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 In 1993, the Russian Federation repealed the Stalin-era law criminalizing consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex.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

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


Update: Great news! A district court in Nizhni Tagil acquitted Elena Klimova on charges of violating Russia’s “gay propaganda” law, according to a report this morning from Deti-404.

In the court hearing, Klimova’s attorney, Maria Kozlovskaya, presented an expert opinion that Deti-404 does not contain information that “promotes non-traditional sexual relations,” and that in fact the site helps LGBTI teenagers cope with their feelings. Kozlovskaya, an attorney for the Russian LGBT Network, that the law contradicts “Russia’s international obligations and, as it was proved by the decision of the UN Human Rights Committee, consolidates discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and violates the freedom of speech.”

“. . . [S]ometimes common sense wins,” Klimova said, expressing her relief.

Vitali Milonov, the St. Petersburg deputy who called for Klimova to be charged under the law, announced on Twitter that he will appeal the court’s decision. In a statement on Facebook, the Deti-404 team responded: “The Deti-404 project will continue to work regardless of any attack on us. Only one reason can serve as a pretext for closing the project – complete overcoming of homophobia in Russia and the cessation of harassment of LGBT teens. We hope that such a time will surely come!”

Original post:

In 2010, in response to an alarming escalation in the number of students in the United States committing suicide after being bullied in school, author Dan Savage and his then-partner (now husband) Terry Miller created a YouTube video with a message of hope for young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people facing harassment.

Image courtesy of Dana Robinson on Flickr
Image courtesy of Dana Robinson on Flickr

Savage and Miller launched the It Gets Better Project as a way for supporters around the world to use social media to record and share video messages telling LGBTI youth that, yes, it does indeed get better.

LGBTI youth in all corners of the world can feel isolated and alone, lacking support from peers, teachers, and frequently even their own families. These young people can often find solace and support on the internet, whether by watching It Gets Better Project videos, joining Facebook support groups, tweeting about their experiences, or joining anonymous chat rooms where they can talk with other LGBTI youth.

Youth suicide in Russia is a chronic problem; rates are three times the world average, and Russia has the highest teen suicide rate in Europe. Russia’s law banning gay propaganda strikes at the very heart of critical lifelines for vulnerable LGBTI youth.

From Sochi to Social Media: Russian Authorities Crack Down on Free Expression

Despite President Putin’s assurances that LGBTI visitors to the Olympics could “feel free,” on Sunday Russian authorities detained Vladimir Luxuria, a transgender activist and former member of the Italian Parliament, after she held up a sign in Olympic Park saying “Gay is Okay” in Russian. Upon her arrival in Sochi, she tweeted:

On Monday, Luxuria was again detained, this time as she attempted to enter an arena to watch an Olympic hockey game. She was wearing a rainbow-colored outfit and had been shouting, “It’s okay to be gay.” Four men who were not wearing identification surrounded her and shouted, “Take her away.” They placed her in a car with Olympic markings, stripped Luxuria of her Olympic spectator pass, and dumped her in the countryside about a 10-minute drive from the arena. She has since been asked to leave the country.

Luxuria’s detention and de facto deportation are particularly troubling in light of the International Olympic Committee’s assertion that it “received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the [anti-LGBTI propaganda] legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.”

Luxuria’s case just the latest in a series of detentions and prosecutions under the new propaganda law:

