The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians


When I was in high school, U.S.-Soviet “space bridges” were popular: a studio audience of Americans would connect up live with a studio audience in the USSR, and they’d pose each other questions with assistance from celebrity hosts like Phil Donahue and Vladimir Pozner. In July 1986, during a “women to women” space bridge between Boston and Leningrad, a middle-aged Boston woman asked the Soviet audience whether their TV commercials were sexually suggestive, as American ads were. In Leningrad, a blonde woman took the microphone and responded solemnly: “Cекса y нас нет, и мы категорически против этого.” (“There is no sex here, and we are categorically opposed to it.”) You can watch the exchange here:

Her response prompted howls of laughter from others in the Leningrad audience, but the phrase stuck. Even today, you can hear Russians repeat the saying, “In the USSR there is no sex.”

So in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, when the mayor of Sochi proclaimed, “У нас в городе геев нет,” (“In our city there are no gays,”) I’m sure plenty of Russian speakers joined me in a nostalgic chuckle. Russians have long been a bit prudish on matters of sex. But Russia’s new law banning “gay propaganda” reflects more than mere prudishness. It is part of a concerted effort to deny the very existence of Russians who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI). And some Russians have taken it upon themselves to actively and openly persecute people who are LGBTI, or who support LGBTI rights.

Times have changed

When I lived in Moscow, from 1990-1992, LGBTI people were generally left alone. One of my good friends, a gay American studying at Moscow State University, wore a pink triangle pin all the time and never faced any negative repercussions. “No one ever bothered me for the triangle or for being gay,” he recalled. “In fact, it seems harder to be gay in Russia now than it was then. Sure it was all sort of underground, but people weren’t all whipped up like they are these days.”

Indeed, much has changed since then. In 1993, the Russian Federation repealed the Stalin-era law criminalizing consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex. But in recent years, “anti-gay sentiment has exploded in Russia . . . , fed by economic woes, government corruption, and crumbling infrastructures,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

After the Russian Duma passed laws last summer prohibiting “gay propaganda” and banning some international adoptions to countries that recognize marriage equality, LGBTI advocates in Russia reported a sharp uptick in anti-gay violence.

Vigilante violence incited

Members of Pussy Riot performing in Red Square Photo credit: Denis Bochkarev, Wikimedia Commons
Members of Pussy Riot performing in Red Square
Photo credit: Denis Bochkarev, Wikimedia Commons

The Russian government’s crackdown on dissent has fueled private acts of violence directed at government critics, as well as at LGBTI people and their allies. In Sochi on Wednesday, for example, as members of the performance art collective Pussy Riot prepared to perform, a group of men surrounded and attacked them with traditional Cossack whips. (A Duma member from the Zabaikalsk region of Siberia recently called for a law allowing gays to be publicly flogged by Cossacks.) Pussy Riot has long been critical of the Putin government and has spoken out against the gay propaganda law.

Although the popular Russian social media site В Kонтакте (–especially the VK-based online LGBTI teen support group Дети-404 (Deti-404)–can be a lifeline for gay youth, homophobic harassment is commonplace on the site.

With the help of VK and other social media, and spurred by prominent Russians like Putin who repeatedly conflate gay people with child molesters, Russian neo-Nazi groups and other gangs have taken it upon themselves to go on “safaris” to “hunt” gays. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch released this graphic, disturbing video explaining how some of the vigilante groups operate:

Occupy Pedophilia, one of the neo-Nazi groups featured in the video, claims to have 30 branches and to have kidnapped and assaulted nearly 1,500 gay Russians over the last 18 months. The group asserts that it is targeting child molesters, but most of its targets are young gay men, and anti-gay rhetoric and symbols feature prominently in the group’s attacks. According to the Spectrum Human Rights Alliance, the group uses VK to target teenagers who reply to same-sex personal advertisements. Group members beat up and humiliate their victims, and then question them about their sex lives; despite the group’s purported interest in tracking down pedophiles, they never make references to children in these videotaped interrogations. The group coordinates its attacks and recruits new members through VK, where it has over 90,000 followers and regularly uploads videos showing victims being violently attacked and humiliated. YouTube returns over 23,000 search results for the group.

