Sochi and the spatialities of contentious politics

By Helen Pallett

2013_WSDC_Sochi_-_Zbigniew_Brodka_2

Image credit: Sacha Krotov

With the Winter Olympics drawing to a close at the weekend, global attention has moved away from Sochi, at least until March 7th when the Winter Paralympics begins. The Sochi Winter Olympics have been notable, not only for the achievements of the athletes involved, but for their politics. The site itself was heavily monitored and policed to curb the activities of ‘extremists’ out to disrupt and injure, and many activists were arrested or forcibly moved from the location. But Sochi itself also took on a broader political symbolism as an emblem of the struggle for LGBT rights. Some states such as the US deliberately sent prominent gay sports people to Sochi to head-up their delegations, whilst many news outlets, such as The Guardian, The New Statesman and Channel 4 in the UK, took the opportunity to highlight their support for the cause of equal rights, particularly through the use of the symbolic rainbow flag. President Putin meanwhile notoriously told gay people that they were very welcome in Sochi but that they should leave children alone.

The Sochi Winter Olympics then was a moment of contentious politics, created by the increasingly draconian laws being passed recently in Russia regarding LGBT rights, and the releasing of several prominent activists from prison, in the run up to when the world’s eyes would be on Sochi for the games. But there is also a complex spatiality to this contentious politics. In a study of the contentious politics of immigrant workers’ rights in the United States Helga Leitner, Eric Sheppard and Kristin Sziarto argued that it was important to understand the role of scale, place, networks, positionality and mobility in shaping and forming part of this politics.

Scale is important to understanding the contested politics of Sochi, as movements and debates occurred at multiple overlapping and interrelating scales. From the policing or transgression of the micro-spaces around the Olympic site, to the scale of Sochi as a city which became an emblem of the LGBT rights struggle, to the scale of Russia as a country and legal and political context of the Winter Olympics, to the global scale of the Olympics itself with the world’s attention on developments in Sochi. These different scales interacted with one another, influencing  other processes and producing new political effects, which in this case served to magnify the issue of LGBT rights beyond this one city.

The politics of place are also clearly at play in Sochi, with the city becoming so much of an emblem of broader struggles for LGBT rights, linked to its fleeting importance at a site for a major sporting event. Sochi’s reputation as a resort for Russia’s wealthy and extravagant elite only served to increase the controversy around the games. Like with many other social movements and instances of contentious politics the topology of networks was important to the visibility of the LGBT rights struggle around Sochi, connecting Russian and Sochi-based activists to other LGBT activists globally, and importantly, being passed through high profile media networks from Twitter to the international news outlets. The struggle for LGBT rights was also passed through significant sporting networks, reaching far beyond the pool of athletes involved in this Winter Olympics to the delegations sent by other countries to the games, or to other sportsmen and sportswomen who chose this particular moment to be open about their own sexuality or to affirm their support of LGBT rights.

The mobility of many members of these networks was also a significant factor in their success in making LGBT rights into such a significant issue around the games, whilst attempts to curb the mobility of activists’ and other individuals’ bodies around the Sochi site was an important way in which Russian authorities attempted to resist and undermine the struggle.

Finally, Leitner and colleagues assert that socio-spatial positionality is also an important component of such politics, bringing into focus difference and inequality. In this case, the difference in Russia’s stance on LGBT rights was an important vector of difference in comparison to significant moves towards the fulfillment of LGBT rights, such as gay marriage, in much of Western Europe and North America, which had important implications for how the political struggle played out and was resisted by the Russian Government. But equally the struggle for LGBT rights around the Sochi Winter Olympics was very successful at forging alliances between different groups of activists, different national LGBT rights movements, and between activists and sports people or sports fans. That prominent news outlets also felt the need to show their support to the cause shows the strength of such alliances.

Attention to the complex spatialities of social movements and contentious politics, such as the LGBT rights struggle, can illuminate the  interactions of different tactics, arenas, allegiances and oppositions in the movement, as well as highlighting the multiple locations or levers of the political struggle ‘on the ground’.

books_icon Helga Leitner, Eric Sheppard & Kristin Sziarto 2008 The spatialities of contentious politicsTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33(2): 157-172

60-world2 Pussy Riot members among group of activists arrested in Sochi The Guardian, February 18

60-world2 5 reasons why Sochi’s Olympics may be the most controversial games yet The Guardian, January 31

60-world2 Channel 4 goes rainbow to wish “good luck to those out in sochi” Channel 4, February 6

60-world2 Putin cautions gay visitors to Sochi BBC News, January 17

Leave a Reply or Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s