This is gonna be a depressing essay.
In my past writing about Russia and political activism, I've tried to keep an even keel and survey the issues without giving away too much of my own feelings about certain activists and movements. This stems from a sense that activism isn't about individual hagiographies, but about often poorly coordinated groups of people, some of whom actively despise each other, shambling their way to what one hopes is a better tomorrow. Though we tend to enshrine the history of civil rights in terms of its Great Figures, in reality they're more like grotesque katamari that we try to push into something like the right general direction.
I mean, look at the history of the American LGBT movement. Try to explain to someone outside of the community about the complicated, and often acrimonious relationships between groups as widely different as, say, HRC and ACT UP. About the differences in ideology, personality, and history in the leadership, or between the leadership and the people they are serving. About the marginalization of transgender activists and people of color, and the frustrating bureaucracy of various organizations. About the accusations, the ethical slips, and the hypocrisies that sometimes accompany victories, and that flare up after defeats. We don't even need to name names here: we've all been on this ride before.
I believe that healthy movements find a place for all kinds of activism... but that's not enough. When opposing groups are competing over very limited funds, for example, or when one set of strategies is mutually exclusive to another, things can get really nasty really quickly. That we're all on the same side doesn't matter. The most we can hope for is that the ball continues to move forward during the fray, and that our bridges aren't burned permanently. The Movement is bigger than any one person or group, and I've taken to downplaying my own negative opinions on the belief that the ball needs to keep moving forward, regardless.
All that being said, I'm going to break my rule here a bit and be critical of some of the players involved in the sideshow-shitshow that is Russian LGBT activism, for reasons that I hope will be clear below. I've been mulling over this diary for well over a week now, but after reading this editorial by Alexei Davydov (as an aside: fuck Alexei Davydov), I wanted to punch the wall. In deference to the wall, I'm doing the next best thing and venting about it on dailykos.
This, folks, is the muck of activism; the interpersonal conflicts and ugly behavior that often lies beneath the headlines. It may even seen arbitrary against the more pressing threats of proposed legislation to take away parental rights from LGBT parents. But if you want to be involved in this issue, and especially if you want to work with activists on the ground, it's important to be informed.
You've been warned.
With all this in mind, let's begin with Nikolai Alexeev, a name that was conspicuously absent from my last post on Russia.
Alexeev is without a doubt Russia's best-known gay advocate. He's founder of GayRussia.Ru and of Moscow Pride, a born provocateur and successful litigant in the European Court system against Russia's bans on pride marches. Alexeev is also, to put it mildly, difficult to get along with. He has a contentious relationship with other movements in Russia, and a few years back a speaking trip in the United States turned into a controversy tour due to an online post that used "Jews" as a pejorative. Alexeev's advocacy style is very public and very aggressive, and the same qualities that catapulted him into the forefront of the Russian LGBT movement also stymied his relationships with other advocates.
Let's just say that his style of activism takes a certain "type" of person:
@GermanSoulmate I have been mother Theresa of Russian LGBT movement for 8 years, spending all my time and money. Whom I need to report to?— Nikolai Alexeyev (@n_alexeyev) August 20, 2013
Things deteriorated rapidly in the last month. A few weeks ago, he accused certain Western writers and activists of being, variously, pedophiles, substance abusers, and the like. The proximate reason for his online meltdown was a combination of anger at Western media coverage, major interpersonal conflicts with other online figures, and a volatile rollercoaster of a personality that he's displayed many times in the past. Good-intentioned but somewhat naive Western observers wondered if he'd been hacked or even kidnapped, and wished for his safe return, including the creation of a now-defunct page on Facebook to "find" him.
Alexeev found this hilarious, of course. He continued on his warpath of crazy, including tweets like this, which would be merely sad coming from a Western activist, but are mind-boggling from a citizen of the country that invented Soviet-era Potemkin tourism. Anyway.
What really began to turn Western activists against him, however, was this editorial for Russia Today, the news outlet specifically created to "improve Russia's image abroad", which involves polishing a lot of shit. The title of his article is awful, and the conclusion is worse - that in a very Stockholm-syndrome way, the more oppressed Russian gays are, the more they become activists, so this is actually a good thing (I'll pause so you can bang your head against the table.) Not really a big surprise, tho:
BTW I already said in the past that Russia needs to re-criminalize homosexuality to make lazy Russian gays fight for their rights finally.— Nikolai Alexeyev (@n_alexeyev) August 24, 2013
Given the opportunity to discuss the path of gay rights in Russia, Alexeev instead spent most of the editorial tearing down his fellow activists one by one, accusing them of unethical behavior, hypocrisy, and the like, all to the no-doubt warm satisfaction of RT's editorial staff. Truth be told, the parts of Alexeev's editorial aimed at Western activists aren't wrong (a lot of them are very similar to Scott Long's criticisms, which I discussed in a previous post) and are worth considering, but Alexeev's big middle finger to the West did not, unsurprisingly, go over very well in the West, where activists tend to act rather than to listen.
