Portland's Gay Activists Seek End to Sister City Link to Archangel
For 25 years, Portland has called Archangel, Russia a sister city. But civil rights supporters in Portland say that relationship now needs to change. They say gay activists in Archangel are being bullied as a result of their civic activism both at home and during a recent visit to Maine. Now, members of Portland's gay community want Portland's City Council to suspend all visits with Archangel government officials in a show of solidarity with Russia's LGBT community.
Last fall, two members from the Archangel-based gay rights group Rakurs visited Portland to raise awareness about the struggles the gay community faces in Russia. Ever since, says Portland activist Rob Lieber, the situation in Archangel - known in Russia as Arkhangelsk - has only gotten worse for the delegates and the director of Rakurs.
"They've been summoned to the Arkhangelsk city prosecutor's office three times, all to explain the nature of their visit to Portland, Maine," Lieber says. "At the end of the interviews, the prosecutors tell them they are foreign agents. This intimidation was done in tandem with grossly slanderous, as well as informed placed articles, in the Arkhangelsk newspapers and blogs."
Lieber says the intimidation has escalated to the point that the delegates' careers are now at stake. One of them, the director of Rakurs, as well as another member of the group, are being pressured to give up their activism or lose their teaching and research jobs at Northern Arctic Federal University.
"This is a witch hunt," Lieber says. "This witch hunt must end now on the citizens of Arkhangelsk."
Lieber and other Portland activists say their information is based on daily contact with members of Rakurs. as well as online reports.
Charlotte Rosenthal, a former professor of Russian studies at the University of Southern Maine and founding member of the Portland Sister City Committee, says the Portland City Council should show it objects to civil rights violations. "We do have some leverage. Their trips to the United States that we sponsor are very desirable," she says.
The city of Portland, Rosenthal says, should suspend visits with Archangel government officials.
"I'm not sure that's the best way to achieve an end which I think we all share," says Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic has visited Archangel five times - most recently, in April, when he says he had open, honest discussions about civil rights issues.
"Some of my colleagues - elected officals over there - are not far apart from where I stand. A lot of common ground in terms of civil rights." Suslovic says. "Does that mean that just because they're a government official, they should not be allowed to come here? I'm not sure that's constructive."
Suslovic says he communicates regularly with members of the Russian gay rights group Rakurs through Facebook and email. To date, he says, he hasn't received any requests from members to halt visits with government officials.
"This is a Portland-led initiative," says Meaghan LaSala, a USM student and one of the organizers of the campaign. She says Portland gay rights supporters decided cutting off Archangel government officals was the best move after consulting with Russian activists and human rights groups.
"What we're seeing now is really these trips to Portland and the U.S. are really just lending legitimacy to these officials we know are corrupt, that we know are putting pressure on the university to force these organizers to retire," LaSala says. "And so I really don't believe, at this point, asking nicely is going to affect any change in the situation."
The group has launched an online petition. Depending on how successful it is, Ed Suslovic says the City Council will consider changing its policy toward Archangel. But for now, he thinks it's better to keep Portland's door open.
"I think that as long as we can have an open, honest discussion," Suslovic says, "I feel like that, at least, holds the hope of progress."
Suslovic says Portland is considering setting up a visit with members of the Archangel community this fall, but plans for when - and exactly who - are not yet firm.