We should give Russia a break. The more I think about it, the less I think their problem is actually homophobia.
Sure, what’s happening in Russia right now is certainly an expression of homophobia—those roving bands of thugs hurting and humiliating (mostly) boys they think might be too interested in members of their own sex. But that’s the pus, not the infection. I realized in a flash of skin and beard this past week the problem there might be something quite different. I suggest that what we’re seeing is not so much homophobia but, rather, czarphilia, a Highlander-esque imperative that there can be only one, which Vladimir “The Torso” Putin has taken beyond the realm of politics and extended to masculinity itself, and that his serf-like subjects have taken patriotically to heart.
Czarphilia is easy to confuse with homophobia, since men who have sex with men exhibit all sorts of masculinities that conflict with Putin’s; ditto women who don’t show his shirtless magnificence the respect it requires. But Justin Kripps vindicated Vlad, that misunderstood meshuggana, and set us right last week when he revealed that, after tweeting a photo of him and his fellow Canadian bobsledders, his website somehow got caught in the same censorship-net that’s been intercepting all the gay propaganda and lesbians-who-aren’t-t.A.T.u.
The picture, as you can see at the top of the page, is just four guys with beards in their underwear on a scale. They’re not fondling each other. It’s not even one of those gay-ally shots that have been popping up here and there as people snap and share their sympathetic selfies in various states of rainbow dress and same-sex embrace. No, this is just four guys showing a lot of skin and a lot of beard. (A lot of beard.) You could mold an entire new Putin-on-a-stallion with the masculinity these guys leave behind in their Saxxes every day.
And that is exactly the problem.
Just as it was when czars were more than kings, ruling over a system that stayed feudal right up until they got shot and dumped in a well—and like it was again when there was room for Lenin but not Trotsky, Stalin but not Kamenev—there’s only room for one alpha male in the new Russia (just ask Medvedev), and for one kind of male in general: Putin’s kind. Impenetrable, plain, a physique carved out of sheer willpower and utility without regard to beauty or amusement—a sort of hairless, joyless bear. He and the filters he inspires, both legislative and technological, cannot tell the difference between a masculinity that revels in its own sexuality, whatever its object, and gay propaganda.
The Olympic Games are, among other things, the planet’s biggest festival of the human form. In pursuit of enhancing their performance, these women and men spend demi-godlike amounts of time and kilojoules on their pulchritudinous parts. As sports media slowly become less prudish, we’re starting to hear just how full of physical exultation those Olympics villages are, and probably always have been; that’s a lot of unbridled body in one place. And as long as, publicly, the women behave the way they should (alluringly) and the men the way they should (exhibiting their bodies, when they must, as symbols of power and achievement, but not sex), I’m sure Putin remains unbothered by the fact that they’re all engaging in barely imaginable forms of Olympian couplings and triplings and quadruplings. But all this physicality, tied to an increasingly international notion that men are as sexy as women, and in many of the same ways, can get messier than a group of Chechens with a sense of autonomy.
It can be difficult for men of a certain age and imperium to come to terms with the admittedly disgusting realization that men are starting to see themselves as sex objects—in a way they did not when honest, simple men like Vlad and Johnny Weissmuller ruled the roost—acting like their bodies are wonderlands. Kripp and friends aren’t showing us how strong they are. Look at those smiles. They’re showing us how beautiful they are.
Hence, the gag laws. You’ll note, Putin’s legislation about the same-sexy end of this frolicsome spectrum is not about making the sexing itself illegal, but rather, what he calls “propaganda”: the showing, the telling, the flaunting in front of him. He can broadcast his physicality all across the nation’s airwaves and hotel rooms, but no counter-programming, or we’ll beat you.
It may, incidentally, be why Putin didn’t plump for the summer Olympics—a bigger deal, on all fronts, and more feathers in his cap and rubles in his ducal cadre’s purses. But all that skin, those gymnasts, those bastards Tom Daley and Michael Phelps. It’s enough to make a joyless, hairless bear torso look conspicuously plain.