In November, Milenko Kuljic left Bileca, his rundown town in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for Sochi. He was lured by a recruiter who promised he'd make about 2,000 euros ($2,700) a month building infrastructure for Sochi's Winter Olympics.
Kuljic says he began working for a major construction company overseeing work at some of the Games' most iconic venues, where he says he never got anywhere near the amount of money he was promised. Instead over two months of working, he says he was only given the equivalent of about $1,000 for basic living expenses. living in a dormitory with pay-to-use showers, sharing four toilets with some 200 other workers. All the while, he says his employers promised to eventually pay him in full.
At the end of the two months, he was suddenly arrested, detained for a week, and then flown home with 122 other workers from the Balkans on a flight chartered by the Serbian government.
Hundreds of other guest workers from all around the world feared a similar fate, and fled Sochi without pay to avoid arrest, and the arguably worse punishment it would bring: a five-year ban on returning to Russia as a guest worker.
It was Kuljic's second time seeking work in Russia. The first time, he says no one cared about workers, like him, who lacked official work permits: "I suspect that they told the authorities about us so that they wouldn't have to pay the money they promised."
Kuljic's experience is far from unique. Of the approximately 96,000 workers who helped build Sochi's Olympic buildings, parks, and infrastructure, about 16,000 were migrant workers, according to Human Rights Watch. Most hailed from former Soviet countries, primarily Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, as well as from communities—like Kuljic's in Bosnia—where families rely on money sent by workers abroad.
For years, such workers put up with rampant xenophobia and exploitative conditions—overcrowded housing, paltry and unsavory food—in pursuit of a decent wage in Russia. But this fall, with just six months left until the games, thousands of migrants were rounded up and deported. In October alone, according to Russia's Federal Migration Service (FMS), more than 3,000 workers were expelled from the Krasnodar region, which includes Sochi.
Migrants to Russia face routine discrimination, as nationalists blame them for taking work from employable Russians. Polls have shown that two-thirds of Russians believe immigrants are prone to crime, and, whether or not they came legally or illegally, want to reduce their numbers in the country.
As non-Russian workers flooded Sochi, such anti-immigrant sentiment escalated—and was encouraged at the highest levels of government.
"It would be very easy for people of other nations to take over this land," Alexander Tkachev, the governor of the Krasnodar region, declared in August of 2012. "We have no other choice: we will squeeze them out, restore order, ask for documents…so that those who are trying to come here on illegal business understand that maybe it's better they don't come."
On September 10, 2014, the eighth World Congress of Families will open in Moscow. An international contingent of conservative activists will gather at the Kremlin to swap tactics and strategies while celebrating Russia's recent successes in pushing anti-gay and anti-abortion laws. The people pictured below are all helping to put on this event as members of the WCF 2014 planning committee. (There are others on the committee who are not featured.)
This past October, the group met at Moscow's Crowne Plaza hotel to hash out the details of the upcoming three-day affair, which organizers hope will draw upwards of 5000 attendees. But the bulk of these committee members were already deeply connected before they kicked off their planning this fall through ties forged while advancing anti-gay sentiment and legislation in Russia. You can read more about the links pictured below the image.
Jack Hanick: The former Fox News producer spoke at the third Sanctity of Motherhood conference this past November. He also spoke at a WCF regional event hosted by Malofeev's Safe Internet League and at a traditional values roundtable hosted this past June by Malofeev's St. Basil charity. Brian Brown and the Duma's Elena Mizulina were also in attendance, and gay marriage was a primary discussion topic.
Brian Brown: The president of the National Organization for Marriage, Brown also spoke at the June roundtable hosted by Malofeev's St. Basil charity. Earlier that day, he spoke with Elena Mizulina's Duma committee on family policy about adoption by gay couples.
Larry Jacobs: As WCF managing director, Jacobs works with Allan Carlson at the Howard Center, which runs the WCF. He is also a partner at Komov's Integrity Consulting, and spoke at annual conferences hosted by Yakunina's Sanctity of Motherhood group in 2010 and 2013.
