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The Fear of Being Gay in Russia

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Dmitry Chizhevsky in a Saint Petersburg hospital, where he was treated for a month and a half, following an attack on an LGBT meeting. Doctors were not able to save his vision in his left eye. Image by Misha Friedman. Russia, 2013.

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Nikolai Baev, an LGBT activist, in Moscow a few days after he was detained by police. Image by Oleg Yakovlev. Russia, 2014.

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Pavel Koskin outside the narcology hospital where he works. Pavel is an openly gay social worker who recently contracted HIV. Image by Oleg Yakovlev. Russia, 2014.

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Lena Klimova has 47,000 subscribers on Vkontakte,which she uses to counsel LGBT teens. The Vkontakte page is a violation of Russia's anti-gay propaganda laws. Image courtesy of Lena Klimova.

Moscow’s first gay pride parade was held in May 2006, thirteen years after homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion, the beginning of a new era of openness for the LGBT community.

It didn’t quite work out that way. LGBT marchers that day clashed with riot police, who tried to stop the event. “We disturbed something very deeply rooted in Russian society, some very evil power of intolerance and violence,” says Nikolai Baev, a prominent LGBT rights activist who attended the march.

Only a few months later, Russia saw its first regional anti-gay law passed in Ryazan, 200 miles east of Moscow. It was the first official sign that the Russian authorities would resist the LGBT movement—a resistance that has grown and become increasingly violent as LGBT activism has grown over the last decade.

That violence hit Dmitry Chizhevsky in November 2013 when he attended a weekly meeting for the LGBT community and friends called the Rainbow Tea Party in Saint Petersburg. “It was a place to socialize, drink some tea and play some games,” Chizhevsky says. It wasn’t a political event, and Chizhevsky wasn’t much for protests.

The old town had a hectic feeling that weekend as the 10th Annual March Against Hatred took place in the city’s gracious main streets. The next day, on November 3, the tea party was more crowded than usual.

“I saw two guys next to the door wearing masks,” Chizhevsky recalls. “After that I heard shots. The first one hit my eye. They yelled, ‘Where will you run, faggot?’ and one hit me several times with a baseball bat. Then the attackers ran away. One of the small balls [from a pneumatic pistol] stayed behind my eye.” The police ran a rather lackluster investigation and no one was ever arrested.

He became an unsolved statistic—just one of a growing number in Russia’s LGBT community who’ve been attacked or harassed in what has become an unprecedented crackdown. In most of the West, gay rights has seen startling breakthroughs in the last decade. Russia has not just been left behind, but has become demonstrably worse and more dangerous, according to more than two dozen individuals we spoke with in five Russian cities over six weeks of reporting. On the local and national level, a series of so-called anti-gay propaganda laws were passed that made it illegal to discuss LGBT themes with minors or to distribute such information to them, even if it dealt with health issues.

In a country that increasingly punishes the “other” and where violence against select groups and individuals is often tolerated—and even encouraged—by the state, there’s become no greater target than being LGBT. A community that was just beginning to organize found itself under assault, the target of a deep-seated Russian homophobia that had now been embedded in law.

And for Chizhevsky, although he thought about staying in his native land, the price of being gay in Russia was ultimately just too high. Like more and more gays and lesbians over the last two years, Chizhevsky had had enough of Russia, a place where his sexual orientation alone seemed to make him an enemy of the state.

“Sometimes I don’t know how I feel about it,” Chizhevsky says about the trauma of that day. “I feel that I have gotten used to it over the past year. I am thinking more about the opportunities ahead and the future I want to build” in the United States. In July 2014, a little more than six months after the attack, Chizhevsky arrived in New York.

A self-educated software developer, Chizhevsky made his way to Washington, D.C., where he discovered an LGBT community that was out and open and living without fear. Chizhevsky decided to try to make a life here and to seek political asylum in the United States.

He was one of many Russian gays and lesbians to make that trek. U.S. asylum applications from Russians rose 15 percent overall in 2014, when there were 969 new cases. The U.S. government does not release the reasons people seek asylum, but asylum seekers like Chizhevsky say the spike is at least in part a result of the crackdown on the LGBT community.

“Everyone says that my case is not very difficult because it has been so well documented,” Chizhevsky says over coffee at Busboys and Poets on 14th Street in Northwest D.C. “Even the United Nations asked Russia about my case”—a fairly typical part of the process since asylum seekers need to prove that they are in danger at home.

Despite the trauma, Chizhevsky is one of the lucky ones. LGBT activists interviewed in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kazan and Archangelsk say there is a pitched level of anxiety for those who stay behind. “All of a sudden, people started calling us Sodomites,” says Tatiana Vinnitchenko, 41, a lesbian activist with a group called “Rakurs” (Perspective). Rakurs is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that provided legal advice and community centers for the LGBT community in Arkhangelsk, which lies some 600 miles from Moscow and is the site of Russia’s first major seaport.

