Thursday, March 8, 2012

History Redoux

In the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day” Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an egocentric Pittsburgh TV weatherman who, during a hated assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, finds himself repeating the same day over and over again. The movie title has become a modern-day equivalent to déjàvu, the French word for “already seen.”   This week’s news reports of the happenings in Russia personify the expression “history repeating itself.”

First things first, though.  Congratulations to Vladimir Putin!  After a 4 year respite from his 8 years as President to serve as Prime Minister, he took 62% of the vote this week with his nearest competitor at just 17% to regain the top spot in the country.  The other 3 candidates were all in single digits.  He was emotional in victory.  Much of the Western news coverage has been skeptical of the validity of the vote.  Tens of thousands of younger Russians protested the vote, a sight that warms the spirits of Westerners with Jeffersonian Democracy ideals.

Each generation has its own picture of Russia.  For my parent’s generation Nikita Khrushchev's banging of his shoes at the U.N. General Assembly and the Bay of Pigs incident exemplifies the tensions and dangers that was the Cold War.  Ronald Reagan’s calling the country an “Evil Empire” and his demand in 1987 for Mikhail Gorbechev to “tear down this wall” is a pivotal moment actually resulted in the Berlin Wall being dismantled in 1989.

I have been fortunate to travel to Russia on three occasions.  In 1985 as a student I spent a week in Moscow and Leningrad – Mr. Gorbechev had only months before taken the reigns of power and the country was still clinging to its Communist roots.  In 1999 I produced and directed a documentary following the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles to Moscow and St. Petersburg and several other cities.  In 2008 Mr. Putin left the Presidency and the country elected Dmitry Medvedev to succeed him, I visited St. Petersburg on holiday.

My own experiences have seen the country and the cities transform.  For a freedom loving, unabashed Libertarian – there is little more satisfying than seeing the mighty Soviet Union disintegrate and reemerge as a vibrant, chaotic, somewhat corrupt living, breathing capitalist society.  And it’s heartbreakingly tragic and deflating to see little by little the vestiges of the Union come back together.

Etched in my memory is the emotional reaction of the singers and the audience in October 1999 when 100 gay men sang Tchaikovsky in flawless Russian to a sold out, standing room only crowd in Tchaikovsky Hall.  The next night they performed at Glinka Cappella in St. Petersburg, one of the preeminent concert halls in the world that was originally established in 1479.  The current building dates to 1773, before the colonies became United.  Babushka women cried openly during the concert and Russian soldiers crowded the balcony.

Beyond the momentary impact of these events, there was a real sense that history was being made and the world was changing.  The streets were alive with energy, the media covered these events and organizations were being formed.  Only a few years before the tour when Boris Yeltsin took power, his first act was to establish a new constitution where homosexuality was legalized.  For years the Russian constitution provided more freedom that the U.S. until the Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick outlawing sodomy laws caught up.

In a cruel flashback to pre-Glastnost days, St. Petersburg's local legislature passed a bill last week banning propaganda to minors about homosexuality or pedophilia.    If the bill (which still must be signed by the city's governor) goes into effect it will rule out nearly all public events carried out by or on behalf of LGBT people and organizations and their reaching out to the media and the Internet, severely curtailing the publication of anything relating to LGBT rights or providing assistance or advice.

Whether the bill becomes law or not, there will inevitably be a chilling effect on the people of St. Petersburg and other Russian cities.  It’s a huge disconnect from the cosmopolitan and stunningly beautiful city that I had fallen in love with over the past twenty five years.  It’s a city steeped in artistic and creative triumphs that spans centuries.  So anxious was the city to move away from its past they abandoned the name Leningrad in 1991, months after Glasnost took root.

Perhaps the cyclical nature of history will be faster this time around and equality will triumph again.  We can only hope.

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