It only took one day in June for Russia to break my heart.
I’d been a die-hard Russophile for years. My first Russian teacher danced straight into my heart, singing his way through lessons dressed in traditional Russian garb, bringing forth Russia’s often-concealed vibrancy. He loved his country passionately, and he made others love it too. He broke down every preconceived notion I’d had of a nation painted in a cloud of mystery.
From then on, my obsession grew. I recited Russian poetry, learned the national anthem, started lugging around a massive Russian dictionary, purchased a Dirty Russian sayings book and took a trip to New York City’s Brighton Beach--the closest I could get to Russia without a plane ticket.
Alexey Belyayev, a native Russian and current graduate student at UW, says there is a sense of community in Russia that is unmatched.
“Friends are close. Families are close. You can always rely on your neighbor to help you with anything,” he said. “If you need any help moving something, or maybe need to borrow some spices for your cooking, they’re always there for you.”
And while I am not Russian myself, I feel a fascination for this culture I do not feel for any other. Perhaps it’s because it is so different from my own.
But then on June 30, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill significantly limiting the rights of the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. Since then, numerous cases of LGBTQ violence have been reported in Russia.
Fears I had spent years erasing with my love for a vibrant, welcoming culture flooded back. Anger, sadness, complete conflict. Many around me now speak ill of Russia. And to them I find it difficult to explain why they shouldn’t: they haven’t had the experience I did.
Now, in the heat of the Sochi Olympics, the battle has become personal. How can I reconcile my love for Russia with my commitment to LGBTQ rights?
Nearly three years living in Seattle has reinvigorated my fight for human rights. A nonjudgmental, welcoming atmosphere, Seattle recently surpassed San Francisco for having the highest concentration of gay couples in a large U.S. city.
The freedom is one of the main reasons I love this city. It is also the reason many Seattleites have begun vocalizing their disgust at Russia.
The Seattle City Council even sent a letter to the Russian Consul General in Seattle, Andrey Yushmanov, condemning Russia’s government-backed discrimination.
“…the oppression and attacks against lesbian, gays, bisexuals and transgender people mar Russia’s face to the world,” it reads. There has been no public response.
And so, two sides collide.
Despite my stringent support for equality, I realize I cannot abandon Russia altogether. So, instead, I search for reason. And above all, I want others around me to see reason too. I’m tired of all the hate.
Anastasia Sytenko, 21, is a UW junior studying architecture who was born and raised in Russia until age 15. She says Americans need to better understand the context surrounding Russia’s views.
“Russia and America are just not in the same place,” Sytenko said. “What is good for America doesn’t mean it is good for Russia. We have different political situations, different historical backgrounds and different people.”
After all, Russia rose out of the collapsed Soviet Union only a little over 20 years ago, while the United States has been alive and intact for much longer.
So perhaps the United States, Seattle in particular, has been too quick to judge.
Sytenko agrees. While she is proud and supportive of Seattle’s LGBTQ stance, she sees her country’s reasoning and wishes others would too.
“I do think that for Russia it is the best to limit those rights for now because the country is simply not ready yet,” she said. “The US is a newer country and it is easier and takes less time for it to progress. Russia is centuries old and it is much harder and takes longer for it to adapt to the modern changes.”
We should not generalize the views of all Russians. While a recent survey suggests almost 70 percent of Russians oppose LGBTQ rights, this means more than 30 percent do not.
And not everyone in the United States is supportive of LGBTQ rights either. A poll taken in July suggested that 55 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, leaving 45 percent who do not.
While Russia should take note of the changing world around them—especially now, as the Winter Olympics place the country at the center of the world stage—we should not expect them to be so quick to act. The American Gay Rights Movement began in the 1920s, and it wasn’t until 2004 that Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.
Considering how long it has taken us to catch on, can we expect Russia to move even faster?
Masha Gessen, a Russian journalist and outspoken LGBT rights activist in Russia, says these anti-gay laws stem from Putin’s desire to perpetuate traditional values of Russian family and Orthodox religion, but especially to stand up against the West.
“[N]obody represents that alien West in Russia better than LGBT people do,” she said in an interview with NPR. “While the Western world was having the sexual revolution, we were having the Soviet Union. So this is really the first time that issues of sexuality – as absurd as that sounds – have been brought up in the public arena in Russia.”
Scott P. Boylan, a lawyer who has written extensively about Russian law, believes Russian government and culture is a work in progress.
“[T]here needs to be an attitudinal change in the elected leadership of Russia,” he said in one of his law reviews. “Unfortunately, centuries of authoritarian history and culture are working against these developments.”
Sytenko believes time will lead to a progressive Russia. But Belyayev is unsure.
“I think the government is pretty stiff on changing attitudes and policies,” he said. “So I don’t see the change anytime soon to be honest.”
Personally, I refuse to let this recent downfall redefine my relationship with a country I have come to love. But I hope more than anything that its views change sooner rather than later.
I am not saying I agree with Russia—I despise this discrimination and find their actions deplorable. I recognize that many in the LGBTQ community are suffering terribly there. But the same can still be said for many members and supporters of that community here. Before we point the finger, maybe we should take a look at ourselves.
Above all, I would like us to realize that every country has its shortcomings. The United States has committed many grievances in its day, and we are still paying our dues for many of them.
Russia, like the United States, just needs time to come around.