THE FIRST TIME Lyosha saw another gay man was in December of his first year at university. The man had come to visit one of the girls at the dorm. His name was also Alexei, he was also from Solikamsk, and it was all such a wonderful coincidence that Lyosha immediately fell in love.
He also immediately moved in with Alexei. After that, all was not exactly as Lyosha had expected. Alexei was older—twenty-one to Lyosha’s seventeen—and a college dropout. His tiny apartment was filthy. Lyosha spent the first couple of days scrubbing it down and setting it up for domesticity: Alexei had apparently never cooked. The apartment was very close to Perm’s lone gay club, and many of Alexei’s friends were used to crashing there after a night of drinking, alone or with someone. There was a lot of drinking. Some of Alexei’s friends had cirrhosis of the liver. Someone died of it. Someone else committed suicide. The sex was rough and painful, and Alexei had sex with other people too. Still, the most important thing was that Lyosha had a boyfriend.
Now was the time to come out to his mother. When Lyosha went home to Solikamsk for New Year’s, he got right to it.
“Mama, we have to talk.”
They sat down at the kitchen table.
“Mama, I love you,” said Lyosha, and started sobbing uncontrollably.
Galina waited for him to collect himself. He could not.
“Are you trying to tell me that you like boys?” she asked finally.
“I must have done something wrong,” she concluded dispassionately.
Galina said nothing else for three days, but at family holiday gatherings on each of those days she would down three shots of vodka in quick succession. Normally, she did not drink.
Things were difficult for the next six months, though Galina had resumed speaking to Lyosha and continued giving him money for rent. He knew that she had stared down the choice between Lyosha and society, and had chosen her son. Now she was acclimating to the consequences of that choice. Among family, whenever someone tried to engage her in teasing Lyosha about his not having a girlfriend yet—at the ripe old age of eighteen now, when other young men were considering marriage and children—she cut the conversation off with a stern, “He’ll do what he wants when he decides it’s time.” She also made it clear to him that she did not want to know any of the details: she asked no questions, welcomed no confidences, but also never said anything pejorative. Still, things felt a bit better after Lyosha broke up with Alexei. Galina seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.
What had happened was that Alexei had brought someone home when Lyosha was there. Lyosha had reluctantly agreed to an open relationship, but this was unbearable. Lyosha ended the relationship, but he also made a promise to himself to rid himself of jealousy. It was an unproductive emotion. If he ever had a boyfriend again, he would be mindful of the need for a variety of experiences and would be tolerant of indiscretions as long as the boyfriend did not fall in love with another person. The relationship with Alexei had made Lyosha wiser. Back in the dormitory now, he became a bit of a love guru: female students came to him for advice, and so did the mother of one of his female classmates.
Lyosha met Sasha during one of his visits to Solikamsk. Actually, he did not meet him, but he saw him: Sasha sold music CDs and VHS tapes from a permanent stand at Orbita, the new shopping center. It was perhaps a quarter of the size of the shopping malls that had opened up in Perm, but it had the same blinding neon lights and slippery tiled floors. Someone told Lyosha that Sasha had had a lover, an older and perhaps wealthy man. Someone else told Lyosha that Sasha wanted to meet him.
Lyosha started spending time at Orbita. He came to Solikamsk for all school breaks and some weekends, and he loitered. He met all his friends there, and when they were not available, he went to Orbita alone. Sasha would walk over and ask for a light, but he always did it with a girl on his arm or when Lyosha was speaking to someone else. Technically, they still had not met.
Finally, Lyosha found himself at a birthday party where Sasha was also a guest, and someone introduced them to each other. Sasha asked Lyosha specific questions about his studies and a recent trip Lyosha had taken to a conference in Moscow: Sasha had clearly done as much research on Lyosha as Lyosha had done on him. Lyosha, for his part, already knew that Sasha came from a struggling family, that his parents drank and he had a half-dozen siblings, and that he had tried and failed two or three times to get into Perm Polytechnic. They were, by now, a couple of years into their strange courtship.
They left the party together, with a young woman. They walked her home, and then Sasha walked Lyosha home, explaining that the streets were rough and he himself had such a long way to go to his apartment on the outskirts that the detour made no difference. There was no physical contact: Lyosha was cool, open but not rash. He regretted it the next morning.
Nothing changed after the party. Lyosha still took the bus, five hours each way, to hang out at the mall almost every weekend, and Sasha still asked him for a light. Lyosha finally devised a plan to talk to Sasha alone. He waited at the bus stop outside Orbita until Sasha left work and boarded the bus. Lyosha got on the same bus without being seen—the crowd and the winter darkness made this easy. He got off at Sasha’s stop and caught up to him on foot after a short distance.
“Sasha, we have to talk.”
Sasha did not seem at all surprised. He did seem to have his answer prepared in advance.
“You shouldn’t give in to your fantasies,” he said. “Don’t believe what people say.”
Lyosha poured his heart into a letter and had a mutual friend hand it to Sasha at the mall. Sasha called. This time, he did not tell Lyosha not to believe what people say. He did not even say that he was not gay. All he said was, “I can’t,” over and over, for an hour and a half.
Lyosha decided that what they needed was to speak in person, not in the mall or in the street, but in private. Sasha just needed to feel safe. Lyosha found a classified-ad newspaper in which people offered apartments for rent by the day. He called, he paid, he picked up the key and called Sasha with the address. He cooked supper and waited. Sasha came.
He said, “I can’t.”
He said, “I’m sorry. I should not have let this go on. I can’t. I hope you can forgive me.”
Lyosha said, “Don’t ask me to forgive you. I just hope you can forgive yourself.”
Lyosha thought it was all too much like a movie, and a very long one: somehow, it took them four hours to say those things to each other. Then Sasha left, and Lyosha left too, because the last thing he wanted now was to spend the night in this apartment.
IT WAS JANUARY 2006 when the Sasha story ended. In the three years since his gay life began, Lyosha had had sex with one man, loved two, and had explored the entire range of options available to him: the closet and the gutter. Or at least those were the options available to his gay body and his gay heart. His gay mind could still soar. He decided that he would be gay in the academy.
The following year Lyosha defended his senior thesis, titled “Sexual Minorities as a Political Issue.” Getting the topic approved by the department was difficult, but he managed, and then went to Moscow for research. At the Russian State Library, which everyone still called by its old name, the Lenin Library, the repository of every periodical ever legally published in the country, Lyosha saw gay and lesbian magazines from the early 1990s. It turned out that there had once been people who wrote in Russian about gay rights, the movement, legislation, a political agenda. They sounded freer and better-informed than anyone Lyosha knew now. They seemed to inhabit a public space that Lyosha could barely imagine, to be connected to efforts that trusted their own importance—this was particularly true of a woman named Evgenia Debryanskaya, a lesbian activist so outspoken the whole country seemed to have heard of her back when Lyosha was in first grade. She was now an entrepreneur, like several other activists of old; others had left the country, and a couple had died.
“The threat of social divisions based on sexual orientation in contemporary Russian society is no less relevant than the threats of the spread of racism, xenophobia, and nationalism,” Lyosha wrote in the introduction to his thesis. He wrote that acceptance of sexual minorities, though it had increased in the 1990s, was on the wane—this was more of a hunch than something that he could support with evidence, so he might have skipped a footnote here.1 He pointed to legislation that had been proposed in 2003—two parliament members had wanted to ban “propaganda of homosexuality.”2 The bill failed, but Lyosha argued that it signified an anti-gay backlash. The thesis might have struck Lyosha’s professors as a bit alarmist and perhaps solipsistic—it seemed hard to observe a backlash against something they barely believed existed—but it was one of the most erudite, best-argued theses they had seen.3 As an outstanding scholar, Lyosha was offered the opportunity to stay at the department for graduate study.
There was a caveat: Lyosha had to broaden his subject. He could, for example, include other minority groups in his research. He had to agree, especially because the entire class was fretting about its future: in previous years graduates had found work as political technologists, but with the withering of public politics, demand had plummeted. Still, during his first year Lyosha proposed the following research topic: “Sexual Minorities in Political Discourse.”
“I like it very much,” his adviser said. “But you must understand that our academic council is very conservative, some members are very religious, so I’m afraid they won’t allow you to dissertate on this topic.” She spoke in jargon to him, because he was now a member of the academic club. They finally settled on “Minority discourse in public politics.” Lyosha would be looking at sexual and ethnic minorities, and at women as a minority group in politics.
Lyosha started teaching, helping a slightly older friend who taught the university’s lone seminar on gender theory. He started publishing: the department’s annual included his paper on women as a political minority. His research was exhilarating. He discovered the word “queer,” wrote a paper on the evolution of the concept, and decided that it applied to him.
In the fall of 2009, Lyosha presented his dissertation for preliminary review. In the end, his adviser’s demand that he broaden his topic had served a subversive purpose she hardly could have intended: Lyosha wrote about different minority groups as though they were equal to one another. He did point out that homosexuals in Russia had been granted only the bare minimum of legal rights—the right not to be treated as criminals—and had not yet reached full equality with the majority. Still, he wrote about gay people the same way that he wrote about women and ethnic minorities and his dissertation stressed the assumption that he was describing a process of inexorable legitimation and institutionalization of the various groups, all of which would eventually realize their potential to become not only the objects but also the subjects of politics.4
Lyosha spoke for twenty minutes and then faced an unprecedented hour and a half of questions from the twelve-member committee.
“Are you aware that homosexuality is a taboo topic in our country?” asked one.
“But it exists,” responded Lyosha.
This was the only question that concerned Lyosha’s actual topic. A lone committee member, whom Lyosha thought to be a closeted gay man, made a helpful suggestion on sources. The rest were anxious free-association queries. Members of the committee sounded angry with Lyosha, so angry that they could not or would not bring themselves to engage with his work. Their comments showed that they did not think a study like this should exist.
“I just attended a conference in St. Petersburg where they said that gender was no more,” said one.
“What are ‘minority groups’ anyway?” asked another.
Lyosha sweated and used every trick he could think of to keep his rage from showing.
A few weeks later, he heard that the professor who had been helpful during the defense had been seen waving a copy of Lyosha’s dissertation summary booklet during his own seminar, shouting in outrage, “This is ideological propaganda! This is propaganda of sodomy!” Lyosha was almost shocked a few weeks later to learn that the committee had cleared him for his defense.
The defense was, by all accounts, brilliant. The vote was unanimous.
Lyosha’s academic triumph immediately translated into administrative power. He took over the one gender studies course he used to help teach, and redesigned it to include an LGBT component. Older faculty who had shunned him earlier were now polite, and made a production of welcoming his input. He sensed that they were vicious in what they said about him behind his back, but he chose to interpret this as a symptom of their powerlessness in the face of his newfound authority.
IT WAS A GREAT TIME to be a young academic in Perm, for reasons that originated in Moscow. In 2008, Putin had handed the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev. Putin had served the two consecutive terms the Russian constitution allowed, and did what authoritarian rulers the world over do in such situations: he ceded the post without ceding the power. Putin became prime minister, and Dmitry Medvedev, a longtime member of his staff, became the country’s nominal president. The center of power shifted to the cabinet, now run by Putin. Overnight, the president’s office became ceremonial: Medvedev had only a tiny staff and no practical means to wield the power that was granted to him by the constitution. Still, Medvedev’s office obliged him to maintain a public presence. “For Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, Russian citizens are not voters, but an audience,” Russian journalist Maxim Trudolyubov wrote in 2009. “The big difference between Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev is that they work with different audiences.” Putin played to the majority: middle-aged and older, middle-income and poorer, the broad audience of the television channels. Medvedev addressed the better-educated, better-off minority that had been largely ignored during Putin’s two terms.5 Starved for attention, this audience responded to Medvedev’s overtures with enthusiasm ranging from cautious to ecstatic. They quickly dubbed the new era “the Thaw.”
