By Lynnea Urania Stuart
I have a confession to make. I love Russians. Really I do. I even lived with Russians for a month in the former Soviet Union when a group of mine were speaking in public theaters and Russian schools and my time with Russian friends remains some of my fondest memories. I’ve met people who were more than good. I met genuinely generous people, even if they mostly lived in grim poverty.
Of course, I entertain no illusion that all Russians are good and many who invited us to speak had ulterior motives or only had interest in the novelty of seeing an American. After all, an American in a city where the majority consists of ethnic Russians are as much a novelty for Russians as a Russian citizen might be a novelty in places like Cleveland or Salt Lake City. But, just as certainly, not all Americans are good either. Some of us have ulterior motives and if we care to meet a Russian it may be for the novelty of meeting a Russian.
Russian-American relations have long been a roller coaster, not only for our respective societies, but for the world. Nations see a continuing clash of 2 societies bristling with enough nuclear weapons to blast all humanity into oblivion many times over. Russians and Americans don’t always see eye-to-eye. Then again, must we always? Not really. But human rights issues, often made a political issue on both sides, are in fact moral issues. Both Russians and Americans have proven to be derelict in this regard too many times. When it comes to the rights of transpeople, we’re seeing something relatively new: entry of trans issues in the press and corresponding propaganda concerning them.
RUSSIAN BIGOTRIES AND RESPONSES
On New Years Eve, the Russian online propaganda magazine Sputnik International flashed the following headline: “Tranny Troops: US Military to Accept Transgender Recruits Beginning 2018.” In a recent search, it was evident that Sputnik International changed the headline to read “Trans Troops,” possibly as a result of an international outcry led by the British LGBT news service PinkNews. But the article wasn’t just disturbing for using an anti-transgender slur, it was disturbing because the article presented the presence of openly transgender people in military service should be laughable, as if the entire U.S. military has become infected with an incurable strain of bimboism. Nor was the headline the only slur. Nick Duffy of PinkNews reported one person in that article referring to U.S. troops as “fags”. Another said mockingly, “Tranny academy is coming to a cinema near you.”1
Of course, transgender troops have always existed in militaries, whether American or Russian. We simply haven’t done so openly in the past and the real difference is our demanding human respect with full knowledge that many of us exist who can. Likewise, Russian military society has smiled upon forcible same-sex rape, especially in subjugation of new conscripts, a legacy from Czarist practices. Have American forces been immune from this? We need not be so arrogant as to think so. Of course, this kind of rape isn’t about homosexual affections. The passive party is treated as inferior to the active one and the idea of calling another a “fag” isn’t about decrying a perceived violation of a divine command. It’s about subjugating others. It’s the same kind of subjugation that has been a theme of abuses associated with patriarchy and ethnic/racial dominance.2
You’d think that decades of Soviet oppression might have resolved such issues in a worker’s paradise of Communism. You’d think men and women would have been equal. They haven’t. You’d think that Russians and other ethnic groups would look upon one another with the same level of respect. They haven’t. You’d think that Russians would accept other races who join forces with them. In your dreams.
When I spoke to a class of Russian students in Daugavpils, Latvia, an instructor asked, “How do you Americans deal with racism? I know I wouldn’t want to live next door to a Latvian!” The question was admittedly shocking. Most Americans speak of races in terms of perceived skin color. It’s nonsense, of course. Whites sometimes have darker skin than some Blacks and vice versa. Asians may look more Native American than Native Americans and vice versa. But Latvians are Teutons. Russians are Slavs. In the Russian mind, the 2 are different races even if the typical American couldn’t tell the difference. Race is a social construct.
An African friend confirmed in my mind this attitude of Russian Dominionism who will remain unnamed in consideration of his political status. He had been an instructor in the University of Moscow. He noted the case of a Black exchange student who had remarked about the beauty of a Russian woman. Are Russian women beautiful? Incredibly so, and I’m sure Russian men would agree.
