On August 12, 2012, the first of over 300 of my articles appeared on CounterPunch. I can’t remember the exact circumstances, but I seem to recall that Jeffrey St. Clair had gotten wind of my complaints about articles on the left, including CounterPunch, that defended the arrest of Pussy Riot, who had staged their infamous performance in a Russian Orthodox Church. My article began:
Given the sharp divide on the left between those who consider the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) governments to be the first line of defense against Western imperialism and those who take the sides of the victims of such governments even when the U.S. State Department takes up their cause as well, it should not come as a surprise that the Pussy Riot trial has become a litmus test. Support for Pussy Riot is a sign that you are catching Christopher Hitchens flu or worse.
Jeffrey was generous enough to provide a platform for my take on Pussy Riot as well as an invitation to become the film editor for the print version of CounterPunch. For all of the complaints about CounterPunch having a line on Russia, Syria or any other controversial topic dividing the left, we need to understand that it differs from just about every other publication on the left by providing a space for all points of view. It is one of the reasons I have been a strong supporter of CounterPunch from its inception, even when Alexander Cockburn referred to me as an “old Trotskyist lag…dozing on the dungheap of history like Odysseus’ lice-ridden old hound Argos, woofing with alarm as the shadow of a new idea darkens the threshold.” Probably, even more so for the quintessential Cockburnian turn of phrase.
As someone who had been deeply involved with the 60s radicalization, I felt an affinity for Pussy Riot even though their politics seemed closer to vintage Abby Hoffman than my own. Those who applauded Putin’s crackdown reminded me of Nixon’s Silent Majority, except it was the Kremlin’s law and order rather than the White House’s that they backed. Putin’s straight-laced machismo had cast a spell on wide swaths of the left in the USA and I was having none of it.
That machismo drew from the deep wells of Russian patriarchy that Stalin imposed on Russian society in order to make his forced-labor regime more tolerable. Gone were the days of 1920s experiments with both art and sexual freedom, to be replaced by a hybrid of Communism and Czarist traditionalism.
A key element of this counter-revolution was homophobia. In 1933, Stalin recriminalized sex between men. On March 7, 1934, the Soviet criminal code was updated to include Article 121 that banned male homosexuality, punishable by five years of hard labor in prison.
Chechnya’s strongman ruler Razman Kadyrov appears to be even more determined to repress gays than Stalin. He doesn’t bother with the niceties of the courtroom, even if based on prejudicial laws. Instead, he has encouraged mob rule in which gay men are entrapped by either cops or vigilantes who have the power to torture anybody caught up in their net.
With his barbaric mixed martial arts background, made even worse by Islamist homophobia, Kadyrov brazens his way through interviews, making Donald Trump look Gandhian by comparison. During an interview with Bryant Gumbel in July 2017, Kadyrov said, “We don’t have such people here. We don’t have any gays. If there are any, take them to Canada. Praise be to God. Take them far away from us. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.”
Currently showing on HBO Max, “Welcome to Chechnya” allows you to hear from the people suffering from a brutal crackdown that began in early 2017. The documentary states it started with a drug raid, rather than a Stonewall-type assault. One of the arrested men had a cell phone with messages to his male lovers as well as gay porn. The cops then used the phone to begin a massive campaign that sounds quite a bit like the witch-hunts of the 1950s that targeted both Reds and gays. To get lenient treatment, you had to name names. If you refused to incriminate fellow gays, you’d end up spending months in prison being tortured.
Unlike Stalin’s penal code, the Chechen state punished lesbians as well as gay men. “Welcome to Chechnya” focuses on two victims of homophobic repression. One is a Russian man named Maxim Lapunov, who was caught in Kadyrov’s web in 2017 and tortured for several months. His jailers were fond of using electrodes, just like Pinochet’s goons. Another is a lesbian whose father is highly placed in the Chechen state and who has warned her that her uncle will rape her unless she becomes “normal”.
These two and others become part of a modern version of Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad. Instead of fleeing slavery, Lapunov, et al, are fleeing torture and even murder. The film is replete with captured footage of gay men being kicked in the head by thugs, who take sadistic pleasure out of their assaults.
The modern-day Harriet Tubmans, who hope to spirit them to other, less barbaric, countries, belong to the LGBT Network. Backed by human rights groups both in Russia and globally, they protect the persecuted in safe houses and make the case for their being entitled to asylum to immigration authorities. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump ruled that people fleeing such repression in Chechnya are not entitled to asylum.
In 2017, Putin said he supported an inquiry into the Chechnya repression but it is questionable how committed he is. Toward the end of the film, we see Lapunov awaiting the judgment of a Russian court on whether to proceed with a case against Kadyrov. He is told that no action would be taken.
Undoubtedly, the cops and vigilantes in Chechnya must have been influenced by a similar wave of repression that took place in Russia. In 2014, I reviewed another HBO Documentary, in this instance about homophobia in Russia. Titled “Hunted: the War Against Gays in Russia,” the film can be seen in a YouTube video linked in my review.
In my review, I referred caustically to those on the left who are okay with arresting Pussy Riot or are willing to denounce Human Rights Watch for taking up the cause of Putin’s victims based solely on geopolitical exigencies:
Needless to say, the Western left would never support a politician who was responsible for fostering a war on gays in the USA or Britain. Furthermore, in all of the pro-Putin propaganda in the “anti-imperialist” left, you will never see him condemned for his anti-gay legislation that serves as legal cover for the vigilante movement exposed in the HBO documentary. Instead, they make common cause with rightwing movements that back the Kremlin, including just about every neofascist group in Europe, including Jobbik, Golden Dawn and the National Front in France. They love Putin because he stands up for “traditional values”. One imagines that in their heart of hearts, the “anti-imperialists” have no problems with crackdowns on NGO’s that defend gay rights in Russia since they are obviously a necessary defense against plots concocted in the basement of the State Department by George Soros, Nicholas Kristof and Samantha Power. After all, if you were going to make a choice between gays being forced to drink piss by skinhead vigilantes and coming down on the same side of an issue as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, you’d naturally opt for gays drinking piss.
Watch both films to be better informed on how patriarchal societies victimize The Other. Under socialism, even under a distorted form that existed in the USSR in the 1920s, there was an attempt to create an alternative. That fight is ongoing and deserves the support of everybody on the left, even if we find ourselves temporarily on the same side of the barricades as liberals.