silent flows the river don

russia-moscow-gay-pride-riot-ru192323This is a warning for visitors and tourists wanting to travel to Russia. Anything considered pro-gay, from gay-affirmative speech to gays holding hands in public to wearing rainbow suspenders is now illegal. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law on Monday one of the most draconian anti-gay laws on the planet. Ironically the new law comes just seven months before Russia is set to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi, expecting visitors and tourists from around the world. Additionally, the law has a provision permitting the government to arrest and detain gay, or pro-gay, foreigners for up to 14 days before they would then be expelled from the country. It is now literally illegal in Russia to say that you are gay. It is illegal to kiss your partner in public – say, after you win a gold medal. It is illegal for a gay athlete to wear the rainbow flag. Or even to acknowledge during an interview that they are gay – or for the foreign press to acknowledge it – unless they mention gay sexual orientation in a negative way. Then there’s the seemingly officially sanctioned violence against gay, bisexual and transgendered people in Russia. It’s been made clear for years now that the Russian government will turn a blind eye towards anti-gay violence, and many have alleged that the Russian government is actually behind such violence. Will gay Olympic athletes and gay Olympic fans be targeted for violence while in Russia? No one knows. What we do know is that the International Olympic Committee’s response to the growing threat of violence against gay athletes and gay Olympics fans has been rather anemic to date. The IOC’s response has been so weak that Human Rights Watch recently sent the Olympic Committee a rather scathing letter demanding that the IOC take action to enforce their own charter, which bans discrimination. Activists are demanding cities like Los Angeles, Quebec and Paris should drop, or suspend, their Sister City relationships with Russian cities. More importantly, anyone thinking of attending the Olympics in Russia, should think twice about the message they’re sending to a country that appears to be rapidly sinking into its old authoritarian ways. Uncle Joe might be a distant memory to many contemporary Russians, but the countenance of Uncle Vlad is eerily familiar.

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i won’t go there

This isn’t a political blog by any means. It’s a travel blog. Yet it’s difficult to silently stand back and watch what is going on in one of my favorite cities in the world, St. Petersburg, Russia. In less than one week, lawmakers in St. Petersburg could silence millions of people by making it a crime to read, write or even discuss anything involving homosexuality. That’s right, a crime. Calls and letters have rolled in from around the world, but it’s not enough. So with your help, we’re going to hit the Governor of St. Petersburg where it counts: the pocketbook. Russia recently announced that it wants to spend $11 billion dollars over the next few years to attract tourists in concert with the forthcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. We need to let the Governor of Peter the Great’s cosmopolitan “window on the west” know that we won’t go there if he turns the town into a gloomy center of censorship and intolerance. Russia’s second largest city thrives on its artistic reputation to attract tourists from around the world – a reputation that’s impossible to reconcile with a law that will muzzle artists, writers, musicians and ordinary citizens who live in – or visit – the city. Imagine for a moment the new Saint Petersburg, where an empowered “thought police” can fine you for any mention of the well-known fact that famed Russian composer Tchaikovksy, a Saint Petersburg native, was gay. Gogol himself couldn’t have created a more ridiculous mise-en-scene. And yet it is well on the way to becoming reality. Please, take a minute to tell Governor Poltavchenko “I won’t go there” if the bill passes. He holds the power to veto this bill – a law that will not only censor millions but also silence any and all human rights organizations in Russia fighting for equal rights. The great city of Pushkin, Akhmatova, Rastrelli and Brodsky has at times in history been shelled, strangled and besieged. To now silence it would be the cruelest injustice of all.

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