Leading up to the Winter Olympic Games of 2014 in Russia, the single most important issue for the Western media was the gay rights issue. Those familiar with Russian society today and the history of the country know that this predominantly conservative male-dominated society has not been friendly to gay people. On the contrary, the anti-gay trend in the country has been associated with the hard-core nationalist-militarist mentality that President Vladimir Putin and other leaders have been projecting as a way of rejecting the pro-gay West. Gay people have suffered merely because they have tried to assert their rights or to expose the hypocrisy of the country that tries to present itself as a “democracy”.
As much as gay rights is a legitimate issue that the government needs to address seriously with anti-gay legislation and strong penalties for those violating the law, the question is the degree to which the media has seized upon the gay rights issue as though it is the sole defining one for Russia. Let us consider just some of the country’s problems and see how gay rights fits into the larger framework.
1. There is massive public and private sector corruption, to the degree that the country ranks among the top 10% worst in the world. Besides the billionaire and millionaire oligarchs that made their money overnight with government assets and contracts, there are the billions spent on the Olympic Games installations, which would become a major burden on the ordinary Russian taxpayer. The Western media occasionally touches on this, but rarely because it does mean embarrassing the capitalist West applauding Russia for giving up Communism to replace it with “Gangster Capitalism” that runs through the public and private sectors.
2. Ethnic conflict, especially between the Russian Orthodox majority and the Muslims of the Caucasus region, is a chronic problem that periodically results in random acts of violence with casualties. This is not to blame the Russian majority for not having resolved the problem of the Muslim minority, but it is a historic matter with deep roots of identity and demands for autonomy rights without institutional and societal persecution. The Western media touches on this issue only from the perspective that Muslim terrorists are as much a problem for Russia as they are for the West, failing to see the history and current politics, economics and cultural biases behind the conflict.
3. Women’s rights is still another matter that one would rarely see about Russian society, given that under the Communist regime women had actually some modicum of respect, while under “Gangster Capitalist” Russia the state, the Orthodox Church and the male-dominated private sector and institutions have relegated women to a lesser status. Women under this regime are commodities to be sold and traded; to sell narcotics or their bodies so they can survive because of high income concentration; to remain silent before an institutional structure that resembles pre-1917 Russia under the Czars. Where is the Western media to compare the status of women today under the dictatorship of the “Gangster Capitalists” with the status of women under the dictatorship of the Communist Party?
4. Militarism, nationalism and chauvinism have become major trends with real consequences in society and the economy. That Russia has been relying heavily on energy exports to finance the rest of its economy is one thing, although this will catch up with the country that is failing to diversify rapidly enough to meet internal demand and compete globally. That Russia has been using assets from energy to pour into a defense sector that is corrupt and parasitic is a story worthy of journalistic investigation. Besides military buildup as part of a strong nationalist agenda, the government has been strengthening nationalist institutions in a style similar to what the Czars were doing before the Revolution, and what Stalin did when he replaced Lenin. Putin is pursuing militarism, nationalism and chauvinism that is on the rise and manifesting in various rightwing groups. In pursuing nationalism, chauvinism and militarism, Putin is reviving the cult of personality that Stalin and the Czars had cultivated. The question is the degree to which the Western media has bothered to conduct in depth investigative reporting on this issue and to expose this corrupt president as the dictatorial figure that he is. However, the Western media and governments it serves do not dare go as far because it would mean that they are critical of the non-Communist regime that has a market economy, even if it operates as “Gangster capitalism”.
Let us assume that Russia was as liberal toward gay people as Holland and the Scandinavian countries. The question is whether this by itself would mean that Russia has absolutely no problem with social justice issues as the Western media tries to project to the world? Clearly, the gay rights issue is a larger matter falling in the domain of human rights and that is a test of any open society, but is it the only one, or the defining one as the hypocritical media has been trying to convince the public? Moreover, why has not the same Western media devoted any coverage to Saudi Arabia’s treatment of gays? Is it because the Saudi regime is pro-West, so no matter how it treats women and gays, no matter the human rights abuses, the Western media rarely covers the issues?
These are very serious issues that editorial boards decide when they have their writers put together the news. Why does the BBC and the New York Times choose to focus on the Russian gay issue and not so many other social justice issues within the country as well as comparable issues in pro-West countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan? Of course, I realize that the gay rights issue has the kind of celebrity glam-glitz appeal that ordinary run of the mill human rights in Afghanistan do not have. After all, gay rights is historically a Western bourgeois issue, while working class human rights issues like clean drinking water in sub-Sahara Africa simply does not appeal to the Western middle class. This is not to diminish the importance of those fighting for their rights and paying a price for it in the process, nor to criticize the gay activists in the West for their solidarity demonstrations. However, are gay rights the defining issue of for Russia in the early 21st century, at least as far as the commercial Western media is concerned? Are gay rights a “politically correct” issue serving the political agenda of Western governments and corporations that need a way to criticize Moscow but cannot do it any other way without sounding like they are nostalgic for Communism.