For the months leading up to Sochi, there has been a widespread call to boycott the Olympics. I'd certainly say, as a Queer person, while I am invested in the civil rights of LGBTQ people (including the appalling treatment of them in Russia), I'm not sure a boycott from western countries is something I could ever support. I think that the lack of context and the problems of our own civil rights issues is an issue.
Let me explain a little further. In the US and much of Western Europe, before the gay rights movement, homosexual contact was illegal. In fact, it wasn't until 1962, in Illinois, that any state decriminalize homosexuality. There has been a long history of institutional violence throughout the US and Europe against homosexuals—one of the most famous examples was Alan Turing, a scientist whose knowledge of computer science and code breaking may have been one of the single biggest contributions allowing Great Britain to prevail over the Nazi Regime. But despite his contributions, he was both convicted and jailed for being homosexual and then later committed suicide after being "chemically castrated."
Suffice it to say, the road to the US and Western Europe being liberal in regard to lgbtq rights has been a long one and even among us olds, I think we can remember a nation that was much more repressive and still is repressive towards many groups (especially TWOC who have a 1 in 8 chance of being murdered.)
So what does this have to do with Sochi? I think we minimize how much civil rights movements have shaped our view of the ways that LGBTQ people should be treated. (I think similarly, the US doesn't always look at our own appalling civil rights issues in regard to people in prison, in terms of labor laws, both globally and domestically and in general, with our government ignoring the issues of economic inequality.) I think it's important to contextualize some issues with regard to the differences between Russia and the US.
When I was in college, I studied political evolution of the former Eastern Bloc states and the former USSR, studying during the transformation of that region from 1989 to the mid 90s. I did a thesis about Hungarian history and I also did an independent study where I interviewed women's and gay rights groups in East Central Europe, especially Poland.
I'd say one important fact is that the dominant political struggle in that region was Communist vs Anti-Communist, often precluding the evolution of other types of civil rights movements (though there were ways that, for example, women's rights were more advanced in certain Communist countries than they were in the US—and of course, other ways that they weren't). There is a very good reason that other considerations were often secondary. I think you can underestimate how repressive these governments were, including after the death of Stalin.
Suffice it to say, there were limitations to how free any countries could become. During 1956, Imre Nagy attempted to liberalize Hungary, going so far as admitting a few people who were not from the centralized Communist party into his cabinet. I mean, after Stalin there were ideas that there would be a detente with the West and the detente may signal a loosening of the central rule of the Soviet Communist party. He paid the price by having Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest and being executed. In 1968, the Prague Spring similiarly brought about an attempt of liberalization and an invasion. In fact, throughout the history of Communism in that area, there were numerous incidents of attempts to advance basic political freedoms which were crushed, until glasnost, when borders were opened between Hungary and Austria. I remember waiting to hear about the invasion from the Soviet Union.
That never happened. We know how that all ended.
So, civil rights actions were directed towards the biggest threat, the Soviet government (though in places like Romania, it can be argued that their domestic government was the much bigger threat). In places like Poland and Russia, the church was often a force of the opposition (Red vs White) and when the Communist regimes collapsed, the church, being one of the organized institutions in some of these countries, became dominant.
Now, I think what I've found is that there are definitely feminists and LGBTQ people in these countries who are fighting what they see as a new repressive regime, i.e. the church and the way that it is influencing the government. In Russia, that has been done in the context of widespread economic instability, which has resulted in among other things, a declining lifespan. It's been rocky. They have a repressive leader. It's pretty terrible. Human rights in many places in that region is shaky. The church may have undue influence.
But what's hard is that as Americans we're just boycotting without a consideration of differences in power between the US and Eastern Europe/Russian region and differences in history. We have this expectation that they should be similar in terms of lgbtq rights and not actually be more similar to how we were before Stonewall— which is even a problematic comparison because they have an entirely different political/economic situation than we do.
We have this expectation that they should be hold similar attitudes to us, even though as a culture, we've been shaped by civil rights movements that they never had. And I don't mean that implies their inferiority or they are at less sophisticated place politically. They have a different political evolution.
And even more so, it reminds me of conversations I used to have with a friend from Pakistan. She was quite a feminist and like many women in urban areas (from her report), she struggled with the radicalization of Islam in the region. But even more so, she hated the constant aspersions launched against her country and her culture by privileged Westerners who had their own history of repression and politicized violence but always acted morally superior.
There is a similar dynamic with our treatment in Russia.
I've heard many progressives call Russia and other former Eastern Bloc countries part of the West, thereby justifying their critiques of them as being criticism of countries with equal power and global influence. They aren't. There is nothing about their current positioning and history that would justify that kind of analysis (save looking at some countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic that could arguably be considered more similar to other central European countries).
Because of these differences and because of issues with historical context, I think a boycott of Sochi would not only show an unwillingness to look at Russia in the context of their past, but also it would ignore our own historical and current problems with civil rights.