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  • Writer's pictureChristian Gersbacher

Queer Life in Russia: The lost freedom

Photo by Alina Perekatenkova

No censorship, freedom of assembly, expression and the press, free enterprise.

In the early 1990s, people in Russia began to discover their freedoms.

Perestroika and glasnost had fundamentally changed the country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the situation for LGBTQ* had also initially eased.

In 1993, Russia abolished the criminalisation of homosexuality and a small but lively LGBTQ* community emerged in Moscow with clubs and queer parties. More and more online services were created on the internet, such as the well-known portal "", which reports on current issues in the community and does educational work.

In recent years, there has been a turnaround. LGBTQ* rights were systematically restricted more and more. Incitement against queer people became a means of political power. Many queer people in Russia today experience contempt and exclusion. How did it come about that queer people lost the freedom and self-determination they had achieved in the early 1990s?

The turnaround followed under Putin

In 2013, "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" was banned by law. This means that films showing queer people, for example, must be labelled "from 18 years of age". Such content has been completely banned from state television. The law is supposed to protect children from dangerous information. In reality, however, it violates the right to freedom of expression and makes queer people invisible.

Hatred against LGBTQ* was first instrumentalised through propaganda campaigns equating homosexuality with paedophilia. Again and again, the protection of children was argued. LGBTQ* are portrayed in the Russian media as people with a "disease from the West" that endangers the traditional Russian family image. When the first vote on the legal ban on "homosexual propaganda" took place in parliament on 25 January 2013, some protesters from the LGBTQ* scene gathered in front of the parliament building. A group of thugs waited for the peaceful demonstrators and pelted them with eggs and beat them up. The police stood idly near the scene for a while until they finally arrested not the thugs but some of the queer demonstrators.

Public protests for LGBTQ* rights and positive expressions of opinion about homosexuality and transsexuality have been made punishable in Russia: 5,000 roubles, about 70 euros, fine for individuals, up to one million roubles, about 14,000 euros, for businesses. Pride demos are banned.

Same-sex partnerships are not recognised and, since 2013, adoption by same-sex couples abroad has also been banned.

After the passing of the bill against "homosexual propaganda", Moscow began to present itself internationally in right-wing conservative circles as a "role model" for their nation's independence from "Western propaganda for homosexuals". Queer people were increasingly declared "public enemies of the state" by "paedophiles". They were now portrayed as agents of foreign countries and a threat from the USA, aiming to destroy Russian tradition and society.

The restriction of LGBTQ* rights was touted as a return of Russian sovereignty and traditional cultural identity. Russia's independence from the values "imposed" by Western countries.

Sex: a taboo in school and society

Post-Soviet society is familiar with two women kissing from pornographic films. It is seen with pleasure as long as the women look good. At night, openly lesbian couples can sometimes be seen kissing on the streets of Moscow. The situation is much different for homosexual men: Being gay in Russian society is punished with rejection or even violence. Conservative patriarchal role models still characterise many areas in Russia today.

Sexuality education is almost non-existent in Russian schools. There are hardly any textbooks suitable for sex education. Talking about homosexuality in class is basically forbidden. Talking openly about sex is considered depraved and dangerous for children. There is a law to protect children from "harmful information". As a result, many adults in Russia still lack sex education today.

Photo by Alexander Popov

Techo parties as political protest

There have been repeated cases of people being mobbed and beaten up outside LGBTQ* clubs. A sad example of this is the incidents in one of Moscow's former largest gay clubs "Zentralnaja Stanzija" ("Central Station"). Unknown persons tried to inject poisonous gas into the ventilation system of the building, and on another occasion two attackers shot at each other with pistols in front of the club. In the meantime, the club has withdrawn from the centre of Moscow and is located outside the city. Queer paryts and events are now mostly announced only through non-public Facebook groups. Some of these groups now have thousands of members. Russian LGBTQ* activist Nikolai Alexeyev had been trying to organise a Pride in Moscow since 2006. However, Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzhkov had repeatedly and successfully banned them by the police. Alexeyev was temporarily arrested in St. Petersburg in 2012 and sentenced to a fine because of a poster with the inscription: "Homosexuality is not a perversion". The court had found him guilty of "homosexuality propaganda in front of young people". This was despite the fact that no youths were present at the time.