Allan Carlson: A prolific historian and family scholar, Carlson is the president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society. He helped hatch the idea for the WCF in 1995 with Professor Anatoly Antonov. He is Jacobs' colleague.
Vladimir Yakunin: Married to Natalia Yakunina, he helps fund her Sanctity of Motherhood program through several of his charities, including the Center for National Glory and the Foundation of St. Andrew the First-Called.
Natalia Yakunina: Married to Vladimir Yakunin and heads the Sanctity of Motherhood program.
Konstantin Malofeev: This billionaire businessman and telecommunications mogul helps fund the St. Basil the Great Charitable Foundation, the largest Orthodox Charity in Russia, through Marshall Capital, the investment firm he founded. He's also a trustee at the Safe Internet League. Through St. Basil, Malofeev also hosted a traditional values roundtable in June (attended by Jack Hanick, Brian Brown, and the Duma's Elena Mizulina) where gay marriage was a primary discussion topic.
Elena Mizulina: A member of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, she also heads its committee on family policy. Mizulina sponsored both anti-gay laws—the propaganda and adoption bans—that passed in the summer of 2013. According to WCF's Larry Jacobs, he and Mizulina have met at least three times in Russia. Two days after the propaganda law passed the Duma, Brian Brown met with Mizulina and her committee to discuss legislation about adoption by gay couples.
Archpriest Dmitri Smirnov: A top Orthodox official, Archpriest Dmitri was appointed to head the Patriarch's commission on the family this past March. He describes the group as a family policy-development shop for the administration that often advises Mizulina's Duma committee. Alexey Komov is the executive secretary of this commission.
Alexey Komov: The WCF's official Russia representative, Komov heads FamilyPolicy.ru, a WCF Russian partner. He works with several other Orthodox groups, including Smirnov's Patriarch's commission (where he is executive secretary), Malofeev's Safe Internet League (where he is on the board), and Malofeev's St. Basil foundation (where he runs a charity). Komov is also the founding partner of Integrity Consulting, a management consulting firm.
Anatoly Antonov: A renowned demographer, Antonov is a professor in the sociology department at Moscow State University. He helped hatch the idea for the WCF in Moscow with Allan Carlson in 1995. Komov is working toward a PhD in the department, and Antonov is his dissertation adviser.
Photos: Natalia Yakunina: World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations; Alexey Komov: FamilyPolicy.ru; Allan Carson: C-SPAN; Anatoly Antonov: Hannah Levintova; Brian Brown: National Organization for Marriage; Elena Mizulina: Dmitry Rozhkov/Wikipedia; Jack Hanick: Rossiya-24; Kostantin Malofeev: Barkovets/Wikipedia.ru; Vladimir Yakunin: Presidential Press and Information Office/Kremlin; Larry Jacobs: World Congress of Families; Dmitri Smirnov: Hannah Levintova
In November 2010, Russia's Sanctity of Motherhood organization kicked off its first-ever national conference. The theme, according to its organizers, was urgent: solving "the crisis of traditional family values" in a modernizing Russia. The day opened with a sextet leading 1,000 swaying attendees in a prayer. Some made the sign of the cross, others bowed or raised their arms to the sky before settling into the plush red and gold seats of the conference hall at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral.
On the second morning of the conference, the only American in attendance, a tall, collected man, stepped up for his speech. Larry Jacobs, vice president of the Rockford, Illinois-based World Congress of Families (WCF), an umbrella organization for the US religious right's heavy hitters, told the audience that American evangelicals had a 40-year track record of "defending life and family" and they hoped to be "true allies" in Russia's traditional values crusade.
The gathering marked the beginning of the family values fervor that has swept Russia in recent years. Warning that low birth rates are a threat to the long-term survival of the Russian people, politicians have been pushing to restrict abortion and encourage bigger families. Among the movement's successes is a law that passed last summer and garnered global outrage in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors," a vague term that has been seen as effectively criminalizing any public expression of same-sex relationships.
