20 November 2021
An extract from an interview with Igor Kochetkov, who has worked to save the lives of LGBT people in Chechnya and has now been named a “foreign agent” three times by the Ministry of Justice
Igor Kochetkov* – historian, human rights activist, founder of the Russian LGBT Network** – was recognized by the Ministry of Justice in mid-November as “an individual performing the functions of a foreign agent media”. Kochetkov spoke out against Russian legislation introducing the concept of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships. In recent years he has been actively involved in helping LGBT people who face torture and persecution in the North Caucasus.
Novaya gazeta deputy editor Kirill Martynov spoke with Igor Kochetkov about the role of homophobia in contemporary Russian politics, how the anti-vaccination movement is borrowing human rights rhetoric, activists’ personal risks and Russia’s future. Has LGBT become the most successful social movement in Russia in the last 20 years, and will the state no longer be able to stop the cultural changes taking place in Russian society?
FROM THE EDITORS OF NOVAYA GAZETA
The hero of this interview is a person who, in accordance with the new laws of the Russian Federation, is obliged to indicate everywhere:
“THIS MESSAGE (MATERIAL) WAS CREATED AND/OR DISTRIBUTED BY A FOREIGN MASS MEDIA OUTLET THAT PERFORMS THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT AND/OR A RUSSIAN LEGAL ENTITY THAT PERFORMS THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT.”
The Russian government speaks about so-called traditional values that make us very different from the modern West, and it is this difference that seems to underpin our sovereignty. If we begin to understand what is behind this rhetoric, there seems to be an absolute vacuum inside. There is nothing but the desire to extract rent from the country and not to share it with anyone. But there is one particular thing that is clear to everyone: we are supposedly different from Europe in that we don’t like gays. In this sense, homophobia is the key element of the Russian regime. As if, if we didn’t have homophobia, Russia would cease to be a great, independent, sovereign power.
– (laughs) There is a great deal of truth in this, and I even agree with it. Of course, it’s not that Russia would cease to exist if we suddenly rejected homophobia. After all, until about 2002, homophobia was not even official. Even when the issue of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was raised at the UN in those years, Russian representatives were very surprised: why, why are we talking about it, don’t we have more important topics? And inside the country this topic was not discussed. Everything has been changing since 2002. If you remember, there was a Russian deputy Gennady Raikov and there was and still is Mr. Rogozin, who in 2002 tried to restore the article for sodomy to the Criminal Code. Then the propaganda started: we have a special path and we must protect our children from Western influence.
The problem is that our government is afraid of losing respect in society; it is afraid of losing its legitimacy.
And the basis of its legitimacy has long been precisely its difference from the West, the hypothesis that we are in a ring of enemies, that we must preserve our identity. So before 1991, everything was fine, we were the first socialist state in the world, building communism, and it was quite clear how we differed from the West. Then we tried to become the same kind of country, the same kind of state as the very West we were fighting, but it didn’t work out. In order to do that, the authorities had to change their minds a lot, and that’s hard. So today we have a schizophrenic situation in which we have a fairly complex, very diverse society, and at the same time we have ‘Soviet power’. It is still Soviet, this government, which believes that there should be one idea, that this idea is the fight against the West.
And so they searched and searched, wondering what the hell makes us different. It turned out that a very convenient distinction is that we supposedly don’t or shouldn’t have homosexuals and transgender people. Post-2002, the rhetoric was initially just that: we don’t have gays, they were all imported from the West, and those who defend LGBT rights are “foreign agents” (myself, for example). And it’s going on right now. This is actually a very important issue for the state. Don’t be under any illusions that this is some topic that is just a distraction. No, for the authorities it is important.
You said that society is diverse but the authorities are Soviet. It seems to me as well that the state and the citizens of Russian now move in opposite directions. And if we look at how young Russians treat gender and sexual diversity, then in this matter, it seems to me, everything is on the European level, at least in the big cities.
