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Letter to St Pete...

 

Julia Volkova

Executive Secretary

St. Petersburg Association for International Cooperation

 

22 August 2013

 

 

Dear Julia Volkova,

 

Many thanks to you and to the Director of the Youth Palace for your kind invitation to visit in April 2014.  As you know, we have been working together to try to re-establish links between our two organisations for a couple of years now, with the intention of enabling young people from both countries to learn about each other’s cultures and find inspiration from shared visits to each others’ venues.

 

Z-arts opened as an arts centre for young people, fashioned after the Palace of Youth Creativity in St Petersburg following a research trip in 1997 and I’ve been very keen to rekindle the relationship since I took office in 2009.

 

However, with the current situation in Russia around treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, I have had to seriously rethink your generous offer.

 

At first I thought of asking to meet LGBT groups in St Petersburg, to show solidarity and support; perhaps help them connect with groups in the UK who could offer moral support, but the more I learned the more I realized that even this could result in me, a heterosexual woman, being detained for 15 days for “promoting” a homosexual lifestyle, fined up to 100,000 rubles and deported.  These circumstances make any potential visit of mine both dangerous and hypocritical.

 

As culturally distant as I am, as I sit here in Manchester as Gay Pride weekend approaches, these circumstances make me feel like I am experiencing just a glimmer of the persecution and homophobic violence that Medvedev and Putin's loosely veiled fascistic introduction of anti-gay legislation has inflicted upon innocent people across Russia.

 

This weekend, over 150,000 people are expected to visit what has become known as one of the tourism highlights of the UK calendar.  All these people are celebrating their sexuality and the freedom to be able to do so.  Manchester Pride are showing their support for the LGBT community of St Petersburg by dedicating this year’s Big Weekend to them.  Chief Executive of Manchester Pride John Stewart said: “Manchester and St Petersburg have enjoyed a cultural and economic friendship for over fifty years, and this relationship is the ideal channel for Manchester Pride to show its alliance with the city’s LGBT community.”  Yet while this is happening, I’m sickened by the contrasting images  seen from Moscow Pride, with neo-nazi violence, torture and murder.

 

It’s ironic that, given true freedom, we would be learning from some of the greatest artists the world has ever seen, Tchaikovsky, Nijinsky and Nureyev to name but three mesmerizing gay iconic Russian artists.  The latter of these even visited Z-arts and  rehearsed in our dance studio – a fact which still inspires our young dancers today.  How can they be expected to join forces with a Russia who

would demonise their hero now?

 

I would love to come to St Petersburg, and share culture, art and inspiration

between our organisations, and I am very grateful for the invitation.  I would love to be able to facilitate some inspired learning and discovery trips for our children and young people, but how can I do this, when it would counter everything we believe in and promote at Z-arts about respect, equality and positive conduct towards others. I would like our children to learn from each other’s cultures, but how can I allow this to happen when I would be exposing our young people to abusive behaviour, fascism and putting young people from Manchester into a position of danger, just for expressing their views on equality and fairness.

 

Until these barbaric, terrifying regulations and attitudes change, it is with sad heart that I have to decline your kind offer of hospitality.  Hospitality should never be selective, and whilst I am sure that is not your intention, sadly we are crippled by the views and legislation of your government.

 

With more voices and campaigns, I believe the LGBT communities in Russia can be supported and allowed to thrive again.  We beat Clause 28 in the UK a few years ago, and with global support easier to identify through social media and journalism, I have the optimism that positive change will happen.

 

I regret that I will be unable to take up your invitation until that day comes, but in the meantime, I am happy to extend the hand of friendship and a warm welcome should you wish to come to Manchester in 2014, ironically the UK-Russia Year of Culture.

 

I hope that you understand that my response is due to the acts of your government, and not of the Youth Palace or the St Petersburg Association for International Cooperation, and I hope that one day soon we will find ourselves in a different political situation and able to pick up the conversation again.

 

Meanwhile, I hope you can share my reasons for declining your invitation with your politicians and decision makers.  This is the best way I can think of to make my views heard.

 

I wish you a positive united future.

 

Yours in sadness,

 

Liz O’Neill

CEO

Z-arts

www.z-arts.org

Manchester’s venue for children and families