An ABC news broadcast last week focused on another group that calls itself “Morality Patrol,” which uses a roaming van to videotape people coming and going from a gay bar in Moscow. Then, there’s another group, called “God’s Will,” which calls for gays to be stoned to death.

And there have been other troubling acts of vigilante violence:

Journalist Elena Kostyuchenko Photo Credit: Valerij Ledenev, flickr
Journalist Elena Kostyuchenko
Photo Credit: Valerij Ledenev, flickr
  • At her first gay pride parade in 2011, journalist Elena Kostyuchenko was punched in the skull, causing her to partially lose her hearing. The police detective assigned to her case, who has seen a video of the attack and knows the name of her assailant, asked her lawyer, “Why would she go to the street?”
  • On the subway escalator after the attack, members of “God’s Will” caught Kostyuchenko’s girlfriend in a headlock and punched her five times in the face.
  • In May 2013, a young man in Volgograd was allegedly raped with beer bottles and had his skull smashed after he came out to a group of friends.
  • In June 2013, a gay man was kicked and stabbed to death by a group of friends in Kamchatka; they then burned his body.

“The latest laws against so-called gay propaganda, first in the regions and then on the federal level, have essentially legalised violence against LGBT people, because these groups of hooligans justify their actions with these laws,” Igor Kotchekov, head of the Russian LGBT Network, recently told the Guardian. “[This vigilante violence] is an action to terrorise the entire LGBT community.”

Violent vigilantes enjoy impunity

These Russian anti-gay vigilante groups operate openly, and even post videos of their exploits on social media sites, but Russian authorities don’t seem to take the violence seriously. On the eve of the start of the Sochi Olympics, BBC Channel Four released “Hunted,” a 50-minute documentary about these vigilante groups. The Russian embassy in London lashed out, calling the film part of a “well-engineered campaign of slander” and “hate propaganda” designed to damage Russia’s reputation just before the games.  In noting that the head of Occupy Pedophilia had been arrested and charged with extremism, the embassy appeared to defend the group, saying, “As its name suggests, [it] targets only paedophiles both straight and gay.”

Occupy Pedophilia groups have “so far enjoyed almost total impunity for their treatment of homosexuals. None has been prosecuted and the group even appears to have tacit official support. Edited versions of the gang’s videos have even been broadcast on a local television station.”

(U.S. extremists are also coming to Russia’s defense. Scott Lively, who campaigned for propaganda laws in Russia and other countries, called the Human Rights Watch video a “hoax,” asserting that LGBTI “activists are masters of public deception.”)

In Russia, victims of vigilante violence fear reporting these attacks to the police, knowing they may face even more violence at the hands of law enforcement, and fearing that filing a report will “out” them to family, colleagues, neighbors, or employers. And when they do report the attacks, police dismiss them and say the victims brought the violence upon themselves. According to Kochetkov, of 20 homophobic attacks that were recently reported to the police in Russia, only “four were investigated and only one resulted in a court case.” One attorney representing a victim of a homophobic attack reported that she and her client were attacked by a group of skinheads as they tried to enter the courthouse: “We called the police, but they didn’t come.”

“Gay propaganda” law prompts more Russians to join the vigilante bandwagon

Citizen “complaints” fuel much of Russian authorities’ enforcement of the propaganda law:

  • Timur Isaev trolls social media and uses a videocamera to identify LGBTI people and then report them to authorities. He specializes in tracking down LGBTI teachers, outing them, and getting them fired. He also targets teachers who are LGBTI allies. He also stalked a support group for LGBTI families online, and then reported an upcoming meeting to the police, suspecting a minor would be present. He even tracked down a 14-year-old girl in the small town of Dyatkova after she held a solo demonstration against the propaganda law, and reported her to her school’s principal. The girl was disciplined by a government commission, which threatened to take her to court if she continued to express her views in public. Isaev boasts that he has contacted relatives and school principals of more than a dozen openly LGBTI teens.
  • Vitali Milonov, a local St. Petersburg lawmaker, filed several complaints with authorities about Deti-404 online support group founder Elena Klimova, who faced a potential fine of 100,000 rubles and a shut-down of her site. A district court acquitted her this morning, but Milonov has vowed to appeal the decision.
  • A teenager in Arkhangelsk complained to authorities after seeing online images of an activist’s protest in Kazan, over 1,000 kilometers away. The teenager said he was prompted by his father, who was bitter because his wife had left him for another woman. The activist was fined 4,000 rubles.
  • A group of parents in Smolensk is charging their children’s school with violating the propaganda law because a teacher of 7- and 8-year-olds last Friday encouraged her students to make Valentine’s Day cards for each other, and said that it didn’t matter whether the recipients were boys or girls.

And in the Khabarovsk region, a parent group complained to their school about a new 6th grade student who was “unusual” and “acted gay.” The parents asked the school to intervene and cease the 12-year-old boy’s “sexual harassment”–even though he had never done anything to any other student. The day after the parent group raised the issue in a meeting with the student’s homeroom teacher, the boy’s parents withdrew him from the school. Similar incidents are reported in other rural schools in Russia, according to Khabarovsk Commissioner for Children’s Rights Svetlana Zhukova.

This post is the fourth in a five-part series in The Advocates Post about LGBTI rights in Russia and the Sochi Olympics. Part 1 took a look at why the Sochi Olympics in 2014 are important to LGBTI rights in Russia and the rest of the world.  Part 2  examined the provisions of Russia’s propaganda law, its effect on children, and its origins. Part 3 explored how Russian authorities are enforcing the propaganda law. Part 5 will analyze a variety of approaches that human rights advocates in Russia and around the world are taking to press for reform of these laws.

More posts in this series:

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

For information about vigilante violence directed at LGBTI people in Cameroon, read The Advocates’ shadow report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and these related posts:

African Commission to Consider Violence Perpetrated Because of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity

“Look at the details of Eric Ohena Lembembe’s life and you will understand why he died.”

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

Top photo courtesy Roma Yandolin, Wikimedia Commons

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists Are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights


On June 30, 2013, just four days after the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decisions in favor of marriage equality in Windsor and Perry, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law Federal Law 135, which bans propaganda to minors about “non-traditional sexual relations.”

Federal Law of the Russian Federation, on changes to Article 5 of the Federal Law "On protecting Children from Information Harmful to their Health and Development," and other laws of the Russian Federation to protect children from information propagating the rejection of traditional family values
Federal Law of the Russian Federation, on changes to Article 5 of the Federal Law “On protecting Children from Information Harmful to their Health and Development,” and other laws of the Russian Federation to protect children from information propagating the rejection of traditional family values

For several years, opponents of marriage equality in the United States have turned their attention overseas, to places like Uganda, Nigeria, and Russia, where their rhetoric about “traditional family values” and their lies conflating homosexuality with sexual abuse of children appear to have found receptive audiences. Today, as the last days of the Sochi Olympics approach, and as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni prepares to sign into law a bill that would impose punishments of up to life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality,” it’s important to examine Russia’s “gay propaganda” law, its effect on children, and the origins of Russia’s law and others like it.

It Gets Worse: Russia’s Propaganda Law Targets Civil Society Groups that Support LGBTI Youth

Federal Law 135, Article 3(2)(b)
Federal Law 135, Article 3(2)(b)

Russia’s propaganda law is designed to isolate LGBTI youth in Russia from all possible sources of support, driving them deeper into the closet and ensuring that they won’t be able to see or hear any information that could suggest anything positive about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Article 3(2)(b) of Federal Law 135 imposes administrative fines and, in the case of non-citizens, deportation, for:

Propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors, including distribution of information that intends minors to adopt non-traditional sexual orientations, that makes non-traditional sexual relations attractive, that presents distorted conceptions of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations, or that imposes information about non-traditional sexual relations that evokes interest in these relations.

This language is just as vague in Russian as it is in my English translation. But what’s not vague are the penalties, which show that the law’s real targets are civil society organizations and individuals who use the internet to reach out to and support Russian LGBTI youth:

  • Russian citizens: fines of 4,000-5,000 rubles ($114-$142), or enhanced penalties of 50,000-100,000 rubles ($1,419-$2,839) for propaganda using the media or the internet
  • Russian administrative officials: fines of 40,000-50,000 rubles ($1,140-$1,420), or enhanced penalties of 100,000-200,000 rubles ($2,839-$5,677) for propaganda using the media or the internet
  • Legal entities (businesses, non-governmental organizations): fines of 800,000-1,000,000 rubles ($22,710-$28,387) or suspension of activities for up to 90 days, or enhanced penalties of 1,000,000 rubles ($28,387) or suspension of business activities for up to 90 days for propaganda using the media or the internet
  • Non-citizens: fines and penalties identical to those for Russian citizens, but also administrative deportation and /or administrative arrest for up to 15 days.

The vague language describing the prohibited conduct and the steep fines that escalate for individuals who distribute their “propaganda” on the internet are designed to chill speech and stifle any efforts to provide support to LGBTI youth in Russia.

Some observers have noted that eight states in the United States have laws prohibiting classroom instruction that portrays homosexuality in a positive light. But Russia’s law is much broader in scope, prohibiting everything from gay pride parades to online support groups.

“Leave the Children Alone”: Harming Children under the Pretext of Protecting Them

In attempting to reassure Olympians, coaches, and other visitors to Russia about the new law, President Putin announced in January that LGBTI people “can feel free” in Sochi, as long as they “leave the children alone.” As insinuated by Putin’s comment, and by the text of the law itself, the pretext for the law is the protection of children. As such, the law is grounded in three fundamental misconceptions and lies:

  1. Being gay is a choice
  2. LGBTI adults “recruit” young people
  3. Gay people are pedophiles

The United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child is the first treaty body to review Russia’s human rights record since it adopted the propaganda law last year. On January 31, the committee issued its Concluding Observations from that review, condemning the propaganda law and related policies as violating the rights of Russia’s children under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The committee urged Russia to repeal the propaganda law, noting that it “encourages stigmatization and discrimination against LGBTI persons, including children, and children of LGBTI families” and “leads to the targeting and ongoing persecution of the country’s LGBTI community, including abuse and violence, in particular against underage LGBTI activists.” The committee called on Russia to “ensure that children who belong to LGBTI groups or children of LGBTI families are not subjected to any forms of discrimination” and to “take urgent measures to prevent bullying of LGBTI children in schools by educating children and school staff and punishing the perpetrators accordingly.”

Scott Lively’s “Greatest Success”

Just a few days after the Russian Duma (parliament) unanimously passed the propaganda law last June, a delegation of U.S. and French anti-gay activists traveled to Moscow at the invitation of the Duma. The U.S. delegates included Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage. Brown was there to testify in favor of a bill that would tighten Russia’s laws governing international adoptions, prohibiting international adoptions by same-sex couples and by single people living in countries that recognize marriage equality. The adoption ban passed five days later, and the Russian government just last week officially implemented that law.

Last October, Brown, along with Scott Lively, president of Abiding Truth Ministries, and several other Americans who had led the fight against LGBTI rights in the United States, was back in Moscow to plan for the World Congress of Families VIII, scheduled for September 2014 in Moscow. At least 14 American conservative leaders have lobbied Russian lawmakers to support the propaganda law and adoption legislation. The Illinois-based World Congress of Families has staff in Russia who have been actively lobbying in favor of the latest anti-gay laws in Russia.

