- Published on Wednesday, 21 September 2011 17:51
- Category: Articles and Commentary
- Written by Katarzyna Kwiatkowska
Russian homosexuals are starting to talk more openly about their sexual orientation, with the generation currently reaching adulthood knowing only through personal stories that being “different” was punished by the Gulag and imprisonment in the Soviet Union.
Tourists coming to Saint Petersburg cannot hide their amazement at the number of gay and lesbian people on the streets.
“In reality, there are no more of us here than in other cities,” says Vasilina Rachinska of the Gender-L organization. “I think the only difference is that we don't hide it as often as we used to”.
The proportions could yet be higher as the cultural capital of Russia has become a mecca for Russia’s sexual minorities. The colourful streets of St. Petersburg, full of foreigners and their rich abundance of night clubs, are open to diversity. Russia’s “window towards Europe” benefits from not having very strict courteous traditions. Apparently, Empress Catherine the Great was known to have lesbian relationships.
Vasilina came to Petersburg eight years ago because there was no life for her in her hometown. “Magnitogorsk is a blue-collar town dominated by the Russian mentality,” she says.
Socialist morality may have neglected religion but regulated physicality with a similar restrictiveness. “The problem is that homosexuality is automatically associated with sex and Russians are a ‘dressed up’ society. It is not Brazil. One does not talk about sex here. Especially in its non-standard form,” says Vitus Megis, a gay activist from Omsk in Siberia.
It is well known that sex was not spoken about in the USSR. Instead, there was an Article of the penal code which foresaw five years of imprisonment for homosexual intercourse. This provision was introduced in 1934 and functioned as a punishment of bourgeois types of crime in the Soviet Union.
Born in 1938, Yuri Soldatienko was imprisoned twice in the 1960s (one year and a half years in total) for sexual intercourse with men. In both cases he was denounced and during the interrogations he admitted guilt.
Soldatienko, a good-looking seventy-year old man, despite experiencing repression was convinced that he lived under the best of systems and considered his sexual orientation as a sin. Apparently, there were many such “sinners” in the Soviet Union and in Leningrad there were many places for intimate meetings. Despite two imprisonments, Yuri made himself a life. He got married as a cover up, but later got divorced (his wife stopped accepting their marriage once she decided to have a child), finished studies, and became an engineer. At work he would pretend he was heterosexual and his friends would pretend they believed him. One of his partners was not so lucky: he ended up in a labour camp where he was killed by other inmates.
Yuri’s story, despite being presented as very smooth, once in a while reveals dramatic episodes: imprisonment, denunciations, dark business, forbidden meeting places, the murder of Kola – the love of his life (committed on the couch in his flat). In the Soviet Union, homosexuals were pushed into the underground and treated the same as criminals and prostitutes.
In 1993, and now the Russian Federation, the penal responsibility for homosexual intercourse was dismissed. Yet, in the new epoch nobody rushed to reveal their sexuality. Russian gays and lesbians, like before, escape into privacy, hidden in their houses and gay clubs. While at work and in public places they would pretend to be “natural”.
“This leads to a dramatic situation,” says Yogi from an Internet forum for gays. “At our parties I meet the father of one of my friends on a regular basis who does not have the faintest idea about her father’s real sexual orientation”.
One of the few people who decided to publicly express his sexual preferences is Boris Moiseev, a popular Soviet singer. In a press interview titled “Dirty Ends of Komsomol”, he describes cases of communist activists forcing young dancers to have sexual intercourse.
“At that time I was madly in love with my friend, also a dancer,” he confessed in 1994. “We had to hide. In public we could not even hold hands. At the same time, the communists and komsomol leaders would take us to the sauna and force us to have sex. It is amazing how they were attracted to us! We were young boys and had to play their games. We would give blow jobs to these dirty men, these aging communists. They forced us to this, blackmailed, threatened”.
His interview brought about a storm. Sixteen years after this event homosexuality is still a taboo.
Family, love, loyalty
“If a man announced that he was an alien, they would put him in a nuthouse. But if he screams that he is a woman, he expects special rights,” says a friend and lecturer at a university, “homosexuals are not repressed, they are free to live. Why then do they go to the streets?”
This opinion comes back like a boomerang. In public spaces, gayness bothers Russians. In 2008 as many as 84 percent of Russians declared a negative attitude toward homosexuals, which is around 37 percent more than in 2006, the year when gay and lesbian parades started in Moscow. Interestingly, in 2006, those against sexual minorities was dominated by the elderly and less educated, usually from small towns (according to research of the “Public Opinion” Foundation). Three years later, a critical attitude towards homosexuals was expressed with similar intensity by all (data from the Levada Center). Politicians who criticize the gay and lesbian movement are very familiar with their own constituents, which is why they use a negative image of homosexuality in their political battles. On June 12th 2007 in Yekaterinburg, during a meeting of an opposition called the March of Disagreement, three men wearing dresses and wigs tried to join in the protesters. They were carrying signs with the name of the United Civic Front, a co-organizer of the demonstration.
