Censorship and identity

News about censorship cuts in series and films available to the Russian audience come every day. It’s funny and scary at the same time – it’s funny that instead of “gays” heroes of a film now say “men” or “boys”, which completely changes (more precisely, cancels) the meaning of what is happening on the screen. It’s scary and sad – because it was through movies that young people from communities farthest from modern culture could find themselves, and receive support in complete isolation from their own kind. One young man told how he first understood what was happening in his life, how he was different from others in his very traditional and poorly educated family, where there were no books, newspapers, or the Internet. The moment of truth for him became the film “Brokeback Mountain”: “I watched this film and cried, and my mother was beating me.”

This film, which is now included in the list of prohibited ones for “LGBT propaganda” by Roskomnadzor, tells about, in essence, love defeated by circumstances, about families that did not allow the heroes to be together, about the fear of exposure and about the impossibility of the desired way of life in a homophobic environment. A film without a happy ending, which cannot be called “propaganda” in any way, which is now defined by the censors as “rejection of “traditional sexual relations” in favor of “non-traditional ones”. This lyrical film conveys the pain of life for those who are surrounded by hatred, rejection, and fear even in the 21st century.

If you deny the truth about love and relationships, cut out everything that concerns gays, lesbians and trans people from all types of public art, people[‘s lives] would become even darker and scarier. Of course, many people are able to find uncensored versions on the Internet (it is easier for those who know foreign languages), some will still be able to buy books in a store, hidden in bags, so that the cover and the name of the author, who writes on topics related to sexual orientation and gender identity in one way or another, are not visible (which is required by new barbaric norms of the law). For many people, social networks remain a salvation and a means of unity (although they have to use them with the newest VPN on).

But these forms of relative freedom, like reading independent media, our opinions and websites, are available, unfortunately, not to everyone. The people I’m thinking about now even read (if they know how to read) with great difficulty and only in cases of extreme necessity (reading a document or address). They are not able to read books, blogs, or articles. The only social network they use is “Odnoklassniki”, and even that – not all of them. No supporting community, places of cultural meetings and festivals of arthouse cinema. Instead of all this – a traditional community, close family ties, neighbors who spy on each other (they are usually also their relatives). There can be a lot of pleasant things in such a life: people love each other, communicate a lot and cheerfully, the relationships between children and parents are warm and close. In a narrow and closed world, life is determined by traditions, rituals, and the life experience of seniors. Communication with the rest of the outside world is felt mainly through the television screen, political news is of little interest to anyone, but all kinds of TV series, films, and entertainment programs attract attention, expanding the horizons of the residents of patriarchal communities. And even when some stories are perceived as foreign, in the spirit of “we don’t behave like that”, even then they provide an understanding that there is another way of living for both the elders and the younger ones.

During the post-Soviet decades, many people have learned that gays, lesbians and transgender people exist not only in some distant and foreign countries, and most importantly, this is not only a prison (camp) topic. Sociological polls have shown year by year the reduction of social distance in relation to LGBTQ+, willingness to accept such acquaintances, neighbors and even relatives. I think that various manifestations of mass culture – from popular singers to heroes of TV series and films – played an important role in all of this. Human rights and activist sites, fashion bloggers and journalists, city clubs and events have created their own environment. Unfortunately, in recent years accusations of “foreign agents”, liquidation of NGOs and similar “targeted repressions” have been organised to abolish it. But this environment – even at its peak – remained of little notice outside of big cities and educated social circles.

And everyone watched pop contests, like “Eurovision”, until recently, as well as teleseries like “Sex and the City”. It is clear that a bearded man in a woman’s dress caused shock, laughter or disapproval among unprepared people at first, but gradually all this became more understandable, habitual, helping to understand something about close acquaintances around oneself. For those who were helped by these shows to understand themselves, and at the same time to be understood by older relatives, the television window to the world became a real lifesaver.

The exit of romantic stories of same-sex love into self-published, closed blogs, “to the kitchens” of intelligent houses, will not cancel subcultural and intellectual discussions on this topic. But the youth in traditional communities will be hit hard, leaving them alone again with loneliness, exclusion and the vile influence of labour camp “ways of life”.

Stefania Kulaeva, ADC Memorial expert
first published in the Radio Liberty blog