Oleg Jelezniakov

In search of a human rights champion

“I was born in Russia, and graduated from a five-year college with a degree in linguistics, languages and teaching. Shortly thereafter, in 1996, I moved to Switzerland to study hospitality.

“As it later turned out, the ’90s were the most liberal time in Russia's history to date. After two years in Swiss hotel schools, I got an offer for an internship at a Sheraton in New Orleans. That's how I arrived in the U.S. After about a year living in NOLA and loving it, I decided I had to move to New York. So I did. Many visas, statuses and immigration struggles later, I'm still here, as a marketing consultant and strategist. Now, as a citizen of the United States and a registered Democrat, I’m ready for my first presidential election.”

Oleg Jelezniakov’s philosophy on tolerance is simple.

“It’s important to be attuned to the rights not just in your social groups, but to others,” Jelezniakov says. “When you see that, you can start to relate a little bit to all your other compatriots more.”

As a Russian-born human rights and LGBT activist, Jelezniakov believes the identity of America is best represented by its diversity and liberties. Discrimination against blacks, the LGBT community or any other social group is unacceptable in any society or from any presidential candidate, he says.

“Human rights should be a priority in everybody’s platform,” Jelezniakov said. “If I see [Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump] engaging in racist or anti-Semitic rhetoric, that’s enough for me. I don’t need to hear anything past that.”

Oleg Jelezniakov, left, marches with the RUSA LGBT float at the New York City Gay Pride Parade in June 2013. Writer and activist Masha Gessen, right, carries the banner with Jelezniakov.

Jelezniakov’s choice: Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton

Jelezniakov’s mind is made up this election, but he laments what he considers a lack of more viable options.

“It becomes more for me the effort of not having Trump as our president, because that’s a disaster on many levels,” he says.

“The man is clearly — I don’t want to say insane — but he’s insane.”

By contrast, his support of Clinton comes with a caveat.

The prospect of her becoming the first female president excites him, along with her vast experience in government and views on human rights. But he holds reservations regarding her foreign-policy agenda.

“She doesn’t seem to be concerned about the overblown military budget,” Jelezniakov said.

“What falls under human rights are adequate living conditions, housing, health, education … and (a military) budget just sucks the resources out of all of that.”

Top five issues for Jelezniakov

5. Role of religion. “Religion can imply several aspects: a person’s beliefs, cultural identification, institution. It’s understood that none can make you exempt from being subject to the law of the land and basic human decency. We witness the religions becoming an excuse to abuse and discriminate, endorse ignorance and bigotry leveraging the first amendment. The constitutional protection of people’s faith has now become a tax-free tool of power for religious leaders.”

4. Education. “The school system in the U.S. is lacking nationwide standards. Some states still order textbooks teaching creationism. It’s no surprise we have enough uneducated adults here to support someone like Trump for president. It’s also imperative to establish life-important mandatory subjects that all young people should be educated in. The lack of social/financial/sexual/health education will end up resulting in tremendous costs for the nation. Higher-education costs have an adverse impact on our job market and the economy. Right now, student debt is over $1 trillion.”

3. Economic inequality. “Large companies’ CEOs are making over 1,000 times more than a median worker. Would they survive if they were making only 10 times more? We need some sort of nationwide income indexing to keep the country in the center range; lack thereof leaves us, as a nation, with a poor or homeless working class on one end, and people making money they don’t need on the other.”

2. Money in politics. “I think when you have the big pockets of corporations, unions and billionaires funding your campaign, as we have with Super PACs, you’ll be expected to pay the return on their investments and represent their interests once the campaign succeeds. And of course, their interests may easily conflict with that of the general public. No one’s stake in a president should be worth more than one single vote — this is absolutely anti-democratic.”

1. Human rights. “We still have people who are oppressed and discriminated against to show for the state of our civil rights; people threatened by law enforcement that it’s supposed to protect, pastors advocating to kill gay citizens who are greeted by presidential candidates, shaking hands. I also think we are inexcusably behind on our economic, social and cultural rights, that is the right to education, right to housing, right to adequate standard of living, right to health and the right to science and culture. The current standard is far below the level we can afford as the biggest economy in the world.”

A long way to go

Jelezniakov says that, although slow, there has been progress made in key issues, including human rights, health care and the environment.

He says a conversation on these and other issues — corruption, money in politics, a growing economic gap — is neither quick nor easy, but “seems to be gaining momentum,” a promising development that he says is secondary in his native Russia, a country he left in the mid-1990s.

“For the past several years, I’ve been watching [Russia’s] descent into something that I never thought would happen to my country again, which is complete intolerance, oppression, dictatorship; some kind of rampant corruption on every level,” Jelezniakov says. “As flawed as the U.S. political system is, you can still see the three branches clearly.”

“Liberty is not some kind of optional accessory. This is a priority for society, and everything else should be there to back it up.”

Status updates

July 17, 2016, 11:02 AM

“The police killings in Baton Rouge [Louisiana] and Falcon Heights [Minnesota] continued the statistics we have been seeing playing out on the news.

The African-American community in the U.S. faces death from excessive police force at an alarmingly higher rate than any other community, and especially the white community. I’ve been wholeheartedly in support of Black Lives Matter because if it was my community, I would, too, feel unsafe and frustrated and would want to bring attention to it.

To me, BLM is more than just about violence against black people. It’s about a bias against a group that’s been historically marginalized based on skin color. I also find that blaming the community itself — such as referencing black-on-black crimes, calling to change behavior patterns collectively — is not the answer and is also misconceived. I’ve been a gay rights activist and have seen similar attitudes in society, where violence against an oppressed community is blamed on its members’ behaviors, completely oblivious to how they came to be – a popular stance in my native country.

The race bias that we see take place in the police force is one of many aspects of life where bias shows itself. But here, it can cost lives. I think it comes from the racial divide that diminishes the ability to relate to one another. This aspect has been successfully under-attended by our government and that’s what BLM’s anti-violence cause puts back on the map.

That said, I see the bias problems in the police as a reflection of our whole white-centric system. On the human level, I believe that most people chose the profession of a police officer to serve and protect and deserve utmost respect. What happened in Dallas [where five officers were shot and killed in July] shook us all and showed yet again how dangerous this profession can be. No matter what drove this shooter to do this, I can’t see him as anything more but a deranged killer. …

I do believe that all lives matter as well as do blue lives, but neither is a minority group facing bias in the way that is specific to the black community. A cause should present a little more than undermining other causes.”

August 30, 2016, 3:32PM

"At this point of the campaign, I barely follow either of the candidates anymore. It has gotten exhausting and it's just turned into a giant smear fest. I have long made my choice too, so the new allegation on the Clinton Foundation and the Russian email hacks won't really make any difference to me. Besides, you can't really tell if any of this is true, anyway; Clinton’s camp will deny all the accusations, of course, and Trump has already shown everything he had to show for me to make a verdict - the man has no credibility. And what about his pitch to the minorities, "what do you have to lose?" How desperate and stupid is this? One thing that's sad is that I kind of lost trust in the objectivity of liberal media. I used to think they are better than Fox News; evidently, not so much, there's too much bias in their coverage. At this point I can only trust the candidates' track records, of which Trump has none and with Hillary's I'm not 100% happy, but at least feel fairly safe. Just really looking forward to submitting my vote and seeing something else on the news.”