Cocktails & Carnage is a weekly interview column from former TIME News Director Howard Chua-Eoan. Every Thursday. Read previous columns here.
I was just about to start on my oxtail fried rice when I wondered if Vladimir Putin might be watching me.
The dining room of Blue Ribbon Sushi on West 58th Street is dark enough to imagine a spy tucked away in a corner, though the shadows are more elegant than malevolent. The sushi and tempura ordered by my companions were expertly done; the fish and vegetables perfectly fresh. And, for a place from which I only expected pescatarian pleasure, the dish I ordered—which was topped by bone marrow in an egg wrap—was a carnivore’s delight.
Putin wouldn’t have been interested in my food. But he came to mind because someone in surveillance in Russia has been following the activities of the people at our table. Over a bowl of edamame, Anastasia Smirnova, 28, explained how portions of audio from a meeting she had attended at a Holiday Inn in St. Petersburg, in which she had been coordinating a coalition of Russian LGBT organizations, had suddenly been aired on Russian state television channel. Worst of all, it was broadcast on a program that is best described as 60 Minutes produced as a call-and-answer show hosted by a Russian version of Rush Limbaugh. The audio from the “secret” (as opposed to “private”) conference was offered as evidence of foreign interference in Moscow’s affairs. Smirnova and her compatriots were painted as depraved sexual outlaws trying to remake Russia into another decadent and effete Western polity. “Western European sodomites,” intoned Arkady Mamontov as he opened the program on Rossiya 1, “are trying to infiltrate Russia and organize a protest movement here among our Russian perverts.”
The law was declaration of open season on the LGBT community in Russia.
The meeting in the St. Petersburg Holiday Inn was actually focused on how Russian gays and lesbians could be safe after Putin enacted a law against promoting non-traditional sexual behavior. The law was so vague that even same-sex handholding might be construed as “propaganda”—and the handholders levied huge fines. But monetary penalties are not the problem. The law, which Putin signed at the end of June, has virtually been a declaration of open season on the LGBT community in Russia, especially away from the big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Violent incidents targeting gays and lesbians have increased dramatically, according to news reports. Anti-gay pages on a VKontakte, a widely used Russian social networking site, blast out Neo-Nazi diatribes against “perverts,” “pedophiles,” and “sodomites” and, ominously, compile lists of people they claim belong to the LGBT community.
Smirnova looked relatively calm despite the litany of horrors. Perhaps it was the jetlag. She’d flown from Petersburg to transfer at the airport in Moscow for the flight to New York. Worse, she had been left waiting in the lobby bar of a hotel in midtown Manhattan while I was late for the appointment to see her and her colleague Elvina Yuvakaeva, 34, the co-president of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation. That hotel was a Holiday Inn, like the one that was bugged in St. Petersburg. I am sure Smirnova and Yuvakaeva felt more secure in the shadowy main room of Blue Ribbon Sushi.
Yuvakaeva’s federation is a key part of the LGBT coalition that Smirnova coordinates because sports is deeply intertwined with the civil rights movement right now. Beginning Feb. 7, the Black Sea port of Sochi will host the winter Olympics—and human rights activists overseas, as well as LGBT organizations within Russia, are using the walk-up to highlight the propaganda law’s violation of equality provisions within the Olympic charter. Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch, who put me and the Russians together for dinner, says that the International Olympic Committee virtually forced the Saudis to include women athletes on their team when Riyadh had planned to send an all-male squad to the last Olympiad. Why shouldn’t they exert some pressure on Putin to end a law that makes it impossible for openly gay Russian athletes to compete without, in some way, triggering the propaganda law? The law, as currently written, can actually be construed to make gay athletic role models illegal because in their sheer awesomeness they might lure innocent Russians away from “traditional sexual relations.”
While Smirnova can roll off long sentences touching on issues and the broad agenda, easily flicking at outrages and atrocities, Yuvakaeva has an ear for the nuance and complexity and will pause the conversation to bring in longer-term concerns—such as what to do about gay rights in Russia after the Olympics are over. She is helping to organize the Russian Open Games, which will take place in the two-week interregnum between the Sochi Olympics and the Paralympics, which begin March 7. Consisting of eight-events (including Badminton, which is Yuvakaeva’s sport), the Open Games are open to athletes of any orientation. But, if it isn’t already obvious, participants will be testing how hard the government will come down on this athletic “propagandizing” of equality.
I asked for the skier’s name but Yuvakaeva said it would not be safe to mention it.
The only problem, says Yuvakaeva, is that no world-class openly gay athletes are able—or willing—to attend without having their accommodations and costs covered. And the Russian LGBT sport federation does not have the funds to lavish on Western athletes and their entourages. And forget about getting gay-friendly Russian athletes to help. One cross-country skier tried but then got scolded by sponsors and intimidated by the potential public reaction; I asked for the skier’s name but Yuvakaeva said it would not be safe to mention it.
Smirnova gave up her attempts at using chopsticks and asked for silverware. Speed was important because it was getting late and the women had a long schedule ahead of them, including an appearance at the United Nations. Outside, the first significant snow of the late season was coming down on Columbus Circle; and they piled into a cab to head back the few blocks to the Holiday Inn. The next day would bring grim news. The Kremlin picked another rabid anti-gay TV host to head a new state-run media conglomerate.
All I can say is this. Vladimir Putin, if you’re watching, I wanna hold your hand.