Lively is no stranger to Russia. Nearly a decade ago, he gave up on fighting against LGBTI rights in the United States, setting his sights on Russia, Uganda, and “other countries in the world that are still culturally conservative to warn them . . .  and to help put barriers in place.” In 2006 and 2007, he conducted a 50-city tour of the former Soviet Union. In 2006, prior to Lively’s tour, the Duma had overwhelmingly rejected a bill similar to Federal Law 135.

Opposition rally in Moscow in 2012. Photo credit: Sergey Kukota, flickr
Opposition rally in Moscow in 2012.
Photo credit: Sergey Kukota, flickr

The purpose of Lively’s tour, as he explained in his 2007 Letter to the Russian People, “was to bring a warning about the homosexual political movement,” which he described as “a very fast-growing social cancer that will destroy the family foundations of your society if you do not take immediate, effective action to stop it.”

During the tour, Lively called on Russians to “criminalize the public advocacy of homosexuality. . . . [H]omosexuality is destructive to individuals and to society and it should never [be] publicly promoted. The easiest way to discourage ‘gay pride’ parades and other homosexual advocacy is to make such activity illegal in the interest of public health and morality.”

Several regional governments in Russia adopted Lively’s proposed propaganda bans before the federal law took effect last June. Lively recently boasted: “My greatest success, in terms of my own personal strategy, is Russia.” He told Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association that the Russian law was one of his “proudest achievements.”

A key chapter in Lively’s worldwide playbook is the argument that lawmakers need to protect families from Western gays who are attempting to recruit their children. In his book, Redeeming the Rainbow, Lively advises opponents of gay rights to fight back against sympathy toward gays by emphasizing child recruitment and rape.

"Same-sex families want to live in peace in Russia" Photo credit: Sergey Kukota, flickr
“Same-sex families want to live in peace in Russia” Photo credit: Sergey Kukota, flickr

It’s probably no coincidence that in October 2013, during Lively’s last visit to Moscow, the Duma began consideration of a bill that would add sexual orientation as a ground for terminating parental rights. The Duma postponed consideration of the bill in the run-up to the Olympics, but observers predict it will be back before legislators as soon as international attention on Russia fades.

Another pernicious U.S. export to Russia is the discredited 2012 study by University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus. His study included only two respondents who were even arguably raised by same-sex parents, and more than 200 sociologists signed a letter criticizing Regnerus’ methodology. The American Sociological Association submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Windsor case thoroughly examining the flaws in Regnerus’ work.

Lawmakers backing Russia’s bill to terminate parental rights on the basis of sexual orientation cited the study in support of the proposition that parenting by LGBTI people is dangerous, despite Regnerus’ objections to the legislation. Last June, the Regnerus study also played an important role in the Duma’s decision to pass the propaganda law and the law restricting international adoptions. Although Regnerus has refused to give an interview to the New York Times, he did an interview last year with a Russian-language news agency in Ukraine, which profiled him in an article titled “First shocking scientific facts published about the families of homosexuals,” concluding that Regnerus’ study amounted to “shocking” evidence showing the “tragic results” of same-sex parenting on children.

Lively has expanded on his work in Russia and Uganda to include Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, and Ukraine, all with the goal of encouraging the adoption of laws to block the open expression of homosexuality, keep discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity legal, and make pro-gay advocacy a crime.

Lively is being sued under the Alien Tort Statute for his work on anti-gay legislation in Uganda. The suit, brought by Sexual Minorities Uganda, with the assistance of the Center for Constitutional Rights, alleges that Lively’s active participation in a conspiracy to strip away fundamental rights from LGBTI persons in Uganda constitutes persecution.

This post is the second in a five-part series in The Advocates Post about LGBTI rights in Russia and the Sochi Olympics. Part 1 took a look at why the Sochi Olympics in 2014 are important to LGBTI rights in Russia and the rest of the world. Part 3 will explore how Russian authorities are enforcing the propaganda law. Part 4 will examine the societal effects of discriminatory laws such as those in Russia and other countries. Part 5 will analyze a variety of approaches that human rights advocates in Russia and around the world are taking to press for reform of these laws.

More posts in this series:

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

Top photo credit: Wikimedia Commons