Gay Rights and Russia and Using the Wrong Metaphor: It’s Called a Pogrom

Recently, Obama criticized Russia’s anti-gay policies–and was right in doing so. But Obama, and others too, have drawn comparisons to the beginning of the eliminationist policies of Nazi Germany. Personally, I think that’s the wrong comparison.

Comparisons to Hitler will certainly be off-putting to Russians, and not because we’re calling them HITLER11!!11: the Soviet Union lost far more lives that the West did in fighting the Nazis. It’s probably not the best way to win Russian hearts and minds. But this comparison is also wrong historically, even though the appropriate historical reference would be obvious to any late nineteenth or early twentieth century Jew.

Note that I wrote late nineteenth or early twentieth century, decades before the Holocaust. That’s because the events we should be referring to are the pogroms that swept across Russia in 1903 and then again in 1905 and 1906, the most infamous being the Kishinev pogrom (though the Odessa pogrom was much more murderous with up to 2,500 Jews slaughtered). These weren’t organized from on-high–the Tzar wasn’t ordering these pogroms. Instead, it was a noxious mix of nationalists, middle-level and local authorities, in conjunction with anti-Semitic media and nationalist groups. That said, the anti-Semitic May Laws emboldened those who committed these atrocities, and legitimized their hatred. It started with anti-Semitic laws, and only later became violent.

The point is not to disagree with the condemnation of Russia’s anti-gay policies (which is laudible), but to place them in their historical context: this isn’t like what Hitler did in Germany, this is exactly how the the pogroms against Russian Jews began a little over a century ago. And pointing that out, instead of going Full Metal Godwin, might also be more effective.

Update: After writing this post, I stumbled across the following news item:

A group of men attacked the Marat Guelman art gallery and destroyed an exhibition of paintings by an ethnic Georgian artist and injured its owner.
Marat Guelman stated, “They stormed into the gallery, made the girls stand against the wall, began smashing everything down, then burst into my office and started beating me up and then they left. My face was smashed into meat. They chose the modern art and me as their enemy and they settled scores with me.”

A criminal investigation was opened by prosecutors. Several nationalist web sites list Guelman as an “enemy of Russia” for his Jewish last name.

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