Dmitri Kisseljow: Main figure of Russian propaganda

Dmitry Kiselyov is one of the best-known television faces in Russia. He is the general director of the state news agency Rossiya Sevodnya, to which the news portal Sputnik belongs. On his weekly show on Rosiya, he said:

"I think it is not enough to punish gays and homosexual propaganda among adolescents. If they strive in a car accident, their hearts should be burned or buried in the ground, because they are no good for someone to continue living."

Situation because of rainbow packaging

In 2005, an anti-LGBTQ* initiative called "The People's Council" was founded in St. Petersburg with the aim of "transforming Russia on the basis of traditional and moral values". They filed a lawsuit against a milk producer because a rainbow is printed on their packaging. The printing of the rainbow is a clear sign of open propaganda for the LGBTQ* movement and violates the law prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality among minors.

LGBTQ* -organizations become foreign agents

In 2012, disagreeable organizations, including the Russian LGBTQ* network, were already declared "foreign agents". Meanwhile, the Russian LGBTQ* movement must hope not to be completely criminalized. This year, numerous journalists or activists have already been classified as "foreign agents" in Russia. This compels them to mark all their publications.

In December, the closure of the well-known human rights organization Memorial by Russian authorities drew international criticism. Prosecutors had accused them of violating a law on foreign agents. Memorial had recently been subjected to the repression of critics under President Vladimir Putin

Photo by Valery Tenevoy

Anti-LGBTQ* sentiment on the rise

The most well-known initiative is probably "Occupy Pedophilia", which publicly advocates the position that paedophiles are the same as homosexuals.

A widely popular tool is to lure homosexuals into "fake dates" and then humiliate, beat or even blackmail them for money to avoid being outed to their family. The initiative released video clips of gay people being humiliated on camera and promising to have sex with someone of the same sex again.

In 2013, 23-year-old Vladislav Tornovoy was tortured and cruelly killed by two young men in Volgograd. The reason was apparently that Vladislav had spoken openly with the two about his homosexuality. The perpetrators felt that this hurt their "patriotic feelings" and finally beat Vladislav's head with a stone until he died. Instead of doing something about this vigilante justice, Russian policy encourages it by using increasingly aggressive rhetoric towards the LGBTQ* community. Activists repeatedly complain of hatred, incitement and increasing brutal attacks on homosexuals, which often remain without consequences.

Russian LGBTQ* activist Yelena Grigorieva murdered

On the evening of 21 July 2019, Russian LGBTQ* activist Yelena Grigorieva is murdered with multiple stab wounds. She criticised Russia's Ukraine policy, fought for LGBTQ* rights and against discrimination.

Yelena was found dead in a bush a few hundred metres from her home in Saint Petersburg. There had probably been several death threats against the activist. Acquaintances from Jelena's circle criticise the police for failing to act each time.

Dangerous consequences for activists

The consequences of activism and critical voices against the government have been shown by the case of the well-known Kremlin critic and blogger Alexei Nawalny: he was poisoned and subsequently arrested. His exposé videos critical of Putin have millions of clicks on YouTube.

Svetlana: Between Protest, Hope and Putin: LGBTQ* in Russia

I spoke with Svetlana of the Berlin-based LGBTQ* organization Quarteera about queer life in Russia. Svetlana was born and raised in the Russian city of Omsk. Among other things, we talk about queer life in Russia and her coming out to her family. Quarteera e.V. is an organization of Russian-speaking LGBTQ* people and their friends in Germany. The episode is available on Spotify.

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