What’s Up With Russia?’

In a recent symposium, USC Dornsife faculty members tackle this question in a discussion analyzing gay rights in Russia and recent protests calling for the separation of church and state.
ByMichelle Boston

Clad in brightly colored ski masks, a group of young women ascended the altar of a Russian Orthodox church in Moscow. Pumping their fists into the air, they sang and danced around the dais then fell to their knees. The feminist group was protesting the re-election of Russian president Vladimir Putin and his connection with the church.

The actions of that Russian feminist punk rock protest group in February 2012 drew attention from around the world when three of the group’s members were arrested and imprisoned.

“Here is the church and the state becoming close friends,” said John Bowlt, professor of Slavic languages and literatures at USC Dornsife. “This group was very much against that association. They were worried about the church and state coming together.”

Bowlt put the protest into context at a symposium called “What’s Up With Russia?” held at USC’s University Park campus on October 22.  The discussion was organized by Anna Krakus, assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures, and moderated by Thomas Seifrid, chair and professor of Slavic languages and literatures. The talk featured presentations by Bowlt, Brad Damaré, assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures, and Robert English, associate professor of international relations and director of USC Dornsife’s School of International Relations.

Bowlt noted that a few days prior to the church protest Putin had met with Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, and promised financial support for the orthodox clergy among other perks.

This is not the first time that dissident artists criticized the church, Bowlt said. He noted that avant-garde artists in the 1910s similarly revolted against the church.

The feminist group’s arrest is part of a larger group of acts in Russia that sparked the Oct. 22 discussion, Seifrid said. Recently, Russia’s lower house of parliament passed an anti-gay law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” which resulted in campaigns for the United States and other countries to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi, Russia. In addition, Seifrid noted Russia’s role in Syria’s civil war, as well as the recent protests against oil exploration in the Arctic Ocean that resulted in the arrests of Greenpeace activists.


Robert English, associate professor of international relations, shared Soviet-era Russian posters depicting conservative representations of female sexuality as part of his presentation at the recent symposium.

“Russia is a large place,” Seifrid said. “It’s remote from us. Russia’s historical and political motives often seem obscure, if not unknown, to outsiders. Hence, there is a need to study it — its language, history and culture — in order to get beyond the inevitable sensationalism of the media. We want to place these events in a rich context.”

Damaré provided some context on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in Russia, purporting that the anti-gay rhetoric in the former Soviet Union stemmed from various forms of nostalgia. For example, nostalgia exists for the Soviet era in which Russia was among the world’s most powerful nations. Simultaneously, groups such as the Russian Orthodox Church have a pre-Soviet nostalgia that hearkens back to pre-Communist times, which includes an objection to gay culture on both religious and cultural grounds. Another form of nostalgia, perpetrated by neo-Nazis in Russia who have acted out violently against homosexuals, pines for an ethnic myth of a pure race, Damaré said.

A common Russian perception is that gay culture is associated with the West, and that it is a liability to Russia’s national identity.

“You’re looking at a three-pronged attack, not just on homosexuality, but all of which have to do with this idea of national nostalgia,” Damaré said. “The movement toward homophobia did not come out of nowhere. It’s a later stage of what began a decade ago of out an increasing sense of ultranationalism.”

English spoke of Russia’s political and social climate. Most residents have a lower standard of living than their counterparts during Soviet times, he said.

“The vast majority are motivated primarily by hopelessness,” English said. While Russians now have access to certain consumer goods and entertainment they did not previously have, they are faced with few professional prospects, and unsatisfactory security in areas such as health care and education.

“The fact remains that for an enormous part of the Russian population, young men especially, it’s a really difficult life,” English said. “Resorting to violence and scapegoating becomes a way to cope.”

English said he was interested in Russia for many reasons.

“Russia has oil and gas and nuclear weapons,” he said. “That matters a great deal. Finally, 145 million people deserve better, and I have this long-term confidence that they will have better.”

Human biology major Amy Jang said the event helped her to put items in the news into context.

“It’s really great to have expert faculty explain what’s going on,” Jang said.

Steven Strozza, an international relations and biological sciences major, said the event helped to provide a contemporary overview of politics in Russia.

“What I found most interesting about the event was Russia’s ‘Eastern-ness,’ ” Strozza said. “From the current events and issues discussed during the panel, it was clear to me that not only is Russia an Eastern country, but it very much wants to establish itself as such and highlight the differences between itself and the West.”