Analogizing to the Pussy Riot affair, journalist Oleg Kashin argues that the grisly murder of a gay man in Volgograd may soon shame – or rather, frighten – the Kremlin into dropping its gay-baiting campaign.
The Sacrificial Victim and the End of Russian Homophobia
This question is either for the intellect, or for general erudition: How many beer bottles can fit into the rectum of an average Russian citizen under the condition that his life isn’t worth anything? To be perfectly honest, I had never given this thought, especially since the experience of Kazan’s Dalniy police station suggested that even one – though true, a champagne bottle – is perfectly sufficient to kill someone. But now we also have Volgograd’s experience – two and a half bottles. “Two bottles went in completely, while the third one only partially,” clarified a local news site.
The incredibly brutal murder of a gay man, for being gay. In fact, this could have have become the cause for some huge demonstration against homophobia in the center of Moscow – this case is too unprecedented, even by our standards – but even grumbling about it is already kind of awkward. There is no tradition of mass rioting for any reason in Russia, but there is a tradition of riotous commenting on social networks. Today many people write that the Volgograd murders were a direct consequence of state homophobia, and direct accusations are aired against Saint-Petersburg’s Milonov and Moscow’s Muzilina – they are our chief homophobes, and who can now prove that it was not their speeches and legislative bills that, at the level of Volgograd’s streets, became for three local gopniks a manual for action? Like that Soviet anecdote about the citizen who beat up two Jews after hearing news of the Yom Kippur War: “Listening to the radio, they are approaching Cairo; going out onto the street – they are already standing at the Metro.”
The man killed in Volgograd was unlikely to have ever become an LGBT activist, and besides the entire story as we currently understand it appears to be one of those that first provoke widespread outrage before somebody confusedly mutters that everything isn’t all that simple. But even allowing that the homophobic motive and the victim’s sexual orientation are only known to us from the words of one of the detained suspects as reported by the local media, we can already say that the man killed in Volgograd was a sacrificial victim, in the most direct sense of that hackneyed expression. A man died, and his death may well play a role in Russia’s political history in the nearest future. Deputy Milonov will quieten down, and relations between gays and the state may at least return to what they were before Milonov came along, a neutral state of affairs in which gay parades weren’t permitted – but neither was the LGBT movement fought against.
Something similar happened in Russia last summer, when Judge Syrova delivered a verdict on three participants of Pussy Riot at Khamovniki Court. The atmosphere during those few months before the verdict has now been somewhat forgotten, but it’s not hard to jog the memory – the social mood was nervous, taut. The TV talked of “blasphemers,” the Cathedral of Christ the Savior hosted mass “standing prayers” led by the Patriarch that had a greater resemblance to Soviet rallies, the protoiereus Chaplin and the protoiereus Smirnov were muttering in two voices something fierce and fiery, and thoughts of impending Orthodox fundamentalism filled the political op-eds. Now, almost a year later, with fundamentalism not having arrived after all, it’s worth remembering precisely when the guns of ideological war between Orthodox radicals and those they dislike fell quiet.
That happened last year on 30 August, thirty days after Judge Syrova’s verdict. On that day in Kazan, the bodies of two women were discovered in an apartment of House 68 on Fuchika Street, bearing the signs of a violent death. The writing “Free Pussy Riot” was inscribed on the walls in blood. This was a very nasty development against the background of all the words that had been spoken in the past months, because it wasn’t difficult to imagine – as yet another defender of the sacred rushes to proclaim on TV – that it was all very logical: Here they were singing in church one day, and killing people on the next. Many people then were speaking of a Cold Civil War, but when there is a corpse, it is no longer a cold war but a corpse, a bloodied corpse. A new, so to speak, turn.
But it was precisely that turn that never happened. Coverage of the Kazan murder on state TV was markedly neutral – nobody tried to fire people up, sources in the power ministries spoke of it as the work of a psychologically disturbed killer. Even Pussy Riot’s lawyers were given a platform, who spoke to the effect that real supporters of the group had legitimate ways of protest. The Kazan murder could have become the linchpin for a new propaganda campaign; it practically fell into the hands of authorities that up till then had not missed a single opportunity to pose as defenders of Orthodoxy and its shrines. But now, everyone started pretending that there was no reason to it at all. Moreover, it was precisely after the Kazan murder that the standing prayers at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior came to an end, not to mention the hysterical pronouncements of the Orthodox community. Religious themes quietly slipped from the most discussed things lists, and even the tone of official commentaries on Pussy Riot changed – Putin’s famous comment on the “dvushechka” sounded, in some sense, even amicable.
Nobody know what what have happened if it were not for the Kazan murder. Perhaps we might still be hearing the word “blasphemers” on TV, and as in last year’s Easter Service, receiving leaflets featuring the blast-shattered ruins of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (“This can’t happen again”). The Kazan murder clearly put an end to the hysterics. I presume that the authorities got scared – scared that its own propaganda had crossed some Rubicon beyond which appear various ax-wielding crazies, prepared to implement in practice what had been up till then only virtual. The Russian authorities are afraid of blood in general, or more precisely not even blood per se, but all forms of unsanctioned violence from below. The murder of the Volgograd gay in this sense may be compared with last year’s Kazan murder – up till now state homophobia has been virtual, but is revealed to have been perhaps more convincing than the state itself wished, and has now started materializing into reality. And another big question concerns who is the more frightened by the Volgograd murder: The Russian LGBT community, or the Kremlin bosses of the homophobe deputies who – as has now become apparent – failed to account for something important and dangerous.