But word of this student’s compliments didn’t set well with local Russians, a group of which took him to the roof of a high building. He was given a choice. Either he could jump or he could be sent back to his home country with an official statement that he was homosexual. That student chose to live with shame. But when my African friend learned of it, he was reminded of a stark truth. In his home country, being labeled “homosexual”, true or not, would be the most horrid thing that could happen. Such could never obtain work. Such would be rejected by family and prosecuted for any crime imaginable. His life would be a living hell. 80% of people in my friend’s home country would prefer to jump.3
Such impositions of moral dilemmas aren’t new in Russia or elsewhere in Europe. They’ve long been used from time to time to control whole demographics. In Czarist Russia, they often took the form of pogroms. We usually hear of such pogroms perpetrated upon Jews in the “Pale of Settlement.” But they’ve occurred against other people as well including those LGBT.4
THE THIRD ROME
The Czars operated on one fundamental principle: to control as much of the world’s population as possible. It’s an echo of the Roman Empire and “Czar” is merely a Russian version of “Caesar”, ruling what Russians have long believed to be the “3rd Rome” after the empires of Rome and Constantinople. This idea of the need to dominate to survive is ingrained in Russian society, with a prime directive of church and state united, symbolized by the double-headed eagle.5
Under the leadership of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev Russians began to seriously confront their history of oppression. As a reformer he sought a purer, more open society characterized by perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness).5 But that meant full democratization and he became a victim of his own movement when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics broke up into the Commonwealth of Independent States. Russians suffered horribly amid economic collapse and a weak President Boris Yeltsin. The population of the Russian Federation entered a serious decline. Russia was literally dying.6
In the United States many, especially those of Evangelical persuasion, many arrogantly insist that those changes came about because the United States “won the Cold War.” This isn’t true. The Cold War was never won by anyone. Soviets made changes they knew they had to make. They did so as a matter of their own interests, and ultimately they came back stronger because of it.8
But rising again meant many shifting to the Right. Free elections ceased to be genuinely free amid electioneering. Roving gangs equivalent to Neo-Nazis in the United States began to terrorize minorities, especially LGBT peoples.9
REVIVAL MADE IN AMERIKA
The collapse of the Soviet Union translated into a bonanza for Western religionists. An evangelist could target a Russian city and often hundreds lined up to enter the waters of baptism.10 It also meant revival for something else: the traditional Russian Orthodox Church who for centuries had been the guardian of the Russian soul.
During the Soviet era, religion was deeply restricted. Churches had to be officially registered in order for their existence to be recognized and none were permitted to proselytize. Of course, some religious bodies proselytized anyway, holding meetings in homes. By time American evangelists engaged Russian evangelical drives, plenty of Russians already existed who could debate issues of exegesis with the finesse of any Baptist or Pentecostal minister in Texas.
But this heady period of evangelism would not last. The Russian Orthodox Church enjoyed its own revival, and then, thanks to the Yaroslav Law, became the dominant force in Russian religious society again with President Vladimir Putin as its most prominent member. Minorities like Jehovah’s Witnesses once more became outlaws.11
Another law emerged in 2012 in Saint Petersburg prohibiting “gay propaganda,” resulting in Pride events being forced off the street and transpeople being forced back into the closet. Later that law would be expanded to the entirety of the Russian Federation.12
None of this happened, however, without the work of religionists. If one must oppress his neighbor, there has to be “moral justification” to do so, whether real or imagined. By 2010, the principle voice for morality in most of the Russian Federation lay in the hands of the ruling Russian Orthodox Church.
