of Russian regulation of homosocial and sexual politics across time in her longer piece on gay imperialism and the Russian olympics. I’ll let you read this history, and others, elsewhere, but what is useful to keep in mind are Lynn’s final comments:
The geopolitics of sexuality in Russia and its predecessors over the last half millennium have nearly always been framed within the context of the West and East divide, however formalized and politicized that divide was at the time. Moreover, for much of the past half millennium, Russians have fallen on the side of the divide that Westerns frowned upon, whether for tacitly tolerating same-sex sexual acts in the 1500s, or for maintaining their criminalization through the late 1900s.
The current conversation with respect to the Russian gay censorship laws recycle this divide. This is not to condone the actions and policing of the Russian state, but to recognize that Western reactions to it are informed by a much deeper imperialist history. UK broadcaster Stephen Fry wrote a letter urging British Prime Minister David Cameron to push for the removal of the 2014 Sochi Olympics from Russia, stating that Russia could not be seen as having the approval of the ‘civilised world’. Fry offers Utah as one alternative Olympic site (as if Utah were not violently occupied land). Perhaps this is just as well, since David Cameron wants to export gay marriage all over the world–Cameron seems totally on board with the colonial application of LGBT politics.
President Obama has made similar comments justifying why he won’t meet with Vladimir Putin. On the Tonight Show, Obama said he had ‘no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them’, and went on to state that it was important to him ‘that people are treated fairly and justly’. The White House also issued a statement condemning Russia for human rights abuses. I hope the deep hypocrisy in those statements is patently clear. I hope it’s also clear just how convenient this timing is, just as Russia grants whistleblower Edward Snowden temporary asylum. The US government gets to claim the moral high ground, protecting LGBT rights and the interests of national ‘security’ in one fell swoop. Obama as a primary character here—a Black president condemning a visibly White-majority nation—complicates the usual narrative of racialization. What is instead the common denominator is the US using gay (sexual) politics as a distraction from its imperialist concerns.
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Janani is a South Asian electron spinning around making art and scholarship. They like thinking about the apocalypse, decolonizing the food system, and making space for quantum queers everywhere. They’re Assistant Editor at BGD and one-half of the spoken word duo DarkMatter (bit.ly/queerdarkmatter). You can read more of their work atqueerdarkenergy.sqsp.com