Traveling from West Hollywood to Moscow takes one 6,000 miles forward and and sixty years backward.
After shaking itself out of a half-century stupor, Russia recently came to life in a thunderous shudder of exuberance, tasting modern life and freedom as a gift long hidden from experience. This new joie de vivre seemed to permeate most all aspects of post-Soviet Russian life.
And then, just as quickly, it didn’t.
Sprawling across eleven time zones (soon to be reduced to nine) this diverse land is both modern and provincial simultaneously, a hallmark of rapid change. And, it would now seem, the provincial side is winning the cultural battles, at least in the legislative arena.
Half a century of progress has been seemingly wiped away in a few short years.
Just after my first visit to Russia in 2011, the repression hit full force, with a complacent youth rousing itself after the contested reelection of Vladimir Putin. Protesters hit the streets, and all elements of a Russian Revolution seemed to follow the footsteps of the Arab Spring. And then, it didn’t.
A brutal crackdown and jailing of protestors caused the movement to focus on internet activity with sporadic gatherings, while the Kremlin continued a brutal campaign of murdering journalists and imprisoning out-of-favor oligarchs and political leaders in a third world scenario of exaggerated thuggery.
Then came Pussy Riot. An apotheosis of oppression slammed into the eleven member art/music/feminist performance collective after an anti-Putin protest song was played before the altar in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, first destroyed by Stalin, newly rebuilt but now known as the “Pussy Riot Church” perhaps for all time. The clip went viral, the band members jailed.
The City of West Hollywood, always first to step up to the microphone to protest oppression of homosexuals, passed a resolution calling for the band’s release.
Two members of three arrested for hooliganism under Russian law are still languishing in prison, and Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova do not believe they will be paroled, over a year after their arrest. Ms. Nadezhda has protested with a hunger strike the gulag-like conditions of prison, from 17-hour workdays to fomented violence among prisoners. She has been transferred to a hospital currently.
This poisonous atmosphere continues to grow, protests of variable numbers continue, and the Federal Assembly of Russia has become increasingly reactionary and conservative. The State Duma and Putin seem lockstep in placing Mother Russia firmly in the grasp of another century past. Newly liberated LGBTQ citizens have been threatened, beaten and murdered.
This was the condition that surrounded my departure last month for Russia. I had previously gone as the guest of honor for the opening of a film school in the lovely city of Samara, on the mighty Volga River. This time out, my goal was to film documentary footage on the imperiled state of architecture in Russia today. But things were changing at a rapid clip.
In April 2011, the European Convention on Human Rights’ Strasbourg Court had fined Russia for violations of article 11, 13, and 14 of the European Convention for banning 164 pride events and marches from 2006 to 2008. Moscow’s homophobic longtime mayor Yury Luzhkov did his best to incite hatred for the gay community throughout Moscow and attempts at pride parades were met with bricks and bottles.
Recently the government fined gay rights groups with huge penalties for “acting as foreign agents” this new law essentially made it illegal to utter the word gay in public, even though homosexuality was legalized in Russia in 1993.
As I departed, the Federal Assembly had just passed a law that was an unambiguous massive attack on the LGBT community conflating homosexuality with pedophilia. This brought international and domestic outrage, as seen by the protests (WeHo ceremonially pouring Russian vodka brands down the gutter, bars taking Russian vodka from shelves, etc.) and calls for boycotting the Sochi Olympics.
This retrogressive legal maneuvering represents a massive cultural and social warp that is tearing the country into factions, and the story grows more agitated daily.
In next week’s edition, a full report on queer culture in modern Russia, a testimonial filled with surprising diversity and courage. Dasvidanaya!