Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, roughly 50 people squeezed into a WLH classroom Tuesday afternoon to hear three leading experts discuss the intersection of law and sexual identity in Russia under Vladimir Putin.
Masha Gessen — known for her books “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot” and “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin” and regular contributions to The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other publications — spoke to an audience of undergraduates, graduate students and professors about the history and current status of LGBT individuals in Russia. Gessen was joined by two panel members — Bruce Grant, a professor of anthropology at New York University, and Eliot Borenstein, professor of Russian and Slavic studies at NYU — in examining Putin’s role in recent Russian anti-gay legislation.
Gessen stressed the ideas of civilizational conflict as a source of homophobic policies and legislation as a tool for nationalistic assertion.
“In the past two and a half years, we have seen a birth of a [Russian] ideology of civilizational conflict between Western and traditional civilization,” Gessen said. “Putin wants to remake Russia as the leader of the anti-Western world, as the defender of traditional families … using gay and lesbians as a form of the other.”
Gessen said there is a pervasive belief throughout Russia that the West is trying to impose its rhetoric of universal human rights on the rest of the world. To combat Western importation of social norms, Russia is positioning itself as the leader of traditional and anti-Western civilization, she said.
Borenstein added that the Western values of liberal democracy and tolerance are demonized under Putin’s regime.
This ideology has fueled the political crackdown and wave of anti-gay legislation that began two and a half years ago, Gessen said. The laws that were passed in that period, she added, are meant to be a symbol of the social attitude towards LGBT individuals more than actual legal measures, as they are seldom enforced.
Borenstein said homophobic hostilities are fueled by both hatred of the West and conspiracy theories rampant in society.
“There is a notion in Russia that the minority is immediately trying to dominate the majority and that gay and lesbians are going to take over,” he said.
The issue of sexuality was never talked about in Russia until Putin came along, Gessen said. Once Putin started the conversation, she added, he gained the power to shape it.
Contrary to common belief, in the 1990s, Russia was actually more hospitable to conversations about gay and lesbian relationships, Borenstein said.
Audience members interviewed reacted strongly to the issues presented.
Kar Jin Ong ’17 said he found Gessen’s discussion of self-definition of Russian identity particularly intriguing.
“It seems that the Russian national identity is often defined by telling Russians what is not Russian,” he said. “It’s an interesting trope in history that we continually define who we are by means of exclusion.”
History and American Studies professor George Chauncey — who teaches the popular lecture class “U.S. Gay and Lesbian History” — said the issues Gessen presented are not unique to Russia. The anti-gay legislation that Americans condemn in Russia existed just recently in the U.S., he said.