  • In December, authorities in Arkhangelsk found Nikolai Alexeyev and Yaroslav Yevtushenko guilty of violating the law for holding up banners in front of a children’s library reading: “Gay propaganda doesn’t exist. People don’t become gay, people are born gay.” They were fined 4,000 rubles and their appeal was denied.
  • Russian LGBTI activist Dmitry Isakov protested the law in Kazan and was fined 4,000 rubles in January after a teenager saw photos of Isakov’s protest online and filed a complaint.
  • In late January, a court in Khabarovsk fined newspaper editor Alexander Suturin 50,000 rubles for publishing an interview with an openly gay teacher.
  • In January, a government commission threatened to take a 14-year-old girl to court after she held a one-person picket in the town of Kyatkova to protest the propaganda law. The commission subsequently dropped the case, but the girl remains fearful that authorities will reinstate proceedings against her.
  • A juvenile court in the city of Bryansk found a 9th grade girl in violation of the law for admitting her sexual orientation in front of her classmates. She was reportedly hospitalized after suffering a severe head injury at the hands of her father.
  • On the day before the opening of the Sochi Olympics, ten LGBTI activists were arrested in Moscow after holding rainbow flags and singing the Russian national anthem. Four others were arrested for a similar demonstration the same day in St. Petersburg.
  • At the same time, however, police allowed an anti-gay demonstration in Sochi to proceed, despite a ban on demonstrations in the Olympic host city.
  • In January, police arrested a young man named Pavel Lebedev for waving a rainbow flag as the relay brought the Olympic torch through Voronezh.

Russian Authorities Move to Shut Down Дети-404, Russia’s “It Gets Better Project”

Perhaps the most troubling investigation, however, is that of Elena Klimova, 25, founder of a social media support group for LGBTI teenagers called “Дети-404. ЛГБТ подростки. Мы есть!” (Children-404. LGBT teens. We exist!)

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Klimova started Deti-404 last year after a 15-year-old lesbian named Nadya from a small town in Russia reached out to her. Klimova is a journalist, and she had posted a column to a news website expressing her dismay about the draft propaganda law. Nadya, who faced ruthless bullying at school and didn’t have support from her mother, contacted Klimova to thank her for the column, saying that it had helped keep her from committing suicide.

After speaking with Nadya, Klimova wondered why nobody was doing anything to help LGBTI youth in Russia: “Many of them close in on themselves, they don’t tell anyone. They are scared of parents and classmates. If they open up, parents sometimes beat them, insult them, throw them out, take away their phones, ban them from going on the internet and even lock them up in a psychiatric clinic.”

Klimova set up Deti-404 as an online support group for LGBTI youth. The name of the group is a play on the familiar internet message “Error 404, Page Not Found,” suggesting that LGBTI youth are unable to be visible in Russia.  On the Russian social networking site В Kонтакте (VK), Deti-404’s closed group for LGBTI youth had nearly 2,000 members as of last September, and the open group now has over 20,000 supporters. Deti-404’s parallel Facebook site has over 3,900 likes, and a supporter in the United Kingdom has started a blog posting English translations of Deti-404 posts.

"I refuse to be invisible" Image courtesy of Ivan Simochkin, Wikimedia Commons
“I refuse to be invisible!”
Image courtesy of Ivan Simochkin, Wikimedia Commons

Deti-404’s main approach is a photo campaign. LGBTI youth are invited to send in photographs, drawings, or other images, along with personal testimony about their experiences coming out, falling in love, or facing stigma and discrimination. To date, the site has published more than 1,000 letters from LGBTI youth. Klimova and her team also provide teenagers with contact information for LGBTI-friendly psychologists.

On January 31, 2014, Russian authorities launched proceedings against Klimova for violations of the propaganda law. Russian LGBTI teenagers turned to Deti-404 to express their support for Klimova and their fears that authorities would shut down Deti-404, including these posts:

Я только нашла эту группу (долго я искала=)), только нормально поверила, что смогу принять себя как человека, и тут такое… Без боя свой кусочек свободы не отдам!

I just found this group (I looked for a long time =)), and I just began to believe that I could accept myself as a person, and now this happens. . . I won’t give up my piece of freedom without a fight!

Если закроют и это место, где я впервые почувствовала себя хоть немного свободной – Капут. Как можно то… У меня не укладывается это в голове. Поддерживаю, бедная Лена…

If they shut down this site, where I for the first time felt a little free – kaput. How could they . . . I can’t wrap my head around it. I support you, poor Elena…

This post is the third 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 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

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

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 of a Rainbow Flashmob in St. Petersburg on the 2009 International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, courtesy Воскресенский Пётр, Wikimedia Commons.