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Anthony Holden on Russia, Sochi 2014, and Tchaikovsky

Anthony Holden is a writer, broadcaster and critic, and was the US Editor for the Observer and Assistant Editor for The TImes. He's written many biographies including one on Tchaikovsky, and watched the Sochi 2014 opening ceremony to see if the authorities would square the circle that one of Russia's greatest was gay. 

As the Winter Olympics open in Sochi, on Russia’s Black Sea coast, they pose as many problems for Vladimir Putin as those he thinks he has solved. With Putin’s Russia under intense global scrutiny for two long weeks, its arch-conservative president has spared himself some criticism by granting cynical, last-minute amnesties or pardons to a handful of prominent opponents and innocent protesters. Yet major problems of his own making remain. 

Putin has spent unprecedented billions turning a remote, undeveloped resort into a state-of-the-art, high-security winter sports venue. But the human rights issues disfiguring Putin’s Russia still threaten to undermine his dream of Sochi symbolizing a return to international respectability, dictating deeply conservative values to the West.

The most lurid example is the recent ‘gay propaganda’ legislation which made it illegal ‘to spread information about non-traditional sexual behaviour’ to minors. This has led to an increase in violence against gay people throughout Russia, typified by the Russian TV star (and priest) Ivan Okhlobystin, whose professed political ambitions led him to say he would have all gays ‘stuffed inside an oven’, adding ‘I don’t want my children thinking that being a faggot is normal.’

As a Tchaikovsky devotee, I had therefore been wondering how the powers-that-be would deal with the awkward problem of including the music of Russia’s ‘national composer’ in the ceremonials surrounding the Games. After more than two hours of the grandiose opening ceremony, when brief snatches of Swan Lake and the Coronation March finally graced the proceedings, it explained the absurd recent denial by the Russian authorities that – like so many other great artists throughout history, Russian or otherwise – Tchaikovsky happened to be gay.

Only last September Russia’s Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, unilaterally rewrote history with a formal denial that Tchaikovsky was homosexual. A handful of brave Russian scholars spoke up about the host of documentary evidence to the contrary, notably letters and diaries – all available in my own 1995 life of the composer –which proves beyond doubt that Tchaikovsky was promiscuously gay, if less than happy to be so. 

Like Victorian London, where Oscar Wilde met his own doom the following year, late Tsarist Russia was institutionally hypocritical. The only crime in 1893, as largely remains true today, was to get caught. His involvement with a young nobleman, a nephew of the Tsar, saw Tchaikovsky hauled before a secret ‘court of honour’ of his peers and threatened with public exposure – and so probable banishment from the country he loved. Nine days after conducting the premiere of his sixth symphony, the doom-laden Pathétique, he was dead by his own hand at the age of just 53. 

The homophobic climate in Putin’s Russia would suggest that nothing much has changed over the ensuing century and more. ‘They say that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual,’ the president has said, apparently unconvinced by his own Culture Minister’s denials. ‘Truth be told, we don't love him because of that, but he was a great musician... So what?’ 

Will he also say ‘So what?’ to some of the openly gay role-model athletes, commentators and other luminaries attending the Games? President Obama, whom Putin has recently outflanked on Syria and Snowden, has craftily sent Billie-Jean King as a leading member of the US delegation. Britain, in the shape of the state-funded BBC, has sent Claire Balding.

For all his acts of apparent Christmas benevolence – the release of his arch-enemy Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot and the Greenpeace protesters – Putin remains a worried man. He is investing Russia’s international reputation in the success of these Olympics, and he knows that the much of the world would surely have protested if any of the above had remained in custody this month.

The Russian constitution framed 20 years ago, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, now reads like a parody of life in Putin’s Russia. ‘All forms of limitations of human rights on social, racial, national, linguistic or religious grounds shall be banned,’ ‘reads Article 18. ‘Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of ideas and speech,’ repeats Article 29. 

After the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Russia signed a memorandum undertaking to respect human rights at the Sochi games, as enshrined in the Olympic charter. Yet, as Amnesty’s UK director Kate Allen has pointed out, ‘At present, there are severe restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly in Russia… This is Putin’s opportunity to show that Russia can be a world leader when it comes to human rights.’ 

There seems, alas, to be little chance of that. Russia should fear a return to Putin’s reality once these games are over. Maybe, in the meantime, a Gay Pride rally during some more Olympic Tchaikovsky could show Putin and indeed Russia itself that there is a better world elsewhere.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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