The term referred to an earlier epoch, the Soviet Union of the late 1950s and early 1960s—the period between Nikita Khrushchev’s speech denouncing the cult of Stalin and the Party coup that deposed Khrushchev himself. That had been the time the first fortochkas opened: some previously banned writing was published and a small degree of open discussion and an even smaller degree of self-organization were allowed. The term “Thaw” now betrayed low expectations: the original Thaw had not brought about fundamental change—it had merely made the system somewhat less brutal. It had also been followed by the Brezhnev freeze, which did not return the terror of Stalinism but which put an end to any civic initiatives and, more important, any hope for change. The term “Thaw” reflected the belief that the Putin system of one-party rule and ever-shrinking space for civil society, media, and protest was entrenched. That made whatever short-term opportunities the new Thaw did present all the more precious.
Perm happened to produce such an opportunity. The capital of an oil-producing region, it had seen its fortunes rise exponentially during the boom of the 2000s. It also had a governor possessed of Western-style ambition. A Putin appointee, Oleg Chirkunov came to politics from the KGB by way of the retail business. He had worked in Switzerland, and his family stayed there even after he became a public official.6 He was a quintessential representative of the Medvedev audience: moneyed, Western-oriented, and with a taste for art and culture as Europe understood them. Federal reform undertaken by Putin during his first term deprived Russia’s constituent regions not only of much of their political independence but also of their money. A resource-rich region like Perm was handing an ever-increasing share of its tax revenues to Moscow. Quality of life, as a result, dragged far behind regional economic growth. When Garry Kasparov first went on a speaking tour as a politician, this issue—the center’s sucking the regions dry—was a major part of his message. But Chirkunov was not looking for a way to confront Putin: he was looking for a way to improve Perm’s quality of life and create an alternative source of income without confrontation with Moscow. When oil prices took a dive in 2007, his search for a solution became urgent. He decided that culture would be Perm’s salvation.7
Chirkunov’s partners in his culture project were two wealthy art lovers from Moscow. One was Sergei Gordeev, who had made a billion or more in Moscow real estate. His passion was contemporary architecture: he had paid generously to preserve Moscow’s Constructivist landmarks. Chirkunov appointed Gordeev one of the two senators from Perm. Putin’s new system, in which all high-level regional officials were appointed rather than elected, lent itself to these kinds of transactions. Chirkunov could give Gordeev power, at least symbolically, and influence, in exchange for his investment in the Perm project. Gordeev never lived in Perm or even learned much about it: when he visited the city, he stayed at a hotel. One night, four years into his senate term, he spent four hours wandering the city because he could not get his bearings and could not hail a cab either, for all he had in his wallet were five hundred-euro notes.8 Still, he promoted Perm faithfully and showed up for high-profile events in the city.
The other Muscovite who came to Perm was Marat Guelman, an art dealer turned political technologist. He had played a key role in creating Putin’s public image in 1999–2000, and he had stayed an insider. But with the near-extinction of electoral politics, political technologists were no longer in demand. The market for Russian art, too, collapsed during the financial crisis of 2007–2008. Perm, where life and real estate were cheap and the regime was friendly, offered Guelman a perfect Thaw-style cultural-political-economic opportunity. The three men pooled their—and the region’s—influence and money in the hope of multiplying both. They promoted what they were doing unironically as a “cultural revolution.” Their avowed goal was to have Perm chosen as a European Cultural Capital, a title bestowed by the European Union but available to cities that are not located in a European Union member country. The title would bring tourism to the city and money and fame to the men.
Gordeev invested, and Guelman curated. A museum of contemporary art opened in a hastily renovated old river port. An experimental theater followed, and a rejuvenated opera theater. At the center of it all stood a summer festival, an entire month of exhibits, performances, and panels that reached far beyond the arts into media and economics. Almost every night, police cars with flashing lights escorted buses ferrying dozens of visiting dignitaries from the Perm airport, where they had been delivered on a chartered plane from Moscow, to newly renovated hotels. The festival, called White Nights, was “overwhelming by design,” wrote American anthropologist Douglas Rogers, who spent twenty years studying Perm.
At the center of White Nights in Perm was a fenced-in Festival Village erected in front of the Regional Administration building on Perm’s esplanade. Just over three hectares in size, the Festival Village included two small and one large outdoor stages for concerts and other performances; numerous alleys for small shops and displays; two restaurants and two cafés; and a Festival Club for nearly fifty planned discussions and presentations. In order to cope with inevitable summer muddiness, boardwalk-style walkways were constructed to funnel crowds from space to space; they were repainted white nearly every night. Booths arranged alongside these walkways provided spaces where folk artisans and other culture producers could display and sell their wares, and the grassy spaces between the walkways hosted small-scale performances and exhibitions, from clowns to blacksmiths. Everywhere there were nooks and crannies—many of them in two massive towers at one end of the Festival Village—where little exhibits or performances sprang up. Most stunningly to many observers, there was even a “festival beach”: a large circular pool, suitable for dozens of children at a time, erected within a raised platform that could accommodate hundreds of sunbathers. Showers and changing rooms were located in a sandy area beneath.9
It was as if the entire city was, without changing location, transported from its eerie everyday identity as a former military-industrial city closed to outsiders to some shiny Europe of the imagination. In exchange, Europe would someday put Perm on its map—as a capital, no less. This frantic ambition was contagious, especially because Chirkunov and his people made it clear that their vision reached beyond the arts: the governor promised to forge a new “economy of the intellect, where we will create not with our hands but with our heads.”10
The university, too, developed a vision of itself as a European institution. Lyosha knew that he fit in it well. His own vision was that he would soon be running Russia’s only LGBT Studies program. For now, he and Darya, the friend who had been teaching the one gender studies course, launched a gender studies center. It helped that Darya’s father was the dean of another department at the university. Darya and Lyosha got some funding for hosting conferences and publishing the proceedings. Their publications had no official status in the university, but this meant that they did not have to face an academic-review board.
