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Queer Russia, the New Front

by Helm de Laat in General , 09 juli 2014

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

This summer, the Dutch-Russian team Walking Together will participate in the Annual Four Day Walking Event in Nijmegen. Walking Together consists of GLBT activists from Nijmegen and various cities in the Russian Federation. During the summer festivities, the local Pink House will show works by Russian artists.

On Pink Wednesday, the installation “Queerussia: the hidden (p)art” will be at the heart of the festivities, and draw attention to the situation in the Russian Federation.

The Situation in Russia

The Russian Federation is becoming a totalitarian state at a fast pace, worsening the situation for GLBTs on a daily basis. Increasingly, human rights are becoming less important. In the Russian Federation, gay men and lesbian women are among the first who will have to deal with the consequences of this.

After the old Stalin laws were abolished under Putin’s predecessors, GLBT organizations were set up in larger cities in the Russian Federation. They had to fight the homophobia of nationalists and ultra-orthodox groups. This homophobia seemed to be one of the last convulsions of ghosts from a distant past. The government hardly did anything to counteract violent actions by such groups. At first, they mostly victimized African students, and later on workers from the Caucasus. That should have been a warning sign. Through the government’s excessive actions against the naughty Pussy Riot girls, and the adoption of the anti-gay laws, Putin formed an alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church. He is playing on nationalist sentiments with his current rhetoric of threats of the Russian population in neighboring countries, and after the unpunished occupation of the Crimean, the comparison with the 1930s is getting even more poignant.


Prior to the Winter Games in Sochi, the pros and cons of a boycott were discussed at length. The Russian GLBT movement was extremely divided. But in The Netherlands, the GLBT movement argued in favor of a boycott. To no avail. Perhaps officials would be willing to spoil Putin’s party, but a plea not to send an official delegation and show our athletes in all the colors of the rainbow, fell on deaf ears. Foremost, they did not want to spoil their own party. And even though they were sympathetic to the arguments in favor of a boycott, comparing the situation of the Winter Games to the Olympics in Berlin was seen as an exaggeration. To take the wind out of his critics’ sails, Hitler had temporarily released all sorts of prisoners.

But not homosexuals. In one of the prisons in Berlin, they even formed the largest group of inmates. During the Sochi games, protesting homosexuals were still arrested, but the jubilant press hardly paid attention to this. Not then, and not now. But comparisons always fall short. In Berlin, there was no cheering Dutch Prime Minister present, and Dutch athletes were not giving the Nazi salute. Recently, Putin has arrogantly demanded satisfaction from the British ambassador when Prince Charles compared him to Hitler. Putin deemed it highly “inappropriate.” But after the occupation of the Crimean, the enthusiastic reception at the Dutch Heineken House should be viewed in a different light. The golden sweep world of speed skating and Prime Minister Rutte would rather not be reminded of this. And also in those circles, they would have considered this statement “inappropriate.”

111th Session

The UN human rights committee assembles from July 7-25 in Geneva to discuss the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Several Russian GLBT organizations, such as Coming Out and a transgender organization from Saint Petersburg, the Rainbow Foundation, wrote an alternative report for this 111th session. With over sixty real cases spanning the period 2009-2013, the report describes the worsening of the GLBT human rights situation in the Russian Federation. It deals with the increasing violence against GLBTs and those who are fighting for the rights of GLBTs. The government does not take any action against the perpetrators, but is arresting GLBTs, accusing them of disturbing the peace or hooliganism. The report describes expressions of hatred and intolerance towards GLBTs by officials, religious authorities, and the media.

No action is taken against threats and insults. GLBTs who are offended have provoked it, and can be arrested for disturbing the peace. Closed meetings of GLBT organizations are also unsafe, which is in direct violation of the right of assembly. The anti-propaganda law has already been used prior to its implementation, as an excuse to suppress all forms of homosexuality from public life. This is in violation of the freedom of speech. Wearing rainbow colors is now also seen as gay propaganda. And the law is even being used to threaten gay families with children, as children need to be protected from “gay propaganda” by their parents.

