There is no longer even the illusion of a free press in Russia—not after yesterday, when the Kremlin posted a decree on its website announcing the liquidation of RIA Novosti, the leading state news agency. “The move,” the news service wrote in its own account of the story, “is the latest in a series of shifts in Russia’s news landscape, which appear to point toward a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector.”
That “tightening,” which intensified when Russian President Vladimir Putin returned to power last year and immediately set about silencing any form of opposition to his notoriously crooked government, has reached a fever pitch in the months leading up to Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi this February. The country and the games have come under increasing international scrutiny and criticism: First, in the wake of the Kremlin’s passage, this past June, of a trifecta of draconian anti-LGBT laws disguised as measures for child protection, and then by the failure of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to enforce its own charter—which, as this helpful image from Boycott Sochi 2014 reminds us, states that "any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement.”
All of which places new pressure on NBC Universal, the primary American broadcaster of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, to decide whether it’s going to go down in history as an organ of the free press or as a collaborator in the Kremlin’s and the IOC’s conspiracies of silence.
So far, option two has been well ahead. NBC’s decision earlier this fall to hire Thomas Roberts and Johnny Weir, two bright white upper-class gay men with matching husbands, to serve as
apologists commentators during Sochi was just the latest in a long string of feints by the network to appear gay-friendly while accommodating a homophobic regime. NBC paid $4 billion dollars for the rights to cover the Olympics from 2014 through 2020, and it’ll be damned if it’s going to do anything that might hurt its bottom line.
Like mentioning to the more than 200 million Olympic viewers expected in America alone that the backdrop to all of Sochi’s bobsledding and figure skating, thanks to the country’s anti-LGBT laws, is a political landscape reminiscent of Nuremberg-era Germany. One in which lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are being reduced to a status eerily reminiscent of Jews in the days before the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Corruptors of children. Polluters of Russia’s pure bloodline. Threats to the state.
NBC has been dodging attempts from activists to hold them accountable since the laws were enacted. A letter from the gay lobbying group Human Rights Campaign’s president asking NBC to include news of Russia's human-rights violations alongside their standard Olympics coverage elicited a mealy-mouthed response from the network, which said it would “provide coverage of Russia's anti-gay laws if the controversial measures surface as an issue during the upcoming Winter Olympics.” As though the fact that Neo-Nazis keep luring gay men to hotel rooms by baiting them online, then kidnapping and torturing them and posting their videos online isn’t an issue at all so long as no queers are actually forced to drink their own urine in front of NBC’s cameras during the snowboarding finals.
Still, it was harder and harder in the months that followed to pretend that nothing was happening in Russia. What with the gay torture videos and Putin’s declaration of martial law: He’s banned all protests, marches, and public gatherings in Sochi for the duration of the Olympics.
Plus the IOC issuing, every few weeks, yet another statement saying that it had been reassured by the Kremlin that everyone was welcome at the games. NBC’s LGBT employees were clearly freaked out to the point the network felt compelled to send out a memo promising that it would do all it could to protect folks working in Sochi.
So NBC, in a moment of unparalleled cynicism, decided to hire Roberts and Weir to be their Gays. Because there’s nothing like the sight of two privileged gay white men being paid to run around Russia with camera crews following them everywhere to reassure the average American viewer that no atrocities are being committed against local LGBT citizens. “NBC’s strategy,” as Duncan Osborne, a member of Queer Nation, notes, “is to cast doubt that things are as bad in Russia as we say they are.”
Witness last month’s visit to Moscow by Roberts of MSNBC, the scab who cheerfully hosted Donald Trump’s Miss Universe contest after Bravo’s Andy Cohen bravely declined, declaring that Russia’s “discriminatory policies make it unsafe for the gays who live there and gays coming to work or visit." What a Debbie Downer!
Roberts, by contrast, clearly believes, per the op-ed he posted prior his trip, that making a lot of money to appear at carefully pre-screened locations in Russia with a security detail is the same thing as being “courageous” or “carrying a message of hope” to the country’s oppressed LGBT community. Once in Moscow, he duly reported that he, personally, hadn’t “run into any discrimination.” Kind of like during the Beijing Olympics, where, strangely, no non-Chinese press reported being the targets of political repression. Go figure.
NBC’s “pink-washing” strategy seemed to be working.
