UPDATE—12:50 pm: According to Anastasia Smirnova’s Facebook page, she and the other arrested LGBT activists have been released after being charged with “participation in an illegal public assembly.” Their court hearings are scheduled for tomorrow afternoon.
The message has been sent loudly and clearly from Putin’s Russia: first rule of the Olympics, don’t talk about the Olympics. At least, don’t talk about what the Olympics, theoretically, are supposed to mean. Four activists were just arrested in St. Petersburg for carrying a sign that quoted Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter. That principle states, “Discrimination is incompatible with the Olympic Movement.” Principle 6 has become a rallying cry for athletes who oppose LGBT discrimination and we should expect to see the ubiquitous number 6 on rebel athletes throughout the games.
That, however, did not help these four brave souls in St. Petersburg. They were arrested while preparing to hang a banner with the exact wording of Principle 6 from the city’s Belinskiy Bridge. One of those taken into custody was Anastasia Smirnova, a leading figure in the country’s LGBT movement. Smirnova has received international attention in recent months by continuously linking the oppression of the LGBT community with the Olympic Games. Human Rights Watch highlighted Smirnova’s work last year and quoted her saying, “Ours is a campaign for equality. It is a campaign that promotes the idea of human dignity for LGBT people in Russia—but it is not a campaign against the country.”
We don’t know the names of the others arrested, but it has been confirmed that one is pregnant. We also know, according an LGBT activist who witnessed the arrests, that their demonstration was over before it started, with police speeding in and surrounding the four in the time it would take to flip a coin. As this eyewitness, who asked to remain anonymous out of safety concerns, said to Buzzfeed, “Either the phones are being listened to or maybe there are cameras all over the city; only a few people knew about this action.”
The charges as of now are unclear. They are in custody for reasons that are still being speculated upon, but are probably being held for “participating in an illegal action”, essentially demonstrating without permission, or being in violation of Russia’s so-called “anti-gay propaganda” laws. One of the most frightening parts of these laws is that, as Jeff Sharlet outlined in GQ, they tend to mean whatever the authorities want them to mean. Is it propaganda if your 5-year-old daughter proudly tells her teacher that she has two mommies? Is it propaganda if you listen to music by an LGBT artist that your neighbor can hear through their walls? Is it propaganda if you are the pope and you say about the prospect of gay priests, “Who am I to judge?” The answer is a loud and emphatic, “Maybe… but do you really want to risk finding out?” In this way, these laws are not unlike the “no homo promo” laws that exist in eight states in the United States. What does it mean to “promote” homosexuality? Whatever the cops and state want it to mean at a given moment.
As for the St. Petersburg 4, they remain in holding. Whether, like other activists, they are going to be held for the remainder of the Olympics, remains to be seen. As for the International Olympic Committee, I reached out to their press offices to ask the most basic of questions: What do you think about Russian citizens being arrested for quoting your own charter? They have not responded, but if and when they do, I will add their response to this piece. Yet the more pressing question needs to be posed to Olympic athletes who plan on wearing the number 6 in protest of the IOC’s blindness to Russia’s laws. They might want to think about moving the 6 over and adding the number 4. The future of LGBT rights in Russia, after all, will have far more to do with the freedom and future actions of the St. Petersburg 4, than anything athletes do at the Olympic Games themselves. For athletes to be “allies,” they are going to need to ally with four people we can now call first political prisoners of this Olympiad.