Vinnitchenko says she expects to be fired this month from her job as a professor at Northern Arctic Federal University because of her activism. A Russian language instructor, Vinnitchenko says she’s been given an ultimatum: “I had to leave my job or stop my activities in Rakurs.” Leonid Shestakov, the acting rector at the university, says there have been “conversations of a personal nature held with Vinnitchenko,” but focused only on the performance of her duties.

Oleg Klyuenkov believes he has also run into trouble because of his affiliation with Rakurs, where he is a project manager. His difficulties began in December 2013, when he returned from a trip to Arkhangelsk’s sister city, Portland, Maine. Klyuenkov says he was fired from his job as a professor of philosophy at Northern Arctic Federal University because of his work in the LGBT community. Shestakov disputes that account, stating that Klyuenkov was dismissed “in strict accordance with the labor laws of the Russian Federation for violations of job descriptions, employment contracts, including absenteeism.”

Last month, the Archangelsk Court fined Rakurs 300,000 rubles for refusing to accept the status of “foreign agent,” which is defined as a political group that accepts foreign funding. “This is happening across the country and LGBT programs are being closed systematically,” Vinnitchenko says. “Our friends are in fear of persecution. The LGBT community here is in a kind of moral panic.”

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Russia’s post-Soviet, top-down homophobia began in earnest several years ago, just as the nascent LGBT community became publicly visible. The shooting of Chizhevsky is one of dozens of attacks that have occurred in Russia in the last few years, and especially since President Vladimir Putin signed the federal anti-gay propaganda law in 2013.

At the end of 2014, Human Rights Watch documented a growing number of beatings, harassment and kidnappings by vigilantes on the subway, in the street, and at clubs. Out of 78 victims of homophobic and transphobic violence interviewed in the investigation, 22 were afraid to report the attack to authorities.

Baev, the LGBT activist, is a professional translator who began demonstrating in the 1990s, when he was at the University of Novosibirsk. He has lived in Moscow for the past decade. “Official homophobia began as a reaction to the gay pride movement” that started in Moscow in 2006, Baev says.

Soon, anti-gay laws began proliferating across the country. The assembly of Arkhangelsk in the far North, for example, passed its own so-called LGBT propaganda law, an initiative pushed forward by local associations of Christians, Muslims and Cossacks, in 2012. The coalition in the White Sea port city argued publicly that 99 percent of homosexuality was the result of propaganda, according to the Russian daily Moskovskie Novosti. Variations of the propaganda law were passed throughout Russia, from Saint Petersburg to Samara, until the federal anti-gay propaganda law was enacted in 2013.

Harassment and persecution of lesbians and gays were not the only consequences. The laws also pushed HIV/AIDS education underground, according to health care workers and activists.

The offices of LaSky—where Dmitry Chizhevsky was shot in Saint Petersburg—was once known as a safe haven for the LGBT community. A non-governmental organization with centers all over the country, LaSky once offered a place for the LGBT community to congregate; it was also a nexus of HIV prevention and outreach.

The Moscow branch of LaSky was in disarray this winter. The office flotsam revealed an organization in its final throes: Amid the empty desks, a small skeleton staff used the time they had left to try to raise funds, outside of Russia, for a new start. On New Year’s Day, LaSky, citing a lack of funding and the laws targeting NGOs and the LGBT community, closed its doors after providing public health support for marginalized people, especially gay men, for more than a decade.

“We are all in a state of perpetual worry. I cannot quite describe it,” says Andrey Beloglazov, the executive director of LaSky in Moscow. “It’s an anxiety bordering on fear. Because when the government began its crackdown with legislation related to LGBT activities, we didn’t believe it would get so serious, or go so far.”

The public health consequences of these laws have been brutal, according to Beloglazov. “When people are hiding, they move around from place to place and gravitate toward secret relationships,” he says. “They are afraid of seeking medical assistance.”

Pavel Koskin, now 45, was treated in the Saint Petersburg Narcology hospital for a drug addiction when he was in his 20s; long recovered, he is now a social worker at the same hospital, tending to clients who struggle with substance abuse and are HIV-positive. As part of his own recovery two decades ago, he says, he came out as a gay man.

This article represents his coming out as an HIV-positive individual. After breaking up with his longtime companion, Koskin “had casual sex three or four times two years ago. And now I am HIV-positive. I knew everything. I work in the medical field. And I got HIV.”

“It’s time,” he says, referring to his decision to discuss his status publicly. “I haven’t come out as HIV-positive at work, in part because I see how the doctors here treat people with HIV. But they may have guessed as much.”

