Post written by: Kirsten Gerrie, Killashandra Rashid, & Madison Reid
As we all know, the 2014 Winter Olympics have just concluded, and as with the Olympics every two years, these offered a ready and potent platform for various countries of the world to compete, compare, and contrast. In short, during the Olympics, nation-building is implicitly heightened. Virtually all countries seem to capitalize on their populations being roused and mobilized with the patriotic fever characteristic of these proceedings to create national values and norms to the state’s own ends.
Positions on social issues can create a shared sense of zeitgeist, and one particular social issue, which Olympic media attention has exacerbated, has polarized two countries in particular on either side of the debate: LGBT minority acceptance. In July of 2013 the Russian Federation came under global scrutiny for the introduction of two new laws. The first banned the promotion or advertising of non-traditional (not heterogeneous) relationships to minors. The second law requires organisations to register with the government in order to continue operating. Without government approval, organisations are labeled as foreign agents and thus subject to fines and imprisonment. Coinciding with these new nation-building strategies was the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, hosted by Russia which drew attention to the issue.
Both Russia and Canada have endeavored to set themselves apart, or to imply essentially that, “We are better than the rest of the world” (either via traditionally conservative values or traditionally liberal values). It is also worth noting that, as was pointed out last lecture, ‘Identity’ only becomes an issue when it is in crisis. Such a polarizing issue forces the national populace to choose sides and – ideally in the eyes of the state – come down on the side of the official national line. We hypothesize one possible explanation: Canadian self-styling is “liberal” and inclusive because it relies on civic nationalism to hold the state together, whereas Russia, with comparatively lower diversity rates and nearly non-existent influx of immigrants, is increasingly “traditional” and exclusive because it has chosen to build national identity around ethnic lines (defining the somewhat small populations of LGBT and others and somehow non-Russian due to the lack of other more convenient groups to ostracize).
Part of this comparison benefits from exploring the leadership structure of both countries; Russia’s leadership remains, arguably, a cult of personality, or rather a glorification of the ‘Strong Man’. Putin is the face of Russian Government. On the other hand, Canada has no such enjoyment of watching Stephen Harper wrestle bears shirtless. Indeed, most of the populace has no delusions surrounding his ability or inclination to do so. As Russia ostensibly seeks a resurgence of power under Putin and Medvedev, its foreign policy reflects both internal and external influences, especially US and Chinese factors. According to Saito (2008) Russia saw itself as the Pluto of a Western solar system in the aftermath of the disintegration of the USSR, but recently it has begun to create its own Moscow-centered system. Currently (and as we have seen with the mess surrounding the #Sochiproblems hashtag, Russia is facing significant challenge in dealing with the global economic crisis and seeks to reduce US influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The US and Chinese factors, together with domestic concerns, are likely to continue to drive Russia’s foreign policy AND its internal move towards viewing Russia as the bastion of traditional values under the “inspirational and father-like” figure of Putin (Quote from an Olympic figure skater).
Many Canadians – at least the vocal ones – on the other hand, condemned the Russian anti-gay laws. But Canadians’ protests began much earlier and quieter — in written letters and emails sent to government officials almost as soon as the Russian law was passed. Documents obtained by CBC News through an access to information request reveal extensive correspondence between concerned citizens and Minister of Sport Bal Gosal. The government responded to more than 200 emails and letters from the public, according to Foreign Affairs spokesperson Beatrice Fenelon. This may not seem like a large number, but the documents contain mostly notes to Gosal and not to representatives from other relevant departments. Many more Canadian demanded a boycott, and Rainbow flags were raised throughout the country in a show of solidarity. Compelling evidence of the national identity-building value of this debate is found in a CBS article, which cites many felt that “Canadian Values” as a monolithic whole, were being fought for: “And, mostly, the emails invoked a sense of patriotism, that action on the part of government would not only signal a respect for human rights but reflect instinctive Canadian values. ‘I am a proud Canadian,’ opened one email. ‘I love my Edmonton Oilers and having a few cold ones while camping with my friends — just like millions of my countrymen. Our athletes aren’t just representing our country — they are representing what our country stands for and believes in. Competing in Russia means athletes are asked to compete in a place that is contrary to those values.’ Another said that as one of the first countries in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, “and as a country that guarantees the rights of its LGBTQ citizens, Canada must stand clearly against the recent homophobic attacks in Russia.” (CBC, 2014). The Canadian government obliged the public with words, demonstrating to the populace it was acting on issues which were close to the hearts of the voting public. In an August 2013 interview, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said it is “an incitement to intolerance, which breeds hate. And intolerance and hate breed violence.”
