Sunday, February 23, 2014

Ukraine, Putin, and the Anti-Gay Campaign

As the struggle in Ukraine's divided land continues, President Putin has managed to keep the ugly reality of his anti-gay campaign in margins of the coverage of Sochi's Olympic Games. Behind the scenes in Kiev, the tug of war between Putin and the West played out, for this struggle is only one manifestation of a centuries-old divide between civilizations.

Ukraine as the clash of civilizations

Part of the Ukraine drama is the old stand-off between the Slavic-Orthodox East and the formerly Catholic/ Protestant West, now secularized and pluralistic.  As Samuel Huntington’s 1992 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order asserted, these religious, ethnic and civilizational divides are long-standing, powerful, and not about to go away. They simply take new forms.

Ukraine demonstrates this amply, geographically straddling the East-West divide. The western parts of Ukraine were, for centuries, ruled by the Germanic world, the eastern provinces dominated by the Russian Empire. Western and Central Ukraine lean toward close relations with the European Union. Even the main churches, while eastern Orthodox in style, are affiliated with Rome, not Moscow.

Putin is determined to keep Ukraine in the “Russian zone,” pressuring the leadership to knuckle under, because he has decided to renew Russia’s ancient habit of distinguishing “holy Russia” from an always-wayward West. With the flight of the deposed President, the world awaits Putin's next move.

Homosexuality a symbolic East-West flash-point

Which is where the anti-gay campaign comes in, deliberately fostered as a distinctive cultural marker. For strategic purposes gays must be persecuted precisely because the West moves toward including gays openly in society. Yes, homophobia is strong in Russian culture, and bolstered by the Russian Orthodox Church. But Russia (and not Russia alone) now uses anti-gay strategy as a way of distinguishing itself from the “decadent” West.

Scapegoats, alas, are nothing new. They serve multiple purposes. Allegedly embodying “degenerate” values, they clarify what "we" claim as the accepted the social good. They also serve to unify the rest of us, in spite of all our tension-making differences, into a unified opposition to their contaminating influence. Renaissance and Reformation culture found witches a convenient place to off-load the anxiety produced the very changes they fostered.

Putin presides over a vastly changed Russia which suffered a population decline, a massive income gap, a loss of status and a decade of social chaos before he took the reins. He must bolster Russian pride (hence the Sochi Olympics) and reinvigorate Russian identity as what columnist Ross Douthat calls "a rival civilizational model to the liberal democratic West." *

The gays must go, or keep themselves behind closed doors. Or, simply not exist. As a Sochi city official apparently told the press, “We don’t really have any of those here.”

* See "The Games Putin Plays" from the NYTimes, Sunday, February 23, 2014 at

Next week: Civilizational Divide, Part 2

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