But then came Johnny Weir’s breakout performance last week at a Barnard College forum on the moral responsibilities of athletes at the 2014 Sochi games. The former team USA Olympic figure skater, a talented crowd favorite whose enthusiasm for all things Russian extends to speaking the language and marrying first-generation Russian-American Victor Voronov, is also notorious for shooting his mouth off. In less time than it takes to say “Pokerface,” he laid waste to NBC’s careful, Nice Non-Controversial Gays strategy and set the gay blogs buzzing. He also insulted members of Queer Nation, the LGBT activist group that’s been most effective in pressuring individual and corporate supporters of the Kremlin’s anti-LGBT witch-hunt. Not good.
In addition to disparaging the millions of activists who oppose Russia’s anti-LGBT laws the world over as "idiots like the ones outside tonight, dumping vodka in the street,” Weir referred to the most notorious of the new laws, the so-called “propaganda” law that forbids virtually all public mention of homosexuality as a threat to children, as "no anal sex in front of libraries.” It’s a flippant reference to the widely broadcast footage of the late Alexei Davydov being hauled off, as the first person arrested under the law, for standing in front of the Moscow Children's Library with a sign that read, "Gay is normal."
It’s hard to say what’s worse. The fact that Weir also referred to his experiences in Russia without any evident understanding of the difference between his position and that of the average Russian queer, saying: “I’ve never had a bad experience in Russia, not gotten called a fag or beat up.” Or his lack of concern regarding his own willed ignorance: “I only see the rosy, golden side. I choose to see Russia in an arrogant, selfish way.”
Within hours of Weir’s outburst and gay journalist Andy Humm’s write up in Gay City News, Weir had a piece in Virginia’s Fall River News where he apologized for his inflammatory remarks. Followed by a statement from NBC saying it supported his apology. Followed hours later by Weir telling a fan, on videotape, that he wanted to be the first person to perform oral sex in space. No comment from NBC at this time.
The misadventures and misconceptions of Roberts, Weir, and NBC would be farcical if the lives of real flesh and blood people weren’t at stake. Also if Putin wasn’t putting a hit on Russia’s closest thing to an independent media outlet and replacing it with Soviet style pseudo news. But he is.
Effective immediately, the Kremlin’s decree transfers all of RIA Novosti’s property to a new conglomerate called Russia Today, which will be headed by Dmitry Kiselyov, a Putin propagandist best known in the west for the video of his appearance in front of a live audience last year, where he stated, in the run-up to the enactment of the anti-LGBT laws:
I believe it is not enough to impose fines on gays for engaging in the propaganda of homosexuality among adolescents. We need to ban them from donating blood and sperm, and if they die in car accidents, we need to bury their hearts in the ground or burn them as they are unsuitable for the aiding of anyone's life.
As a Russophile pal commented, “This is like CNN being folded into FOX, and Rush Limbaugh being made head of the new network.”
So the tendency of Roberts, Weir, and NBC to downplay what’s happening in Russia, which currently ranks 148th in the Reporters Without Borders Freedom Index, behind Libya, Angola, and Afghanistan, and to fool themselves that their presence alone somehow changes the increasingly dangerous on-the-ground reality of Russian queers, hews towards the sinister. In addition to making them complicit with both the IOC’s and the Kremlin’s silencing of the truth, it aligns them the Kremlin’s media spin on the law, which has always been that those outside of the country don’t understand it and are “overreacting.”
Russia’s ambassador to Canada was very eager to spread that message just the other day, and to glom on to the IOC’s spin: First, that somehow holding the Olympics in Russia, and failing to uphold the part of the IOC charter that compels the IOC to "fight against" and "take action against" what the charter calls "discrimination of any kind” isn't a political statement, but protesting either of those actions is. (Just yesterday, new IOC Chair Thomas Bach of Germany, reminded athletes that they can be stripped of their medals for any signs of political protest). And second, that Russia’s anti-LGBT laws, and all that matters about them, can be judged by whether visiting LGBT athletes, spectators, and press are harassed in Sochi over the course of two weeks and in front of the world’s cameras.
The IOC, of all entities, should know better, having been through this before. In 1935, Chancellor Hitler graciously acquiesced to then-IOC Chair Count Henri Baillet-Latour’s request that all anti-Semitic signage be taken down for the duration of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Bach, of all people, should have a keen memory for what happened after those games were over and the international community left. And be eager to avoid a repeat.