The worst response of all was an editorial by Michael Lucas in Out magazine. As an aside, I have no idea why Out or any other magazine still gives space to the odious Lucas - a committed Islamophobe who's written some truly offensive, and offensively stupid things in the past - to write an editorial about anything. In his screed, Lucas called Alexeev the Kremlin's "pocket gay", comparing him to Jews who aided the Soviet propaganda machine. As the Moscow Times pointed out, Lucas couldn't even be bothered to look up the name of the network that Alexeev was on, which helpfully reinforces the image of clueless outsiders meddling in issues they don't understand.
Alexeev, however, was less amused than the Moscow Times, and in a series of typically histrionic tweets, he "quit" activism forever and ever, for the second or third time in the last few years, but only briefly of course, because it was a social experiment all along! (Like I said above, a rollercoaster.) Alexeev also decided on his way out to double down on the anti-Semitism that had made him non grata during his visit to the States, by unleashing a whole set of you've-got-to-be-fucking-with-me tweets that I'm not even going to quote, because holy hell. (And bless Elena Kostyuchenko for trying her best to rein in the crazy.) At this point things started to get hairy for Alexeev's remaining supporters. Where he managed to snow some people on the ambiguity of his earlier behavior, his free and unapologetic use of racist language - and his awful, awful defense of that language - finally turned some of his allies in the West. On-again-off-again ally Peter Tatchell sent a tweet chastising Alexeev, and Alexeev basically told him to fuck off. See, if the West would stop libeling [sic] him, then he'd stop using the word "Yid" so much.
(For those of you following at home, this is the grandest duet in the whole opera buffa: a war of words between Lucas and Alexeev, the Islamophobe and the anti-Semite. Russians will recall Dostoevsky's famous line in Karamazov: "Один гад съест другую гадину, обоим туда и дорога!")
At any rate, the fresh evidence of anti-Semitism was an invitation for everyone and their mother to weigh in:
Just look at that conversation, if you've got the stomach for it: Dan Choi! John Aravosis! Scott Long! Michael Petrelis! Andy Harley! See what I mean by sideshow-shitshow? This is a disaster for us, for the movement, and for the credibility of no small number of people in multiple continents, while others are jumping in to stem the bleeding as best they can. And that's not even counting the still-sore relationships between various Westerners sucked into the black hole of Alexeev's crazy (I referenced both Scott Long and Peter Tatchell in the same essay, so...) Trainwreck. Cannot look away. Putin himself couldn't buy a better disruption.
Through all of this, Nikolai Alexeev may yet continue to be the most important voice in the LGBT movement in Russia. His legal challenges to Russia's homophobic laws, however quixotic, are still the highest-profile actions in the country. He will still attract headlines, and be arrested, and pursue his chosen angle of activism to some measure of success. His criticisms of the movement are often accurate, and he's suffered enough physical abuse at the hands of the state to hold some legitimate grudges. He is also a hateful, anti-semitic, unstable human being whose behavior towards other activists has made broader and more organic social movement damned near impossible.
But today, I reserve most of my scorn for Alexei Davydov, a friend and ally of Alexeev, who wrote a disgusting editorial for Ekho Moskvy defending Alexeev against multiple strawmen of Alexeev's own construction. In sum, Davydov accuses the rest of LGBT Russia of having nothing better to do than attack the one man who's making a difference, because they aren't doing the "real" activism work that Alexeev is doing. Needless to say Alexeev's own considerable time attacking other activists goes somehow unmentioned, presumably because Alexeev gets results. All this would be garden-variety backbiting familiar to anyone who's spent time on the activism circuit, but Davydov ends his worthless editorial with a vile apologia for anti-semitism:
Concerning the demands for "disapproval" toward Nikolai Alexeev for the word "Yid". The word is an ugly one. But the vast majority of people who demand I "strongly condemn" him just as easily use the word "faggot". As soon as you start demanding disapproval over that word, then we'll talk.I've got a different word for you, Alexei: the word is "fuck", as in... "Go fuck yourself."
Seriously. Weeks like this, I have to shut my eyes and remember what I said at the beginning of this essay: people don't matter, Movements matter. Movements matter. Movements matter.