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On Saturday, Kseniya Ryzhova and Yulia Guschina won gold medals as part of the 4x400m relay team at the IAAF track championships in Moscow. While wearing their medals and holding their victory laurels, the two openly kissed. The immediate and widespread speculation at the time was that the kiss was in protest of Russia's new anti-gay propaganda laws.
Now, three days later, Ryzhova is saying there was no such statement intended. "There was no hidden political motive," she said, and then blamed the Western media for creating and spreading an inaccurate story. "Instead of congratulating the athletes, they decided to insult not only Yulia but the whole (Russian) athletics federation."
Instead, the kiss, a common practice among Russian women, came from celebration, not protest. "For eight years we have not won a gold medal. You can't even imagine what it was like ... when we understood that we'd won," Ryzhova said. "It was a wave of unbelievable feelings and if somehow, completely by chance, while we were congratulating each other, our lips touched ... whoever fantasizes about that is sick."
Russia's strong condemnation of "gay propaganda" has drawn criticism from abroad but has plenty of support inside the country. While critics claim the laws banning such "propaganda" are a way of cracking down on dissent and restricting individual freedoms, Russian president Vladimir Putin has said the laws stem from a desire to maintain order and give young adults the opportunity to make their own choices. Some gay-rights groups have called for a boycott of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games in protest.
Both Ryzhova and Guschina are married, and media reports out of Russia say that kissing on the lips is a common practice. Given the financial penalties which await anyone flouting the propaganda law, Ryzhova's backpedal will be viewed with skepticism, regardless of its truth. And if indeed the kiss was an innocent act misinterpreted, Russia can expect many similar misinterpretations going forward from a world community more accustomed to openness of expression than restriction of it.