Lyosha was lucky. He had heard that a legal scholar in Novosibirsk had not been allowed to defend her dissertation on LGBT rights.11 In 2010, Lyosha presented at a conference at Moscow State University. His paper was titled “Gender Gaps in Political Science.” Only one person—a professor from St. Petersburg—had a question for him.
“Are you aware,” she asked, “that there are no lesbians in Russia?”
“I’ve also heard,” said Lyosha, “that there was no sex in the Soviet Union. Yet you are here.”
When the conference collection was published in book form, his paper was omitted.
PEOPLE DID NOT SAY those sorts of things at Moscow State—not what Lyosha said to the professor from St. Petersburg, nor what he had said in his paper. The social sciences here sounded very different.
Back in the early 1990s, when the department of sociology was first established at Moscow State, its founders reached out to Western colleagues far from the liberal academic mainstream. One person they sought out was Allan Carlson, an American historian who taught at ultraconservative Hillsdale College in Michigan. Carlson was a follower of Pitirim Sorokin, one of the Russian thinkers exiled on the Philosophers’ Ship in 1922. Sorokin went on to found the sociology department at Harvard. His prolific writings included doomsday warnings about the descent of Western civilization into decadence, and it was on these ideas that Carlson had based his own thinking. Carlson’s books numbered half a dozen, all had the word “family” in the title, and each argued that the family was the bedrock of civilization and the sole key to the continued survival of humankind.12
Carlson visited Moscow State University in 1995, a year when the topic that dominated the social sciences—and much of the media—was Russia’s demographic crisis. The country’s population had been declining for half a century. People were having fewer children and dying earlier. Male life expectancy was among the lowest in Europe—by the early 1990s, it was in the mid-sixties—and it would stay at that level for a decade and a half.13 This meant that most adult Russian men living in the 1990s and 2000s would not live past age sixty-five.
American economist Nicholas Eberstadt has written extensively about Russian demographics. A chapter in his book on the Russian population crisis is titled “Russia’s Ominous Patterns of Mortality and Morbidity: Pioneering New and Modern Pathways to Poor Health and Premature Death.” He showed that no modern country had ever seen people die at the same rate in peacetime. According to 2006 figures, wrote Eberstadt, male life expectancy at age fifteen in Russian compared unfavorably with that in Ethiopia, Gambia, and Somalia. Two things appeared to be killing Russians disproportionately: diseases of the cardiovascular system, and external causes, such as injuries and poisoning, including suicide.
Eberstadt scrutinized all the usual suspects: poor diet, smoking, lack of exercise, environmental pollution, economic shock and subsequent poverty, and, of course, vodka. But none of these factors explained enough of the problem, and even together they added up to barely half an explanation. True, Russians ate a fatty diet—but not as fatty as that of Western Europeans. Plus, Russians appeared to overeat less. Yes, Russia had taken abominable care of its environment, but it was seeing only a few more deaths from respiratory diseases than did Western Europe—and fewer deaths of diseases of the kidneys, which would be expected to result from pollution. Russians had lived through severe economic upheaval, but there was no indication that economic shock in a modern society leads quickly, or at all, to increased mortality—the Great Depression, for example, did not. Nor would a sudden drop in health-care services offer an explanation: Russia’s health-care spending was roughly comparable to that of less-affluent Western European countries. Russians smoked a lot, but not as much as Greeks and Spaniards did while living on average as long as other Western Europeans. Russians did drink a lot, but not as much as Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians, whose life expectancy started improving soon after they broke off from the Soviet Bloc.14 Vodka and other alcohol played an important role in the high rates of cardiovascular, violent, and accidental deaths—but not a large enough role to explain the Russian demographic predicament. In fact, while vodka was the most popular explanation, it was also the most contradictory. Some studies actually showed that Russian drinkers lived longer than non-drinkers.15
Another scholar of Russian demographics, American anthropologist Michelle Parsons, suggested an explanation for the apparent vodka paradox: for what it is worth, alcohol may help people adapt to realities that otherwise make them want to curl up and die. Parsons, who called her book Dying Unneeded, argued that Russians were dying early because they had nothing and no one to live for. Eberstadt also ultimately concluded that the explanation had to do with mental health. He used longer-term statistics to demonstrate that what Russians were calling a “demographic crisis” had in fact been going on for decades—birthrates and life expectancy had been falling for most of the second half of the twentieth century. Only two periods stood out as exceptions to this trend: Khrushchev’s Thaw and Gorbachev’s perestroika, the brief spells when Russians anticipated a better future. The rest of the time, it seemed, Russians had been dying for lack of hope.
Allan Carlson’s explanation was entirely different: Russians were dying because what he called the “natural family” was on the wane. During his visit, he and members of the sociology department decided to organize a conference to discuss what Russia and other countries could do to resist the attack on the family waged by the decadent West. The conference would be called the World Congress of Families. The gathering, held in Prague in 1997, drew about seven hundred people. Western participants were primarily representatives of conservative religious organizations mobilized against advances in gay rights. Eastern European participants came from newly independent nation-states, some of them very small and all of them struggling with cultural and economic change; they were driven by existential panic—and so were the Russians.
Inspired by the turnout, the organizers turned the World Congress of Families into a permanent organization dedicated to the fight against gay rights, abortion rights, and gender studies. The headquarters of the new organization was in Illinois, but its spiritual center was in Russia, at the sociology department of Moscow State University.16 Over the next decade the Russians, who had started out as Carlson’s disciples, became the senior partners in the organization: with the backing of the government and the Russian Orthodox Church, they could deliver the political muscle.
