The cultural and historic roots of homophobia in Russia (with jokes)
We’ve been mostly keeping our powder dry on the Putin pogrom and Sochi, leaving the heavy lifting to our contributors. Until now. Over the next month or two, we’ll post Q & As with hockey and sports journalists who are headed to Sochi to cover the Games. We begin with Slava Malamud, no stranger to those who follow hockey or his especially cheeky and often barbed twitter feed. Slava brings the Russian perspective to the debate and with that, the country’s culture and history. Slava apologized for the length of some of his answers, comparing them to Dostoyevsky. No apology necessary and we thank him for his time and interest. Dasvidanya.
PB: Some biographical background: When and where were you born? What got you interested in hockey? When and why did you come to the US? And please, explain your love affair with Buffalo.
SM: I was born in Moldova, which was the former Soviet Union’s version of Alabama, in 1974. The town I grew up in had two bus routes (to the city and from the city), one ice-cream kiosk with two flavors (vanilla and cigarettes), three languages of everyday use, one football team in whose youth system I had played for a bit, and zero hockey in any way, shape or form, other than on a black-and-white TV screen.
That is how I was first introduced to the game. All I remember is that I was five years old, so it must’ve been early in 1980, and that we (USSR) lost the game and everyone was sad. That probably narrows it down to exactly one game. I still can’t watch Miracle all the way to its tragic, dispiriting ending. There’s my love affair with hockey explained, as well. Football, quite uniquely for my home region, never fascinated me to nearly the same degree.
I came to the United States in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist and the people of various ethnicities inhabiting Moldova, for the lack of better career and entertainment options, decided to start killing each other. Thankfully, the United States government had no qualms about accepting Soviet refugees.
I resided in Western New York (a happy coincidence which has nothing to do with my purely philosophical love of the Bills and Sabres) for about a decade before a successful, if somewhat long-overdue, job search landed me in Maryland. This happened when I was already a journalist but well before I could support my family with that job alone.
The love affair with Buffalo is the easy one. Since Buffalo sports teams do objectively represent all that is good and sacred in the affairs and tribulations of man, I can’t in good conscience root for anyone else, now can I? It is not often that life gives you an opportunity to be on the side of the objective good and one must use it whenever possible. With all the inevitable heartbreak and tragedy that ensues, I am afraid. I get this question often. I also find that few people are asked to explain their love for the Yankees, Barcelona or the Russian Federation. But Buffalo… “For the love of Deity of My Choice, why?” Well, now you know.
SM: I began in journalism in 1995, starting off with Novoye Russkoye Slovo, the national Russian-language daily, where I was their resident expert on American Football. Please, don’t laugh. Translating the outrageously complicated rules and terminology of the game into Russian was a monumental task. I am not sure how many readers became converted Bills fans as a result, hopefully, millions upon millions. My faith in humanity rests upon this hope.
Sport-Express offered me a job in 1999, after I got involved in an online discussion with one of its star reporters. I have been their regular contributor since and was given a staff position in 2006, as Foreign Correspondent in North America. I have contributed to the Washington Post and currently run a weekly column about the KHL for Journal de Montreal and the Toronto Sun. Yes, my hilarious English gets translated into even more hilarious French.
PB: What does working for NHL.com/ru entail? Are you a league employee, contractor, freelancer? What restrictions are placed on you because you write for a league-owned property?
SM: Strictly speaking, I am NHL’s contractor, which is the same thing as a freelancer. Except I can’t really call myself a freelancer, being on the staff of a major national Russian publication. The league has pretty common-sense guidelines on the content. Obviously, the articles on the official website can’t criticize the league and its officials and any criticism of the players’ performance must be factual and restrained, without emotional opinion and opinionated emotions.
Of course, I am perfectly free to spout all that in my main publication, but I actually happen to like the NHL, so everything works out pretty well. I can’t say that my style of writing has never caused me problems. My use of Twitter has not generated universal acclaim, I understand. Oh, well…
I imagine, there are Caps fans who think I am the worst person who was ever born. I can assure them that I have no animosity towards either their team or any other team at all whatsoever. Except for FC Zenit Saint Petersburg. I hate them with every fiber of my soul.
PB: What are your Sochi coverage plans?
Yes, I am credentialed for Sochi. This will be my fourth Olympics, both Winter and Summer. I don’t expect to be doing anything other than hockey, since Russian media outlets will have enormous representation there and narrow specialization is likely. Other than that, no definite plans have been drawn up yet. I can venture a guess that I may write rather a lot about USA and Canada teams.
PB: It’s been said that the Russian public is 80% behind Putin on the anti-LGBT legislation. Is that number right? And what about the Russian hockey fan base?