Yes, if we look at the opinion polls, and not only those by the ‘Levada Center’***, but also those by VTsIOM, we will see that more than half of Russians aged 18 to 25 believe there is no such thing as ‘propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations;’ they are absolutely fine with sexual diversity. And one must keep in mind that these are the very people who, in 2013, when the legislation against LGBT people was adopted, were the minors whom the state was trying to protect from our malicious propaganda. It turns out that the state has lost; it should concede on this account and draw some conclusions.
For the state, probably, this signifies that you are cunning, intelligent…
Yes, we are cunning and crafty, undoubtedly.
And they must be given more money to fight you. For Deputy Milonov, this, it seems, is how the logic works out?
I think that Deputy Milonov of course wants to be given more money, to be given a new position, and he was given a new position, incidentally, he now occupies the grand position of deputy chair of a State Duma committee…
…on the family.
On the family, yes. Moreover, in the previous composition of the Duma he was on the committee on international affairs. But since he solved all the problems of foreign policy, it appears it remains to him to busy himself with the family. Yes, for them it is a feeding trough, on the one hand, and on the other hand, I think that the Russian authorities are in a difficult position because propaganda aside, but there are also absolutely real problems that must be solved somehow.
For example, the problem of the HIV epidemic – Russia here has reached the level of the African countries. We now occupy the first place in Europe and one of the first places in the world in terms of the number of people infected with HIV. And this is after many years of stories that we have a special way of being effective, after decades of promoting respect for traditional family values and no sex before marriage.
Conservatives, I think, in this situation would say that the reason is precisely that we have too many libertines. And that, accordingly, more chastity is needed, more heteronormativity, if they know such a word, and when they reach these goals of theirs, all will normalize.
Nothing could be further from the truth. They insist that we have too many libertines because of the cursed West, that all problems are due to individual activists, that they must be fought. But in their logic it turns out that there are more and more libertines, the youths become worse and worse. But then how am I, as a citizen, to draw conclusions? Gentlemen, you work poorly. Well, that is, you work miserably, you do not complete your task, even if I was a Russian conservative I would say: get out of here, give us someone else. And they wish to stay, naturally. And they should probably explain to society why, despite all their efforts, not only the HIV epidemic, but also the number of crimes against the sexual sanctity of minors has continued to grow since 2013. They promised to put an end to precisely this with the help of the law ‘On propaganda of nontraditional relations.’ They did not do this; everything turned out the opposite.
Why, for example, is that the HIV rate lower in Germany although gays and libertines are not punished?
And that’s precisely why it is lower. Because, you see, the main source of the HIV epidemic and other sexually transmitted diseases among LGBT people is anonymity and fear, including internal homophobia, internal transphobia, when people are afraid of themselves.
If a person is ashamed that he is gay he will have sex anonymously. This means very promiscuous sexual relations, which of course, are more dangerous.
Anonymously, that is, without getting into a close or long-term relationship?
Anonymously, as in just not getting to know your sexual partner and changing sexual partners. In addition, this is, in fact, a phenomenon that has long been recorded not only in Russia. In situations like these a person hates himself and he believes that if he gets infected, it’s as it should be, he deserves it. We faced this in Chechnya, when the people who approached us directly stated that they were ready to die and that they deserved to be tortured because they were bad and dirty. It’s the same with the HIV epidemic and with other dangerous diseases. If a person is taught from birth that his thoughts and way of life are scary, indecent, or sinful then he or she will treat himself this way. He will not take care for his health or the health of others.
You say that already in 2002 the rhetoric of the Russian authorities was “we have no gays.” The LGBT community, it seems to me, has since proved that such people do exist. Take, for example, the front cover of the popular city magazine Afisha with a rainbow flag on the eve of the adoption of the law in 2013. This was a symbolic event. The second time we heard the idea that “we have no gays” was courtesy of Ramzan Kadyrov. The LGBT network which you collaborated with has been helping those who, from Kadyrov’s point of view, do not exist in recent years, evacuating them, so to speak …
Yes, it has included evacuation.
