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Owners of a Russian YouTube channel for children face prison for featuring an interview with a gay man

The owners of a Russian YouTube channel for children are facing up to 20 years in prison on felony charges for “sexual violence against minors” after they published a video interview with a gay man.

The YouTube channel, Real Talk, which takes its inspiration from HiHo Kids, outraged State Duma Deputy Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy who called the program “ethically unacceptable and immoral” and complained to the State Investigative Committee.

Authorities have launched an investigation into the channel, which broadcast the interview earlier this year.

According to representatives from the Moscow-based human rights organization Open Russia, child services are “terrorizing” the parents who participated in the program and threatening to take away their children.

Open Russia’s Valentina Dekhtyarenko said parents have reported that the police and child services have pressured them to give testimony against the channel’s owners. “This looks like a bid by Pyotr Tolstoy for some easy PR for himself while hiding behind ‘good intentions,” said Dekhtyarenko.

In a statement about the probe, Human Rights Watch wrote “This madness has to stop.”

Real Talk was founded in Moscow in 2018 and invites children aged fourteen and under to interview guests from diverse backgrounds. People who have previously been interviewed include a person with dwarfism, a black man from Ethiopia, senior citizens, an adult film actress and the gay guest, a 21-year old man named Maxim, whose appearance has led to the probe by authorities.

During the episode under investigation, children of different ages asked Maxim if he had any friends and inquired how he liked to dress. The video has been viewed over two million times.

Coda interviewed a source close to the channel owners. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“I had to reach out to the parents. They are incredibly worried and are under enormous stress,” said the source. “They are afraid they will lose their parental rights and even worse, be charged with a felony.”

“This has been an enormous stress for me and it continues. I am very afraid for my life and my safety, for my freedom. I am worried about the filmmakers, for the gay man Maxim,” continued the source. “I don’t have the slightest desire to sit behind bars because of the whim of Pyotr Tolstoy.”

Tolstoy complained about the interview back in mid-September. Authorities spent several weeks tracking down witnesses and eventually opened a criminal probe into the case last week. The producer of the video was charged with violating a 2013 gay propaganda law. The law bans the promotion of “nontraditional values” to minors, an administrative offense.

The Real Talk channel was deleted by authorities after Tolstoy’s complaint in September but the state broadcaster Russia 24 managed to broadcast a clip from the interview.

“We need to act in a timely manner and not become conditioned to this filth,” said Elina Zhgutova, a member of Russia’s Civic Chamber during the same broadcast. She thinks the gay man in the episode should also be charged.

“It’s just an interview,” said Angelina Doroshenkova, the adult film star who was featured on Real Talk, during an interview with Russia 24. “This is not the close-minded generation of the USSR. This is a generation of children growing up with tolerance.”

The Real Talk case makes for a prominent example of how Russia enforces its controversial gay propaganda law. The legislation more often acts as a deterrent, creating a chilling effect which can lead to self-censorship due to the vague nature of what it means in legal terms to “promote” sexual orientation.

Earlier this year, publishers made a number of changes to the Russian language translation of Yuval Noah Harari’s bestseller, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” which included changing the author’s dedication to his husband to “partner.” There are no censorship laws governing books in Russia; instead, these were changes made preemptively by the publisher, and apparently with Harari’s consent.

Coda has reported extensively on how anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in Russia has influenced other countries in the region, most recently in Poland where anti-LGBTQ messages featured prominently in elections this fall.

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