In his 2006 state-of-the-federation address, Putin called depopulation the country’s most pressing problem. “I am going to speak about the most important thing now,” he said. “What’s the most important thing? At the defense ministry they know what it is.” In Putin’s language of macho humor, the phrase was supposed to signal that he was about to speak about something that soldiers—real men—think about all the time.
Yes, I am indeed going to talk about love, about women and children. About the family. And about contemporary Russia’s most acute problem: demographics. . . . You know that our country’s population shrinks, on average, by seven hundred thousand people a year. We have talked about the issue many times, but have yet to do anything of substance about it.17
Putin proposed a financial solution: more money to National Project Health (the one where Masha was facilitating the payment of 80-to-90-percent kickbacks), more money for birthing clinics, and, most important, more money for mothers. He instituted a onetime payment of the equivalent of over $8,000 to any woman who gave birth to a second child (Russian women were having an average of 1.3 children18). The “maternal capital,” as it became known, would remain an act of unparalleled generosity on the part of the Russian state toward its citizens, showing just how highly the president valued his subjects’ willingness to reproduce.
In the 2000s, the World Congress19 established positions for what they called ambassadors—lobbyists at various international and European organizations, including the United Nations. The jobs went to Russians, who used the weight of the Russian delegation’s backing to organize informal coalitions to press for anti-gay initiatives and oppose measures that advanced LGBT rights.20 In the United States, the Southern Poverty Law Center designated the World Congress a hate group.21
BACK AT THE SOCIOLOGY DEPARTMENT at Moscow State, students received a steady diet of ultraconservative rhetoric—and nothing else. “As a graduate of the department, I can tell, based on my own experience, that the education students received there could never stand up to either academic or practical scrutiny,” a 1996 graduate said in a 2007 interview. The graduate, Alexandre Bikbov, did what Moscow State students had done back in the Soviet period if they wanted to learn: he educated himself, as Gudkov and Arutyunyan had done one or two generations earlier. “Back then it was possible to go to the library or to another department in the university in order to compensate for the lack of knowledge that the sociology department systematically produced,” said Bikbov, speaking about the 1990s. “And then, at the crucial moment of the exam, I could almost always count on unassailability if I could demonstrate that I knew the subject well.” In the 2000s, though, said Bikbov, things deteriorated. “Now there is open anti-intellectual censorship at exams: when students show that they ‘know too much,’ they get lower grades and are threatened with more severe punishment. The same thing happens during seminars, when some faculty tell students not to read [French sociologist Pierre] Bourdieu or when they cut off any and all discussion in the most demeaning manner.”22
Bikbov was unusually persistent in studying the sociology that Moscow State University did not want to teach him. He taught himself French and translated Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, a classic of modern sociology, into Russian. He started publishing internationally. He became a professor—not at the sociology department of Moscow State, which was no place for someone like him, but in the philosophy department of Russian Humanities University, a much smaller and far younger institution that did not have its own department of sociology. There he launched his own standing seminar, which, like Levada’s seminar in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, served to give young sociologists access to knowledge they were not getting through official channels. Dozens of Moscow State University sociology department students who figured out, soon after matriculating, that the department was, in Bikbov’s words, “a commercial enterprise with an extremism complex,” came to Bikbov’s seminar to learn.
In 2006, Bikbov organized a conference on the sociology of prisons. Two prominent French academics presented, as did Bikbov’s seminar participants and several young people who volunteered at Memorial, the organization founded in the 1980s to tell the story of the Gulag. The combination of the subject matter and academics and students and activists in one room proved combustible. The students resolved to demand change at Moscow State’s sociology department.23
For a semester in 2007, students staged a series of protests. “Education at the department is a lie!” proclaimed their first flyer. The flyer claimed that staff faculty were forbidden to do original research: instead, they had to use multivolume textbooks written by the dean, Vladimir Dobrenkov, as the basis for all instruction.
The flyer listed some recent incidents at the department, including:
All students were required to read a brochure distributed by the dean’s office. Titled “Why Are Russian Lands Being Cleansed,” it accused the Freemasons of “starting world wars and initiating the creation of the atomic bomb” and claimed that “the Zionist lobby . . . determined the foreign policies of the United States and Great Britain, holds in its hands the world financial system, including the printing of dollars, practically controls all the leading mass media and means of communication.” Russia is called a “righteous nation” and America a “beastly nation” and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is quoted earnestly, as a reliable source.24
The protests lasted through the spring, becoming the first sustained and highly public protests in Russia since Putin’s “preventive counter-revolution.” Such vocal action at the nation’s leading university compelled the presidential administration to respond by commissioning a report on the department. A group of experts concluded that the level of instruction at the department was not up to university standards and that Dobrenkov’s textbooks were replete with plagiarism.25
The other side retaliated. A group called the Union of Orthodox Citizens, which counted several well-known politicians among its leaders,26 issued a manifesto in defense of the sociology department: “There is no doubt that a concerted effort to foment an ‘orange revolution’ at Russia’s most important university is what stands behind the actions of radical youths and the students they have conscripted,” they wrote. Indeed, the sociology department was to provide a “training ground for a youth ‘maidan’”—Ukrainian for “square” but referring specifically to Kiev’s Independence Square, the geographic center of the Orange Revolution. This maidan would then spread to other institutions of higher learning. Along with Marches of the Dissenters, and, the manifesto added, “parades of sodomites,” the student rebellion “has every chance, come fall, to change the color of Red Square, turning it into an all-Russian rainbow ‘maidan.’”27
The statement was perfectly in keeping with the improbable assertion Lyosha had made in his thesis: a chasm was opening up in Russian society along the lines of sexual identity. The specter of gay liberation had emerged as a bogeyman much like the Freemasons, the Zionists, and the American financiers.
