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  • Vladimir Gavrilov

  • Sergey Terebkov

Q&A: Russia's gay-rights crackdown under local lens

Published: Monday, Aug. 12, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Sep. 30, 2013 - 3:30 pm

Last week President Barack Obama canceled a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the latest symbol of the deteriorating relationship between the two superpowers following Russia's refusal to turn over former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

As the United States slowly moves forward on gay rights, Russia has passed a law banning adoptions by any potential parent living in a country that has any form of gay marriage; Putin has signed a law allowing police to lock up any tourist or foreign national suspected of being gay or even "pro gay" for up to 14 days – including Olympic athletes. Putin also signed a ban on the "propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships" to juveniles, allowing the arrest of any parent, teacher, professional or public official who tells students homosexuality is normal and/or not evil.

About half of the Sacramento region's 120,000 Slavic immigrants and their children are religious refugees whose Evangelical faith preaches that homosexuality is a sin and that those who practice it will burn in hell.

In today's Question and Answer column, community leaders Sergey Terebkov, a moderate from Russia, and Vladimir Gavrilov, a liberal from Latvia, analyze Russia's crackdown on homosexuality and how it plays in the local Slavic immigrant community.

Terebkov, 45, is founder and president of the 150-member Slavic American Chamber of Commerce. Gavrilov, 63, is an internationally known physicist and longtime teacher who teaches physics, chemistry, math and astronomy in the Twin Rivers Unified School District.

Why is Russia cracking down on gays now?

Terebkov: The Russian Orthodox Church has a big influence on the government and Putin personally. He seems to be appealing to ordinary people in Russia who are far more socially conservative than people in America, regardless of their religious views.

Gavrilov: There's a big split between the rich and the huge number of very poor people in Russia: The middle class is nonexistent. Societies like that look for simple answers and a strong hand to solve all their problems. The U.S.S.R. was an atheist country for 70 years, but now the pendulum has swung backward. Nearly 60 million Russians identify as Orthodox. Six months ago, Russia passed a law that if you offend someone's religious beliefs you will be punished. If you say "I don't believe in God," you can go to prison. It's like Orwell's "Animal Farm": All animals are equal but some are more equal.

How have Sacramento's Slavic evangelicals reacted to the Russian crackdown?

Terebkov: The anti-gay position of the local Slavic community's exaggerated. It's not high on their priority list. Yes, it's considered a sin if you read the Bible, but a lot of things are considered a sin, like drinking. There once were anti-gay activists who were very vocal and aggressive, but I don't see it now. The Slavic Chamber has relations with the Rainbow Chamber of Commerce, and I did endorse a gay candidate for the SMUD board.

Gavrilov: Our Slavic community tends to be super-conservative: They consider U.S. laws relative to sexual minorities too soft; they think gay rights violate their religious freedom. I don't understand this logic. In my opinion, the institution of marriage is not religious – it's a (secular) union between two people.

How have Russian attitudes toward homosexuality or bisexuality changed?

Terebkov: Homosexuality was a crime during Soviet times until the late 1980s and early '90s. Now that there's an openly gay movement in Russia, it may make people more hostile and aggressive.

Gavrilov: Russia is 60 years behind the U.S. on gay issues. What's scary is their wave of nationalism – that everything Russian is the best and they reject any other point of view. Maybe five to six years after Gorbachev and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1985, a small number of gay people began to show themselves. Even now, maybe it's OK in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but in the provinces if you're openly gay you can be beaten up and sometimes killed by some drunk, angry people.

Even some wealthy educated people support the Russian government's crackdown. An influential friend from Moscow visited at Christmas and said Pussy Riot – a Russian feminist punk rock protest group supporting LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights that performed in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior last year – should be shot dead. But now if people speak up for their rights, the world will support them.

Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Stephen Magagnini



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