Savior on Skates

‘To Russia With Love’: Can Johnny Weir Save Russia’s Gays?

The flamboyant figure skater stars in a searing new documentary that reminds us that, long after the Olympics are over, more—much more—must be done to help Russia’s oppressed gays.

“Despite it being under the same roof as Vladimir Putin, a pink blazer is just a pink blazer.”

Johnny Weir is coming to terms with being an activist.

He never set out to be one. He never wanted to be one. But as an Olympian, a celebrity with its corresponding public megaphone, and a proudly gay man so fabulous and flamboyant that he, in his own words, “came out of my mother with jazz hands,” his very existence makes him one.

How quickly we may forget, but Weir found himself the unwitting poster boy for a series of causes back when he sported that fierce pink blazer—among other gorgeous, decidedly Weir-ian ensembles—in the broadcast booth during the Sochi Winter Olympic Games in Russia last February.

How quickly we may forget, particularly as horrific news flurries out of the former Soviet Union in blizzard-like fashion, but those games were mired in controversy. Russian President Vladimir Putin had passed oppressive anti-gay laws, turning what should’ve been an international celebration of unity and athletics into a global debate on human rights and personal responsibility. Celebrities like Weir were called on to urge a boycott of the Games. Out athletes—again, like Weir—were expected to make grand demonstrations in protest of Putin and his legislation.

And so we don’t forget, those things are chronicled in To Russia With Love, a new documentary that premieres on the EPIX network Wednesday, Oct. 29. Directed by Canadian filmmaker and activist Noam Gonick and counting Oscar nominee Howard Gertler (How to Survive a Plague) among its producers, the film follows Weir and a trio of out gay athletes—Canadian speedskater Anastasia Bucsis, New Zealand speedskater Blake Skjellerup, and Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff—as they travel to Sochi to witness the treatment of Russia’s LGBT population firsthand, and grapple with their dueling roles as activists and athletes.

Legendary out athletes Billie Jean King, Greg Louganis, and Mark Tewksbury also provide commentary throughout the film, which was secretly shot guerilla style during the weeks of the Olympics—thus capturing the unfair arrests of protesters, the baseless dismantling of LGBT events, and the shocking, oppressive treatment of the country’s LGBT community.

“There was a horseshoe up my ass on this one,” Gonick jokes, remembering several close encounters where he and his film crew were nearly arrested for attempting to capture the unflinching glimpse of what it means to be gay in Russia. Or, rather, how bleak and horrible it is.

And god bless that horseshoe, because To Russia With Love is a necessary piece of work, a scorching indictment of Putin’s policies and the athletic community’s reluctance to adopt a political stance. It’s also, perhaps more importantly, a call-to-arms: to ensure that, even though the Olympic flame has been extinguished, we—again—don’t forget that the gay community in Russia still needs global help and attention.

It’s also, however, eye opening in another, rather unexpected way. In the words of Gonick, “This film is going to change a lot of people’s minds about Johnny Weir.”

***

Weir, who, it must be said, is far more intellectual, thoughtful, and self-aware than his somewhat reductive glittery public persona might suggest, is a fascinating lens through which to examine LGBT rights in Russia.

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To begin with, To Russia With Love takes a firm anti-Putin, anti-Russian government stance. And Johnny Weir loves Russia. He, like, really loves Russia.

“I speak the language,” he says. “I married into a Russian family. My doctor, dentist…everyone is Russian. It’s a country that I love.”

As the backlash against Putin was coming to a head in the months leading up to the Sochi games, Weir was being beckoned down opposing paths, none of which he followed.

The athletic community was putting pressure on him to say that he was pro-Olympics and pro-athletes. The more iron fisted activists from the LGBT community were calling on him to urge for an Olympics boycott, or at least a major demonstration in Sochi. He had enraged attendees at a speech at Barnard College when he called activists protesting him for not taking a stand against Putin “idiots.”

“I was thrown in the center of this not really wanting any part of it,” Weir says.

And all of this—his complex history with Russia and his adversarial relationship with what it means to be an activist—is what makes him a perfect centerpiece for a documentary about those very things: LGBT activism in Russia.

“I wanted to have more of a complicated perspective on Russia from a gay sports celebrity who loves Russia and didn’t think of Russia in terms of binaries, like ‘Russia = bad for gays’ and leave it at that,” Gonick says.

Plus, Weir was incredibly controversial at the time. “We were taking it to heart that the gay community was really hating him. He was the most trolled person ever. That’s what excited me about him.”

What excited Weir about the documentary is exploring all of the different viewpoints that wanted his voice, without actually having to be a mouthpiece.

“I understand that I have a position to speak on things and the ability to reach a lot of people with one tweet or one comment or statement, but I don’t feel a sense of responsibility like many activists do,” Weir says. “However, through the course of making this documentary I’ve really come to appreciate what activism is all about.”