Koskin is not an isolated example. In fact, Russia and Eastern Europe are among the few regions in the world in which the AIDS/HIV epidemic is worsening, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The number of deaths from AIDS increased in 2013 by more than 22,000,” Dr. Vadim Pokhrovsky of the Russian Federal AIDS Center told Politico. “There are at least 200 new HIV infections every day.”

The rate of new HIV infections has spiked since the government crackdown. New HIV infections increased by 10 percent in 2012 and that rate continues to increase, Pokhrovsky says, up 15 percent in 2014.

Koskin believes that the stigma attached to being gay in Russia and the threats to organizations that serve this community are partly to blame for the surge in infections, both from sexual partners (straight and gay) as well as from intravenous drug use. “HIV infection increased when the information programs stopped,” he says.

Pokhrovsky says that the government’s “irrelevant measures” have brought disastrous results and only exacerbated the epidemic. “Information campaigns and training programs for vulnerable populations were completely stopped,” Pokhrovsky warned in a strongly worded October 2014 editorial in Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “Russian politicians offer demonstrative, but irrelevant measures such as a ban on homosexuals [donating] blood and fingerprinting of patients with HIV infection.”

Yet human rights activists such as Baev says Russia’s Ministry of Health underplays the urgency of the epidemic and its presence across populations, including gay men in urban areas, heterosexuals, and minors. They point to an October 2014 interview by Minister of Public Health Veronika Skvortsova in which she said, “We have virtually no children with AIDS anymore.” A different agency—Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights Protection and Human Well Being (Rospotrebnazor)— reported dramatically different conclusions.

The number of registered HIV infections in children under 14 years of age grew by 32 percent in 2014, the service reported; cases involving teens 14 to 17 also jumped by 32 percent. Advocates said the trend in the 14-17 year old group is driven by a lack of HIV prevention and education that previously had often been provided by NGOs run by the LGBT community.

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Though she rarely leaves the small, hardscrabble Russian city of Nizhny Tagil, Lena Klimova has made an impression on her country that reaches far beyond the Ural Mountains region. The 26-year-old is responsible for a controversial online project that supports LGBT teenagers in Russia. She calls her site Deti 404, a reference to the Internet error code ‘404 page not found,’ to highlight the feeling of invisibility shared by much of Russia’s gay community.

Deti 404 has 47,000 subscribers on the Russian social media network Vkontakte, most of whom say they are gay, lesbian or transgender teens. Klimova, in conjunction with psychologists who direct teens to counseling or treatment, encourages vulnerable teens to get tested for HIV. Her efforts have been praised by international human rights groups.

Federal charges were brought against Klimova in December under Russia’s national gay propaganda law, which made it illegal to promote or distribute any information about gay life, sex or health to individuals under the age of 18.

Klimova, who works as an editor and is a former journalist, says she never thought of Deti 404 as a long-term project. “But I can’t stop at this point,” she says. “The teenagers do not call the hotlines. They can get very depressed. I usually suggest they talk to the psychologist. But sometimes they don’t call or write back. And I don’t ever know what happened to them.” Recently, “a transsexual boy wrote to us that he was kicked out of his house,” says Klimova, who arranged for the boy to live for a month “with one of our psychologists until we could find a place for him in Saint Petersburg.”

In Washington, D.C., Chizhevsky meets up with his American boyfriend and the two stroll over to the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community. “These organizations are very helpful,” he says. Chizhevsky doesn’t work, since asylum seekers are not allowed to secure permanent employment in the U.S.; he’s applied to volunteer at a radio station. He lives hand to mouth and from gift cards for Trader Joe’s and Giant given to him by the D.C. Center; he only recently found an attorney willing to take his case for free. He lights a cigarette outside the center for a quick smoke. “For 27 years, I was with people who do not smile,” he says. “I can smile here. I can hold hands with my boyfriend in the street. I love this place.”

But the legacy of the attack in Saint Petersburg endures. At a restaurant off Dupont Circle on a recent evening, Chizhevsky tripped over a chair he didn’t appear to see due to his eye injury. Despite three surgeries on his eye in Russia, he says he has not had it checked recently; he has no health care coverage in the U.S. His eye appears atrophied, though it’s hard for a layperson to tell. “I think it’s stabilized,” he says. “When I am able to get a job I will get health care and have a doctor look at it.”

Thinking back, “I thought in Saint Petersburg, we would stop this [homophobia],” Chizhevsky says. “But I was very, very wrong. Freedom of speech is shrinking in Russia. It began with gays, but now it is the whole opposition.”

Chizhevsky has officially applied for asylum. He says he was “frustrated” to find out recently that there is still a huge backlog from 2014. He was told the process may take another year, and he may not be able to work officially until the end of the summer.

These days, Chizhevsky listens to podcasts and NPR to improve his English. He dreams of becoming a radio host and he would like to go back to his work as a software developer. “But I feel really happy I am here,” he says. “I feel like I got on the last car of this train.”