Moscow police “not wholly out of step with popular opinion”, says Oxford academic

The following article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 29 May 2007.

Moscow neo-Nazis taunting gay rights activists

Listening to the Today programme this morning was a deeply depressing experience.

First we had Peter Tatchell, who in a measured voice explained what happened to him and other gay activists in Moscow last Sunday. Tatchell described his attackers as a “…motley collection of neo-nazis, extreme right-wing nationalists and Christian fundamentalists from the Russian Orthodox Church.”

I’ve even seen reports of “Communists” being involved in the thuggery, and there is currently a less than fraternal spat between French and Russian comrades over the French party’s support for “homosexuals or onanists”.

Tatchell, when challenged by the Today presenter on why he and his fellow activists had taken to the streets in the face of a municipal ban on gay rights demonstrations, pointed out that Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s injunction is illegal under human rights conventions to which Russia is a signatory. The ban is being challenged in the European Court of Human Rights.

Following Tatchell’s introduction, Robert Service, Professor of Russian History at St Antony’s College Oxford, came on air and attempted to place Sunday’s violence in an historical context. Service cited the Stalin era, and expressed amazement at how open and tolerant the Russian people are today, so soon after Uncle Joe’s demise. The police conducted themselves “very brutally”, said Service, “but they’re not wholly out of step with popular opinion in the country.”

Apparently, it all comes down to “which way around you have the telescope when looking at Russia.” How remiss of Tatchell and his chums for failing to have a balanced perspective on such a sensitive and complex issue.

When the Today presenter asked Service whether we were expecting too much when it comes to Russia adopting liberal democratic standards, and Service in reply made some assenting noises, my heart sank like a stone. It was patronising, cultural relativist nonsense, and I fear that Peter Tatchell’s articulate and entirely reasonable response was all for nothing.

This is about much more than an Oxford professor’s take on modern Russian history. What concerns me is that the woolly-headed reasoning expressed on air this morning is shared by many other influential observers of the fascist-instigated violence in Moscow. It may at least in part explain the relative lack of response from not only the British government, but the international community as a whole.