In the fall of 2007, the department cracked down. A half-dozen leaders of the protests were expelled.28 The following June, the department hosted an international conference titled “Societal Norms and the Possibilities of Societal Development.” Dean Dobrenkov opened the conference by warning against the dangers of homosexuality:
Issues of virtue and morality have to be at the forefront today. Without that, Russia has no future. . . . How can we talk about the rights of homosexuals and lesbians in light of this? All these attempts to organize gay parades, the introduction of sex education in schools—all of this aims to defile our young people, and we must say a clear and definitive “no” to that! Otherwise, we will lose Russia.29
“All these attempts” referred to a single effort, by a young Moscow lawyer, to force a public conversation on LGBT rights by applying for a permit to hold a Pride march in Moscow. The permit was denied, and the lawyer was taking his case through the courts. The handful of people who showed up for Pride in Moscow in May 2007 were first beaten and then arrested; among the detainees was an Italian member of the European Parliament who had come to lend his support.30
The star of the conference was American Paul Cameron, who urged Russia to learn from American mistakes. “It is the homosexuals who are bringing about a demographic catastrophe,” he said.
They cause huge and immeasurable harm to society. According to our data, one third of inmates in the state of Illinois are sexual predators or their victims. And twenty to forty percent are homosexuals or their victims. . . . According to official data, thirty to fifty percent of Illinois residents have had sexual relations with children, primarily as a result of their homosexual proclivities. Twenty percent of such crimes take place in adoptive families.
Cameron was citing Illinois because it was his home state and, he pointed out, the home state of then presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Russia has every chance to avoid the sad fate of Western countries, which have accepted homosexuality as morally normal, and to choose its own traditions and moral values. I want to ask you: Do you want to be as stupid as we have been?31
Introduced in Moscow as a prominent American academic, Cameron had been expelled from the American Psychological Association in 1983 and the American Sociological Association in 1986. The latter organization gave the following reason: “Dr. Paul Cameron has consistently misinterpreted and misrepresented sociological research on sexuality, homosexuality, and lesbianism.”32
In September 2008, the sociology department inaugurated a new research project, to be headed by a new member of the permanent faculty: Alexander Dugin would run the Center for Conservative Studies. Launching the center, Dugin explained what it was not: “It is not a liberal intellectual group, but also not a Soviet-Marxist one.” Both the Soviet idea and the liberal idea that had followed it in Russia had failed, he explained. “And yet there is no conservative intellectual or academic center in Russia in the American or the European sense of the word. This despite the fact that both the people and the regime feel conservatively.” Now the country’s most important university would take on the mission of generating ideas to fit those feelings:
The goal of the Center for Conservative Studies is to become the center of development of conservative ideology in Russia. . . . We also need to train a conservatively minded academic and government elite, there is no reason to hide this fact. They must be conservative ideologues. And we must place people in power and in positions of authority in the academy.33
The college dropout had worked hard to get to this point. He had long ago achieved public prominence and apparent political influence, but he wanted academic credentials. He defended his dissertation in December 2000 in Rostov-on-Don, in southern Russia, and his second dissertation—it is Russian convention to obtain first a sort of junior doctorate and then a senior one—in 2004, at another Rostov-on-Don institution. A German political scientist, Andreas Umland, noted in 2007:
For an understanding of the Dugin phenomenon, Dugin’s eagerness to become a fully accepted member of academia is particularly revealing. It speaks about both, how he understands himself as well as what the long-term prospects of his role in Russian society might be. Whether Dugin will be in a position to enter the Ivory Tower, make his pamphlets into textbooks and become accepted in scholarly circles are major issues in assessing his project as he himself understands it.34
Less than a year after Umland posed this question, Dugin was installed at Moscow State’s sociology department. His classes would now be mandatory for department students. The arrangement was profitable all around: Dean Dobrenkov was importing political muscle that accrued to Dugin—no one would touch him now, whatever the official commission might have concluded about his plagiarism and the low quality of education at the department. Dugin, on the other hand, got the intellectual legitimacy and the pulpit he had long been seeking.
COMPARED WITH MOSCOW STATE UNIVERSITY or, really, any other university in Russia, Lyosha’s position in Perm might have looked so privileged as to be unsustainable. A realist would have said that it was only a matter of time before a small oasis like Perm State University’s political science department was stomped out, the way all difference in Russia was being stomped out. But an optimist would have said that it was at provincial universities and in small, self-contained spaces of experimentation that Russia’s future was being made. Lyosha did not stop being an optimist until he went to Ukraine.
In 2011 he won a competition to take part in a three-year seminar for teachers from post-Communist countries. His track was “Gender, Sexuality, and Power.” The seminars were funded by Soros’s Open Society Foundations, which were no longer functioning in Russia—but this was a regional program, and the meetings would be in Ukraine. They met for the first time in Uzhgorod, a tiny border town in Western Ukraine, and for the first time, Lyosha was with his people. He was not the queer among academics or the academic among the queers—he was with people who were thinking and talking about the same things he was, and feeling some of the same things too. He was alone only in his epiphany: unlike him, the other participants—Brits, Americans, and Ukrainians—lived and worked with others who were like them. Ukraine, he learned, had thirty-seven registered LGBT groups. The number boggled his mind. He had always thought of Ukraine as Russia’s simple provincial cousin, but this country had gender studies and queer studies theorists at several of its universities. And they were not revolutionary explorers like Lyosha: they had teachers. Lyosha had Darya, who was just a couple of years older—a peer, and a friend supportive enough that he sometimes forgot that she was the daughter of a dean, and straight. But then he remembered. The people here had mentors who had studied in the West in the 1990s. Lyosha felt not unlike Arutyunyan had felt nearly twenty years earlier, when she attended the training seminar abroad that delivered her “narcissistic blow.” Like her, he saw people standing on the shoulders of their predecessors who stood on the shoulders of their predecessors who stood on the shoulders of giants—while Lyosha stood all alone.