However, the stories of bullying by public officials, neighbors, health care workers and employers of transsexuals do sound shamefully familiar. Legal recognition of their gender is nearly impossible. And then there is the “foreign agents” law. Organizations that receive financial or moral support from abroad, should register. The registration process is used to make the work of these organizations impossible, and only organizations that dedicate themselves to civil rights of GLBTs are targeted. The organization “Coming Out,” for example, has had to spend $ 20,000 on legal assistance. The use of the term “foreign agents” by the Russian government does not only play into the hands of the Russian nationalists’ hatred of foreigners, but also refers to the 1930s, in which Stalin used such accusations to eliminate political opponents. Less known is that in the first year after Stalin made homosexuality punishable again (with a maximum of four years in prison), approximately 250 homosexuals were executed. Because anyone who was suspected of something this decadent, just had to be a spy or a foreign agent. But any comparison with the 1930s falls short. In those days, there were no GLBT organizations or human rights committee of the United Nations.

The Front is Everywhere

The many examples in this report show that the legal position of homosexuals is being undermined, that they are being deprived of their most fundamental civil rights, and that officials do not even assume an appearance of honesty in the birth of a totalitarian state. And this report only describes those cases the GLBT organizations could investigate. One of the most shocking aspects of the report to the human rights committee are the chapters that reveal how for years, reports and recommendations made in several international conventions, treaties and committees have simply been ignored by the Russian government.

The situation has only become worse over the years. On Coming Out Day in 2009, it was still possible to organize GLBT activities in thirty Russian cities. Permits were not a problem, and violent incidents hardly took place. On the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia this year, it was only possible to organize activities in thirteen cities. The authorities only gave permits for Tolerance meetings, but no longer for GLBT meetings.

Judging by the effectiveness of international diplomacy, it is unlikely that Russian GLBT organizations will be able to write a report to the Human Rights Committee for their 112th session. But in Geneva, they will probably consider this statement “inappropriate” again. However, the case is not closed.

International diplomacy may not be very effective, but it is the battlefield on which the fight for GLBT rights should take place. Only because of their commitment, some governments now take part in an international coalition of GLBT and human rights organizations. Russian GLBTs and their organizations are under enormous pressure in their own country, but they no longer stand alone. Thanks to the Internet, they are in daily contact with each other and with us. It takes some getting used to, but their fight is also our fight, which asks for new strategies. Some messages from the Front.

After Sochi, the Manifesta10

The tenth international Biennial of Contemporary Art Manifesta10 has begun on June 28. It will be held in Saint Petersburg until the end of October. It will also be held in the State Hermitage museum, and is organized by a Dutch organization from Amsterdam. When the debate on a possible boycott of the Winter Olympics took place, GLBTs requested the organization of the Manifesta to select a different location for their biennial. The Manifesta did not want to hear of it. During the Crimean crisis, artists from Amsterdam and Düsseldorf repeated this request, but Manifesta stuck to their guns. At first, Manifesta put on a brave front that they would continue the fight for human rights through “the discursive power of art.”

Manifesta thought they could succeed where international diplomacy and the GLBT movement failed. We shall see. Later on, the organization stated that the artistic freedom of participants was guaranteed, but “within the boundaries of Russian law.” With this, Manifesta accepted a law that makes any public homosexuality impossible. It also added that Manifesta should not be misused for political purposes. This much tactless ambiguity was too much for the Russian artists group Chto Delatte. Chto Delatte, the only government-independent partner, was to take care of the educational program, but discontinued the cooperation. And it was precisely this part of the program that should shape the dialogue on homosexuality. What is left of this intention is unclear, and it is not yet known how the dialogue on homosexuality will be incorporated into the rest of the various side-line activities and the film program. The organization also commissioned new works of art in the public space that should give a critical view on the “present socio-political circumstances.” Homosexuality is not addressed, and Manifesta has not responded to a request for more information.

After Manifesta’s decision not to respond to the appeal by GLBTs and critical artists, the organization has maintained radio silence. How was this done in the 1930s? When Hitler wanted to add luster to the Olympic Games with a large fine arts competition, there were plenty of artists who participated enthusiastically. But several Dutch artists organized the exhibition “De Olympiade onder Dictatuur” (The Olympics under Dictatorship). With D.O.O.D (which means “death”), they were protesting against the prosecution of Jews and political dissidents by the Nazis. Several years later, it would be the beginning of artists’ resistance during World War II. Sports and politics is a difficult combination, but why should that also apply to arts and political commitment?

Art and Commitment

In 2006, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne organized the exhibition “Das Achte Feld.” It was an overview of what we now know as Queer Art, art from the front-line of gay emancipation. Kaspar König then was manager of this museum, and wrote the foreword for the catalogue in which he referred to “Kunst als Kampfplatz” (Art as a Battlefield). König was appointed the curator of the Manifesta. This seemed promising, but König of all people is now claiming that art and politics should not be mixed. Art has become an autonomous field where only artistic matters should be discussed. Censorship and self-censorship are closely related.

