MOSCOW -- When Ukraine was finally granted visa-free travel to the European Union last week, President Petro Poroshenko hailed it as a "final break" with the "Russian Empire," quoting 19th-century Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov with a smile: "Farewell, unwashed Russia!"
When Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked about the comment in his annual call-in program on June 15, he fired right back at Poroshenko. Quoting the poem in its entirety, Putin used it to suggest that Ukraine is historically a province of Russia and to quip that Ukraine should have its guard up in "gay" Europe.
Throughout Putin's third presidential term, Russia has cast itself as a bastion of "traditional" values, introducing for instance legislation to prevent minors being exposed to "nontraditional" propaganda, although officials have never explicitly condemned homosexuality.
'Running Around With Swastikas'
In his call-in program, called Direct Line and featuring questions from selected Russians, the president began by playfully praising Poroshenko for knowing his Russian classics, eliciting chuckles from older men in the studio audience. He then quoted the whole poem from memory, zeroing in on the first stanza: “Farewell unwashed Russia, the land of slaves, the land of lords, And you, blue uniforms of gendarmes, And you, obedient to them folks."
Putin noted Lermontov wrote the poem in 1841 when he was traveling to fight as a Russian officer in the Caucasus, a region also then a part of the Russian Empire despite the "farewell unwashed Russia" reference. In an aside, Putin then noted that, at the time the poem was written, Ukraine was a province of the Russian Empire, echoing his controversial contention to U.S. President George W. Bush in 2008 that "Ukraine is not even a country."
"Perhaps Poroshenko is trying to send a signal that he also is not going anywhere," said Putin, "but he does this so subtly, with an eye to the patriots and to the real nationalists, idiots, who are running around with swastikas."
The latter comment dovetailed with Moscow's portrayal of Ukraine as teeming with "fascists" and violent ultranationalists, a depiction developed throughout Ukraine's 2014 Euromaidan revolution to legitimize Moscow's annexation of Crimea and its alleged support for separatists in Ukraine's east.
Finally, Putin punned on the word "blue" (also meaning "gay" in Russian) in Lermontov's poem to suggest that Ukraine should beware because there are actually "more gays" in Europe than in the Russia.
"In fact, probably Pyotr Alekseyevich wanted to show his voters that he is carrying out his promises, making a civilizational choice as the Ukraine leadership now says, a civilizational choice to take the country into Europe."
"By the way, there are many more blue uniforms [gays] there than here, so he shouldn't relax too much, [and] just in case, he should keep a look out about him."
As the camera panned to the audience, many people were laughing, although at least one person frowned in apparent disapproval.
Russia's track record on gay rights has been in the spotlight most recently as activists have accused officials in the Russian republic of Chechnya of rounding up more than 100 homosexuals in a campaign of persecution, holding them in a "secret prison," and subjecting them to severe abuse.