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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Campus event spotlights Russian culture and xenophobia

Published: January 31, 2014
Section: News, Top Stories

On Tuesday night, LGBT activist and journalist Masha Gessen and Smith College Russian history professor Sergey Glebov led a discussion about xenophobia, a trend that currently dominates society in Russia.

Brandeis Russian studies professor and director Irina Dubinina moderated the conversation, which consisted of three segments. Glebov first spoke about various historical and sociological aspects of Russia to provide the audience with some background information. Gessen then spoke about xenophobia and her LGBT experiences as a Russian and how this issue arose. Finally, the speakers opened the floor to the audience to ask both Gessen and Glebov any questions.

Xenophobia, the main topic of the program, is defined as the fear or hatred of strangers, foreigners or anything that is strange or foreign. In the context of this discussion, the xenophobia that runs rampant in Russia is the fear of the LGBT community, a topic which recently has gained much publicity.

Glebov first pondered what social processes provoked this immense hatred and fear of the LGBT community that started brewing in the 1990s. Interestingly, he remarked that the growth of this xenophobia mimicked the Aryan feel of post-Weimar Germany which, similarly to Russia, experienced an economic collapse and loss of power.

Gessen asserted that the event that fueled this was Putin seeing gay campaigns. These campaigns shocked him, and their bold and liberal views conflicted with Russia’s conservative and traditional values. He saw the LGBT community as the “ultimate other” that opposed Russia, as a community that he could attack without global uproar. He and the Russian government portray LGBT people as the antichrist, who are subhuman and pose a grave and imminent danger to the country.

The speakers raised the point about how there are many LGBT or gender-bender singers and performers who are revered by many Russian individuals and are accepted as LGBT, while normal citizens are abhorred by the anti-gay Russian population. Putin tried to ban LGBT propaganda, but this was not enough. Even sperm donations have been banned by the government. Throughout this time, Russia has grown extremely anti-gay, anti-American and anti-immigration, which has collectively constituted Russia’s first ideology for 25 years.

Gessen is an American and Russian journalist, author and LGBT activist. Her work has been featured in Vanity Fair, The New York Times and US News and World Report. She has also authored two books: “The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin” and “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot,” which discuss Putin’s rise to fame and presidency and an LGBT protest in Russia, respectively.

The discussion took place in Mandel Atrium. The room was packed with students and members of the LGBT and Russian communities of both Brandeis and the greater Boston area. The audience was extremely enthusiastic about both the topic of conversation and the speakers, which served as a central part of the program. The atrium could have benefitted from more chairs, considering that some guests were standing and sitting on the floor. Additionally, it was slightly challenging to understand everything that was discussed at the program without more of a background in Russian history.