Thirty-four years ago, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev wrapped Erich Honecker in a firm embrace and planted a wet kiss squarely on the East German president's lips (as captured in the iconic photograph
Brezhnev, in East Berlin to celebrate the communist state's 30th anniversary, was apparently overcome with joy.
On August 17, two Russian sprinters, having just won the 4x400-meter relay at the World Athletics Championships in Moscow, were also experiencing evident euphoria when they appeared to quickly lock lips on the winner's podium.
But unlike Brezhnev's iconic peck, this took place in Moscow, with recently passed legislation that bans so-called gay "propaganda" -- or more precisely, the propagation of "nontraditional sexual relations" -- and a string of actions by athletes, both in support and against the law, as the backdrop.
The runners, Ksenia Ryzhova and Yulia Gushchina, have so far been mum on their intentions. A spokeswoman for the athletes said on August 19 that the whole incident had been "inflated by the Western media."
(UPDATE: Ryzhova has since denied that the kiss had an ulterior motive. "It was just happiness for our team," she said. "If people want to write all sorts of dirt about us, they should at least know that Yulia and I are both married.... We haven't won any gold for eight years and you can't even imagine what it was like when Antonina [Krivoshapka] finished the race and the four of us realized that we had won. The emotions were overwhelming, it was something unreal, and even if we touched each other's lips, by accident, while congratulating each other -- it was someone's sick fantasy [to think more of it].")
Nevertheless, the debate rages on -- was the kiss merely a Brezhnev-esque victory smooch or an act of defiance that may have been in violation of Russian law?
"Russian Athletes Kiss In Protest At Anti-Gay Law" said a Sky News headline, since changed.
The online magazine Slate.com
, while explaining in the text that not everyone is in agreement, ran the headline: "Russian Athletes Kiss On Winners Podium to Protest Anti-Gay Law." "The Huffington Post
," meanwhile, played it safe. It's headline read: "Female Russian Athletes Kiss After Winning Gold In Possible Protest Of Anti-Gay Law." Nevertheless Joe Jervis, a popular gay activist, tweeted the news and wrote about it on his website
, saying, "Thank you, ladies, thank you!"
And Anton Krasovsky, a popular Russian television host who was fired earlier this year after coming out as gay on air, posted a tribute to the athletes on his Facebook page
, saying that "the main thing is that they weren't scared."
But the Russian media have largely been dismissive of the Western reaction -- attributing it both to a misunderstanding of Russian culture and to a thirst for new controversy at an already controversial world competition.
Last week, a Swedish high jumper painted her nails in the colors of the rainbow to demonstrate her support for gay rights and an American silver medalist dedicated his victory to his "gay friends."
On August 15, Yelena Isinbayeva, a star Russian pole vaulter, criticized the acts of solidarity, saying Russian laws should be respected.
"If we will allow to promote and do all this stuff on the street, we are very afraid about our nation, because we consider ourselves like normal, standard people," she said. "We just live with boys with woman, woman with boys -- everything must be fine here." (See video here
Isinbayeva backtracked the next day, blaming the controversy on her English skills.
The Western backlash to the Olympic gold medalist's comment has been juxtaposed in some Russian reports with the Western reaction to the kiss. "European Media See A Message To Isinbayeva In Kiss," proclaimed Russian news outlet NewsRU.com.
," a daily tabloid, meanwhile, ribbed news outlets for having the debate in the first place. "Western Media: The Runners' Kiss -- A Message To Isinbayeva Or A Russian Tradition," read a headline on the newspaper's website.
Sources on the Russian Olympic team told Sky News
that the athletes were "just exchanging a congratulatory kiss."
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said the controversy over antigay legislation was an "invented problem." Mutko also appeared to equate homosexuality with social vices like inebriation and narcotics abuse, saying, "We want to protect [young Russians] against drunkenness, drugs, and nontraditional sexual relations."
Signed into law by President Vladimir Putin in June, the legislation allows individuals to be fined up to $3,000 for promoting "nontraditional sexual relations" to minors. Activists say the law encourages homophobic attitudes in Russia and gives tacit support to violence against gays.
The controversies at the weeklong world championships have been seen as a prelude to the much larger 2014 Winter Olympics, which will be hosted in the southern city of Sochi in February.
Several prominent activists have called for a boycott of the games
. Chess champion and political activist Garry Kasparov recently said the athletes should show up, but world leaders should avoid the opening ceremony.
If they do attend, though, it is unlikely that they will need to worry about Putin -- not known for his affectionate side
-- following in the footsteps of either Brezhnev or the Russian sprinters.
-- Glenn Kates