Tomorrow sees the start of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. At the end of January, journalist John Sweeney went to Sochi to make a film for BBC Panorama series on the changing face of this small Russian town ahead of the Winter Olympics. Here he writes exclusively about his experience in Russia within the context of its staggering abuse of gay rights
The gay bar was down a side alley in Vladimir Putin’s Olympics host city of Sochi, behind a plain, unmarked door. Inside was a vestibule guarded by security and beyond that a large bar and dancing area, complete with lazer lights and John Travolta-style mirror ball, a-twinkle. But the lights were low and customers shy of our BBC Panorama camera, the mood subfusc, gloomy – a Russian thing, but also a gay Russian thing too. Madame Zhu-Zha, a drag queen, told us: ‘In some places there’s serious prejudice against gay people. In other places it’s not so bad.’
Her comments were muted, perhaps because Russia’s LGBT community feels under threat as never before in the past two decades. Last summer Russian president Vladimir Putin’s ruling party passed a law banning the promotion of ‘non-traditional sexuality’ to under-18s. The President and the law seem to link homosexuality and paedophilia together, which critics say is wrong. Since the law was passed, gay people have been sacked, attacked and, in a few cases, murdered. Far from clamping down on the attackers, police have arrested gay rights activists, sometimes brutally.
Putin set out his stall to the Russian people as an economic moderniser, but critics say that on social issues he is ultra-conservative. Hence, the jailing of the feminist Pussy Riot group for their protest in a cathedral, hence the crackdown on ‘non-traditional sexuality’. The funny thing is that Russian cities like Moscow, St Petersburg and Sochi, which, as a coastal resort in the country’s Deep South is like a Russian Brighton, have long been welcoming to gay people. Sochi had a gay bar back in the 1960s, when homosexuality in the Soviet Union was a criminal act.
So some commentators feel that on gay rights, as on many other things – for example, free expression, media freedom, the rights of ethnic minorities – Putin is lagging behindhand. I’ve been going to Russia since the early 1990s and what struck me most about the public mood in Sochi was the willingness of ordinary Russians, from Madame Zhu-Zha to an old granny with gold teeth complaining about Olympic construction traffic endangering her grand-daughter, to tell our cameras exactly what they thought. It was as if some switch had been turned on in their minds, that people now felt free to complain and protest openly and publically. And in the long run, that could cause trouble for Mr Putin.
When I met Putin loyalist and Sochi’s mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov, I asked him specifically if gay Olympians and supporters would be welcome. He told me: ‘We do not have them in our city.’ His problem is that I had been to the gay bar the night before, and challenged him. He back-tracked a little, but insisted that being gay was ‘not accepted’ in Russia’s South.
I put the mayor’s claim that there no gay people in Sochi to Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician who was born in Sochi. He laughed like a drain – a not uncommon response by some Russians to what they fear is out-dated prejudice.
John Sweeney reported for BBC Panorama on Putin’s Games.