The attacks on Russia’s LGBTQ community continue – prominent activist prosecuted
Authorities in Russia have charged Yulia Tsvetkova with offences relating to pornography and gay propaganda.
Tsvetkova, 26, is a prominent activist focusing on feminism, equality for women, and LGBTQ equality.
The Russian LGBT Network posted an alert about Tsvetkova’s detention on 22 November, and the Moscow Times is now reporting that she has been formally charged and a trial date has been set for 9 December.
This is not the first time that Tsvetkova has attracted the attention of the authorities. In March of this year, she was questioned by authorities in relation to a body-positivity project that she was running.
The project – Women are Not Dolls – featured illustrations that aimed to promote body positivity among young women. The images showed women dealing with body hair, wrinkles, menstruation and fat, accompanied by text beginning with “Real women have…” and ending with “… and this is all normal!”
Police questioned Tsvetkova about the Women Are Not Dolls illustrations after an anonymous complaint was filed that the drawings had the ‘potential to defile children’.
Around the same time, a theatre festival directed by Tsvetkova was banned by the local mayor’s office on the grounds that the performances were LGBTQ propaganda.
These latest charges seem to have stemmed from something that Tsvetkova has posted on her social media – according to statements that her lawyer has made to local media. According to Tsvetkova’s mother, one of the topics that Tsvetkova has been publishing about recently is called Vagina Monologues – aimed at erasing taboos around menstruation and the anatomy of the vagina.
If Tsvetkova is convicted of the charges she is facing, the penalty could be a fine of up to 100,000 rubles (the equivalent of around USD$1,500).
Social Media Censorship
An example of how LGBTQ voices are being silenced in Russia is the recent decision by a court in St Petersburg – the court ruled in favour of an application to block the Russian LGBT Network from the social media platform Vkontakte.
The court based its ruling on monitoring of the website of the Russian LGBT Network.
It’s alleged by the state prosecutor that the monitoring revealed:
- Information “which neglects family values, promotes nontraditional sexual relations and forms disrespect to parents and/or other family members”; and
- “pictures, photos and video content demonstrating homosexual love between men and women” which is “considered to be promotion of nontraditional sexual relations.”
The Russian LGBT Network has lodged an appeal against the ruling with the St Petersburg City Court.
“The Russian LGBT Network is a human rights organisation…” said Svetlana Zakharova, a board member of the Russian LGBT Network. “We don’t post any material that should be restricted to adults. We talk about discrimination and violation of human rights, and we provide help to everyone – including teenagers. We will continue to fight for our right to share this information.”
The murder of Yelena Grigoryeva
One of the recent acts of violence that shocked the LGBTQ community around the world was the murder in St Petersburg of activist Yelena Grigoryeva.
According to reporting by the BBC, 41-year-old Grigoryeva was found dead – in bushes near her home – on 21 July. Her body had multiple stab wounds and signs of strangulation. She was identified by relatives and friends.
Grigoryeva has been a long-standing campaigner for human rights in Russia. Along with campaigning for LGBTQ rights, Grigoryeva has also demonstrated against Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, the ill-treatment of prisoners, and a number of other human rights causes.
It’s believed that Grigoryeva has previously received death threats and reported these to the police, but it’s not clear if those threats are in any way connected to her murder.
Russian news sources indicate that a suspect has been detained in connection with Grigoryeva’s murder.
While the motive for the murder is as yet unknown, the attack against Grigoryeva has heightened the fear and uncertainty of Russia’s LGBTQ community and anti-government activists. It appears to be part of a pattern of violence and intimidation that many trace back to 2013 when the Russian government introduced laws banning ‘gay propaganda’.
In January of 2018, opposition activist Konstantin Sinitsyn was found dead near his home in St Petersburg after suffering head injuries. Police said the attack appeared to be a robbery. In August of 2018, dozens of LGBTQ rights activists were arrested during a banned protest in St Petersburg to promote the rights of sexual minorities.
How does censorship impact Russia’s LGBTQ community?
The government agency that controls the media in Russia is Roskomnadzor. An example of how anti-gay censorship works was recently highlighted by Russia’s LGBT Network.
The Barents Observer is a journalist-owned online newspaper covering the Barents Region and the Arctic. The publication provides news reports from and about Scandinavia, Russia, and the Circumpolar Arctic.
The article that drew the attention of Roskomnadzor was originally written by journalist Marianne Hofman and published in the Swedish edition of Arjeplognytt. The Barents Observer published a translation of the article - in both English and Russian. It was the Russian translation of the article that Roskomnadzor became interested in.
Hofman’s report told the story of Dana Eriksson – a member of the indigenous Saami community from Arjeplog in northern Sweden – who, for many years, struggled with taboos and prejudices related to his homosexuality. Eriksson suffered from severe depression and tried to commit suicide twice. Eriksson’s story is about survival and self-esteem. Today, Eriksson lives happily in Arjeplog and travels extensively, sharing his experience with other LGBTQ people. In Sweden, LGBTQ people have a disproportionately high suicide rate.