On June 28, 2013, five couples in wedding finery piled into a white limo and pulled up to a municipal office in St. Petersburg, Russia. The same-sex pairs had come to apply for marriage licenses they knew they were unlikely to get, but they wanted to make a statement.A video of the day shows confounded clerks unsuccessfully trying to keep the beaming lovers out as they head to a waiting room where they kiss in protest. "They didn't even want to give us the blank applications," says Yana Petrova, who tried to marry her partner, Elena Davydova. "But there wasn't much they could do—we'd already downloaded them."
Just two days earlier, the nation's upperhouse ofparliament had unanimously passed a bill banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors" and imposing fines between $120 and $30,000 for offenders. The bill was understood to prohibit all open expression of gay identity, from parades and rainbow flags to same-sex couples holding hands in public. President Vladimir Putin signed the bill into law on June 30.
The new law, which has drawn worldwide criticism and inspired calls to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, further codified Russia's widespread homophobia: 12 cities, including St. Petersburg, had already passed similar measures, and surveys suggest more than 70 percent of Russians believe LGBT people should remain closeted. Last year, Moscow enacted a century-long ban on gay-pride events.
Since the gay-propaganda law passed, activists have noted a sharp uptick in anti-gay violence. Yet some also say the law has bolstered their cause. "Before, it wasn't accepted to talk about this," Petrova says. "Now, there are no neutral people left. Everyone wants to express their opinion. That's good. Debate is the only thing that can lead to any battle or change."
Danish photographer Mads Nissen was in Russia teaching a photography workshop when Article 6.21 passed. A student tipped him off to the wedding registry attempt. The activists he met were suspicious at first, asking him to share his website and other information to test his intentions. (Anti-gay activists have attempted to infiltrate Russia's LGBT community.) But soon, they were bringing him to underground clubs and spaces where the community gathers, and sharing their stories of being assaulted and arrested. At one gay-pride rally, Nissen witnessed a brutal attack on Kirill Fedorov, a young gay man and activist he'd been following for several days. "An anti-gay activist just came up to him and punched him in the face," Nissen recalls. "In that moment, this wasn't a theoretical thing anymore. It was real. It was happening. It was worse than I imagined."
"Sometimes you do a story—you think it's a big topic, and then when you get into it, it doesn't seem so bad," Nissen says. "This was absolutely the opposite. The more I got into it, the worse it was."
Yaroslav Yevtushenko with his boyfriend, Dmitry Chunosov. On June 30, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses into law. The law had passed Russia's lower and upper chambers of parliament with unanimous approval.
Ultra-nationalists, wearing Cossack-style hats and holding whips, shout abuse at participants in a gay-pride rally in June 2013 in St. Petersburg. Anti-gay protesters later violently assaulted some of the people taking part in the rally. Attacks on the gay community have become the norm: Since the law's passage, Moscow's main gay club, Central Station, has seen at least five attacks—including a shooting, a poison gas attack, and a raid in which equipment was stolen and the roof was damaged.
LGBT activist Kirill Fedorov was violently assaulted by anti-gay protesters during the St. Petersburg gay pride rally in June. He was later arrested.
Yana Petrova, 28, appears in court after being arrested at the June gay-pride rally. A few years ago, Petrova probably would not have ended up in court—or have been at a pride event. "These laws are terrible, but thanks to them, so to speak, many people are actually coming out," she says. "Before this, many gay people in Russia believed that if this isn’t being discussed, no one's beating us, so great, all is fine, we can live. We can't marry, but we can live. So, okay. Leave it at that."
Natali Zamanskix, right, and her girlfriend, Ludmila Gorbatova, meet after work near their home on St. Petersburg's outskirts.
Ilmira Shayhraznova, left, and Elena Yakovleva, on their way to the St. Petersburg municipal office where they and four other gay couples attempted to file applications for marriage. When they arrived, the clerks gave the couples a copy of the Russian code to read, which de facto defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Pavel Lebedev, right, with his boyfriend, Kirill Kalugin. Lebedev says that he has been violently attacked six times in the previous year. In spite of the danger, he insists on his right to be open about his sexuality and to choose whom he loves.