He did however present an impressive exhibition program with over fifty participants, including artist who have proven their worth on our “Kampfplatz.” Examples are Bruce Nauman, Nicole Eisenman and Wolfgang Tillmans. But the program does not mention their queer art. Yet, the organization did somewhat take the criticism to heart. Kaspar König also announced the participation of painting royalty Marlene Dumas with a series of portraits of celebrities from gay history, for example a portrait of the Russian composer Tchaikovsky. The fact that he was gay is something that can hardly be mentioned in the Russian Federation. A law that forbids telling untruths about Russian history is in the making. And the curator also proudly announced the participation of the Russian gay artist Vladislav Mamyshev. What he has in common with the famous men of Marlene Dumas is that he is dead as a doornail. It is not clear why he has limited himself to the “discursive power” of the dead.

Queerussia, the hidden (p)art

For works of art by Russian queer artists (m/f/x) who are still alive, there are possibilities closer to home. This summer, the Pink House in Nijmegen shows photos, paintings and videos during “Queerussia, the hidden (p)art.” It is an updated edition of an exhibition that was compiled by Gallery MooiMan from Groningen. In 2013, four centuries of diplomatic relations between the Russian Federation and The Netherlands were celebrated. During this Russia year, hardly anything was said about the worsening human rights situation of GLBTs in the Russian Federation. With this exhibition, Gallery MooiMan broke that silence.

At their own expense, the gallery brought works by Russian gay artists from Russia. They also compiled a traveling exhibition that was shown in Antwerp and Liverpool. Plans for a second exhibition in several cities in Russia were cancelled due to lack of funding, which means that the only possibility for an open dialogue on homosexuality in Russia is off. Of course for the Manifesta, subsidies are available.


“Queerussia, the hidden (p)art” shows work by, among others, the young photographer Alexander Kargaltsev. He was one of the first GLBTs who fled the Russian Federation and asked for asylum on the basis of homosexuality. He photographed companions in misfortune who, like him, requested asylum in New York. After publication of these photographs in the book “Asylum,” he was accused of fleeing the country on economic grounds. The lesbian couple that was about to be deprived of parental rights because their daughter had told people at school about her mothers (!) has now also fled the country.

The fact that these people escaped in the nick of time is another “inappropriate” reference to the 1930s. Gallery MooiMan was responsible for the Dutch edition of the book, for which former mayor of Groningen Peter Rehwinkel wrote the introduction. The gallery is also showing photographs, paintings and videos by Seva Galkin, Serge Golovach, Slava Mogutin, Sergey Sovkov and Alexej Tikhonov, besides new work by Alexander Kargaltsev and the performance artist Andrey Bartenev. And there are no restrictions imposed. The fact of the matter remains that it shows more Russian queer artists than the Manifesta in Saint Petersburg.

Pink Wednesday

On the Pink Wednesday during the summer celebrations for the Four Day Walking Event, Nijmegen celebrates diversity by becoming all-pink. That day, a large installation will adorn one of the central locations for the Pink Wednesday celebrations. The installation gives information on the situation in the Russian Federation, and will show work from the exhibition “Queerussia, the hidden (p)art.”

A group of Russian GLBT hikers will participate in the Annual Four Day Walking Event. They are members of GLBT groups from cities such as Saint Petersburg and Moscow, but also from Archangelsk and Tula.

Several members of the gay youth organization in Nijmegen, Dito!, will also participate. An interesting fact is that during the summer festivities in 1983, acts of violence against GLBTs disrupted the festivities. When protests took place at the final entry into the city, these led to disturbances in which the Dutch police also let violent offenders be. The Russian hikers are here on invitation by Amnesty International and COC Nijmegen, which also paid for the bulk of the costs. The athletes are staying with host families in Nijmegen. Not only can they be encouraged every day, but there is also plenty of opportunity to meet them in person, for instance during a meeting on Monday, July 14 (21:00) in the Roze Huis.

Roze Huis, St. Anthoniusplaats 1, Nijmegen. Opening exhibition “Queerussia, the hidden (p)art,”
Sunday July 13, 15:00.
The exhibition can be viewed during opening hours of the Roze Huis, on Pink Wednesday (11-17), and by appointment.

During Pink Wednesday, the installation is visible on the Lindenbergtrappen (11:00-17:00).
More information:   Alexander Kargaltsev, “Asylum,” Groningen, 2013,
ISBN 9789077957202, € 27.50,




In the New Issue of Gay News, 328, December 2018

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