The St. Petersburg University of Information Technology made international headlines this week after the removal of a interactive memorial to Steve Jobs ignited a firestorm of controversy and confusion. The removal of the two-metre high iPhone statue occurred in the wake of current Apple CEO Tim Cook’s announcement that he was gay, with the monument’s sponsor ZEFS (West-European Fiscal Union) declaring in a press release the statue was “direct propaganda for sodomy”, in violation of Russia’s anti-gay laws.
While the Western media latched onto what seemed to be an instance of Russian bigotry, continuing on a popular narrative, Russian commentators soon raised questions about what precisely had happened. The university claimed in a press statement that the monument had been taken down for maintenance, while students told reporters the statue’s touchscreen had been broken for weeks. Back and forth it went until the confusion reached farcical proportions last Wednesday, when Russian news website The Village hosted a public debate between the spokespeople of the University and ZEFS. The university press office accused the company of “using the incident as an excuse for cheap PR”, and ZEFS CEO Maxim Dolgopolov insisted that his company’s actions were motivated purely by an intolerance of homosexuality, adding that “sin should not become the norm” in Russia.
While it’s all very entertaining, it’s also worth taking a look at ZEFS CEO Maxim Dolgopolov, the man responsible for the entire saga. Dolgopolov was convicted of robbery in 1996 and sentenced to three years in prison; his troubles with the police continued in 2009, when he was detained in Dubai for suspected involvement in the assassination of a Chechen rebel commander before being cleared. His business has also been the subject of allegations of money laundering of up to 2 billion roubles.
Dolgopolov, crucially, also ran as a candidate for Putin’s United Russia party in Russia’s most recent Duma elections in 2011. The campaign did not go well: Dolgopolov’s candidacy was swept up in a tide of discontent against United Russia. The nadir of his failed campaign undoubtedly came when his bodyguards fractured a 72 year-old protester’s hand in a rally (see video below). Dolgopolov has described his political aspirations as “the only goal I ever set for myself, but didn’t reach”.
When asked in a 2012 interview about running for election a second time, Dolgopolov said: “Let’s talk about this in five years. I believe the experienced gained [in the campaign] is useful.” It is highly plausible that in removing this memorial, Dolgopolov is engaging in a spectacularly successful publicity stunt designed to restart his failed political career. Journalists around the world are writing his name, and ZEFS is now holding an online vote to let Russians decide whether they should publicly destroy the memorial, or return it to its original location. Russian social networking site VKontakte is also getting involved, offering funds for either a new Steve Jobs memorial or a return of the old one.
Dolgopolov wasn’t the only Russian to sense a political opportunity in Tim Cook’s announcement. Vitaly Milonov, the architect of Putin’s anti-gay propaganda law, called for Cook to be banned from entering Russia because he could bring “ebola, AIDS and gonorrhoea” into the country. It’s saddening, though not surprising, that Russia’s politicians resort to these reactions: a majority of Russian citizens believe homosexuality should be either punishable by law (13%) or treated medically (38%), according to polling by the Levada Centre.
With Russo-American relations at a 25-year low, this issue will doubly resonate in Russian domestic politics due to Apple’s status as a symbol of the US. Dolgopolov didn’t just criticise homosexuality in his press release, he was careful to condemn Apple devices as instruments of NSA control. He also called on his employees to boycott iPhones, which he described as “more dangerous than cigarettes or drugs”.
Will all this posturing work? It’s hard to say, but it is not difficult to imagine members of the United Russia party watching with approval as this saga takes place. Do not be surprised if Dolgopolov’s name appears on the ballot at the 2016 state Duma elections.