PPH Opinion, June 19th
By Charlotte Rosenthal, Retrenched professor of Russian Studies and WGS Council member
A petition asks the Portland City Council to cease dealing with officials in Archangel who persecute LGBT people.
CAPE ELIZABETH — On Tuesday, in Portland’s Russian sister city, Archangel, Professor Oleg Klyuenkov was fired by Northern Arctic Federal University because he is gay and has been active in the local human rights organization, Rakurs (Perspective).
For months, the university has been under enormous pressure from the local prosecutor’s office to fire Klyuenkov, an assistant philosophy professor, and it finally caved. Klyuenkov received an official notice of his dismissal from the university’s vice president for personnel. The stated cause was his alleged absenteeism from the workplace.
Rob Lieber, a Portland LGBT activist, speaks at a news conference Monday at Portland City Hall as local activists launch an effort to sever the city’s ties with its Sister City in Russia over that city’s treatment of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered residents. Randy Billings/Staff Writer
During one of those periods of “absenteeism,” last November, Klyuenkov came to the Portland area for a week to learn how lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues are being handled in his sister city and to fill us in on what is happening in Archangel. During his trip to Portland, none of his classes was in session. Nevertheless, the prosecutor’s office has claimed that in this time, he violated all sorts of university and federal labor law provisions.
I cannot emphasize enough what a nightmare it is to be a member of the LGBT community in Archangel. The media coverage is unrelentingly negative, and it generally goes unanswered because there are few sources of objective, much less sympathetic, information about LGBT issues. Gays have been beaten up on the street, fired from their jobs and expelled from school.
Under a law enacted by the national Duma (parliament) last year, individuals, government officials and organizations found to be promoting homosexuality among minors face fines of as much as $17,000. Presently, there is a law pending in the Duma to take children away from LGBT parents.
Even Russian citizens whom I would have expected to be more open-minded support the national anti-gay propaganda law – “to protect our children,” as one of my counterparts from Archangel said to me. It seems never to have occurred to this person that some of those children might be struggling with their sexual identity and could use a sympathetic ear.
Therefore, as a founding member of the Archangel sister city committee, I have joined with others to petition the Portland City Council, requesting that it cease dealing with the Archangel officialdom that has brought about this persecution.
I must emphasize that we do not ask for the sister-city relationship to cease, only that we hold government officials responsible for their repellent actions.
What we are asking is analogous to what the Obama administration is doing – targeting President Vladimir Putin’s pals with sanctions for their support of repugnant policies undertaken by the regime. What we are asking is entirely in line with the city of Portland’s and the state of Maine’s laws and values.
I understand the need for a continued relationship with our sister city. I very much value any opportunity for dialogue between us; ongoing dialogue with our counterparts has never been more important. I think it would be very valuable for our peers to learn about what has been a gradual evolution in the way that the citizens of Maine look at LGBT issues, especially because such conversations so rarely take place in Archangel. Alternative voices on these issues need to be heard.
Having traveled to Russia and having lived there for long periods of time since the Cold War years of the early 1970s, I am quite aware of the insensitivity of assuming that “we” Americans know best. Not at all – I have always learned a lot from the other side. Although there were many tense moments during the official exchanges that I participated in, ultimately both sides understood that we had more to gain from a continued relationship than from a failed one. The same is true of our sister city relationship today.
Still, I think it is important that we clearly voice our view. We should support Professor Klyuenkov’s struggle. He has bravely taken on the powers that be, refusing to “voluntarily” resign and challenging their illegal actions in court. A preliminary hearing is set for July 2.
Again, I urge that we use the small amount of leverage that we have by objecting to the actions of Archangel’s officials.