Kafkaesque legal wranglings against activists have succeeded in shutting down a gay rights movement in Russia. These four cases paved the way.
- Text by Olga Kravets
- Visuals by Radik Vildanov/Risuem Sud
On July 24, 2013, less than a month after Vladimir Putin had signed an anti-gay propaganda law, Alexey Davydov, an LGBT activist, was arrested outside of the Russian State Children’s Library as he unwrapped a hand-made banner reading “It’s normal to be gay.”
“Which law are you using to arrest me?” Davydov asked two policemen reaching to take him by his arms. “It’s a children establishment here,” grunted the one on the left. Davydov was ushered into a police van.
In Russia’s Administrative Code, a law known as Article 6.21 had been recently passed that banned the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors.” Davydov became the first person to be charged with breaking the new law, which was his plan —to be detained and to use the incident to challenge the law.
But the 36-year-old Davydov died of kidney failure two months later, before his case was heard by a court. The law was consequently upheld when three other activists, Nikolai Alekseev, Dmitry Isakov and Yaroslav Evtushenko appealed its legality to the Constitutional Court of Russia. Since it ruled that banning “gay propaganda to minors” was a lawful move, it has had “a huge cooling effect” on activists, according to Dmitry Bartenev, a St. Petersburg lawyer who has defended many LGBTQ activists.
This is the story of what happened after Davydov, in four prominent cases.
Children’s Deadly Sins
On March 4, 2013, Lena Klimova published an article titled “Children-404” in the Rosbalt news service seeking to show the absence of evidence-based policies concerning at-risk LGBTQ adolescents in Russia. The article morphed into a cause, and soon a massive online community across social networks emerged, where teenagers could share their stories and connect with other people who could offer support and understanding. “Children-404” became Klimova’s long-term project, more activist than journalistic.
“Children 404” made Lena Klimova one of the chief targets of Roskomnadzor, a government oversight agency that regulates the Russian Internet. According to Meduza, an independent online publication, the agency blocks an average of 60 pages a day.
Paid experts, such as academics and defense lawyers, testified against Klimova in court. The opinions included the views of Lidia Matveeva, a psychologist teaching at Moscow State University who cited sources including the Big Soviet Encyclopedia published between 1969-1978, passages from the New Testament, and an essay by a right-wing, American theorist named Joe Carter, co-author of the book “How to Argue like Jesus.”
Alexander Ermoshkin, 41, a gay activist and former school teacher, university professor and researcher from Khabarovsk and currently an asylum seeker in the US, was attacked on the street, forced to abandon his job, and portrayed as a US intelligence asset on Russian TV. “Finally, the sensation of constant persecution forced me to leave,” he said.
Ermoshkin was never actually targeted for direct prosecution. Rather, the state set its sights on Alexander Suturin, the editor-in-chief of a local newspaper called Molodoy Dalnevostochnik that had published stories on Ermoshkin. A 2013 article titled “History with Geyography” described how Ermoshkin was ousted from teaching for having developed “fame from being an LGBT organizer.”
On January 31, 2014, Suturin was found guilty of spreading gay propaganda and ordered to pay a 50,000 rubles fine. His lawyer appealed, but a higher court confirmed the verdict.
Suturin decided not to appeal for a second time. Ermoshkin, the subject of the article, was assaulted before fleeing Russia. According to Ermoshkin, other activists received a warning from the FSB, the KGB successor organization: “We have let Ermoshkin leave, but we will make sure to round you all up”.
For Internal Use
On February 24, 2014, Vitaly Milonov, a Saint Petersburg MP notorious for his deep hostility to gays, held a public hearing to debate the merits of the city’s proposed anti-gay propaganda law. It was a one-sided conversation.
Dmitry Isaev, sexologist, psychiatrist and psychotherapist who was at the time heading the Department of Clinical Psychology at Saint Petersburg State Pediatric Medical Academy, was invited to speak. Invoking his research, he argued that propaganda can be ideological or social in purpose but it has nothing to do with the nature of homosexuality or with medicine in general. “Of course, the discussion was heated enough”, said Isaev. “The problem is that the supporters of the law did not provide any arguments. And when experts’ opinions were quoted, the other side just shouted back.” St. Petersburg passed an anti-gay propaganda law five days later.
On August 9, 2012, Madonna performed in St. Petersburg. She said from the stage: “Now I’m here to say that the gay community and gay people, here and all around the world, have the same rights. The same rights to be treated with dignity, with respect, with tolerance, with love. Are you with me? If you’re with me, I want to see your pink wristbands! Are you with me? Are you motherfuckin’ with me?” Afterwards she asked people wearing pink wristbands, distributed at the entrance, to raise their hands in solidarity.
Leaders of an obscure organization called the Union of Russian Citizens demanded 333 million rubles from Madonna for publicly defending LGBTQ people and mocking Christian symbols. “Boys and girls will practice debauchery more, and it will lead to the loss of the country’s defense capacity, among other things”, one of the plaintiffs was quoted by RAPSI, Russia’s legal news service.
The judge, however, treated the plaintiffs’ arguments with a great deal of skepticism. According to a Rossiyskaya Gazeta reporter, when a woman stood up to complain that her underage brother saw Madonna’s show on social media, he replied that it should had been his parents’ responsibility to stop him from watching it. The judge advised anti-gay activists to fight liquor companies instead.
Milonov later tried to have Madonna fined for breaching her Russian visa conditions, but Madonna announced she is not planning to return. “I won’t appear in Moscow or Saint Petersburg anymore, because I don’t want to perform in places where being homosexual is tantamount to a crime,” she said in 2015.
The failure to turn Madonna into a convicted criminal in Russia might have been considered a random encounter with an open-minded judge, but there is another indication that the anti-gay propaganda law was intended only for “internal use” in Russia. Two lawyers in separate cases in 2015 unsuccessfully attempted to sue Apple for making emoji depicting same-sex families available in the iPhone 6.
Legal Palate of the Rainbow Flag
The persecution of LGBT activists in Russia did not start the day the first regional anti-gay propaganda law was passed. The state has been effectively using a number of other measures: laws on the protection of children from harmful information, meetings, rallies and demonstrations; and most recently, with a foreign agents law. Activists are often charged with civil disobedience or hooliganism. Sergey Alexeenko, a Murmansk activist and a former director of Maximum, the LGBT rights group that ceased to exist in 2015, had been targeted for prosecution under many of these laws.
On July 21, 2013, four Dutch citizens were arrested at the site of the Youth Human Rights Camp held by Maximum outside of Murmansk. Police had tried to use the anti-gay propaganda law against the group, but since there were no minors present they fined the Dutch nationals for filming in Russia while on tourist visas.
In 2015 Maximum was fined 300,000 rubles for not declaring themselves foreign agents. Then the organization’s director Sergei Alexeenko was personally fined 25,000 for “an unsanctioned protest” as he released balloons into the sky on May 17, the annual Rainbow Flashmob day.
Maximum founders decided that it was time to close the organization down. “Why we did not contest the court decision?” Alexeenko reflects. “Now people are starting to get prison terms for protests. With my sexual orientation, I don’t want to end up a Russian prison. We decided to concentrate on advocacy for now, because in the totalitarian state activism is dangerous and in a brainwashed society it’s counterproductive.” On January 21, 2016, Alexeenko was further fined 100,000 rubles for subsequently breaking the gay propaganda law yet again.