Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russian Left Divided over LGBT Rights

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 16 – The Russian left remains divided over LGBT rights, with some of its members viewing gay rights as a natural part of their agenda and opposition to them as a prejudice but others seeing it as either a distraction from other social-economic problems or even an attempt of the authorities to divide and weaken socialist groups.

            For the last several years, Aleksey Bachinsky writes on the site, Russian groups on the left of the political spectrum have been debating how to deal with LGBT groups, but now “thanks to the homophobic campaign of the government,” this issue has become a central one for these groups (

            Many Russian LGBT activists, including those in the Rainbow Association, have sought to take part in demonstrations and to join coordinating groups of the left. For example, Pavel Samburov of the Association has become a member of the Forum of Left Forces even as his membership has marched in various protests.

            But the left groups are now split, Bachinsky says, between those who think that the LGBT efforts in this regard as a government-organized provocation to those who are happy to welcome “a new group of toilers whose class consciousness has awakened.”

            Groups like Autonomous Action, Left Socialist Action, and the Committee for a Workers’ International believe that within society, there is “a multitude of hierarchies of oppression,” not just an economic one, and that it is the proper “task of those on the left to fight with each of these.

            Others, like ROT-Front, Other Russia, and some of the Inter-Regional Union of Communists, say that gay rights are a bourgeois issue and should not be the focus of the left.  And still a third group of parties remain very much divided on how to react to LGBT efforts to join their ranks.

            The Forum of Left Forces, which has served as an umbrella group for the left for the last three years, has been the site of conflicts between these opinions, with some of its membership totally opposed to having rainbow flags at demonstrations and others more than willing to accept them.

            The theme has become so sensitive that increasingly participating left organizations have dealt with it by not talking about it, Bachinsky continues, fearful that any discussion will weaken the left given the rising tide of homophobia in Russia and the efforts of the Russian government to further marginalize protest.

              Among those who argue for avoiding public arguments about this is Aleksandr Batov, first secretary of the Moscow cell of ROT-Front.  He says that the issue of LGBT rights is much like that of Pussy Riot which “split Russian society.”
            In the usual telling, he continues, “either you are for Pussy Riot and for Western values … or you are for the Russian Orthodox Church, for conservatism, for the traditional family, for Cossacks with beards and so on.  Quite a few people in [Russia] are not ready to accept either of these alternatives,” even when they are presented as an “either-or” proposition.

            Igor Yasin, an LGBT activist on the Committee for a Workers’ International, sees the situation differently. He says that the authorities have benefited from this split in the left but that they did not have to create it.  The left, he says, must “not simple engage in a struggle for LGBT rights but in one against any forms of xenophobia, against anything hich divides us [including] nationalism and sexism.”

            When people on the left say that LGBT activists and demands are the problem, Yasin says, Yasin says that he responds that it isn’t the LGBT community that is “dividing the movement but prejudices.”

                Nikita Arkin, an activist with the Left Socialist Action group, says that “each period brings its own questions” and that “one must not say that the issue of LGBT rights is not a matter of principle because it was not considered to be by the most important theoreticians of the past.” The world changes and the left must change with it.

            To those of his comrades who say that the left must avoid any discussion of LGBT rights because “the people don’t understand,” Arkin says that many on the left “exaggerate the problem.” Indeed, he says, “one could say that it is not necessary to speak out against anti-Semitism and nationalism” for the same reason.

            In fact, he says, at the everyday level in Russia today, “nationalist prejudices are even stronger than homophobic ones, but that doesn’t mean that we should not speak out against them.”

            Nonetheless, those who feel as Arkin does face an uphill fight.  Mikhail Pulin of Other Russia, for example, says the left should avoid the LGBT issue because “the LGBT community is not a political organization in any respect” and those on the left should oppose “a mixin of politics and non-politics.”

            Most LGBT activists don’t agree with this assessment. Samburov, for example, argues that “the LGBT community of course also has social problems, and we are involved with them.  But the most significant problems of the LGBTs in contemporary Russia, the ones lying right on the surface of things are political … We will solve these by political methods in union with other political organizations which are prepared to support us.”

            These intramural fights within and among groups that many see as marginal are, Bachinsky concludes, “only the tip of the iceberg of those contradictions which must be addressed in order to act as a united front,” something the left has found it hard to do and that the Kremlin has been only too eager to prevent.

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