Calls for a boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics over LGBT rights raise the centuries-old question: Will Russia lean to the West, becoming more open and liberal, or to the East, becoming more closed and authoritarian?

An anti-gay protester shouts slogans at a Gay Pride rally in St. Petersburg. Photo: Reuters

For centuries, ever since Peter the Great’s efforts to impose a European-style capital and government on Russia, Russians have debated what they want Russia to become – a European society, heir to the Enlightenment, with Western-style religious pluralism, laws, and social organization, or a more paternalistic, authoritarian regime, rooted in Slavic nationalism and Orthodox religion.

In fact, for the last three centuries, Russian leaders have tried to have it both ways.  Catherine the Great and her court spoke French and entertained Voltaire, and in the nineteenth and early twentieth century Russians artists adopted and excelled in the latest Western styles – the novel, drama, orchestral music and ballet – while Russian mathematicians and scientists expanded the frontiers of European knowledge.

Russians sought to emulate Western-style political and economic institutions as well, creating an elected legislature (the Duma) and political parties, and seeking to replace the traditional communal organization of peasant villages with rationalized individual land ownership.  Yet throughout the Tsarist period, Russia also retained the absolute authority of the Tsar and the dominance of the landed nobility.  Eventually, the tensions between the modernizing, cosmopolitan trends in society and the authoritarian and privileged structure of government and society produced the Communist Revolution and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The USSR was, however, no better at resolving these paradoxes.  Marxist ideology was a Western European import, and brought an emphasis on modern scientific progress, workers’ organization and rapid industrialization. The Soviets sought to replace Orthodox belief with scientific atheism, and to replace adherents to traditional Russian Slavophile culture with new Soviet citizens who transcended bourgeois nationalism. Yet the Soviets, too, maintained an authoritarian political regime, and fell into a sustained state of cultural and political “Cold War” with Western Europe and North America.

Again, the tensions between the desire to be more modern and economically advanced like Western Europe, and the realities of life in the closed and authoritarian economic and political systems of Communist societies led to uprisings, first in Eastern Europe, then in the USSR, leading to the collapse of Communist authoritarianism, the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the rise of new, democratic states in Eastern Europe, the Baltic, and the Russian Federation (in the south Caucasus and Central Asian regions, new states arose but these were less clearly democratic in their operation).

Contradictions revealed by anti-gay legislation

The new Russian Federation, however, has not resolved these old paradoxes, and is again showing its ambivalence about what it wants to become.  Nothing better shows the contradictions within Russia today than the recent legislation prohibiting pro-gay propaganda.

Russia's LGBT activists protesting Russia's gay propaganda law. Photo: AP

At the very same time that Russia is seeking to welcome the world and show how much it deserves to be regarded as every bit the equal of other major powers by its hosting of the Sochi Winter Olympics and other major international sports competitions and forums, Russia has adopted laws that emphasize its turning away from the social trajectory of Europe.

With the exception of Italy, every state in Western Europe permits legal unions of same-sex couples.  Full marriage of same-sex couples has become legal in Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden, as well as in increasing numbers of states in the United States of America.

In contrast, Russia has not only continued to ban same-sex unions; it has now even banned discussion and publication of any thoughts favoring the notion that gay behavior and gay rights should be accepted [among minors - editor's note].  No doubt for the Russian authorities, this simply seems a defense of traditional Orthodox beliefs, and thus a matter of domestic interest that should be of no concern to outsiders.

Yet outsiders are clearly very much concerned, with social protests against Russia’s new legislation and even discussion of a boycott of the Sochi Olympics spreading around the world.  Why has the Russian legislation drawn such attention?

Very likely it would not have drawn such a global glare if not for the coincidence of the new laws and the preparations for the Sochi Olympics.  For good or bad, the Olympics place the host nation in the global spotlight.  People ask not only what kind of athletic performances they will see, but also what kinds of venues will be provided, and how will the host nation treat international visitors and guests? And local populations ask – how will the Olympics affect us?

In Brazil this year, we saw protests triggered by the local population objecting to how much Brazil was spending on the Olympic stadiums, and how the Brazilian government was violating its pledges to use the Olympics to improve infrastructure and transportation for the ordinary people of the nation.  Instead, the ordinary people found themselves facing rising bus fares to finance stadium construction, and they went into the streets to protest this betrayal.

Similarly, people around the world who looked forward to the Sochi Olympics found, once the spotlight turned to Russia, that Russia was moving away from the social values on gay rights that were increasingly accepted around the world.

Instead, Russia seemed to be moving back toward its historical obsession with inward-looking traditional Orthodox faith and the authoritarian type of governance that always accompanied it.  Protests and talk of boycotts was the response – not mainly in opposition to Russia per se, but rather as an effort to try to push Russia back on the track toward joining the European trajectory of ever broader and more general framing of human rights.

The protests and boycott talk around Sochi will be of no great consequence themselves; the athletes will still come and the Games will go on.  But the protests are important for highlighting how much Russia is still struggling with its centuries-old problem of what kind of society it wants to become.

Will Russia lean to the West, becoming a more open, cosmopolitan, liberal, and European-type society?  Or will it lean to the East, becoming a more closed, Orthodox, conservative, authoritarian, Asiatic-type society.  Or will it continue to try to have it both ways, and thus build the tensions that could again lead to another wave of protests and changes in government?   Protestors in other countries may remind Russia that it still faces this problem, but Russians themselves will have to resolve it.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.