To what extent is the situation concerning gays in Chechnya a local issue, something that concerns one small republic in the North Caucasus?
Ramzan Kadyrov formulated his idea a little differently, he said: “We don’t have such people”. At the same time, when he said this, he knew perfectly well that people were being detained, being killed, and he did not have any cognitive dissonance here. Because on other occasions he said that these are not people, they are like animals. The attitude in general towards people who are not like us, including LGBT people, is one of “these are not real people” This is not only something that affects Chechnya.
Even in the West, if we return to the topic of HIV, for a long time in the 1980s they did not pay attention to this epidemic and did not make any serious efforts to combat it. This was because it was believed to be a gay disease. Well, if all other people, “normal” people do not get sick, then it’s okay. They began to act only after it became clear that this disease affects everyone. The persecution of LGBT people, the persecution to death is one of the typical features of totalitarianism.
I grew up in an ordinary Soviet family where casual homophobia was like background radiation. Then, as more information became available, I simply stopped understanding why people had a problem with gays: what were they actually doing wrong? How do you explain to yourself the mechanics of why people, why society now often supports the state in its struggle for so-called cultural sovereignty?
To be honest, we don’t know how much support there is or how willing people are these days to show how they feel and donate money to help the state preserve “cultural sovereignty”. No one has ever tried such crowdfunding.
Although it would be a good experiment.
Well, why not set it up? Really, though, this is not just a Russian story, but a global one. Because the face of homophobia, including underlying homophobia, has changed significantly in recent decades. If we’re talking about homophobia up to the end of the 20th century and the very beginning of the 21st century, then one may recall Michel Foucault and his construction of sexuality, where there are some abnormal people and we recognise their abnormality. We pity them, even, and we want to fix them. This leads to criminal prosecution and attempts to cure them. Today, the authorities, including ours in Russia, and conservatives all over the world are terribly proud of the fact that they are not calling for a return to criminalisation. They are not even talking about any kind of treatment. Rather, they are saying that gays need psychotherapeutic treatment, which is not even really psychiatry. Conservatives recognise that, yes, there are people in the world who are sexually attracted to people of the same sex, and if they admit their sin, then that’s good, that’s one category, the attitude towards them to some extent is accepting.
They have “mended their ways”.
Yes, they have “mended their ways”. But another kind of homophobia has emerged. This concerns the so-called LGBT ideology, as it is referred to now – a very fashionable term, at least in Eastern Europe – and it is understood to mean something that needs to be destroyed. It’s the idea of destroying LGBT people who have dared to make themselves known, who are not hiding.
You can’t say that’s a new idea.
It wasn’t new to totalitarian regimes, but it is new to, say, moderate conservatives. Take Poland, for example, where they’re creating “zones free from LGBT ideology”. Do you know what that means? It means that, in principle, people with certain views should be banished. This is really a very important phenomenon that I don’t think is getting enough attention today. It is a new totalitarianism, and it’s extremely dangerous because it seems fairly inoffensive: we’re not against you, but keep your head down, don’t say anything. While it used to be about “who sleeps with whom” – and remember Ranevskaya: “What kind of country is it where a man can’t even be in charge of his own arse?” – that is no longer relevant today: everyone is allowed to be in charge of every part of their body.
At the same time, the state no longer sees us as deviants or perverts; it sees us as ideological enemies.
And the public is told this, too: “Look, they don’t respect our values; they are threatening your families; they are threatening what you hold dear – your children, your families, your loved ones. And if their ideology wins, then that will be the end of everything, the end of your families, who knows what will happen to your children.” So, it is far more dangerous than just individual deviation. […]
*entered by the Ministry of Justice in the register of media carrying out the functions of a ‘foreign agent’.
** The Ministry of Justice included the Russian LGBT Network in the register of unregistered associations, carrying out the functions of a ‘foreign agent.’
***entered by the Ministry of Justice in the register of NGOs, carrying out the functions of a ‘foreign agent’.