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LGBT activists attacked in front of the State Duma in Moscow during protest against a bill that would prevent “non-traditional sexual relations propaganda among minors” ©Roma Yandolin via Flickr

How attacks on Russia’s LGBT community are sub-contracted

Introduction

St. Petersburg, Russia

Political violence in Russia is a franchise industry. Anyone can peddle the product so long as they adhere to some basic marketing rules. End users are stratified into various pre-approved categories, such as known supporters of “European values,” or prominent opposition politicians

There are also ways of dealing with the aftermath of the violence. One common technique is to blame the victim’s party, such as the liberals who the government claimed were responsible for gunning down dissident Boris Nemtsov inside the Kremlin’s walls in February 2015.

Proportionally, attacks against members of Russia’s LGBT community are significantly lower than against opposition supporters, but they emanate from the same Kremlin-sanctioned political weather system. When zealous defenders of so-called Russian values attack gay people in the streets, they are secure in the knowledge that they are unlikely to face prosecution.

Some of the actions flourishing under this system are documented in License to Harm, a 2014 Human Rights Watch report, which describes a long list of abuses committed on the street, or in the subway, or in offices. A vigilante network calling themselves Occupy Pedophilia is shown to pour urine over its victims, in some cases forcing them to drink it. Occupy Pedophilia’s founder, Maxim Martsinkevich, likes to be called “Tesak,” which means cleaver or hatchet in Russian. Common Occupy Pedophilia tactics include striking victims with dildos or forcing victims to pose with dildos, then stripping them naked, painting or drawing slurs on them, and then wrapping up the attack by spraying victims with construction foam in their groin.

The St. Petersburg-based Russian LGBT Network conducted an anonymous survey in 2014 which found that fully half of gay and lesbian respondents had been harassed and 15 percent physically attacked — a number is suspected to have gone up significantly in the last year as the intensity of anti-LGBT rhetoric from prominent people in government, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the media has increased.

The Kremlin’s political violence franchising isn’t limited by Russia’s borders. After protesters toppled the Russian-backed president of Ukraine in 2013, the Night Wolves — a Moscow biker gang allied with the Kremlin — turned up in Ukraine, galvanizing violent reprisals against activists who were protesting Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region of eastern Ukraine.

An even more sinister franchise partner is warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin has cultivated as his in-house thug to maintain control over Chechnya. With an estimated 15,000 men in his security force, Kadyrov is alleged to have played a role in many deaths not only in Chechnya but in Moscow, where his men reportedly have special security clearances.

State-sanctioned political violence can be a means of authoritarian control. But the Kremlin’s policy of spinning off the dirty work to vigilante organizations, outlaw clubs, powerful henchmen and semi-private militias can also be seen as a loss of control. In its report on Russia’s “Uncontrolled Violence”, The Economist compared contemporary Russia to 1970s Latin America or Italy — a place where the state is just another criminal enterprise among many.

This ambiguity may suit Putin well enough, but it makes for an unpredictable environment. For non-heterosexual people trying to navigate it, the trends are hard to read and the stakes enormously high. Will persecution escalate, or will attention shift to a new group? Where will the Kremlin’s violence franchise take them?