A REALITY CHECK
Americans have no cause to waggle heads in condescending disbelief. What’s happening in the Russian Federation has essentially had its counterpart in the United States, though with different steps than what Russians have taken:
- Russians have their secretive but deadly Right wing gangs. So do Americans.13
- Russians have their religious bodies condemning transpeople. So do Americans.14
- Russians have sought to legislate against transpeople. So have Americans.15
- Russians have made life difficult, even impossible to live for transpeople. So have Americans.16
- Russians have exhibited ethnic and racial hatreds and these hatreds have often defined their history. Ditto for Americans.17
- Russians wage covert wars upon other peoples in the world including cyber attacks. So do Americans.18
- Russians have long orchestrated dezinformatsya (disinformation, what has been called “fake news”). So have Americans and this has accelerated in the age of Trump.19
- Russians have had their internment camps. America has its detention centers.20
- Russians have long practiced torture. So have Americans, and neither Americans nor Russians want to admit it, though Donald Trump has declared his support of torture in the presidential debates of 2016.21
In light of these things, can Americans claim any greater morality than Russians? Hardly. America may have taken in transgender asylum seekers from the Russian Federation, but once here, they continue to live in the shadows.22 What has been claimed as moral authority on the basis of divine command has on both sides been determined by theocratic declarations by clergy. Everything else consists of what’s mutually regarded as useful and expedient and what results from that scarcely resembles the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
So do Americans make anti-transgender slurs? Sure, lots of us do. Much of America holds the same attitude toward transpeople as many Russians do. Do all Russians hold this? Nope. This writer has known many open-minded Russian people and continues to correspond with Russian friends who know I happen to be trans.
Likewise, the surge of Evangelical Dominionism in American politics parallels the resurgence of Russian Dominionism. Both have boosted the current occupant of the White House.
Given the right conditions, we could just as easily see widespread oppression of minorities in the United States as we have seen in the Russian Federation. Transpeople can as easily be rounded up into detention centers as Russians round us up in their prison system and believe you me, Russian prisons sport a palpable aura of creepiness when approached from the outside. But whether American or Russian, once incarcerated, there’s no guarantee of being able to communicate with a prisoner, or at least a prisoner by his/her/eir rightful name. The disposition of such prisoners may depend upon presidential decree, commonly called an “executive order.”
Even so, this state of affairs sows the seeds of its own undoing. It’s true whether Dominionism is the Orthodox Russian style or the American Evangelical style. Once their enemies are thought to have been “vanquished”, they will inevitably turn upon one another. When that happens between Russians and Americans, the world has much to fear.
Clearly, both Russians and Americans have yet to completely come to grips with Dominionist attitudes and the world will not be fully at peace till they do. When America and Russia regard one another and their populations with suspicion, the world trembles. When they commit to peace, the world lives securely.
In which case, the status of LGBT rights on both sides of the Arctic Ocean is a bellwether for the world, precisely because we’re so particularly vulnerable to pogroms. When the press speaks of the impending struggle of the trans demographic, finally recognizing that we are a demographic, hope remains. When those stories become suppressed, profound danger is afoot for other demographics of the world.
It’s kind of like working around sulphur dioxide. As long as you smell rotten eggs, you won’t die. If you can smell it no longer, watch out.
But the fact that Russians have published anything at all about transpeople, and adjust their stories for their world readership lends to that hope, even when done disparagingly against Americans and transpeople. For every time a disparaging story is published, thinking people question. They should question. Those questionings make the difference between a population that from time to time rises up to demand liberty and one whose members passively accept what they are told.
Featured Image: St. Basil’s Cathedral at night, the most beautiful expression of Russian piety and genius (Wikimedia Commons), the headline from Sputnik spoken of in the article, and the colors of the flag of the Russian Federation.
- Nick Duffy. “Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik mocks US ‘Tranny troops’” PinkNews (January 2, 2018, accessed January 3, 2018) http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2018/01/02/russian-propaganda-outlet-sputnik-mocks-us-tranny-troops/ . The article from Sputnik International as it stands now can be accessed at: https://sputniknews.com/military/201712311060452294-us-to-include-transgender-troops/.
- Stephanie Papas “Why Russia Is So Anti-Gay” Live Science (February 11, 2014, accessed January 4, 2018) https://www.livescience.com/43273-why-russia-is-anti-gay.html.
- The African friend mentioned in this article has been granted assylum in the U.S.