In July of 2013 the Russian Federation came under global scrutiny for the introduction of two new laws. The first banned the promotion or advertising of non-traditional (not heterogeneous) relationships to minors. The second law requires organisations to register with the government in order to continue operating. Without government approval, organisations are labeled as foreign agents and thus subject to fines and imprisonment. Coinciding with these new nation-building strategies was the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, hosted by Russia.
Russian civil society has reacted to these laws in a relatively exclusionary manner. Both major Russian religious institutions, the Orthodox Church and Mosque, have come out in favour of these laws. Not only does their support demonstrate the strong ties between church and state within Russia, but it also highlights the type of society that Russia is trying to construct. That is, one built on traditional values which is reinforced by religious language of purity of the nation . Within civil society, there have been several other indicators of who belongs to the nation and who doesn’t. Nearly half of the institutions prosecuted under the Foreign Agents Law have been LGBT support groups run by Russian citizens. A LGBT youth support blog is currently awaiting trial, accused of being a foreign agent and acting amorally. In labeling these organisations as both foreign and amoral, it is made clear that there is no place for them within the conception of the Russian nation. Another aspect of exclusive nation building is that it prevents people who want to belong to the nation from doing so, based on a personal trait. This can lead to the adoption or appropriation of an alternative identity which falls more in line with the concept of the nation. An interesting demonstration of this process can be seen with the group G.A.S.H. (the Gay Arian Skinhead Nazis), who attempt to incorporate ultranationalist and racist policies with elements of gay culture.
In the run-up to the Olympics, nation-building took on a much different character within Canada. Public statements made by Canadian politicians and corporations alike stressed their support for all athletes – regardless of ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation – and criticized the Russian laws as being harmful to a diverse society. Several events were organised by organisations within civil society to support athletes, such as pride parades featuring gay Olympic athletes. Currently a LGBT flag flies at all three of the former Olympic sites in Canada: Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver. Perhaps most famously, the Canadian Institute for Diversity and Inclusion made a video in February supporting gay Olympic athletes (http://www.cidi-icdi.ca/whats-happening/in-the-news/gay-rights-sochi/). Indeed, most debates within Canada include some rallying call around shared values of diversity and inclusion.
Nation-building and the Olympics have become tightly entwined within both Russia and Canada. For Russia, this has meant introducing divisive policies which clearly denote who belongs and who does not. These laws support some civil organisations, such as religious groups, more than others, which again highlights the idea that Russia is attempting to become known as a nation built on traditional values. Canadian nation-building has taken on a different tone, focusing on inclusivity within the nation. In many ways, these public statements and commercials are intended to present a version of Canadian-ness to the world.
For the individual too, these images of the nation projected by the state and the strategies used to cement it have a profound impact on his or her national identity and sense of belonging. In Russia’s case, the portrayal of the nation excludes LGBT individuals, forcing them into a position in which their national and sexual identity are set against one another and which effectively alienates these groups from the national community. Individual Russians have had a number of different reactions to this position assumed by the elite and many elements of civil society. Some, such as those mentioned above , opt to join organizations such as the Gay Aryan Skinheads (GASH) that adopt radical Nazi politics in an attempt to reconcile their sexual orientation with Russian national identity (see discussion question #4 below ).
Others attempt instead to propose an inclusive alternative vision of what it means to be Russian. These individuals, such as Nikolai Alekseyev who organised one of the first pride parades in Russia in 2006 and Elena Kotsyuchenko who launched a set of kiss-in protests, reject the exclusionary nationalism and remain in Russia to combat the homophobia in order to see themselves included in the nation into which they were born and would otherwise belong.
