"You have to start improving yourself to improve Russia"

I spoke to four Russian gay men on discrimination, rights and Vladimir Putin. Here's what they said. 

Kirill Guskov
15 June 2016

2013: gay rights activists carry rainbow flags as they march during a May Day rally in St Petersburg. (c) Dmitry Lovetsky / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The current geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the west has partially taken gay rights in Russia off the international agenda.

But back in 2013, Russia’s LGBT community attracted worldwide attention after the parliament passed the so-called “gay propaganda law”, which was designed to “protect children from information advocating for a denial of traditional family values". In short, the law, though applied selectively, bans the distribution of information that recognises "non-traditional sexual relationships" as an acceptable social norm among children. Possible punishment includes fines for individuals, officials and legal entities. Legal entities might face suspension of operations for 90 days. Foreigners can be detained or deported.

Since 2013, Russia has seen a rise in homophobic attacks. People are beaten, humiliated and even murdered. But it isn’t always clear whether these crimes are motivated by homophobia or by other factors. The ILGA-Europe Rainbow Index tracks how policies, laws and practices affect the lives of LGBT people across 49 European countries on a percentage basis (0% = no equality, 100% = full equality). According to the index, in 2015, Russia came 48 out of 49, with an overall score of 8% (Azerbaijan scored lower). In 2016, that score decreased to 7%.

Meanwhile, president Putin continues to defend the “gay propaganda” law, insisting that gay people in Russia do not face discrimination. For example, in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes in 2015, Putin claimed: “We have no persecution at all. People of non-traditional sexual orientation work, they live in peace, they get promoted, they get state awards for their achievements in science and arts or other areas. I personally have awarded them medals.” Speaking about Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law, Putin stated that he doesn’t “see anything un-democratic in this legal act".

I decided to talk to 16 young gay men (18-35) about discrimination, expanding LGBT rights and their views on the Russian government and Vladimir Putin. We chatted on Russian social network VKontakte — unfortunately, they refused to meet in person. Some of their comments shocked me, but I believe that everyone is entitled to an opinion. Eventually, I selected the following four interviews as I felt they were representative of the other men’s views.

Have you ever experienced discrimination based on your sexuality? Have ever had any issues, including psychological ones, because of your sexual orientation?

Alexander, 34, Moscow

I haven’t felt any discrimination as such. Of course, I have had some issues. The most difficult thing was to accept myself because I was raised in a Christian family and I was a Protestant. The second most difficult thing was my family’s refusal to accept me. It was a difficult time for everyone: for my father, my mother, my sister and for me. I do not hide my sexuality from anyone. I do not want to maintain any relationship with those who are unhappy about that.

For me, the most important thing is the acceptance of my family. I do not care about others.

Roman, 19, Saint Petersburg

When I was almost 14, I went to the internet and found out that my desire was called homosexuality and it was condemned by the society. At that time, I began to suppress the desire because I was scared of being beaten. No one knew that I was gay until I turned 18. I have always accepted myself. I could understand one thing: why do people gang up against me for something that was given to me at birth?

Vlad, 24, Yaroslavl

When I was in ninth grade, I went to a birthday party. I drank too much and could not control myself. I kissed my classmate. I don’t know how I did that! He beat and then I went through this hell. My school was small and rumors flew quickly. I was humiliated. Everyone picked on me. Some friends thought that it was a sort of trolling. I was thinking about committing a suicide for the whole year.

Time went by and I managed to survive. I moved to a different city and decided to start a new life. I focused on studying and did not have any relationship until I left my new school. Up until now I haven’t felt too much pressure because I have been hiding my sexuality. Yes, I have got some friends who know about me. They fully support me. We even exchange jokes about my sexuality. And these are my male friends, not girls, who are either married or have children. At first they did not believe me. They told me that that I was lying, but they could not understand why I was doing that. Today they understand and accept me.

Nikolai (name changed), 20, Moscow

I was bullied by degenerates, chavs at school. Everyone, who should know, knows about my sexual orientation. I do not hide it, but some people do not need to know.

