DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Russia has been drawing criticism for its handling of gay rights as that country prepares to host the Winter Olympics. A recent Russian law criminalizes what it calls gay propaganda. It's so broadly written, many gay people fear they could face charges for just living their lives. This week, Russia addressed some human rights issues. It granted amnesty for thousands of prisoners, including two women in the band Pussy Riot.
And today Russia freed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Critics have been saying for years he was jailed for political reasons. We're going to talk now with Masha Gessen, a Russian author and gay activist. She's moving to the United States. We spoke just as she was packing her boxes. Masha Gessen, thanks so much for coming on the program. We appreciate you taking the time.
MASHA GESSEN: It's good to be here.
GREENE: You've been working a great deal on a book about Pussy Riot. What does it mean that they'll be released at this point?
GESSEN: The only thing it means is that the Sochi Olympics are around the corner. These two women, Maria and Naderzhd, have been in prison for 660 days for lip-synching in a church for 40 seconds. They were sentenced to two years in prison for felony hooliganism.
GREENE: It sounds like you don't want their release to overshadow the fact that they were in prison for what, in many places in the world, was a pretty minor crime.
GESSEN: In most places in the world peaceful protest would not be a crime. In fact, if you read the Russian constitution, you would think that it's not a crime in Russia either. So that's the one thing I don't want it to overshadow. The other thing that I don't want to get lost is the fact that dozens of people are still either facing trial or serving time for peaceful protest in Russia.
GREENE: Well, if we look at this amnesty, do you link all of these steps to the fact that the Olympics are about to take place in Russia?
GESSEN: Absolutely. In fact, I would link all of those steps to the brilliant snub that President Obama performed a couple of days ago. Basically this entire fall there has been this push for a political boycott of the Olympics. A political boycott is when athletes go but state leaders do not. This month a number of Western European leaders began carefully saying that they will probably not go to the Olympics.
And it began with the president of Germany, then the president of Estonia, then France. And then finally, President Obama on December 17th announced his delegation to the Olympics...
GESSEN: ...which for the first time in almost two decades does not include any head politician. It also quite pointedly includes several openly gay athletes. I think that Putin panicked. I think for the first time he had this vision of being alone during the opening and closing ceremonies.
GREENE: This is not a man who a lot of people think of as panicking and worrying about image all that often, but you think it got to that point.
GESSEN: Actually, his image is extremely important to him. Being seen as an equal to the leaders of the free world is very important. Being able to be photographed next to Barack Obama, next to the presidents of Western European powers is very, very important. And it's especially important during the Olympics which are his personal project. He wanted it to be his shining moment.
GREENE: Well, you mentioned that President Obama is sending several high profile gay athletes as part of the delegation. I mean, one of the issues that has been hanging over the Olympics is these new laws in Russia. I wonder if you think that Putin might take some sort of step there when it comes to the issue of equality for gay people before these Olympics.
GESSEN: I don't expect anything to change in terms of the anti-gay laws. These are symbolic gestures on the policy level. His policy towards his political clients has not changed. Again, dozens of people remain in prison for peaceful protest. And nor has his policy toward LGBT people changed. I think that this will sort of quiet down until after the Olympics, and we're going to see some really horrifying stuff after the Games are over, including unexpected bills that would remove custody from gay and lesbian parents.
GREENE: Which is an issue that is very close to you personally. I mean, you have written that you're gay and you fear that your children could be taken from you under these news laws.
GESSEN: Yeah. I'm not being paranoid. And then some of the proponents of the custody bill have specifically mentioned my family and my children. And one of the leaders of the so-called Orthodox Activist Movement has personally volunteered to adopt them. So we're actually leaving the country tomorrow because I do think that that bill will pass right after the Olympics.
GREENE: As it's coming to the moment now where you're leaving Russia, where are you emotionally?
GESSEN: Emotionally, I am, well, I've gone through anger and mostly have guilt. I'm not sure if that's what I'm supposed to feel in the correct order but, you know, it's been reasonably easy for my family. I have a U.S. passport. I have the means to move my family to the United States. My going away party tonight is actually going to be in part a fundraiser for a couple who have run up backbreaking debts while defending their child in court.
And they're in no position to leave. They don't have the money. They don't have the documents. So most of what I feel, thinking of people like that, is guilt.
GREENE: Feeling guilty that you're leaving people behind in this fight?
GESSEN: Fear and guilt that I'm leaving people behind. I'm feeling guilty that I can't do more to help people who need to get out as much or more than I do.
GREENE: Would you stay if these laws were not in place?
GESSEN: I probably would, yes. This is my home. And my position has always been that Putin should leave and I'm staying. It changed when I realized that my children were at risk. That completely changes the equation.
GREENE: Masha Gessen, thank you so much for taking the time and best of luck with the move to the United States.
GESSEN: Thank you for having me.
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GREENE: Masha Gessen is a Russian journalist and gay rights activist. She has a new book coming out called "Words Will Break Cement." You heard he on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.