The majority’s response to the homophobic Russian nation-building is especially chilling. Taking it upon themselves to enforce national purity and affirm their own national identity, individual Russians have committed horrendous acts of violence against LGBT in the country. This violence puts increased pressure on all Russian LGBT, some of whom, such as activist and author Masha Gessen, have made the difficult decision to emigrate. This means abandoning what they see as their country, their nation, to preserve their safety and that of their loved ones. Unfortunately, this is largely the desired result of the violence: purifying the nation by pushing out those perceived as outsiders.
In opposition to this is the inclusive Canadian nation-building which, for the most part, does not alienate potential members due to qualities with which they were born, thereby avoiding the tensions such as that present in Russia between sexual orientation and national identity. Naturally, this model nation-building is a strategic one for a country otherwise too diverse to unite around any single “ethnic” identity.
In short, both Canada and Russia are appropriating what would otherwise be a social or civil rights issue for the purpose of mobilizing their respective nations. This is an interesting departure from traditional conceptions of civic and ethnic nationalism and nation-building, as LGBT individuals, while born into their sexual orientation, are largely invisible unlike other ethnic or “racial” groups that more often serve as an “other” against which the nation can be defined. Conversely, using a social issue in such a fashion can also be highly strategic depending on the circumstance. However, not all countries can capitalize on social issues in this way. The Unites States, for instance, is deeply divided on the topic of gay marriage and could hardly use this as a point around which to nation-build.
Questions for Consideration:
- Do you agree with viewing this comparison of Olympic Nation Building and Identity though this lens? Is it helpful? Why or why not?
- Is the Russian model of nation-building effective? How smart was the strategic decision to select an otherwise small, invisible minority as the internal “other” against which the nation can then define itself?
- According to Elena Kotsyuchenko, the othering of LGBT was deliberately not racial and it is largely top-down nationalism, stemming from the Kremlin. That said, is this nationalism ethnic or civic? Are these terms useful to describe this kind of nationalism?
- More broadly, are social issues, LGBT rights in this case, effective in the formation of national identity since they, as in the case of the US, can be highly controversial?
- The outlier case: http://www.vice.com/read/meet-russias-gay-aryan-skinheads-finally-bringing-homosexuality-to-the-neo-nazi-world – The G.A.S.H. clearly represents a group struggling to belong to the nation, as demonstrated by their adoption of conflicting ideologies. Why do you think members of the G.A.S.H. are so unsupportive of other minority groups? In what ways does this reflect the construction notion of belonging to a nation?
Allen, Trevor (2014) Children 404: A Refuge for Russia’s At-Risk LGBT Youth is Under Attack http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/blog/%E2%80%9Cchildren-404%E2%80%9D-refuge-russia%E2%80%99s-risk-lgbt-youth-under-attack
BBC (2013) Q&A: Gay Rights in Russia http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-23604142
Chester, Nick (2013), An Interview with a Gay, Russian Neo-Nazi http://www.vice.com/read/meet-russias-gay-aryan-skinheads-finally-bringing-homosexuality-to-the-neo-nazi-world
GESSEN, Masha (2013) “As a Gay Parent I Must Flee Russia or Lose My Children.” The Guardian [online]: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/11/anti-gay-laws-russia .
GESSEN, Masha (2013) “My Life as an Out Gay Person in Russia.” The Guardian [online]: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/15/life-as-out-gay-russia.
Logan, Nick (2014) VIDEO: ‘The Games Have Always Been a Little Gay’ http://globalnews.ca/news/1132480/luge-parody-ad-points-out-olympics-have-always-been-a-little-gay/
SAITO, M. (2008), “Russia’s Diplomacy under the Tandem Leadership of Putin and Medvedev’, Russian and East European Studies 37, pp. 3-16,
SHARLET, Jeff (2014) “Outside the Iron Closet: What It’s Like to Be Gay in Putin’s Russia.” GQ [online]: http://www.gq.com/news-politics/big-issues/201402/being-gay-in-russia
TRINH, Theresa Do. (2014), Canadians protest Russia’s anti-gay law with letters to government: Letters say the ‘Olympic spirit is under assault,’ demand Canada pressure Russia to rescind law. CBC News Online: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canadians-protest-russia-s-anti-gay-law-with-letters-to-government-1.2546095