- Andrew E. Kramer. “’They Starve You. They Shock You’: Inside the Anti-Gay Pogrom in Chechnya” New York Times (April 21, 2017, accessed January 4, 2018) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/21/world/europe/chechnya-russia-attacks-gays.html. An earlier online petition addressing Putin himself appears on Change.org (accessed January 4, 2018) https://www.change.org/p/nbc-news-cover-putin-s-anti-gay-laws-and-pogrom-against-gays-in-russia.
- Anatoly Krasikov. “State, Church, and Religious Freedom” Stetson.edu (accessed January 4, 2017) http://www2.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/krasikoveng0910.html.
- Sasha Gitomierski. “Glasnost and Perestroika” The Cold War Museum (accessed January 4, 2017) http://www.coldwar.org/articles/80s/glasnostandperestroika.asp.
- Drake Baer. “A ‘perfect demographic storm’ is crippling Russia” Business Insider (September 2, 2015, accessed January 4, 2018) http://www.businessinsider.com/a-perfect-demographic-storm-is-crippling-russia-2015-9.
- Josh Clark. “Who won the Cold War?” How Stuff Works (accessed January 4, 2017) https://history.howstuffworks.com/history-vs-myth/who-won-cold-war1.htm.
- Mansur Mirovalev. “White supremacist gathering underscores Russia’s nationalist trend” Los Angeles Times (August 22, 2015, accessed January 4, 2018) http://www.latimes.com/world/europe/la-fg-russia-neonazi-20150822-story.html.
- Witnessed by the author who had participated as a missionary speaker.
- (n.a.) Russia court outlaws ‘extremist’ Jehovah’s Witnesses” BBC (April 20, 2017, accessed January 4, 2017) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39661339.
- Sewell Chan. “Russia’s ‘Gay Propaganda’ Laws Are Illegal, European Court Rules” New York times (June 30, 2017, accessed January 4, 2018) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/20/world/europe/russia-gay-propaganda.html.
- Mirovalev article. http://www.latimes.com/world/europe/la-fg-russia-neonazi-20150822-story.html.
- Mark Hodges. “Russian Patriarch: LGBT agenda poses ‘significant threat for the existence of the human race’” Life Site News (November 23, 2016, accessed January 4, 2018) https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/russian-orthodox-leader-gay-marriage-transgenderism-pose-a-significant-thre.
- Stephen Ennis. “Russia’s mixed messages on LGBT” BBC (April 29, 2016, accessed January 3, 2018) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36132060.
- Explored in the current article. But in America, one only need look at disparities regarding race and ethnicity including that of police practice to see it. The riots in Ferguson MO in 2016 demonstrate this rift.
- Nicole Perlroth, Mark Scott, and Sheera Frenkel. “Cyberattack Hits Ukraine, Then spreads Internationally” New York Times (June 27, 2017, accessed January 3, 2018) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/27/technology/ransomware-hackers.html.
- Neil MacFarquhar. “A Powerful Russian Weapon: The Spread of False Stories” New York Times (August 28, 2016, accessed January 3, 2018) https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/29/world/europe/russia-sweden-disinformation.html.
- Raul A. Reyes. “America’s shameful ‘prison camps’” CNN (updated July 23, 2015, accessed January 3, 2018) http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/23/opinions/reyes-immigration-detention/index.html.
- Anastasia Zotova. “How to hide evidence of torture inside Russia’s prison system” Open Democracy (October 17, 2017, accessed January 3, 2018) https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/anastasia-zotova/stop-torture-in-russian-prisons; (n.a.) “Torture in U.S. prisons” American Friends Service Committee (report 2011, accessed January 3, 2018) https://www.afsc.org/document/torture-us-prisons.
- Adam Taylor. “How a transgender Chechen escaped Russia and found asylum in the United States” Washington Post (September 1, 2017, accessed September 3, 2017) https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/a-transgender-chechen-woman-and-her-plea-for-asylum-in-america/2017/09/01/0edc5bd6-8916-11e7-96a7-d178cf3524eb_story.html?utm_term=.46e4224e7ca0 .