Russia: the Next Third Reich?

Anna Nemtsova on anti-gay violence in Russia.

The night before President Obama canceled his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he went on The Tonight Show to talk to Jay Leno. After discussing terrorism and security leaks, Leno eventually brought up something that he said had “shocked” him about Russia: “I’m surprised this is not a huge story. Suddenly, homosexuality is against the law. I mean, this seems like Germany: let’s round up the Jews; let’s round up the gays; let’s round up the blacks. I mean, it starts with that ... Why is not more of the world outraged at this?”

The reference was to a recent Russian law, banning “homosexual propaganda”—the Putin government’s most recent antigay measure that criminalizes carrying rainbow flags or talking about equal rights in front of children. Among other things, rights activists say, the vaguely worded law effectively makes counseling of gay teenagers illegal.

But while the law may be objectionable, it’s the recent wave of antigay violence that most clearly evokes the waning days of the Weimar Republic—and the coming of the Third Reich.

Terrifying videos that show members of extreme right-wing groups torturing gay men have begun to surface on Russian websites, and though one person may have died from his injuries, so far no one has been charged with the violence.

One group, reportedly led by notorious ultranationalist Maxim Martsinkevich (who goes by the nickname Cleaver), has begun what they call Occupy Pedophilyaj, a campaign that supposedly targets pedophiles. By using online personal ads, they lure young gay men and teenagers to come out on fake dates, and then they kidnap and beat their victims, extracting “confessions” during the torture. Another similar group called Occupy Gerontilyaj targets gay teenagers.

During a television interview last year on the Russian channel NTV, Martsinkevich, who has previously been convicted for provoking hate crimes, referred to such hounding of gay men as a human “safaris.”

In one of the videos, posted on a Russian social-networking site, six skinheads are shown harassing a slight young man whom they have seemingly captured. Threatening him with baseball bats, the skinheads say they will punish him for breaking a Russian law that prohibits sexual relationships with anyone younger than 16.

In one picture, the victim is kneeling, holding a plastic penis, while his tormentors hold his hair. In a separate photo, he can be seen, undressed, with paint poured over him as he is doused with what is reportedly urine. (Martsinkevich described similar acts as “urine therapy” during his television interview.)

Last week the Spectrum Human Rights Alliance, a group advocating for LGBT rights in Eastern Europe, reported that the victim had died following the torture.

But officials have been unable to confirm the death, and the skinheads themselves say their victim walked to his car and drove away after they were done with him.

One man, who said he had participated in the abduction and identified himself as Mikhail, denied violence was involved. “We had no intention of torturing or harming him,” Mikhail said in a phone interview with The Daily Beast. “We humiliated and threatened him a good deal, and that had immediate results. After our videos and photos [of the incident], the percent of pedophiles in Russia dropped by 99.9 percent.”

Mikhail said his group had caught 19 self-confessed pedophiles in his hometown of Kamensk-Uralsky alone and that hundreds of “pedophiles” had been “caught” all across the country.

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(A rights activist posted Mikhail’s phone number online in what he wrote was an effort to publicly shame members of the group.)

Alexander Verkhovsky, who heads Sova, a nonprofit organization that monitors neo-Nazi violence, said that soon after Martsinkevich, the extremist leader, was released from prison in 2010, he launched a neo-Nazi movement. On his website, the movement lists its enemies, who include “pedophiles, liberals, fat bastards, alcoholics, and drug addicts.”

Groups such as Occupy Pedophilyaj “are meant to terrorize the entire gay community,” said Verkhovsky. They are nothing but “pure fascism,” he added, pointing out that the antigay violence appears to be tacitly condoned by authorities.

Last week police searched the homes of several members of the group, seizing a collection of swords, machetes, knives, and a disk saw with a swastika drawn on it. But so far no one has been charged with any crimes.

Russia will host next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, and the sports minister last week confirmed that gay athletes could face arrest if they show off their sexuality in Russia.

“No one is forbidding a sportsperson with non-traditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi, but if they go onto the street and start propagandizing it, then, of course, they will be held accountable,” Vitaly Mutko, the Russian sports minister, was quoted as saying in The Independent.

New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup, an openly gay competitor, told the British paper that he would wear a gay-pride pin during the Games.

The British actor and comedian Stephen Fry on Wednesday called on the British prime minister to back “an absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014.” Referencing the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, Fry wrote in an open letter that Putin “is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews.”

So far more than 340,000 people from around the world have signed a petition organized by the group All Out, urging Russia to drop its antigay legislation in advance of the Olympics.

In his interview, President Obama answered Leno’s question by saying he has “no patience” for countries that harm or intimidate gays, lesbians, or transgender people.

Given these recent attacks and the government’s seeming tolerance for bigotry, the question is, what does “no patience” really mean?