News & Politics

Taking on Mother Russia

I was 17 when I was arrested for the first, and thus far, only time in my life. I’d like to say I was cheesed for something badass, like stealing a car or selling dope. But, no, nothing that glam. During my freshman year at Yeshiva University Stern College for Women, I was arrested for disorderly conduct when I crossed the police line at a Soviet Jewry rally at the United Nations.

My teacher, a fairly progressive rabbi who had a reputation for crossing police lines, announced his civilly disobedient intentions in class, the day before the rally. He said there was no pressure, but that we were welcome to accompany him on this ritual of self-sacrifice for our people.

Soviet-Jewry-marchI wasn’t exactly an activist. At the time, I was struggling with my budding sexuality, increasingly at odds with my Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, and that raging war inside my own head did not allow much room for current events. I knew just a scant bit about the group we were joining, Students Struggle for Soviet Jewry. I knew the SSSJ was founded in the 1960s and over two decades had done much, by peaceful demonstration and media campaigns, to raise awareness about the plight of refuseniks, the Soviet Jews who were denied exit visas or were imprisoned when they attempted to leave or speak out in any way against the Soviet government.

That was all very inspirational. But truthfully, I went along because I thought it would make a cool story later. As it turned out, the tale of 30-or-so girls and one rabbi sitting on a dirty floor of a holding cell, singing the Hebrew equivalent of Kumbaya for three hours did not make the riveting tale I thought it would. And the rap sheet I’d hoped for never materialized; my record was expunged after six months as part of the case settlement.

But I did feel I’d done something. I’d helped, in my own small way, to put pressure on the world community to do something for those Jews in the Soviet Union who were unable to advocate for themselves, who had no power, no voice. We became their voice and we did make a difference.

boycott-sochi-olympicsNow Mother Russia is back at it, albeit under different rule. This time, it’s the gays in trouble, instead of the Jews. (Although if you’re a gay Russian Jew, your life probably really sucks.) In June, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a bill criminalizing “homosexual propaganda.” Any individual sharing information about “nontraditional sexual relations” can be fined thousands of rubles and will face possible jail time. The law is so broad and so vague, it’s conceivable that any out LGBT adult could be arrested. There are now very believable rumors that Putin’s government may soon have national police go into the homes of gay parents and forcibly remove their children. As a parent, I’ve tried to imagine it—my partner and I awakened in the middle of the night by storm troopers who’ve come to snatch our two girls, terrified and screaming, right from our arms—but the thought is too horrifying to dwell on. I can’t fathom how gay and lesbian parents in Russia must be feeling right now.

dumpstoliThe new laws will affect U.S. citizens, as well, since foreigners and tourists are subject to the same punishment for advocating homosexuality. Last week, Russia’s minister of sports, Vitaly L. Mutko, announced that gay Olympic athletes arriving in Sochi to compete in the 2014 winter games could be arrested if they run afoul of the new laws. Given the broad nature of the law, simply being out in Russia could constitute criminal activity. That has led to calls for boycott of the Sochi games.

The response from the larger world community has been muted, at best. It is apparently all too easy, in 2013, to discount the rights of LGBT individuals. Even in the U.S., we are second-class citizens in 37 states.

If the majority won’t take up for the minority, we in the LGBT community have to take up this fight for our Russian brothers and sisters. Their voices have been taken away, so we must speak for them and make sure we’re heard. Herewith, three simple steps:

Pāli 1) Hit Putin where it hurts, by boycotting Russia’s biggest exports to the U.S. Start with petroleum: bypass Lukoil and Getty stations when you need to fill up. Dumping Stoli won’t put much of a dent in Russia’s coffers because the brand is manufactured by SPI Group in Latvia (although with Russian ingredients), but the #DumpStoli campaign is just the sort of PR we need to raise awareness on the world stage. While you’re spilling alcohol, don’t forget to trash Russian Standard vodka, which is manufactured there.

Olbia 2) Take five minutes to write a letter or sign a petition. Check out this primer for 10 actions you can take today.

3) Talk, tweet, blog, share. Tell your gay and straight friends about Putin’s gay ban, share news on social media, show up to demonstrations.

When the Soviet Jews were prisoners in their own land in the ’60s and ’70s, nobody else much cared. American Jewry had to shout doubly loud to get their message heard. We can do the same for our LGBT brothers and sisters in Russia.

And there is no time to waste. They’re depending on us.


Tags: , , ,


  1. I particularly like the list of things I can do. Thanks!

  2. Good for you! Thank you for the perspective.

    But check the terminology — you didn’t cross a picket line. You crossed a police line, or a barricade.

    Crossing a picket line means patronizing or going to work at a business where the workers are on strike. It is generally a Bad Thing and I doubt you or your rabbi ever did it!

  3. Oh dear. In my head, I thought “police line” but then wrote “picket”. Thank you so much for that great catch! Will make the change posthaste.

    Clare, thank you for reading and replying!

  4. It’s effed up, is what it is. I feel for the athletes who will be forced into making decisions that aren’t fair, but it’s nothing compared to what those who live in Russia must be feeling right now.

  5. The thought of being a visiting athlete for the Olympics, something you have trained your whole life for, and running the risk of imprisonment just because of your sexuality boggles my mind. And I can’t even imagine living there and how it would feel to have your children taken away simply because of the gender of who you love and are raising children with.

  6. Pingback: TGIF Video: All You Need Is Love | VillageQ

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.