SM: No, I don’t think this percentage is right. In my personal estimation, it’s somewhere on the other side of 90%. Kick it up another few percentage points for the hockey fans.
But I should be more precise here. Russians are generally quite cynical about their laws. There is a saying in Russia about this. “In Russia, the strictness of laws is compensated by the lack of necessity to follow them.” I would say that many Russians do take this particular law for what it is – a naked attempt by the government to usurp the populist agenda and to marginalize the opposition by painting them as “f****t-lovers.”
However, if you ask an average Russian whether they think that gay people represent a danger to their children and whether it’s possible to “convince” a minor to become gay by subjecting them to gay culture, the answer will be a resounding yes at least 9 times out of 10.
I should also note that the support for this law has only risen in the past few weeks, as the West has paid more and more attention.
PB: Historically, Russian leaders for the last several centuries have defined their nation and values as a contrast to the European West. What’s the relationship between growing acceptance of homosexuality in Europe & America and what looks like declining acceptance in Russia?
SM: Not all of the leaders. Peter the Great was a big Westernizer, right down to compulsive beard-shaving among the Russian nobility. Czar Paul I reformed the military in the Prussian style. In the XIX century the small Russian educated class, the “intelligentsia”, spoke French and expressed disdain for the unwashed masses.
And of course, Perestroika brought in a prolonged love affair with the West and with America in particular. The love affair was quite one-sided and ended in heartbreak, thus the current hostility. I think, nowadays, Russians associate the poor living conditions and the drop of self-esteem they experienced in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, with their erstwhile love of the Western values. And nowadays many of them don’t miss an opportunity to discredit said values or to point out the easily available examples of Western hypocrisy.
So, we have the current situation, when the very idea of democracy is no longer attractive to many (“The kind of democracy America brought to Iraq, you mean?”) and words such as “tolerance” and “political correctness” have become favorite Russian verbal piñatas. Many Russians, it seems, don’t want to live in the society where minorities are treated the same as the majority. They are afraid that such a society will end up hurting the majority’s rights.
“We don’t want to be like America, where you are not treated as a human unless you are a gay, black, one-legged woman on crack” That’s a very widespread conviction in the Russian society. Life without second-class citizens to look down upon isn’t worth living for many.
PB: Has Russia been historically this homophobic or have we seen a spike with Putin’s agenda? What role does the Church play?
SM: Russia has always been very socially conservative. This concerns not only gays, but also women and ethnic minorities. People in America don’t realize that the Soviet Union (at least after the 1920s) was a social conservative’s paradise. It was a monolithic society, with one, religion-like ideology uniting everyone, in which women were expected to know their place, abortion was prohibited, loud fashions scorned, modern music resisted, pornography criminalized and gays imprisoned.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993, but the people’s attitudes haven’t changed much. The recent mass reintroduction of the Russian society to the extremely conservative Orthodox Church didn’t help, of course. But it merely gave the already existing hatred an ideological basis.
As for Putin, his ratings are lagging, his opposition is becoming more organized, so he is looking for “hot button issues” around which he could garner popular support. Homophobia and religion are such issues… Incidentally, Russia has also just passed a law which effectively makes it illegal to be an outspoken atheist. Strangely enough, nobody in America has so much as raised an eyebrow at that one. Probably, because being an outspoken atheist won’t get you too many fans here, either.
PB: How monolithic is Russia when it comes to homophobia? Do the urban areas differ from the rural ones? Are there similar attitudes across the region – Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia?
SM: Quite monolithic indeed. But here is a caveat. An average Russian will tell you that he or she doesn’t care what people do in their bedrooms and doesn’t support imprisoning people just for being homosexual. What they are against are public manifestations of homosexuality. Those public manifestations are usually envisioned in the form of pride parades during which people go about naked and/or engage in public acts of same-sex lovemaking. But as nothing of the sort has ever happened in Russia, their fear winds up being directed at people demonstrating for equal rights with rainbow flags. Or merely at two men holding hands. Or kissing. This, for most Russians, is abhorrent, disgusting and a step down a slippery slope to public gay sex in parks, schools, bus stops and at the foot of the Motherland Calls statue. All of it, of course, resulting in their children’s deciding to follow the path to gaydom en masse.
Now, of course, there is quite a substantial amount of genuine gay haters. People who’d like to hunt down homosexuals and exile, imprison, kill, or make them undergo mandatory castration. But for the most part it’s not the haters, but the homophobes (in the exact meaning of the word – people who are afraid) who, being ignorant and unwilling to learn, are the driving force behind these laws.
Obviously, cities tend to be much more cosmopolitan than the rural area. You won’t find too many gay clubs in rural Arkansas either, will you? As for Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia et al, there is no appreciable difference in their attitude. We all grew up within the confines of the same culture.
