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.
This past spring, strangely similar pieces of mail started arriving at the offices of city attorneys in 28 Maryland communities. The tersely worded letters, many dated March 26, warned each town that some of its firearms laws were illegal and needed to be repealed immediately. Takoma Park's letter claimed that ordinances against carrying unlocked guns and possessing or selling guns in public places "grossly" exceeded state law and should be taken off the books, "out of respect for the rule of law." All of the letters warned that failure to comply would put the towns "at risk for a lawsuit."
"Once in a blue moon we get these kinds of letters from activist organizations," says Ryan Spiegel, vice president of the Montgomery County chapter of the Maryland Municipal League and a member of the Gaithersburg city council. What felt different this time, he says, was the coordination—and the timing: Just a month earlier, the Maryland Senate had passed some of the country's toughest gun control measures in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
The letters came from the Second Amendment Foundation, a prominent pro-gun legal-defense organization, as part of a quiet but mounting campaign to strike down local gun laws across the country. So far, SAF has sent out about 425 letters to cities, towns, and counties in Maryland, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington and has announced plans to target hundreds more local laws.
Though they may be obscure and not always enforced, local gun laws have become low-hanging fruit for anti-gun-control activists since Sandy Hook. The strategy rests on the legal concept of "preemption," which restricts local lawmakers' authority to regulate firearms beyond what's in state law. For more than 30 years, the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups have successfully lobbied for preemption laws nationwide: In 1979, 7 states had them, but today, 45 do. Some states, such as Alabama, Idaho, and Maine, make exceptions for local restrictions on when and where people can shoot; some, like California, let localities control where and how guns are sold. All of them, however, set some limits to municipalities' ability to regulate guns, and that's where the Second Amendment Foundation comes in.
A new investigation by the Center for Public Integrity reveals troubling conflicts of interest in state supreme courts nationwide. CPI combed through the financial disclosure forms of state supreme court justices in all 50 states and reviewed the states' disclosure laws for judges. Their findings on both fronts are discouraging.
CPI discovered several instances of justices writing opinions that favored companies they had financial ties to. An Arkansas justice ruled in favor of a company that had been paying his wife a salary of as much as $12,499 for two years. A high court judge in California ruled in favor of Wells Fargo despite owning up to $1 million of the bank's stock—even as a colleague who owned less stock recused himself. Other justices accepted perks from lawyers —from country club memberships to a $50,000 Italian vacation.
Uncovering such information is exceedingly difficult because most states' disclosure laws for judges are pretty weak. While federal judges are required to recuse themselves from cases if they or a family member own even a single share of stock in a company involved, state laws are murky and inconsistent. CPI devised a system for grading the state standards for preventing these kinds of conflicts of interest: 43 got a D or lower.
Check out some of CPI's finds below: Some recent examples of state supreme court justices weighing in on cases involving companies in which they or their spouses owned stock, and a list of the freebies thrown at top judges.
Justice Jacquelyn Stuart, Alabama
Owned stock in: Regions Financial Corp. Amount not disclosed.
Case: A securities-fraud lawsuit brought by a group of shareholders against the company.
Justice Courtney Goodson, Arkansas: In 2011, she accepted a $12,000 Caribbean cruise from attorney W.H. Taylor. In 2012, she accepted a $50,000 Italian vacation from Taylor.
Justice Robert Thomas, Illinois: For the last three years, he reported honorary memberships to two country clubs. He has received "Notre Dame tix" from his friend and personal attorney.
Justices Robert Rucker, Brent Dickson, Steven Davis, Mark Massa, Indiana: In 2012, all four got free tickets to the Indy 500 from the Indiana Motor Speedway.
Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, Louisiana: In 2012, she accepted a $9,466 junket to France from the Louisiana Association of Defense Counsel (LADC) to attend their annual legal education courses.
Justice Greg Guidry, Louisiana: Guidry also took a trip to France sponsored by the LADC. In 2011, the group flew him to Buenos Aires for its annual meeting.
Justice Ron Parraguirre, Nevada: Last year, he received a $250 gift from a registered lobbyist for Barrick Gold. Less than two months later, the Nevada Supreme Court decided to hear a case regarding one of the company's mines. (It's still pending.)