That’s what we all asked ourselves last year when three members of the Russian feminist punk collective were arrested and put on trial for what appeared to be a misdemeanor offense of playing music for 45 seconds in a church. Granted, the song was called “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” and spoke of “the Church’s praise of rotten dictators.” But the force with which Putin’s government punished the women was alarming.
READ OUR BREAKDOWN OF PUSSY RIOT’S “PUNK PRAYER.”
Neither the protests nor the punishment made sense. Were things really that bad in Russia? Moscow is in Europe, after all, and aren’t the Europeans supposed to be far ahead of us backwoods Americans when it comes to sexual liberation and the dissolution of patriarchy? Was the church and Putin’s powerful state colluding and coalescing into a soft theocracy? It didn't make sense: Russia had been officially atheist during its nearly century-long experiment in Sovietism. And now it’s a country of Bible-thumping conservatives?
Yes. Things are that bad.
In the year following Pussy Riot’s guilty verdict and shocking sentence, news of Russia’s Christian hate crimes began to spread. Gay and transgender Russians were being beaten, humiliated, killed. It had become something of a sport. The wave of violence against LGBT Russians received something like official sanction when Putin’s federal government passed a law banning “homosexual propaganda.” Anything that could be perceived as openly displaying homosexuality as normal in view of children is now illegal. Holding hands, kissing, wearing something pro-gay, or just acting gay; these are now illegal in public.
READ OUR BREAKDOWN OF RUSSIA’S ANTI-LGBT LAW
But Russia is going to be having company over. The entire world will be sending athletes, fans, officials and media to the Winter Olympics in Russia next February. Already Russia has acted to threaten pro-gay activity in the Olympic zone, with a Russian court banning the Sochi Pride House, ruling that pro-gay activity would “incite social and religious hatred.” On Friday, Vladimir Putin issued a decree banning all protests before, during and after the Olympics in Sochi.
An international outcry has begun to beset the International Olympic Committee and public officials. On Friday, powerful Foreign Relations Committee member Senator Barbara Boxer issued the strongest condemnation yet from a US official. Boxer’s letter follows two, more conservative admonitions by President Obama.
READ OUR BREAKDOWN OF SENATOR BOXER’S LETTER TO PUTIN
READ OUR BREAKDOWN OF PRESIDENT OBAMA’S REMARKS ON PUTIN
But the most arresting condemnations have come from non-politicians who are allowed to be more free in their alarm. British comedian and activist Stephen Fry drew comparisons to Hitler’s Germany in 1936. Berlin was host of the Olympic games that year, and the world turned a blind eye to the beginnings of Germany’s anti-Semitic violence and oppression. The Berlin Games actually boosted Hitler’s standing, both at home and abroad, at a time when he needed to be stopped in his tracks.
READ OUR BREAKDOWN STEPHEN FRY’S WARNINGS
Star Trek and Facebook star George Takei reiterated the dire comparison to Hitler’s Germany in a Huffington Post interview. Takei reminded us that the German Olympiad came after Hitler had begun turning a blind eye to violence against Jews, and he, like Putin, had legislation passed which lent tacit approval to that violence. Takei used the opportunity to promote a new petition to move the Games from Russia to Vancouver.
READ OUR BREAKDOWN OF GEORGE TAKEI’S WARNINGS
In the coming months, world leaders will have to face a choice: condone and reward Putin’s regressive violence or force Russia to realign with 21st century liberalism. It doesn’t appear that Putin is backing down anytime soon. Russian state-owned media released on Friday a decree from Putin banning free speech from the Olympic premises, outlawing all “gatherings, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets” not related to the Games. A spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign warns: “The way [the anti-protest law] is so broadly written, any show of support for LGBT people can be criminalized. That could be holding a rainbow flag or saying, ‘I support my gay teammates.’ Especially for gay people themselves, there is a huge gray area.” Putin appears to be daring attendees to demonstrate against his country’s bigotry. He’s daring the world to challenge him.
Putin’s Russia parallels Hitler’s early reign in Germany too closely. Stephen Fry connects Russia of 2013 with Germany of 1936: “The Olympic movement at that time paid precisely no attention to this evil and proceeded with the notorious Berlin Olympiad, which provided a stage for a gleeful Führer and only increased his status at home and abroad. It gave him confidence. All historians are agreed on that. What he did with that confidence we all know.”
It's not very often that we are given such a clear shot at a do-over. The world failed European Jews in 1936. What will we do now?
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