Enter Vladislav Slavskiy. “Vladislav came out of nowhere,” Weir says.

As much as To Russia With Love chronicles Weir’s journey and the journey of the handful of out Olympians the film features, its emotional core belongs to a then-17-year-old gay teen activist from Sochi. It’s a lonely, brave, highly dangerous thing, you can imagine, to be an out teenage activist in one of the most oppressive societies for gay people in the world. More outspoken than any teenager should ever be forced to be—albeit with a shaky, nervous American accent—Vlad is a constant reminder of the brutal existence that is still the reality for Russia’s gay community.

There’s the time he confronts Billie Jean King, for example, just hours after the U.S. Olympic Ambassador steps foot in Sochi, pleading for her help. He recounts to her the bullying he receives at school, with classmates spitting on him as he walks down the halls. He talks about getting rocks thrown at him as he walks home from class, beat up every day on his journey and then told by police that it’s his own fault for being gay.

King’s candid response to the tales of horror: “Shit,” and a pledge, which she later makes good on, to get Vlad out of danger.

Throughout the shooting of To Russia With Love, Gonick and Vlad communicated through, of all things, the gay hookup app Grindr. “Vlad was just one of the little wild dogs of Sochi,” Gonick says. “I’d be looking in the bushes and he’d be there. So I’d be like, ‘Ok! Let’s throw him into the scene!’”

One of the film’s most powerful exchanges is a byproduct of just that spontaneity. Vlad was early to meet Gonick, who was busy filming Weir, one day. He had Weir invite Vlad into his hotel room, where the two spoke at length about what it’s been like for Vlad to live openly gay in Russia, and how incomprehensible that is for an out-and-proud American like Weir.

The conversation was entirely in Russian—Weir is impressively fluent. “A month later it was subtitled,” Gonick says. “We were blown away by it.”

I ask Weir what was so transformative about the exchange. “I learned that I wear rose-colored glasses,” he says. “I can look at the world and see the things that I want to see and there are things that happen that I don’t choose to see. The fact that I love Russia as a nation and as a culture doesn’t mean that I love the laws that they passed.”

Vlad was the searing example he needed to drive that point home. “Vladislav telling me a story about what happened to him directly to my face opened my eyes to what’s going on there,” he says. “More so than any American activist that was dumping out bottles of Latvian vodka thinking it was Russian in the summer of 2013.”

I ask Vlad the same question. His answer was simple: “I changed his mind.”

***

When I chat with Vlad, he is no longer in Russia. With the help of Billie Jean King, he is now enrolled at California State University in Los Angeles, where he lives. He is currently seeking asylum because, since he is now 18, he will be arrested immediately if he returns to Russia, as his history of activism violates the country’s anti-gay propaganda laws.

I ask Vlad what his worst memory was about his time in Russia, and his answers are haunting. Heartbreaking. Unspeakably horrible.

“I was attacked by neo-Nazis every evening when I came home,” he says. They were waiting for me in the bushes. They attacked with bottles filled with urine. They would beat me up. They tried to rape me.”

He goes on: “At school my math teacher told me I should work as a prostitute because I am gay, because that is the only thing that gays can do.”

But then I ask him how he is doing now that he is in the U.S. “I feel safe,” he says. “I feel like I’m human, not an animal anymore.”

What is his happiest memory about his time in the U.S.? “Every day. I am happy every day.”

Getting Vlad out of Russia is one positive byproduct of the hyper-intense focus on LGBT activism the globe flooded the country with during the Sochi Olympics. There’s certainly no denying the importance of the debate that surfaced at the time. As Vlad says, “It got people outside of Russia to know what happens there. It’s not just homophobia. It’s a nightmare.”

But many activists were hoping for more. Many out athletes found their voices silenced by coercion contracts many of their home countries gave them. Others didn’t want to speak out and have their activism overshadow their Olympics and their athletic achievements. To the dismay of many activists, no athlete made a major demonstration against Putin, the kind that would still be having a rippling effect today.

So while it might seem counterintuitive for a documentary centered around the Winter Olympics to premiere now, all these months later, it’s actually crucial that it is for gay Russians who aren’t Vlad, who are still in the country and still being persecuted.

“I didn’t want the documentary to be a quick poof of a firework within a month after the Olympics were over,” Weir says. “I wanted people to remember and be brought back to that place so that people don’t forget the LGBT people of Russia. And sometimes the only way to get people to remember is to shock their senses.”

That’s the point of the film, Gonick agrees, to have a “permanent, documented film that makes you think, ‘Oh yeah, what are these gays doing? We need to still help them fight.’”

Because when the biggest global demonstration is a broadcaster wearing a flamboyant article of clothing, more must be done.

"A stupid pink blazer," Weir sighs in the documentary. Then, with a wink, "Chanel. But still."