Are you in favor of expanding LGBT rights? By this I mean introducing civil partnership for same-sex couples, same-sex marriage, adoption of children by a same-sex couple, the repeal of the LGBT propaganda law and legal measures that would specifically protect LGBT people

Alexander, 34, Moscow

Of course, I fully support it. Or, I’d say that I stand for the equation of my rights with heterosexual people. I do not understand why I am the subject of discrimination just because I like people of my own sex.

Roman, 19, Saint Petersburg

I believe that our society has a more negative opinion on different sexual orientations than it should have. And the LGBT movement is partly responsible for this perception. They have chosen crazy tactics to improve public opinion about the LGBT community in Russia. To hold a parade when everyone hates you is like to shake a piece of meat in front of a hungry, crazy and chained dog: sooner or later the chain will break. The dog should be fed regularly and well fed so that it would look at meat indifferently.

In other words, it is necessary to develop very subtle methods to work with people. In any case, it is important not to attract attention to gay people. In Russia, this doesn’t work. But who knows what will happen in 10-20 years?

Vlad, 24, Yaroslavl

I do not try and do not want to fight for LGBT rights. It is pointless with our Russian mentality. This is not what the people need right now. When a person has food, home, a good salary ... then he or she will not care about other people’s sexual preferences. To a greater extent I blame the media for all negative things about us.

Nikolai (name changed), 20, Moscow

I'm in favor of same-sex marriage etc. Russia is xenophobic and patriarchal, but the new era is about to begin and we will have to keep up with the times. We lack of tolerance towards each other!

Some people say that the government and church have been waging a war against our rights and liberties. Has this process affected you? Are you concerned? Have you felt the growing level of hatred in the Russian society?

Alexander, 34, Moscow

I feel that the level of tolerance has decreased sharply compared with the 2000s. I am a historian. This process scares me and makes me constantly to draw historical parallels.

The most annoying thing is the parochialism of my colleagues and friends. They say that in general, the Russian state and church are going in the right direction. And when I try to explain that it specifically affects me — their acquaintance, friend and colleague — they immediately respond: "Well, it does not affect you because we know you personally."

Roman, 19, Saint Petersburg

I believe the state has the right to choose how society will develop. And normally, what the state does corresponds to the will of the people. In reality, things may be different. If they prohibit propaganda, they should ban propaganda of everything: children must be isolated from certain information until they reach a certain age. Or, they should not ban anything. In this case parents should explain to their children everything.

The government should tell parents that they have no right to condemn a child for their choice of sexual orientation. However, parents have the right to express their wishes to the child, saying things like "we want grandchildren and if you're gay, we will be a little bit sad when we get old." And in fact, that’d basically be utopia — I cannot say responsibly what would be better for our society.

The ban on propaganda of non-traditional values is a very severe blow to gay people. It will definitely drive driven a certain percentage of people against the gay community. If the state condemns it, they think they can too — that’s how you generate violence. However, I have never encountered violence, I am very careful. I do not let anyone interfere with my personal life.

Vlad, 24, Yaroslavl

What’s happening is nonsense. The country should ban alcohol and cigarettes. You can’t teach sexuality to a child. It is a state of mind... The world is stupid and cowardly. Something new has always scared us. This is a norm.

Nikolai (name changed), 20, Moscow

No law against gay people has personally affected me, but I'm worried about it. I am fed up with Milonov [Vitaly Milonov, Member of the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg], Mizulina [Yelena Mizulina, former Duma MP, Senator in the Council of Federation] and all those morons who sit in the government.

Vladimir Putin’s critics claim that the Russian government promotes anti-gay sentiments. In 2013, the Russian parliament passed the infamous gay propaganda law. It was Vladimir Putin who signed it. It is the Russian police that cannot protect gay people (and not only them) from thugs.

In 2016, Meduza and Radio Liberty conducted investigations into the Russian state’s unwillingness to protect gay people. Daniil Turovsky, Meduza's special correspondent, discovered that a group of around 20 men had been operating in Saint Petersburg for more than a year. Members of the group approached gay men on websites, arranging a fake date, and then beat the victims and robbed them. These attacks have not been properly investigated, and are part of a broader pattern of non-investigation into hate crimes.

It is logical to hold president Putin and his government to account. Do you support the government led by Vladimir Putin?

Alexander, 34, Moscow

I have never supported the current government. The usurpation of power and blatant seizure of power is not the best way to establish civil society.

Roman, 19, Saint Petersburg

I can’t help but support Putin. I just do not see a better candidate. Medvedev has already given a taste of his qualities during the intervention in Libya in 2011... Oh well, it's his fault. Liberals now... Well, they are simply liberasti [an offensive word that people use for liberals, it resonates with a common pejorative term]. They will not do anything good for the country. Overdose with freedom will not kill worse than heroin. Russians still need a strong leader who will teach and guide them.

Vlad, 24, Yaroslavl

I am a political scientist. I really respect Putin because I already know many things in this life and work as a civil servant. I can see from the inside how mechanisms work. We should not blame Putin. He knows that the country is huge, so it is too early to make it more gay friendly. He has never been a homophobe. He is a competent person.

Nikolai (name changed), 20, Moscow

I don’t have any opinion about Putin. Many people complain about him. Ok, find a better candidate, for f***’ sake!

Emigration levels from Russia have risen steadily in the past few years since Putin’s return to the Kremlin due to the economic and political situation in the country. In 2015, a record number of 265,086 Russian citizens applied for the U.S. green card lottery, compared to 167,600 in 2012.

Do you want to leave Russia?

Alexander, 34, Moscow

Yes, I do. I want to live in a country where there is social and civil justice, where I can be confident that my interests and freedoms are protected at the state level and enshrined in legal form, regardless of income and personal connections.

Roman, 19, Saint Petersburg

No, I do not want to leave Russia. I am going try to gain a foothold here, grow up professionally in a particular field, and get an understanding of what I want to do. Then I’ll decide whether I can achieve my goals in Russia or in Europe.

Vlad, 24, Yaroslavl

I love Russia. I do not want to leave, but I'd like to visit San Francisco.

Nikolai (name changed), 20, Moscow

It may sound ridiculous, but I am a patriot. Today it is fashionable to criticise Russia. But you have to start improving yourself to improve Russia, other people will join you. And we are just saying “oh, ah” and thinking about leaving Russia.

What would you do to improve the status of the LGBT community in Russia if you were in charge?

Alexander, 34, Moscow

I'm not a politician. I’d probably pay attention to the development of the secular state and separation of church from politics. We should renounce the principles of the imperial trinity formed in the 19th century: "Orthodoxy. Autocracy. Nationality" [the conservative concept developed to symbolize the unity between the Tsar, his subjects and the Orthodox church].

Roman, 19, Saint Petersburg

I'd launch a few TV programs where people would discuss various issues relating to morality: what should be condemned and why, what should be encouraged and why and what should be treated neutrally.

Perhaps it would make sense to discuss taboo subjects, but it would be a very short list. Over time, I would explain why gay and other people (e.g. people with disabilities, from disadvantaged backgrounds) should be treated in a particular way. Basically, we’d have to work on a new set of moral standards of modern society with explanations.

Vlad, 24, Yaroslavl

I would say that Russia is not ready to accept gay people. The country is young and as strong as she has never been before. Our country has been attacked for hundreds of years, it has no time for everyday problems.

Nikolai (name changed), 20, Moscow

If I were president, I would take radical measures. I’d criminalise any humiliation and violence against the LGBT community. Everyone must be treated equally under the law.

Is it time to pay reparations?

The Black Lives Matter movement has renewed demands from activists in the US and around the world seeking compensation for the legacies of slavery and colonialism. But what would a reparative economic agenda practically entail and what models exist around the world?

Join us for this free live discussion at 5pm UK time (12pm EDT), Thursday 17 June.

Hear from:

  • Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: Author of Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership
  • Esther Stanford-Xosei: Jurisconsult, Pan-Afrikan Reparations Coalition in Europe (PARCOE).
  • Ronnie Galvin: Managing Director for Community Investment, Greater Washington Community Foundation and Senior Fellow, The Democracy Collaborative.
  • Chair, Aaron White: North American economics editor, openDemocracy
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