Watching Russia’s strangest documentary
On May 27, 2015, Russian celebrity journalist and film director Arkady Mamontov stood in a Moscow studio of the state-owned TV channel Rossiya 1 (Russia One) to discuss his latest documentary with a group of experts and an audience of about 70 people. Along with tens of millions of Russians who regularly tune into one of the channel’s most popular programs, they had just watched the premiere of Mamontov’s 50-minute film “Sodom,” which equates homosexuality with pedophilia and claims that both were planned by the Western political establishment.
It was difficult to imagine that Mamontov could top the mind-boggling claims made in his film, and yet when he was asked to speak, he did. “Ninety percent of people in Washington are sodomites,” he announced, his last words swallowed by applause.
A lively discussion followed. Using the word “sodomite,” instead of “gay” or “homosexual,” most of the 11 experts echoed the views of Mamontov’s state-funded film. When the hosts said, “Let’s turn towards science,” psychologist Maria Kisileva weighed in. “These people have a narcissistic disorder,” she said. According to Kisileva, the key problem facing gays wasn’t alienation, but rather, “loneliness, depression, the lack of meaning in life.”
With her hair pulled back in a slick ponytail, Kisileva rattled through studies and statistics and announced that if acceptance of homosexuality carried on, then soon “incest will be normal.” Journalist and broadcaster Andrey Karaulov agreed. “Gays hate kids,” he said, “and [they] are bringing about an apocalypse.”
When Boris Nadezhdin, a former Russian Duma deputy, suggested that homosexuality was biological, an audience member cried out, “that’s a lie!” reigning in the rogue guest.
I watched “Sodom,” along with dozens of hours of Russian television, to try and understand the narrative on homosexuality being disseminated across the country. Major television networks, all of which are either state-owned or firmly under the influence of the state, spread a narrative that goes beyond homophobia into a surreal, parallel universe of logic. It is a world that has sprung up relatively recently.
Four years ago, the idea that homosexuality was linked to pedophilia was something that only cropped up in news coverage of the handful of politicians who espoused that view. Now, across the full spectrum of Russian media, that theory is presented as scientific fact.
TV hosts across the networks regularly discuss homosexuality as a problem that needs to be solved. Three quarters of Russians now consider homosexuality a psychological disorder, and theories for “treatment” are popular on-air conversation starters.
Mamontov, the creator of “Sodom,” is one of the most prominent figures in this world. His name means “mammoth” in Russian, though with his short, thick neck, he looks more like a bulldog. His weekly program “Special Correspondent” airs on the channel’s primetime evening slot — just when millions of Russians are sitting down to eat dinner.
Nightly television has been a part of the Russian dinner experience since the days of the Soviet Union. Family arguments are overpowered by the sound of a small kitchen television set. Along with their cabbage salad, Russians are now digesting the idea that homosexuality is a virus planted by the West in order to kill traditional family values.
During one scene in “Sodom,” two gay fathers comfort a screaming child seated in a toy car at San Francisco Pride, the annual LGBT parade and festival. As the camera moves in, a voiceover intones: “children from same-sex couples don’t look happy. The child’s soul feels that everything happening around is disgusting to nature.”
In another scene, a Russian journalist behind the camera asks a bus driver shuttling people to Pride, “what do you think God thinks when he sees all this?” The driver doesn’t even seem to understand the question through the reporter’s thick v’s and rolled r’s, but his response fits perfectly into the film’s narrative: “Who’s that? I don’t know who that is…” After the film was screened, the panel of experts pointed to this moment as proof that western society had abandoned morality when it embraced gay rights.
Central to Mamontov’s film is the idea that homosexuality is a Western invention. He prefaces “Sodom” by saying that the film was “heavy and dangerous work.” In one scene, looking straight into camera, he warns that the film disproves “all these fairytales about sodomites being these people who are persecuted, who are afraid.”
Though there is no explicit call to action, the film is clearly meant to galvanize. Towards the end, alternating scenes from gay pride parades in America are set to a menacing soundtrack that could be lifted from the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” A voiceover informs the viewer that, “the American government no longer hides the idea of spreading homosexuality around the planet.”
Panel guest Elena Yampolskaya, editor-in-chief of the small, conservative daily newspaper Culture, which publicly supported the anti gay-propaganda law, reinforces the view during the post-film discussion. “Homosexual propaganda is a product for export, produced by the U.S. for the ‘old world,’ for Russia and for our former imperial lands,” she told the audience.
No one in the studio challenged her views. Eventually, another panel guest called for the discussion to end entirely. At the end of the day, the man said, it’s just “more PR for the gays.”