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Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
US Embassy Exposes Izvestiya Fake Letter of 'State Department' to Controversial Russian Gay Activist
4 years
Two Russian Scientists Sentenced to 9, 14 Years of Imprisonment on Espionage Charges

The Russian-language US Embassy Twitter account in Russia has uncovered an obvious forgery used by the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestiya in a disinformation claim to discredit a gay activst.

The letter purports to be on US State Department stationery to a well-known gay rights activist, Nikolai Alekseyev, from an official named Randy Berry.

But a cursory examination showed the letter was fake. 

Translation: Next time when you're using fake letters, send them to us, we'll help fix the mistakes.

In forging the letter, the Russians made the classic mistake often made by Russians speaking English - the grammatical articles are dropped. The Russian language does not have "the" and "an" in the same way English and other languages do, and has other ways of indicating specific items through stresses, word order or adjectives.

The US Embassy wrote in hand at the bottom of the letter in somewhat stilted Russian:

Dear Izvestiya,

Next time when you use fake letters, send [them] to us -- we will be happy to help you correct mistakesn.
Sincerely Yours,

The Embassy used the nickname for the State Department in the Russian media, "Gosdep," which stands for gosudarstvenny department.

Randy Berry is a real official; he is special envoy for the human rights of LGBT persons, but he did not write any such letter. 

The Twitter account @UsEmRu has been a lively source of comments on Russia, sometimes more pointed than from the official commentary from Washington.

"LGBT Activists Used to Discredit Russian Officials," blared the Izvestiya headline yesterday November 18, 2015 (translation by The Interpreter):

"On orders from the US State Department, most effective members of government and administration attempt to accuse in non-traditional sexual orientation," said the sub-head, using the awkward but preferred phrase for "gays" used by the Russian government. 

Political scientists polled by Izvestiya believe that the US State Department may be behind accusations regarding the homosexuality of prominent Russian politicians; in the opinion of experts, sex-minority activists earn grants received from the American government, among others. In fact, they chose the most effective Russian officials.

In May 2015, Russian LGBT rights activist Nikolai Alekseyev said on the radio station Ekho Moskvy that Vyacheslav Volodin, the Kremlin aide; German Gref, the head of Sberbank; and Mikhail Vasilenko, head of Sheremetyevo Airport; were supposedly homosexuals. Meanwhile on the site GayRussia, controlled by Alekseyev, an article appeared by Russian Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin quoting his Twitter statement that the West will collapse under the "grip of ISIL and gays."

In a climate of widespread anti-gay sentiment, accusation of public figures as "gay" is a common technique to discredit them in Russia, regardless of their actual sexual preferences.

Izvestiya claimed the "State Department letter" was uncovered by hackers and cited Sergei Chernyakovsky, a political analyst, who said the selection of the targets was ostensibly because they were associated with successful anti-opposition campaigns. Volodin is associated most with the crushing of the "white ribbon" demonstrations by opposition leader Aleksei Volodin, slain leader Boris Nemtsov and others in 2011-2012.

Sergei Markov, the former representative of Carnegie Endowment in Moscow and now a member of parliament, often engaged in sharp anti-American polemics said Alekseyev's statement was meant to ruin Volodin's reputation, as he associated with domestics politics and Rogin's as he is responsible to defense and space and others who have "a significant role" in Russian politics.

Alekseyev's radio show appeared on May 25, 2013, at a time when he attempted to organize a gay parade in Moscow.
The participants were beaten and dispersed as the event didn't have an official permit. On the show, Alekseyev made his unsubstantiated accusations that certain officials were closet gays, which supposedly explained their oppression of their fellow gays.

As readers of Andrei Malgin's Live Journal blog post about the Izvestiya article, thanks to Izvestiya and the "Barbara Streisand effect," now millions of Russians would learn about these claims instead of the few hundred thousand mainly in Moscow who would have listened to Ekho Moskvy's radio show two years ago.

President Vladimir Putin himself, during an interview with the US journalist Charlie Rose in September, objected to claims of Western critics that Russia suppresses gay rights, saying he himself had given awards for good service to unspecified people in the LGBT community. He was reiterating statements reported by the AP before the Sochi Olympics.

Putin has also made a point of giving awards to notorious anti-gay figures such as Vitaly Milonov, the St. Petersburg lawmaker who launched the anti-gay propaganda law.

Alekseyev himself is controversial figure in his own terms and is widely-traveled and publicized; when he appeared on Ekho Moskvy, some listeners texted that he himself was a provocateur within the gay movement.

From his first attempt at a gay demonstration in 2005, other gays denounced him as "a provocation of officials," since they believed he cooperated with the presidential administration to make the gay movement radical and visible, and then attract a police crackdown and angry public opinion.

These types of accusations are common in social movements in Russia where groups are split about tactics given the reality of state oppression and where it is easy to believe someone is a secret police informer given Soviet history. An American blogger accused Alekseyev of collaborating with the Kremlin when he claimed that a new anti-gay law would not be enforced, when it fact it was to charge a solo picketer.

As Ekho Moskvy host Timur Olevsky commented during the talk show:
The co-organizer of the gay parade in Moscow, Nikolai Bayev, an acquaintance of Alekseyev, Nikolai Alekseyev believes that he is too rigid, and that this harms the cause of the gay community, however even so, he says that only coming out, only publicly emerging from the shadows, that is designating the right to be yourself, can help the LGBT movement in Russia.

Alekseyev has been arrested numerous times both for his attempt to stage the gay parades and campaign for same-sex marriages in Russia, where they are outlawed. He has also launched winning cases before the European Court of Human Rights on gay rights. 

But he also became controversial in the West in August 2013 when he made a series of antisemitic comments on Twitter and Facebook about Advocate editor Matthew Breen and the magazine OUT. As a result, the organization Human Rights First, which had been active on promoting non-discrimination and tolerance of racial minorities and LGBYT withdrew from a planned conference call with Alekseyev. Alekseyev's social media outbursts at the time then culminated in slamming Peter Tachell's "Love Russia, Hate Homophobia" campaign.  Finally, he issued a death threat to Michael Lucas, a Jewish American with Russian and Israeli roots. Alekseyev then claimed to quit LGBT activism after the scandals.

Kremlin propagandists know they can count on their audience to take their campaigns both literally and in reverse; some will see the "expose" as true and some will see it as obviously false, but with an agenda related to domestic politics. Either way, the LGBT community will lose in Russia.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick