Russia: how a mother tried to send her gay son to psychiatric hospital
When a Russian family found out their son was gay five years ago, it set off a chain of events which are still ongoing.
Egor Panin was serially hospitalised, harassed and investigated as a result of being gay and wanting to lead his own life. A young man who grew up in Nizhny Novgorod, five years ago Panin sought to escape his controlling family after they found out he was gay. As a result, he found himself in a chain of hospitalisation, police questioning and harassment by family members who forcefully gave him medication that turned him, in his words, into a “vegetable”. In the two years since award-winning journalist Sergey Khazov-Cassia originally reported this story for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the case has sadly continued, with Panin and a friend who helped him still in hiding - and lawyers still fighting on their behalf.
This week, on 13 August, Sergey Khazov-Cassia will read extracts of his 2017 novel “The Gospel According To”, as part of an event exploring ongoing struggles for queer liberation ongoing in Russia and Poland. As the translator of the article and novel Reuben Woolley notes, the novel’s plot bears a striking resemblance to Egor’s real-life struggle, despite being written as the events were still unfolding. This event will also collect donations for the Moscow Community Centre, Russia’s only year-round shelter for LGBTQ+ people.
Panin’s story turns on the mechanisms of Russia’s criminal justice system, and the ways in which homophobia and bureaucracy manifest in that system. Once a criminal case in Russia is opened, it becomes incredibly hard to close, and the easiest way to do so – particularly from the perspective of lawyers and police officers – is to arrest and jail the suspect, regardless of their guilt or innocence. Fabricated and under-investigated cases can meet targets and complete statistics, which take precedence over achieving any kind of justice.
Egor Panin refuses to give us his phone number, and requests that we don’t include the city he’s living in or his job. But bit-by-bit Panin, 20 years old at the time, tells us that it’s not just his relatives who are searching for him, Russian law enforcement officials are, too. In January 2018, for example, he was detained and kept in the administrative building of the Moscow region Investigative Committee until his mother arrived from Nizhny Novgorod. It was on the attempt following this one that Egor successfully managed to escape. The police search should have been long since cancelled, but Egor is once again being searched for.
Panin lived with his younger brother and parents in the centre of Nizhny Novgorod; his mother Elena Panina’s three grown-up children from her first marriage lived separately. Egor tells us that his mother de-facto socially isolated him and his brother: he was home-schooled from seventh grade, his brother from first. There was always trouble in the house, according to Egor. As he tells it, his mother suddenly became incredibly “strict” one day – refusing to call her children by their name, referring to them only as “schizos” or “schizoids”, forcing them to put her shoes on for her, and degrading and beating them.
At the end of 2014, Egor’s mother read his conversations on VKontakte, a popular social media website, and discovered that her son was gay. “It made everything worse, so much worse that I couldn’t bear it any longer,” he says. According to Egor, his mother and other members of the family would beat both him and his brother. Worse still, he claims that their family friends, the psychiatrists Alexander Pershin and his wife Larisa Orekhova, would also pressure him. They would come to the house frequently and prescribe various treatments – tablets and injections to make him a “normal person”, mostly neuroleptics and antidepressants.
In January 2015, 17-year-old Egor ran away to Moscow. Yaroslav (whose surname Egor asked to be kept secret), a 20-year old resident of Lubertsy [a Moscow suburb] who he’d met on VKontakte, agreed to let him stay over for a couple of weeks, until he could find work and rent himself a flat. Egor’s parents went to the police, and then traveled straight to Moscow themselves. It seems that the police refused to open a search investigation. The boy had left with identification, money and his telephone, but Egor’s mother was after a charge under Article 105 of Russia’s criminal code – murder.
The murder “victim” in question was coaxed out of hiding by a conversation on VKontakte: an officer of Russia’s Investigative Committee talked to him under the guise of a potential sexual partner, though Egor insists that he knew exactly who he was talking to the whole time, and was simply “trolling” the officer. The Investigative Committee managed to bring him out of hiding eventually via an acquaintance from Nizhny Novgorod. Egor and Yaroslav went to the meeting together: they entered a fast-food restaurant, where uniformed officers restrained them and threw them in the back of a black 4x4.
After the two were questioned and released that night, Egor says that he heard his mother calling Alexander Pershin, the psychiatrist, agreeing the arrangements for having him treated in hospital. Despite the fact that they had taken his passport and telephone, Egor decided to run away again.
The first attempt was unsuccessful: his mother noticed her son’s absence and paid a neighbour to find him by car. That evening, Egor bundled himself up in a duvet and jumped from his second-floor window into a pile of snow, and then hitchhiked to St Petersburg. Once again, his mother alerted the authorities to open an investigation.
In St Petersburg, Egor recorded a video in which he called on his family and the authorities not to search for him. Egor eventually ran out of money, and decided to return to Nizhny Novgorod of his own accord. He’d phoned in advance to a number of children’s institutions, settling on the Lastochka centre (“Sparrow”), a rehabilitation centre for the underage.
After several days, Egor’s mother visited the Lastochka centre with her bodyguard, and spent some time shut in the director’s office. Here the stories diverge: the centre’s director Ekaterina Pergayeva told RFE/RL that when they met, Egor talked to his mother normally, and willingly left for home; it was only later from the press that Pergayeva found out his mother had decided to place him in a psychiatric clinic.
According to Egor, he was certain that Pergayeva would keep her word, and he would be allowed to stay either at the Lastochka centre or a similar institution until he reached 18. He refused to talk to his mother, told everyone that he didn’t want to return to his family and had asked for his mother’s maternal rights to be removed, but medical staff removed him from the centre, and then transferred him to a psychiatric hospital. “There were medics and doctors, and mum’s going on about ‘homosexual tendencies’ and ‘imaginary friends’, at first I thought ‘what the hell?’ and then I realised that’s it, I’m not getting out of here.”
After discovering that Egor was being held in a psychiatric hospital, Yaroslav got a few friends together to help him out. A site appeared online in his defence, young people appealed to journalists, as well as to human rights advocates and the internet project “Children 404”, which offers help to LGBT teens. A human rights lawyer tried to visit Egor, but was prevented access by his mother. But it wasn’t just the boy’s defence that was making a lot of noise. The Life News TV station released multiple reports in which it was “confirmed” that Egor had been held in “gay slavery” in Moscow, that the young boy had been repeatedly raped, forced to wear women’s clothing and take feminising hormones, and that it was supposedly only thanks to the strenuous efforts of his mother that the teen was torn from the grasp of the paedophiles.
Elena Panina alleged in the news report that Egor had been “made” gay in Moscow, before that he had “had normal interactions with girls”. Correspondents of Life News talked directly with Egor, though he claims they cut any mention he made of being held in the hospital against his will. Yaroslav has also provided edited screenshots of his conversation with Life News correspondent Gleb Trifonov, where he threatens that he will publish Yaroslav’s address if he doesn’t agree to an interview. According to Yaroslav, the same Trifonov once called him and pretended to be a police investigator. Incidentally, Trifonov’s name appears nowhere on any Life News reporting regarding Panin.
“Nobody talked to me at all for the first two weeks in hospital,” Egor remembers. But after the scandal broke, both his relatives and doctors began pressuring him into giving a statement about his sexual slavery. Egor says the psychiatrists pressured him, as well as giving him medication that made him “like a vegetable”: “I was pushed to the point of breaking down in fits, saliva going everywhere, I couldn’t understand who or where I was.”
Psychiatrist Valentin Fiseisky confirmed in conversation with RFE/RL that Egor was treated in his department, but when asked about Egor’s accusation that he was held in the hospital by force, responded that “it is his right to say that”. Egor was released after a month, having being forced to sign an agreement as a condition of his discharge, stating that he agreed with the hospitalisation, and would be transferred to a day clinic. He states that there were a great number of documents, and he was in no condition to read them.