PB: NHLrs are increasingly commenting on Russian LGBT law and Sochi. How is the issue playing over there, if at all?
SM: Not well. After the Russian pole vaulter Elena Isinbayeva spoke in defense of the anti-gay laws and was criticized in the West, Russian media and the Russian public had a collective fit. “The West is Hounding Isinbayeva”, “Our Heterosexual Heritage is Under Attack” was the tone of most headlines. People view Western criticism as an attack on Russian culture and on the idea of free speech.
You’ll hear people say things like, “See, this is how “democratic” the West is! They wage war on us for our opinion.” Of course, nobody seems to realize that you’re having an opinion doesn’t immunize you against people having their own opinions about your opinion. But the debate in the West does feed nicely into the already formed national idea of “Us vs. Them.”
Imagine now if Russian NHLers get criticized in the Western media for their views on the law… Things will get ugly.
PB: Ovechkin, Kovalchuk and Datsyuk got headlines by responding to LGBT questions and reactions have varied: Ovi was given a pass for saying nothing, while Pavel and Ilya took some heat for being more declarative. What pressures do Russian NHL players live under, on and off the ice?
SM: You are assuming that Russian hockey players don’t share the prevailing opinion of the rest of the Russian society. This is not a good assumption to make.
But, talking strictly hypothetically, if a Russian hockey player did speak out against such a “hot-button” law, he could expect repercussions. Hockey is closely followed by Putin and the KHL has strong ties with his inner circles. And as the Olympics are always a big political event, people are bound to be extremely cautious to prevent any kind of embarrassment for the government.
The smartest thing a Russian player can do right now is what Ovechkin has done. Say it’s not your business to comment on political issues and speak about hockey. There isn’t much to gain from saying anything else.
PB: Is making Russia and Putin anti-LGBT pariahs productive and could they become more entrenched?
SM: Whatever it is that topples Putin, if anything, you can rest assured it won’t be LGBT issues. For all the fuss in the media right now, most Russians don’t really give them much thought and would prefer to go on just so. As a rule, I don’t think any free thought is useless and I personally don’t have any problems with the Westerners calling out Russia on the bad things it does. As long as they don’t forget bad things other countries do, up to and including their own countries.
PB: If we really wanted to see a more tolerant Russia, what’s the best way forward and what can the average person do?
SM: Countries pave their own path to tolerance. America’s own path was a long and bloody one. I hope Russia’s remaining journey isn’t too long. But it’s an evolutionary process.
PB: You have strong opinions about Russian politics and your twitter feed is a great read. How do this play back home and among your readership?
SM: Not too well, I suppose. At least not on this issue. But I can’t well disown my opinions if they don’t happen to correspond with those of the majority. It is what it is. Many people also don’t like me because I am an atheist or ethnically Jewish, or from a small town. Or live in America. Or like the NHL. Or root for the Sabres when not working… As they say in Russia, “I am not a 10-rouble note to be liked by everyone.”
PB: In all fairness, you’re plenty critical of American politics and culture. Your #SlavaBaffledByAmerica is a favorite hashtag of ours. What else baffles you about America?
SM: The fact that some people apparently can’t believe that I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter isn’t butter.
PB: Your son is a goalie. You’re cool with that? Was he born that way? How’s his team looking this season? You still the travel reporter for them?
SM: No, I am most definitely not cool with that, even though I myself was a football goalkeeper. Goalie’s father is by far the worst job in sports and I won’t wish it on my worst enemies. What’s even worse, now my younger son has expressed a troubling affinity for the same lifestyle, which has gotten me afraid (even phobic, one may say) that my children have succumbed to some form of nefarious goalie propaganda prevalent in Western society.
His team is looking like it will ride roughshod over the opposition this year. Unless, of course, their opposition turns out to be, you know, pretty good. Whatever the result, I am sure to once again lose a few years off my life watching it. And yes, I will try to report on the proceedings for the benefit of those parents who can’t make it to the games and the extended families. The kids usually love this, too, and it may be among the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had as a journalist.
PB: Give us some Sochi hockey predictions: Gold, Silver and Bronze.
SM: I will be extremely surprised if Russia doesn’t win gold. It’s a do or die sort of thing. I’ll pick Sweden for 2nd place and, what they hey, USA for the bronze. North Americans are yet to win a single Olympic medal on non-North American soil in the “NHL era.” This may be the first.
PB: What are your thoughts about the Olympic Jerseys? Russia best?
SM: Love the Russian red jersey, even if all the gold is somewhat immodest. But we don’t really do modesty or subtlety, as you may know, so it’s pretty appropriate. The white jersey is certainly a little too much for my taste. I am conservative in my uniform preferences, and that’s why the understated American jerseys are quite fine with me, even if this particular shade of blue has always struck me as unnecessary gloomy.