Identical apartment blocks line up like dominoes along the Avenue of Science, a sleepy St. Petersburg street with a grandiose Soviet name.
On a chilly evening last spring, when the trees had yet to bloom, this residential street became the scene of a brutal murder. A wiry young man arrives on foot, having walked the last three miles to avoid detection by the security cameras on public transport.
He approaches a well-preserved Soviet-era apartment block, the home of Dmitry Tsilikin, a renowned St. Petersburg journalist. Dmitry has been expecting him.
When the young man leaves later that evening, he takes Dmitry’s phone, laptop and keys and locks the door behind him, leaving the 54-year-old journalist trapped and bleeding to death in his own home. He had been stabbed over 30 times.
Russia can be a dangerous place for journalists, but Dmitry Tsilikin was not killed because of what he reported. He was murdered because he was gay.
News of the murder stunned St. Petersburg’s cultural elite. An old-world intellectual, Tsilikin was revered for his rapier wit and his erudite reviews of the city’s ballet and opera.
In many ways, Tsilikin was a product of the city in which he lived. Once the crucible of the Russian Enlightenment, St. Petersburg was long known as Russia’s most liberal city. In the years after the Soviet collapse, a diverse LGBTQ civil society began taking root here.
But all that was to change in 2012, when the city passed its so-called “gay propaganda” law—effectively outlawing any public discussion of LGBTQ issues that was not critical in tone. A version of the ban would be implemented nationwide a year later, as part of Russia’s shift towards “traditional” family values.
Lead by the Russian state, this new conservative doctrine was designed to counter the liberal movements behind the protests against the fraudulent election that returned Putin to power in 2012.
As the Kremlin looked for new scapegoats, the LGBT community—once considered an irrelevant fringe by Russia’s leaders—was singled out and subjected to unprecedented public scrutiny and persecution.
St. Petersburg became the epicenter of this shift, and Tsilikin’s violent death was symptomatic of the city’s new status.
Emboldened by the homophobic rhetoric from politicians and the state-owned media, vigilantes began to prowl online dating sites, luring gay men and women out on the pretense of a date, only to extort, humiliate or kill them. Police believe this is how Tsilikin came to meet his killer.
A week after Tsilikin’s body was found, the police arrested 21-year-old student Sergey Kosiyrev on suspicion of murder. Local media report that during police questioning he asked to be referred to as “the cleaner” and said that his life was a “crusade” against “certain social groups.”
Tatiana Moskvina, one of Tsilikin’s oldest friends and a leading theater and film critic, doesn’t doubt the police’s interpretation of events.
A chalky smell of old books and cigarettes lingers in her apartment where we meet a couple of weeks after Tsilikin’s funeral. Piles of magazines, newspapers and letters are scattered across the dining-room table. Moskvina recalls the last time Tsilikin visited: they sat around that very table, drinking vodka and eating herring, making plans for the future.
Tsilikin, she says, never discussed his love life, but he was disgusted by the passage of the gay propaganda law. “He wasn’t much of a fighter though,” she adds. “He was an intellectual...He thought he could overcome the darkness around him with the brilliance of his mind.”
There is no nationwide monitoring of crimes against sexual minorities in Russia, so local and international human rights groups piece together what information they can. All of them agree that homophobic and transphobic attacks intensified after the law was passed.
One politician who is often accused of stirring up this hatred is Vitaly Milonov. Ridiculed by some and revered by others, the St. Petersburg lawmaker became the face of Russian homophobia when he sponsored the city’s bill against gay propaganda in 2012. Last September he was elected to Russia’s national parliament.
The walls of his office are lined with Orthodox icons. Behind his desk hangs a black flag, reading “Orthodoxy or Death.”
“We have to face moral dangers,” he says in American-accented English, claiming that homosexual propaganda is “the disease of a modern, anti-Christian society.”
Up-close, Milonov is not the firebrand he appears to be during interviews on national television. He is awkward, fidgeting like a schoolboy in his chair.
He winces when I ask him about a Human Rights Watch report which documented a sharp rise in violence against LGBTQ people in Russia after the gay propaganda laws were passed. Then, he dismisses it as a “cheap piece of shit”.
“At least 50 percent of homosexuals are potential pedophiles,” he says, echoing the myths propagated by Russian state-owned TV which have fuelled homophobic attacks.
As the federal gay propaganda law was passed in 2013, the full weight of Russia’s state-owned media swung into action to rally people behind the new traditional values agenda. On the state-owned TV Channel Rossiya 1, reports referring to homosexuality skyrocketed, increasing from just 11 in 2011 to 160 in 2013. Almost every night, news broadcasts sought to convince Russians that homosexuals posed an existential threat not only to their families but to Russian civilization itself. Homophobia became normalized and a small but pernicious sub-section of society took this as a declaration of open season to “hunt” gay and transgender people.
Among the groups that has embraced Milonov’s law and the media rhetoric in St. Petersburg is “Occupy Pedophilia,” which was founded by a neo-Nazi nicknamed “The Hatchet.” Members of the group film themselves abusing and humiliating gay men and then circulate the videos online.
Another is a vigilante Timur Bulatov, a man who calls himself the “homophobic wolf.” By day, he works as a consultant for a one of the city’s district councils on issues of “morality, childhood and traditional family values.” In his own time, Bulatov scours the social media accounts of the city’s teachers, singling out the ones he suspects of being gay and reporting them to their employers. It’s not illegal to be a teacher if you are gay in Russia, but the stigma is so strong that they are often forced to leave.
Unlike some of the city’s other “hunters,” Bulatov is not known to have been violent, but he has certainly destroyed livelihoods and claims to have had 50 people removed from their jobs.
Like Milonov, Bulatov is deeply religious. But unlike the rest of the city’s anti-gay crusaders he is a Muslim, from the Russian republic of Tatarstan. Two flags hang on the wall by his desk: the Russian tricolor and a green flag bearing the Shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith. A handgun lies on the table in front of him.
We make small talk about the weather and he sets up a video camera by my left-shoulder—he wants his own record of the interview least I try to misconstrue his words.
When our conversation turns to the matter of vigilante work, his mood sours. He refers to gay people almost exclusively as “faggots” or “perverts,” spitting the words out.
He is dismissive when I ask him about homophobic hate crimes, and turns the blame back onto the gay community: “Why aren’t we talking about the behaviour of these homosexuals, these lesbians and faggots? What are they doing that provokes this kind of reaction?”
Echoing Vitaly Milonov’s earlier statement, Bulatov claims that almost 50 percent of homosexuals are pedophiles.
Bulatov himself may not be violent, but in this city rhetoric like his has become a weapon, inspiring the kind of hatred that led a 21-year-old student to murder a journalist, simply because he was gay.