In August 2015, Egor moved to his brother Roman’s in Moscow to study at law school, but Elena Panina refused to give in. In mid-September Egor heard that a new criminal case was to be opened. Once again he was taken to the Investigative Committee, this time with a new plan: to tell the investigator the truth, that nobody had kidnapped him, and that no one had raped him. The investigator spent the whole day questioning his mother, his sister Irina and his brother Roman, only getting to Egor himself by the evening. At first he was made to sign a statement acknowledging himself as the victim of a crime, and was then not listened to when he insisted on his own version of events. His mother stated that the boy had a sharp increase in schizophrenic behaviours, and that he needed medical help.
Egor was once again taken to his brother Roman’s apartment, and the following day he once again ran away. Nobody had left him home alone this time: he was taken out to “run errands”, asked to go to the toilet, and escaped to St Petersburg. “I managed to learn via my relatives that the investigator had changed. My brother (Roman Shushpanov) told me that I could come back and tell the truth, that nothing will happen to me. So I decided to go back to Lubertsy and give my statement.”
The new investigator refused to start questioning the underaged child without his mother present, and when the parents arrived at the Investigative Committee, Elena Panina said that the boy looked ill, and was not able to take part in any questioning. Elena and Nikolay Panin, as well as their driver, restrained Egor and took him to Nizhny Novgorod. Egor resisted as best he could: at Moscow’s Kursk train station, he threw his suitcase under the train, and tried to explain to the arriving policemen that he was being taken away by force, but his parents started shouting about having saved him from paedophilic imprisonment: “Come on now Egor Nikolayevich, you’ll have to go” was all the officer said.
In December 2015, Egor turned 18, but his parents kept him at home until May 2016 – this whole time, according to him, he was pressured and encouraged to give a statement, and forced to take so many forms of medication that he began drooling uncontrollably once more, and feeling like a “vegetable” – the “treatments” were once again administered with the help of family friends Alexander Peshin and Larisa Orekhova.
Elena Panina told Egor’s relatives that Yaroslav had held him at his home, taken away his mobile, abused him, fed him feminising hormones and “other medications”, and “forced him to find work”. In May, Egor ran away to St Petersburg – once more to his ‘master’, who had supposedly already beaten and abused him there. At the same time, Elena Panina and her son Roman Shushpanov tried to find Egor, meeting with Yaroslav and his mother. According to Yaroslav, Panina even made an agreement with one of his neighbours that they would message her every time he went outside.
The case continues
In each year of the events described, the Investigative Committee opened different criminal cases relating to Yaroslav: in October 2015 for violent sexual conduct in relation to an under-aged individual, which was allegedly carried out in Moscow; in November 2016 for the same charge, but according to the events described, apparently taking place this time in St Petersburg, and finally in August 2017 for the alleged theft of a mobile phone. These cases were later merged into a single investigation.
In December 2015, the investigation was taken over by investigator Oleg Tselipotkin, then given to Ekaterina Bulychevaya, who remains the case’s main investigator. “Tselipotkin’s round of questioning was the most telling,” says Yaroslav, who says that the investigator explained that he was investigating the case as a mere formality. “For me that was the full stop”. In February 2016 (still without any evidence from Egor) he was named the subject of a federal search, then the following year they put out a warrant for his arrest. By the day of the trial, Egor had been moved out of harm’s way to the United Arab Emirates, and when the investigator enquired about the possibility of his taking part in the proceedings, head doctor Aleksandr Minayev responded that Egor was being treated in the day ward, and was unable to take part at the present time.
In May 2016, Egor left for his brother Roman’s place in Moscow without asking, but his parents didn’t bring him straight back. There was apparently also no questioning planned for that summer: “Back then I had no plan for how to get out of this situation, it seemed like everyone had left me alone,” says Egor. In fact, they hadn’t “left him alone” at all – without the evidence of the victim the case wouldn’t stick, but so long as his mother was only in Moscow in short bursts, he was able to resist the pressurising.
At first, Egor’s mother explained his absence to the investigator by saying that he was going through rehabilitation after the moral trauma he’d received, although in actual fact Egor was living and studying in Moscow. Egor was taken back to Nizhny Novgorod for several rounds of questioning, and according to him was “under the influence of medication” every time, meaning he understood very little of what was going on, and signed whatever his mother made him sign. The first questioning of the victim occurred almost a year after the opening of the case.
