The ‘kiss of the titans’ in Kazakhstan

Kurmangazy Pushkin Kiss.png

In Kazakhstan, a local court has ordered compensation to be paid to the ‘victims’ of a poster showing Russian national poet Alexander Pushkin kissing the Kazakh national composer Kurmangazy. на русском языке


Arman Beisinbinov
21 November 2014

In Almaty, Kazakhstan, a local court has ordered a record amount of moral compensation to be paid to the ‘victims’ of a poster showing Russian national poet Alexander Pushkin kissing the Kazakh national composer Kurmangazy. This ‘kiss of the titans’ has spurred much homophobic sentiment in the country.

If the court case hadn’t been initiated, the advertisers would have had to invent it. But Kazakhstan would do well to forget about this case, as the stereotypes found in the film Borat may otherwise begin to materialise in real life.

An Almaty district court issued a landmark decision in September regarding the Kazakh international advertising network Havas Worldwide (formerly Euro RSCG). After seeing the banner of Pushkin and Kurmangazy, 34 students and teachers from Kurmangazy Kazakh National Conservatoire in Almaty filed a lawsuit against Havas. The outraged teachers and students demanded compensation to the tune of one million tenge each (roughly $5,500).

Outraged politicans and patriots

The stereotypes found in the film Borat may otherwise begin to materialise in real life.

The poster of the iconic figures embracing made its first appearance on Facebook in August. The banner was intended to promote the Almaty gay club Studio 69, which is located at the intersection of Kurmangazy Street and Pushkin Street. Inspired by Russian artist Dmitry Vrubel’s famous mural on the Berlin Wall (‘The Kiss between Honecker and Brezhnev,’ otherwise known as the ‘Fraternal Kiss’), the poster provoked a flurry of ‘warm words,’ directed largely at the LGBT community of Kazakhstan. Havas had designed the poster for the Central Asian annual Red Jolbors advertising festival in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; and it soon found that it was the focus of public ire. Meanwhile, the festival organisers praised Havas’ design and the jury awarded them a bronze medal in the ‘outdoor advertising’ category.

Fraternal Kiss _0.jpg

The Fraternal Kiss between Leonid Brezhnev and Enrich Honecker. Image CC German Federal Archive

While the public expressed its dismay on social networks, the more practical among them — a group of ‘patriots’ — reported the ‘offence’ to the police. Before this, Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan had apologised for the fuss on their Facebook page:

‘The image was not used for outdoor advertising and was not intended to be posted anywhere. It only serves to publicise the intersection where this club is located. We offer our sincere apologies to those who have been offended or shocked by this design. We recognise the invaluable contribution to Kazakh culture made by the great Russian poet and great Kazakh composer and we officially announce that this print will not be posted, printed or published in the mainstream media.’

And with this post, the agency obviously thought the matter was settled.

Meanwhile, law enforcement officers failed to find grounds for criminal charges (especially since the management of Studio 69 was unaware of what had happened), and sent their findings to the city administration. The club, which unwittingly found itself at the centre of attention, was closed down for a week while the case was being investigated. But this did not stop blogger and PR expert Nurken Khalykbergen from holding a picket along with his supporters outside the club. Khalykbergen considers himself the great-nephew of Kurmangazy,

‘My first wish was to punch them in the face. It’s an insult. I’m going to demand compensation for moral damages,’ Mr Khalykbergen stated with regard to his immediate future plans. With this plan in mind, the outraged blogger filed for moral damages in a district court. However, Mr Khalykbergen failed to prove his relationship to Kurmangazy and the court rejected his claim.

City Hall, on the other hand, was rather upset, and sent an administrative violation report to the court. With that, the advertising affair, which would have been otherwise quickly forgotten, was taken to a whole new level. The court was concerned by the city administration’s inability to explain exactly how Havas had ‘distributed goods banned from public advertisement.’ The judge also failed to find evidence of an offence, but was unable to go against the implicit wishes of the city authorities; and thus, on 24 September, the court decided to penalise the advertising agency and its director with a $2,000 fine for violating advertising law .

‘It is a great pity that ugly activities take place in our flourishing country. Frankly, these are inhuman actions’

Perhaps it was comments made by the Kazakh Minister of Culture, which prompted the court’s evaluation:

‘It is a great pity that ugly activities take place in our flourishing country. Frankly, these are inhuman actions. Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin and Kurmangazy are titans of world culture. Of course, using iconic personalities on some kind of street poster is unacceptable. To a certain extent, we are talking about a crime here.’ The Minister subsequently warned that the ‘cultured ministry’ would take the necessary steps to resolve the issue.

Coloured trousers

Aside from the chance to make a quick financial profit, the ‘patriotic’ community saw the chance to use the situation for their own ends.

On 11 September, the youth movement Bolashak ('Future'), held a round table in Almaty together with Kommunist Kazakhstana (the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan, an alternative opposition communist party). Making extremely vague statements against ‘sodomites’ (and not for the first time), the young activists requested that parliament quickly pass a law against LGBT propaganda.

The head of Bolashak, Dauren Babamuratov, informed the public that 100,000 Kazakhs had signed a petition in favour of banning LGBT propaganda. Later, however, in an interview with Kommunist Kazakhstana, Babamuratov reduced the number of signatories by a factor of ten.

The Bolashak movement appears to operate under the wing of City Hall and the intelligence services. Babamuratov denies these allegations, and says that Bolashak works in close co-operation with the support of the Soros Foundation.

But feeling the support of ‘100,000 angry citizens’ as he sat at the round table, M. Babamuratov shared his pain with the audience.