In a letter to the Barents Observer, Roskomnadzor claimed that this article violated the provisions of Russian media law. The specific infringements highlighted by Roskomnadzor related to the references to suicide in the article. Roskomnadzor demanded the immediate removal of the article about Dana Eriksson. If the Barents Observer did not comply with this demand then Roskomnadzor threatened that the Barents Observer would be included in Russia’s federal register of internet resources containing information that is prohibited in the Russian Federation – this would result in the restriction of access to the Barents Observer from within Russia.
Thomas Nilsen, the editor of the Barents Observer, confirmed that they would not comply with the demands of the Roskomnadzor.
“Deletion of an article is out of the question…” said Nilsen. “This is an important story. The role of the media is to give a voice to people whose feelings have been suppressed or not recognised. This is a story about a brave man. We are proud to publish an interview prepared by Arjeplognytt.”
This is not the first time that Nilsen and his publication have attracted the attention of Russian authorities. In 2017, Nilsen was included in a Russian stop-list of ‘undesirable’ persons, following which he was denied entry into the Russia.
What’s life like for LGBTQ people in Russia?
We spoke with a representative from the Russian LGBT Network. Due to the security protocols of their organisation, they have asked to remain anonymous.
Did having the FIFA World Cup in Russia have any positive impact for the LGBTQ community?
After the experience of the Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014, we didn’t expect too much from FIFA. It’s always good when people from different countries communicate, and that’s the big positive effect of an event like the World Cup.
However, I don’t think that it changed anything about the situation of the LGBTQ community in Russia. During the World Cup, the police didn’t detain people with rainbow flags. But, a few months ago, 29 people in St Petersburg were detained exactly for that.
There were a number of LGBTQ protest actions taken during the FIFA World Cup – was that helpful for the LGBTQ community in Russia?
In most cases, protest actions are helpful, and we’re grateful to everyone who supported our LGBTQ community while visiting Russia. For instance, Peter Tatchell from the UK bravely protested against the fact that people in Chechnya are still persecuted and that there are no investigations of these crimes. But it’s a pity that the majority of Russian media outlets - most of which are state controlled - didn’t cover these protests.
The national football team of Egypt was criticised for selecting Chechnya as their training base during the FIFA World Cup – do you think that the Egyptian players were used as a propaganda tool by the Chechen government?
It’s not surprising at all that the Chechen authorities tried to use FIFA for their own goals. What was surprising was the official position of FIFA that stated that they didn’t see any problems with the location of the Egyptian team in Grozny. For us, it sent a signal to all of the millions of people who were watching the World Cup - a message that people’s lives are not that important to FIFA.
The situation in Chechnya still seems very dangerous for LGBTQ people - you’re reporting that people are being abducted by their families and taken back to Chechnya. Is there anything that the Russian authorities could do to help try and protect the LGBTQ people of Chechnya?
Even though Chechnya is a very specific region, it’s still part of Russia. We are absolutely sure that the Russian authorities can stop the killings, kidnappings, and tortures, but they’re not willing to do so. The official position of Russia has been voiced many times, and it’s very clear - they say that there are no LGBTQ people in Chechnya. They deny not only the fact of the crimes, but even the mere existence of LGBTQ people - that’s very telling.
What’s the best way for the international LGBTQ community to try and help and protect the LGBTQ people of Chechnya?
The best way to help people from Chechnya is to talk about them, and this option is available for almost everyone. It was the support of the international community that made all these atrocities visible, and now we need that support more than ever. We believe that it’s the only way to stop what’s going on in Chechnya.
The Russian LGBT Network has also started a campaign to collect money for the evacuation and relocation of people from Chechnya, and that support is very important.
What are some of the biggest challenges currently facing LGBTQ people in Russia?
There are numerous challenges. The level of violence towards LGBTQ people - which is growing constantly since the adoption of the so-called ‘propaganda law’ in 2013 - is one of them. The perpetrators feel that they’re in a way protected by the State, and it make crimes more violent and more frequent.
Another issue that’s closely connected to the first one is the absence of freedom of expression. The same propaganda law in fact blocked all the possibilities of public discussions about homosexuality, bisexuality, or being trans. People feel targeted and afraid.
In recent months, a schoolboy was fined 50 000 rubles for “propaganda of homosexuality among minors” - even though he is himself a minor. He was fined just because he posted some photos on his social media.
It’s really hard to fight this huge machine of state propaganda, which is trying to persuade everyone that LGBTQ people are dangerous.
How can the international LGBTQ community best help and support LGBTQ people in Russia?
The best way to help is to share information and to raise awareness of the issues being experienced by the LGBTQ community in Russia. Despite all of the horrible things happening, LGBTQ organisations like ours are fighting for our rights and the rights of all LGBTQ people in Russia.