This time last summer, Facebook feeds and news outlets alike were drowning in images of young, bloodied Russians holding up ripped and torn rainbow flags in Moscow and St Petersburg, while crowds of jeering thugs attacked and abused them. Vladimir Putin had just passed an “anti-gay propaganda” law which threatened the very concept of freedom of speech and identity throughout Russia. To outwardly “promote” homosexuality to minors was now against the law, which meant that (amongst other things) gay pride parades, gay parenting/adoption, and essential sexual health education were punishable by imprisonment and a fine.
This summer, Facebook feeds and news outlets are full of images of the downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine. A year ago, the reaction from the West to Putin’s anti-gay laws was amazement and disgust that Russia had taken such a perceived step backwards. This summer, not many people seem overly surprised at allegations that Moscow may have supplied the weapons to Russian-allied separatists in the Ukraine. (Shocked, yes; surprised, no.) What a difference a year makes.
Last summer, in the wake of Putin passing the anti-gay law in the summer of 2013, the King’s Head Theatre called me to commission a rapid-response theatre piece composed of the stories of gay Russians living under these new laws. I was tasked with the challenge of weaving a diverse amount of material – of fear, abuse, hope, anxiety, betrayal and escape – into a coherent piece of theatre, whilst getting my head around the intricacies of the last hundred years of Russian politics and social history. My interviewees formed a huge cross-section of Russian society; old, young, single, married, closeted, activist, regional and urban. Their stories, recreated on stage, formed a compelling testament to the encroachment of Putin’s government on private lives and freedom of expression, under the guise of a return to “traditional Russian morality”.
One of the difficulties was choosing the narrative of the piece. Opinions differed greatly in the LGBT community as to what action to take about the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Boycott or not boycott? Why should the athletes suffer? Why should Putin get away with it? I tried to give as wide a forum of ideas as possible; I staged opposing voices in conflict, in bars, beaches, courtrooms, bedrooms and TV scenarios to stimulate debate. Yet despite their differences, all my interviewees were desperate to be heard, and all feared what would happen when the spotlight of the Winter Olympics moved elsewhere.
Their fears were well-founded. Despite many loud solidarity campaigns, failed corporate petitions and silent political boycotts from Western nations, the Sochi Games proceeded like a well-oiled machine, amid controversy over corralling of protests into a special protest zone and banning of rainbow signs and symbols inside the stadium (both by the IOC and Russian law alike). A resigned realpolitik took hold of media opinion, that the Games should go ahead and the athletes should not lose their chance of competing. The Sochi Games and the Sochi play opened on the same evening.
Over in London, I awaited news of the many protests which I was sure were coming, ready to update subsequent performances with the latest happenings. Within the first 24-hours, nearly 30 activists had been arrested and threatened. However, despite early promise, the Games drew to a close without any major disturbance, and competing athletes spoke of the silence of the “Sochi Bubble”. Apart from a couple of minor events, I was left with almost no updating at all. I was disappointed, though I expect the actors were relieved.
So did the Sochi furore count for nothing? One of my contributors was Moscow Pride organiser and activist Nikolai Baev, with whom I caught up whilst researching this article. “I think the Sochi Games gave [our] community the hugest media coverage like never before,” he said thoughtfully. “However the media always changes its focus. Now Ukraine and Flight MH17 are at the top of the news line.”
Theatre is fantastic at highlighting human stories, not just those which fit the current news agenda. The press has largely moved on from this issue but the LGBT community in Russia certainly hasn’t. That’s why I’m delighted that the play is going to Edinburgh. Theatre’s flexibility allows it to respond rapidly to events and these issues are continuing and growing. Since last summer’s anti-gay legislation, Putin has signed into law many more restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.
LGBT people have always been the canaries in the coal mine where human rights have been concerned, and Sochi was the acid test. We failed it.
Tess Berry-Hart studied playwriting at the Royal Court Young Writers Programme under Hanif Kureishi and Simon Stephens, and her two futuristic novels for young adults, Escape From Genopolis and Fearless, are published by Scholastic Books. Her verbatim play Sochi 2014, featuring stories of LGBT Russians living in Putin’s Russia and the legacy of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, runs at the Edinburgh Festival from 1 – 21 August 2014. For more information and tickets visit the EdFringe website.