'In 2012, Almaty was named the gay capital of Central Asia by the international gay community’ he said. He also told sympathisers how to identify ‘suspicious characters’ among ordinary people: they wear coloured trousers.

Oktem Altayev, a fellow composer of Kurmangazy, also spoke out. According to Altayev, more and more gay people are appearing on the Kazakh variety scene, and as a result, they must be banned from performing on stage.

But the audience did not agree with such limited restrictions, and proposed to ban gays and lesbians from working in public organisations, schools, universities, and serving in the army.

The audience proposed to ban gays and lesbians from working in public organisations, schools, and serving in the army

Nagashbai Esmurza, a prominent self-publicist, brought the event to its logical conclusion. Esmurza shot to fame after writing an article entitled ‘Hitler was not a fascist’, which appeared in a special issue of a Kazakh magazine devoted entirely to the ‘legendary historical figure.’

Esmurza proposed to transfer ‘queers’ from the ‘category of patients to the category of criminals;' and then to act in the tradition of the Führer, and punish them, even to the point of capital punishment.

The few participants who spoke out against such measures were quickly expelled from the hall by Babamuratov himself; it seems the ‘great-nephew’ of Kurmangazy was not the only one who wished to ‘physically convince’ his sexual opponents. Babamuratov explained this noble, human act simply by saying, ‘the fact that gays have come to this round table makes the blood of the people here boil. They want to take matters into their own hands.’

A dangerous precedent

In October a new private law suit was filed against the advertising company. Thirty four students and teachers of the Kurmangazy Conservatoire, as well as members of the Kurmangazy orchestra, outraged by the poster, demanded precisely one million tenge each. While the conservatoire sent journalists to the administrative court for comment, the judicial hearings somehow took place in the absence of the defendants. For some reason, the Almalinsky district court did not trouble itself to investigate exactly how the compensation figure of one million tenge was reached; and on 27 October, made its ruling: to satisfy the claimants’ material demands in full, force the advertisers to issue a public apology, and seize the advertising company’s property.

Havas Worldwide says that it does not have that amount of money. The ‘victims’ themselves said very little, explaining that the whole idea had not been theirs, but they had received their orders from the authorities and the mayor's office, which was coordinating the attacks on the gay population and the advertisers.

Or its part, the organising committee of Red Jolbors Fest announced: 'The committee believes that the question of ethics is ambiguous. But at the advertising festival, professional competence comes first, and attitudes towards the LGBT community were not taken into account. We consider that the court finding in favour of the students and teachers of the conservatoire was a political decision and unreasonable. To our mind, the complainants failed to make a convincing case and did not provide proof of either physical or psychological damage. A dangerous precedent has been created, which can later be used against people from the creative industries, where someone considers a creative product offensive or objectionable.'

Journalist Zhanar Erkebaeva expresses this same opinion, having repeatedly advocated support for the advertising company:

'If the subject under discussion is neither kissing, which can be friendly or brotherly, and doesn't have to be just sexual, or the provocative nature of art, then one thing is clear to me. We can all take offence tomorrow for whatever reason and file lawsuits on each other. For example, someone might object to the noise on Furmanov Street and decide to seek out descendants of Furmanov who will want to ban traffic there. Here we have 34 people who are going to receive a million each. I think this undermines the authority of educational establishments. We are on our way back to our recent past – the Soviet mentality, with its censorship and people making judgements about art who know nothing about it. An artist coming to power is not the only thing, which is scary. Flag-waving patriots making decisions about art – and the Kurmangazy-Pushkin poster is art in my opinion – is just as frightening.'

‘We are on our way back to our recent past – the Soviet mentality, with its censorship and people making judgements about art.

However, not all flag-waving patriots have given the 'Bolashaks' their unequivocal support. One of the leaders of the 'Antigeptil' movement from Astana, Ulan Shamshet, who makes no secret of his patriotic views, turned down Babamuratov’s suggestion that they should join their anti-LGBT coalition, and told him in no uncertain terms where to go. As Ulan Shamshet said himself on his Facebook page, his face-to-face meeting with the leader of 'Bolashak' on neutral territory ended in a bit of a scuffle.

The size of the payments caused an additional flurry of public indignation on social networks. As users correctly pointed out, relatives of people killed by the reckless driving of drunken officials or victims of torture would receive less compensation, and then only in exceptional cases. Indeed, the ‘kiss of the titans’ was for some time the most discussed subject in the Kazakh media, overtaking the topic of joining the Eurasian Union. The trial is being compared to the Pussy Riot case. And the 'bad' poster re-posts can be counted in the tens of thousands – the unwitting 'Bolashak' propagandists and the city administration have thus rendered the LGBT community of Kazakhstan an invaluable service.

The ‘kiss of the titans’ was for some time the most discussed subject in the Kazakh media

Last week, it emerged that one of Pushkin’s descendants, who lives in Belgium and heads the A. S. Pushkin Foundation, wants to sue those who sullied his great-grandfather’s honour. Although it seems hardly likely that Alexander Sergeevich, a great connoisseur of jokes and frivolity himself, would have been in favour of his name being taken in vain, to make trouble for people who are stirring up public opinion.

But it was the International Olympic Committee, which dealt the city authorities and their associates in the fight for moral purity the most unexpected blow. Only Beijing and Almaty are in the running to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Now the IOC has suddenly announced that future Olympic host countries must adhere to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and must not interfere in gay pride parade events.

What then can Almaty do? What would Borat do? Perhaps ask the 'Bolshaks' to wear coloured trousers.

Standfirst Image via Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan, posted to Facebook. 

This article orignally appeared in Russian on Fergana News

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