If you've read Gary Shteyngart's novels, you may already have him pegged: the Russian-Jewish immigrant. The hilarious, self-deprecating, gadget-obsessed Manhattanite who holds his liquor well, his ladies not so much. His three previous bestsellers, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story, all channel elements of their author's bio, so perhaps Little Failure,his new memoir out on January 7, is where he's been headed all along.
Shteyngart's parents emigrated to New York when he was seven, one of the early shipments of "grain Jews" allowed to leave Soviet Russia during the Carter era in exchange for wheat from the Americans. He grew up in Little Neck, Queens, a wimpy misfit his dad called Soplyak ("Snotty") and the Hebrew school bullies dubbed "red gerbil."
It was a familiar immigrant-kid existence, with his parents pushing one version of the American Dream (good grades! lawyer!) while young Gary stumbled through his own (passable grades, writer). After graduating from Oberlin College, he joined the Hunter College MFA program under the tutelage of author Chang-rae Lee, who practically flung Shteyngart's first manuscript at a Penguin Putnam publicist. In Little Failure, Shteyngart recalls in his signature Chekhov-meets-Borat style how he wrote his way through a sickly Soviet childhood, middle-school bullying, and his own insecurities to become a success—if never quite successful enough for his parents.
Mother Jones: So why a memoir?
Gary Shteyngart: I've been using this material as the sauce for my pasta, so to speak, and I decided to give away the recipe.
MJ: Right. Your novels draw a good deal from your own experiences. So how was it different writing about your life overtly?
GS: In literary fiction, "going memoir" is considered a little bit of a cop out. But it's a little tougher for somebody who relies on outlandish scenarios, like me. You can't run away and hide behind humor. My technique has been you put out the difficult stuff and you come right back with a comic rejoinder. You punch with the left and the right, and the right is humor and the left is truth. But here you are relying on the truth: If something isn't funny then you have to stick with that.
MJ: Does releasing a memoir bring you more trepidation than releasing a novel?
GS: Well, yes. I imagine some people won't be happy with the way they're portrayed. You have to deal with that.
MJ: You depict your parents pretty intimately—the threat of divorce, your dad hitting you. How do you feel about them reading the book?
GS: The major test for me is how honest have I been? With my parents, I wanted to focus on all of it: the wonderful stuff, the humor, their value on education, the fact that they kept up Russian with me—which was instrumental in my ability to write books like Absurdistan that rely on my ability to go back to Russia and interact with people. And I also wanted to focus on how they became the people that they are—how much of this is a response to growing up under Stalin, as both of them did, and having so many of their relatives killed in the war or sent to the labor camps.
MJ: I love the scene in the rotating Marriott restaurant where your parents chide you that you're not good enough because [New Yorker editor-in-chief] David Remnick beat you by eight spots on some list of New York's top writers.
"How do you fail these parents? I was really not a good student, and I felt that shame every day."
GS: Nothing's ever good enough! Not just for them, but for many immigrants. Some of my best friends are Korean or Indian immigrants and it really is the same kind of situation: "You're the third best doctor in the New York Metropolitan area? Why aren't you the best?" They'll remember the names of the two doctors that beat you and they'll carry that around forever. It's a fascinating condition, because it means one can't even remotely conceive of happiness. How do you fail these parents? I was really not a good student, and I felt that shame every day. That's one of the reasons I started smoking pot and drinking daily.
MJ: But would you credit some of your success to your parents' admonitions?
GS: Yeah, I think I would. First of all, they provided me with the material for all these books by not Americanizing all that much. And the artistry—or what I hope is artistry—is a response to the traumas of childhood. If those traumas could've been avoided, perhaps I wouldn't have been a writer. If my mother hadn't tried to sell me chicken Kiev cutlets for $1.40 after I graduated from college, maybe I would've been the lawyer she wanted me to be.