He returned to Perm troubled but inspired: he felt he now had a vision of what his work might become. “I’m glad you are going to these seminars,” his department chair told him. “It’s like a retreat for you. But when you come back, you should be mindful of where you are.” This was her way of broaching the subject of Lyosha needing to refocus his research. The 2012 department annual would not include his paper otherwise.
“There is no future here,” Lyosha said to himself. He was not sure what this meant he needed to do now, but he knew that the phrase was true.
WHAT LYOSHA HAD SEEN in Ukraine was, contrary to his expectations, a different culture. Yes, his Ukrainian colleagues spoke Russian, most as their first language, but they had a different educational background, different cultural references, and vastly different political expectations than he did. The Orange Revolution had not brought the change that the revolutionaries had demanded—indeed, Viktor Yanukovych, the once failed pro-Moscow candidate, had finally been elected president in 2010—but nevertheless, Ukraine had left the Soviet Union.
Farther west, all three Baltic states had joined both NATO and the European Union in 2004. Several other post-Soviet states, including Ukraine and Georgia, were negotiating with these international organizations with an eye to possible ascension. Russia was moving in the opposite direction. In his state-of-the-federation address in April 2005, Putin stressed that Russia had to “first of all acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. . . . Tens of millions of our countrymen ended up outside our country’s borders.” The rest of that speech was a mishmash of familiar rhetoric—including the assertion that Russia was a European country that valued human rights and civil society—but the statement of grand regret framed the speech, and Putin’s politics.35 To soften the impact, the Kremlin’s English translators cast the phrase as “a major geopolitical catastrophe of the century,”36 but in another two years such pretense had been set aside. Speaking in Munich at an international security conference in February 2007, Putin said:
The format of the conference enables me to avoid superfluous politesse, the need to speak in smooth, pleasant, and empty diplomatic clichés. The format of the conference allows me to say what I really think about international security issues.37
Conference participants, who included German chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates, were taken by surprise: it seemed no one had expected a confrontation.38 Putin railed against NATO’s acceptance of new members:
I think it’s obvious: the process of NATO enlargement has nothing to do with the modernization of the alliance itself or with raising the level of security in Europe. Just the opposite: it is a seriously inflammatory factor that lowers the level of mutual trust. And we have a justified right to ask openly: Who is NATO enlarging against? And what happened to the assurances given by Western partners after the Warsaw Pact was dissolved? What happened to those declarations? No one even remembers them. But I will dare remind the audience of what was said. I’d like to quote from NATO Secretary-General Wörner’s speech in Brussels on May 17, 1990. He said then: “The very fact that we are ready not to deploy NATO troops beyond the territory of the Federal Republic [of Germany] gives the Soviet Union firm security guarantees.” Whatever happened to those guarantees?39
The quote indeed came from a speech by NATO Secretary-General Manfred Wörner, but it had hardly amounted to the promise Putin was saying had been betrayed. First, Wörner had been careful to use vaguely conditional language: he had said that NATO was “ready not to” expand—not that it would never expand. More important, the conditional guarantee he appeared to be extending applied to the Soviet Union, a country that ceased to exist a year and a half later. Russia was now separated from Germany by a double belt: a ring of former Soviet constituent republics—Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states—and then a ring of former Warsaw Pact countries—Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and others. A clear majority of these countries had, in the intervening years, explicitly asked—and sometimes begged and pleaded—for NATO protection.
Documents that were declassified in the United States around the time of Putin’s Munich speech provided the context for the Wörner statement. It had been made in the midst of multilateral talks on German reunification, which lasted from February to July 1990. The Soviet Union wanted to see Germany neutral—part of neither NATO nor the Warsaw Pact; NATO and the new German government, elected after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, wanted to see Germany a full NATO member. In the final agreement, Germany became—or, some might say, remained—a NATO member but former East German territory remained free of NATO military presence. Wörner’s statement, like the negotiations from which it stemmed, had nothing to do with the issue of NATO expansion to former Warsaw Pact countries, because the participants assumed at the time that the Warsaw Pact would continue to exist (it dissolved a year and a half later, in March 1991).40 Putin, who was a KGB officer serving in East Germany at the time of reunification talks, probably understood the contract well, but in his recollection the negotiations were the beginning of “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”—and were part of the story of Western treachery. The message of the Munich speech was that Russia would no longer accept the post-Soviet, post–Warsaw Pact condition.
WITHIN WEEKS of the Munich speech, it became clear what the new disposition meant. The Estonian government unwittingly provided the occasion. On April 30, 2007, it moved a monument known as the Bronze Soldier from central Tallinn to the city’s military cemetery. The Bronze Soldier was erected by Soviet authorities after the Second World War—one of dozens of such monuments placed in the capitals of Eastern Europe to commemorate the Soviet victories there. In Estonia’s reading of history, however, what the Soviets considered liberation was actually occupation. Estonia based its post-Soviet laws and policies on the premise that the country had been illegally occupied between the years of 1940 and 1991—first by the USSR in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, then by Nazi Germany, and then by the USSR again. Among other things, this meant that only people who had been Estonian citizens before 1940 and their descendants automatically became citizens of independent Estonia; all others—presumed occupiers and their descendants—would have to pass Estonian language and history exams to become citizens. Even though the noncitizens were treated just like citizens for the purposes of public benefits and even had the right to vote in local elections, most of the country’s sizable Russian-speaking minority—about a quarter of the population—considered the citizenship law discriminatory. The disagreement was fundamental: the Russian speakers did not and would not see themselves as occupiers, so to them the difference in treatment appeared based on ethnicity. Russia objected to the citizenship laws, and after Putin’s 2005 “geopolitical catastrophe” speech, in which he called out to “our countrymen abroad,” the criticism ramped up. The Bronze Soldier in Tallinn became, increasingly, a gathering spot for radical groups—both those who wanted the monument demolished (and frequently defaced it), and those who called for the restoration of the Soviet Union. The government decided to move the Soldier out of the city center.
