Russia: any new old thing will do

We’ve all grown used to the idea that fiction can never compete with real life in the modern world. Mostly, it’s just given up the effort, seeing there’s no point. But sometimes you have the impression that fiction slaps its head in despair and runs into a corner,  mumbling “stop it, I can’t take it any more!”

So here we are, perhaps, at one of those moments which would have been rejected from an early Monty Python script. Western politicians are calling for a boycott of the Russian Olympics because the Russian parliament has passed a law against what it calls “homosexual propaganda” Leaving aside the inherent rights and wrongs of such a law (and I can’t get excited about either) would anyone have imagined, even twenty-five years ago, that such a situation was even remotely possible?

If you were alive in the 60s and 70s, you’ll remember that the real threat to the country, according to the right-wing media and the politicians, was less the Red Army than Red Ideas, frequently propagandised by “lefty teachers” with their advanced social theories like tolerance for homosexuality, the rights of women and children and better treatment of immigrants. There was scarcely a week when the Daily Mail failed to sound the alarm about “homosexual propaganda” (yes really) in schools, and demand the sacking of homosexual teachers on the basis that they were probably paedophiles. Indeed, virtually all of the social reforms of the 1960s and 1970s, not just on homosexuality but the abolition of hanging, introduction of protection for ethnic minorities or the legalisation of abortion, were seen as part of a KGB master plan to bring down western civilisation by making us all weak and effeminate. As the great historian AJP Taylor remarked, it wasn’t the reality of Communism that western leaders were frightened of, but the theory – including such civilisation-destroying concepts as women going out to work, abortion, free child care and universal contraception, all of which were introduced in the Soviet Union early in the Communist era, and regarded with shivering horror by traditionalists in the West.

Fortunately, a lot of these horrors have been put into reverse in the post-Soviet world, notably in traditionalist countries like Poland which seems to have reverted to the 1930s in terms of social policy, and to be drifting further backwards all the time. Meanwhile, western, elites have never quite got over the shock of finding that the fall of the Soviet Union produced, not a regime of western-style liberal technocrats, but a regime of gangsterism and nationalism, tempered by state repression. Instead of blaming themselves, for the glee with which they danced on the ruins of Communism and used Russian weakness to force the country to adopt disastrous neo-liberal policies that almost destroyed the economy, they blame the current government for – well, anything you can think of. How dare the major political force in Russia be led by former KGB officer, and the second most popular party be the Communists? Let’s find a stick to beat them with. Anything will do.

And so we come to the ultimate cynical instrumentalisation of progressive social ideas for political purposes, exploited by people who are themselves deeply prejudiced and reactionary, with useful idiots from the liberal, right-on tendency cheering them on. I wonder what the campaigners for homosexual rights in the west thirty years ago – harried by the police, vilified by the media, investigated for Communist links by the intelligence services – must be thinking now.


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