The new escape plan was formulated in October 2017, when the situation in the Panin household reached boiling point. Egor and his little brother were living in Moscow by then and studying at the same college, but they went and visited Nizhny Novgorod. Things went horribly at home, the sons argued for a long time with their mother, and Pershin and Orekhova came to her rescue.
“Mum called the medics, the police, she told them that we wanted to kill her,” says Egor, “she went downstairs and spent ages walking around in the stairwell, calling anyone she could, while my brother listened from the window. The Pershins finally agreed, and the medics came. They couldn’t get into the flat anyway as they didn’t have keys, so we locked the door and went to sleep. While we slept, they knocked the door down and grabbed us, put us in handcuffs, we screamed, my brother started swearing to try and stop them beating us, so they tasered him. In the ambulance they beat us again and I got tasered too.” Egor was discharged from psychiatric hospital five days later: according to him, this was only after he’d promised doctor Valentin Fiseisky that he would give the Investigative Committee the required statement.
In November 2017, Egor ran away from his brother again, this time dropping out of the college his mother had paid for; he rented accommodation and even went to the Investigative Committee, where he gave a statement saying he rejected all prior evidence which he had given regarding the case. At the same time, Elena Panina declared her son to be missing once more (although he was now a legal adult), and simultaneously wrote complaints to prosecutors of various ranks about investigator Bulycheva stating that she had not been attentively investigating the case, failing to search for either the accused or her son. Her son was eventually found.
In January 2018 Egor was arrested in the metro near his home and taken to the Investigative Committee. At first he wrote an explanation regarding his going missing, then spent a long time giving evidence to investigator Bulycheva. Egor asserts that he asked Bulycheva not to call his family because they would exert pressure on him, but all the same, later that evening Elena Panina and Egor’s older sister arrived with their lawyer. “She [Elena Panina] repeated it a thousand times over, ‘look what he’s saying, he’s lost it again’,” says Egor. The young man ultimately agreed to go with his relatives to show them the accommodation he’d rented, but deliberately got off at the wrong bus stop, and that was that.
RFE/RL passed on materials for Egor and Yaroslav’s cases to Russia Behind Bars, an organisation which helps prisoners and their families and has agreed to provide legal support to both young men. According to the head of the foundation’s legal department, Alexey Fedyarov, the chances of “ruining” the case are high: “I consider it absolute madness that an of-age person who is in no way restricted of legal capability can be declared missing by his relatives, because it seems to them that a crime was committed in relation to him. Not to mention the fact that the criminal case itself is based on evidence which was obtained under extremely strange circumstances – after the search warrant for him, after being sent to hospital, after his being forcibly kept at home, I would not see this case being long-lived.” According to Fedyarov, the first task for the foundation’s lawyers will be to take Egor Panin off the missing persons list, and then “they will deal with the main issue”.
Update from Sergey Khasov-Cassia, 30 July 2020:
Two years on, the investigation remains open. After my article was published, Egor’s case was taken on by Russia Behind Bars, the charity for prisoners and their families mentioned in the final paragraph. They found a lawyer for him, and he went for several more rounds of questioning at the Investigative Committee to tell them that no rape had taken place, that the case had been fabricated entirely due to constant pressure from his mother.
Elena Panina went to the extent of writing a statement to the Investigative Committee requesting that they interview me, in order to reveal her son’s hiding place. The investigator attempted to summon me by phone, I asked for the official summons to be sent to me personally, but no summons was sent: there was no legal basis upon which to question me. The lawyer from Russia Behind Bars has managed to have Egor’s mother removed from the case as the victim’s official guardian. None of this, according to the investigator, has helped to solve the matter: in their own words, the management of the Investigative Committee is refusing to close the criminal case, regardless of Egor’s own evidence.
Yaroslav still has an arrest warrant out on him, and is still, therefore, forced to stay in hiding.
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