Riots broke out in Tallinn. In Moscow, Nashi, the Young Guard, and at least two other pro-Kremlin youth groups began a siege of the Estonian embassy, demanding that the ambassador go home. The police did not intervene, and the consulate was forced to cease operations. After a week, the ambassador flew to Tallinn for what was, officially, a vacation. The youth groups proclaimed victory and lifted the siege.41 “The siege of the Estonian Embassy in Moscow . . . risks becoming a classic example of a violation of diplomatic law that will later be found in textbooks alongside descriptions of other unlawful incidents involving embassies, including ones as serious as the Tehran hostage crisis in 1979–1981,” an Estonian defense analyst wrote later that year.42
In addition to the riots and the embassy siege, a novel sort of attack took place: a cyber one. A flood of electronic requests designed to paralyze servers—a DDoS attack—shut down all Estonian government ministries, two banks, and several political parties, blocked all credit card transactions, and impaired the functioning of parliament. NATO and European Commission investigators could not definitively trace the attacks to Russia,43 but two years later Nashi claimed credit for the act of cyberwarfare, which the movement said had been carried out by a mass of volunteers armed with computers.44 The attacks had hit Estonia’s point of particular pride—it was arguably the most computerized society in the world—and transformed it into a vulnerability, showing that the small nation, no matter how modern it had become and how well integrated into Western international organizations, could still be trampled by the large one, with its myriad soldiers.
RUSSIA’S NEXT WAR also involved a cyberattack, but at its core it was conventional and almost old-fashioned. On August 8, 2008, Russia invaded Georgia.
Tensions had been mounting ever since the 2003 Rose Revolution, when an exuberantly pro-Western government took over. In 2006, Russia banned the import of Georgian mineral water and wine—a source of substantial revenue for the tiny nation—and began restricting the supply of gas to Georgia. It also started amassing troops on the border. These and other actions were primarily directed at continuing to inflame longstanding conflicts in two of Georgia’s separatist regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Both were self-proclaimed independent republics with close ties to Russia. Both had existed in a state of neither war nor peace, neither independence nor integration, since the early 1990s. Weak, embattled central governments of the 1990s and early 2000s made this stalemate relatively easy to maintain. The new Georgian government, however, tried both carrot and stick to bring the republics back into the fold; Russia retaliated with redoubled support for the regions and intensified hostilities with the Georgian government. One apparent goal was to torpedo Georgia’s attempts to join NATO—and in April 2008 Georgia’s application was denied, with unresolved conflicts cited as at least one of the reasons. Two weeks later Putin—legally, in his last two weeks as president—signed a decree establishing economic and political relations with South Ossetia and Abkhazia that were essentially similar to Moscow’s relations with the regions of Russia. Then, following a summer of assorted skirmishes, a full-fledged war broke out, with artillery fighting on the ground and Russia attacking from the air.
Ten days into the fighting, France and Germany brokered a cease-fire agreement, which Russia promptly violated. By the end of August, when the fighting stopped, Russia effectively controlled a large portion of Georgia and had issued Russian passports to local residents, turning them instantly into “countrymen.”45 On paper, Abkhazia and South Ossetia had declared independence, and Russia had recognized it, as had Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru.46 The message to Georgia—and any other post-Soviet country that might have wanted to follow its example—was, If you try to ally with NATO, you will lose lives and territory and will be assured NATO limbo in perpetuity.
A separate message was intended for the West and for Russian citizens: South Ossetia and Abkhazia were just like Kosovo, which had seceded from Serbia because it had a closer affinity with neighboring Albania. NATO had intervened on behalf of Kosovo, giving Russia the moral right to intervene on behalf of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In 2008, Kosovo, which had been a de facto protectorate since 1999, was about to declare independence—and it was clear that the requisite majority of United Nations member countries would presently recognize it as a state. Russia perceived Kosovo’s ascendance as an affront, just as it had perceived the 1999 NATO intervention as an insult—and now it was in a position to retaliate. Just days before Kosovo’s announcement, Russian officials summoned South Ossetian and Abkhazian leaders to Moscow for talks and the Russian foreign minister issued a statement that said, “The declaration and recognition of Kosovar independence will make Russia adjust its line toward Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”47
It was right after the invasion of Georgia that Dugin launched his Center for Conservative Studies. He gushed about the war in his opening address: “We have conducted an intervention, and now we are saying that we didn’t just conduct it as an exceptional case but we will continue to commit acts of intervention whenever we deem appropriate.”48 Causes for an intervention would include the perceived need to protect “countrymen abroad,” the eternal need to resist a unipolar world, and the necessity of asserting Russia’s interests in what it considered its sphere of influence.
If the president says that Russia’s friendly regions represent a zone of privileged interest, that means that this zone is under Russian control. And anyone who tries to challenge that is challenging not only that specific country but Russia, with all its nuclear arms.
Dugin claimed to be interpreting and forecasting Russia’s foreign policy, and his claim was now credible. That summer, he had gone to South Ossetia and posed in front of a tank with a Kalashnikov in his hands. That summer had also marked the first time he had seen one of his slogans catch on and go entirely mainstream, repeated on television and reproduced on bumper stickers. The slogan was, “Tanks to Tbilisi!”* Dugin had written, “Those who do not support the slogan ‘Tanks to Tbilisi!’ are not Russians. . . . ‘Tanks to Tbilisi!’ should be written on every Russian’s forehead.”49
The slogans, and the war, worked: according to Levada Center polls, Putin’s popularity rating shot up to 88 percent, its highest point ever. Medvedev’s hit 83 percent, also unprecedented.50