Wielding sister-city influence, or trying to

Portland-Russia relations
By NICK SCHROEDER  |  June 20, 2014


Oleg Klyuenkov, pictured here (at left) at the Speckled Ax last fall, was allegedly fired for visiting Portland.

Russia’s odious anti-LGBT laws have been widely condemned recently, but this month they come into direct conflict with Portland’s international relations.  

Last November, the city received visits from three delegates from the organization Rakurs (Perspective), an LGBT-rights organization located in Arkhangelsk, one of Portland’s four international sister cities. Their mission was to raise awareness of the increasing severity of the institutionalized homophobia being implemented by Vladimir Putin’s government, which last year banned “gay propaganda” and enabled the open discrimination and endangerment of LGBT citizens (see “Russian LGBT activists urge education,” by Deirdre Fulton, November 7, 2013).

The trio headed a discussion forum at SPACE Gallery, and made connections with Portland’s vibrant LGBT community. Once they returned home, however, they were subjected to numerous interrogations by city officials and prosecutors.

According to a statement released by the Russian LGBT Network, a nongovernmental organization:  

The story starts in February 2014, when (a Russian) homophobic website published a text where (philosophy professor Oleg Klyuenkov) was accused of “absence in his working place.” The cause of the absence was his journey to the United States (in November 2013) during the time when he had no classes...He was asked to leave his job “voluntarily”, but refused to “obey...”

The final shoe dropped Tuesday, when Klyuenkov posted to his Facebook wall that he had been “fired” from Northern Federal University (NArFU), where he worked for eight years. In a termination letter addressed to Klyuenkov by the university obtained by the Phoenix (and translated by former USM professor of Russian Studies Charlotte Rosenthal), the professor had “committed a gross violation of work discipline (and) truancy expressed as an absence from the workplace for an entire work day without a justifiable reason...”

Members and allies of Portland’s LGBT community have immediately responded, holding a press conference Monday at which they called for suspension of all Sister City visits for Russian officials “until the workplace harassment ceases,” and circulating an online petition intended to convince the Portland City Council of the cause.  

“Portland takes pride in its status as an LGBT-friendly city and should end its official tolerance of the human rights abuses being committed by its Sister City Arkhangelsk,” said Meaghan LaSala, one of the organizers of the campaign.

Rob Lieber, another organizer, stresses that the objective isn’t to stop all exchange or isolate Arkhangelsk, but to move toward a “peer-to-peer, citizen-to-citizen” relationship that only suspends hosting of government officials. A visit from Arkhangelsk mayor Viktor Pavlenko is scheduled sometime this summer.

While a teaching position at a state university might seem easy for the authoritarian Russian government to oust, many more Russians besides Klyuenkov are experiencing simliar persecution in the private sector. According to an interview with Tatiana Vinnichenko, of the Russian LGBT Network, published on The Daily Beast last week, Putin’s administration is pressuring banks, landlords, and employers nationwide to “dump your LGBT customers, or we’ll shut you down.”

“I don’t think people here realize how horrible it is, the situation there,” said Rosenthal, a volunteer member of the city’s Archangel Committee. “They’re talked about like they’re subhuman. And there’s no counter information anywhere in the media.” 

*This story has been edited to note that Tatiana Vinnichenko was not part of the Russian delegation to Portland last fall.

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