“A political party paid us to disturb the meeting of its opponents,” reports Kira Bohema, a star among local transvestites and a performer in one of the night clubs. “We pretended to be supporters of the opposition. Participants in the demonstration poured water on us and scared us away. And yet all the media talked about was us.”
Although they swear that they would never reveal the names of those who ordered them to disturb the meeting, it is not difficult to guess who was unhappy with the protests of the opposition. At the very same time, the pro-Kremlin party, One Russia, organized its counter-manifestation.
Yekaterinburg transvestites do not feel any remorse towards the provocation, although a few years ago they actively participated in local Love Parades which were supposed to teach the inhabitants of Ural tolerance towards diversity. They were supposed to because the Church intervened and the rainbow march disappeared from the streets of the city, the same streets in which the last of the Romanovs were murdered and whom the Orthodox Church regarded as saints.
After the collapse of the USSR, the post-Soviet mentality got a new layer of a reviving religiousness. The attitude of orthodox clergy to the gay movement can be compared to that of Polish bishops. The Orthodox Church strengthened its alliance with the Kremlin and is engaged in an attempt to overcome one of the biggest nightmares of today’s Russia: a negative birth rate.
“Seeing the crisis of ideology, the Government wants to build a national identity with the help of the Orthodox Church,” says Valery Sozaev of the organization Nuntiare et Recreare (LGBT–Christians). The day of “Family, Love, and Loyalty”, introduced in 2008, is a mutual idea of the first lady, Svetlana Medvedev, and the recently deceased Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow, which propagates a traditional model of the society and stigmatizes all deviations.
“People who have families are more easily controllable,” says psychologist Maria Sabutnayeva of Gender-L. “That is why it was agreed from the top that everybody should get married and have children”.
Sozaev warns against overestimating the leverage of the clergy since the Church is not popular among the majority of society. It is not the position of the Orthodox Church, but the attitude of civil servants that is the biggest problem for the activists of the gay and lesbian movement. In the 21st century, only two rainbow organizations were able to get registered.
Although the notion of “homosexual propaganda” is not defined by Russian law, public servants willingly use this phrase while explaining decisions which are unfavourable to sexual minorities. Even in the tolerant St. Petersburg, the majority of organizations are sent back home empty-handed. While here public servants at least pretend they are following the rule of law, in the regions they are completely carefree.
In December 2007 in Tyumen, two thousand kilometres to the east of Saint Petersburg, the court refused to register the Rainbow House, an organization which defends the rights of sexual minorities. The court justified its decision by saying that the activity of the organization “could be a threat to the safety of the state and society” (such an opinion was issued by a professor of law at the local university). Half a year later the headquarters of the organization, following a recommendation from civil servants, was scrutinised by the police in connection with possible extremist activity. Initially, the term “extremists” was used in reference to Chechen fighters and potential terrorists, now it has become a “bag notion” in Russia, in which the decision-makers throw anything in that is uncomfortable for them. These baseless accusations are all extremely controversial for diversity, and Russian law does not protect homosexuals against discrimination.
With no regulations it is difficult to punish a person who instigates others to violence against gays and lesbians. The prosecutor’s office usually refuses to initiate such investigations. Hence, violence remains the most burning problem of Russian homosexuals. In a report published last spring called, “The situation of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals in the Russian Federation”, cases of such criminal acts were noted. One of the most brutal murders was committed in Yekaterinburg. Near a gay club in 2007, a boy was beaten to death. The murderers wrote the word “fag” in blood on his body. The case was dismissed as the parents did not want the sexual preferences of their son to come out in the course of the investigation. “Denis was attacked when he was talking on the phone. Apparently nobody saw anything,” says one of his friends. “The murderers were never found and the investigation was closed. We were scared of the police and the club were afraid of problems. Later it wasjust forgotten”.
Acts of violence do not only happen in the peripheries. In Moscow the situation in the last four years has also been quite tense. Civil servants in Moscow have not issued a single permit for a rainbow marches since 2006. The Mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, compared homosexuality to Satanism. In May, Moscow’s Equality Parade, organized on the day of the final day of the Eurovision Song Contest, was pacified by militia forces. Many people were arrested, among them gay activists from all over Europe. The event was broadly commented on in the world media. In July, during Barack Obama’s visit to Moscow, homosexuals did not receive a permit to picket in front of the American Embassy. Nikolay Alexeyev is the organizer of Moscow’s parades and a famous Russian gay activist. Despite his assertions that his goal is to draw attention to the discrimination of sexual minorities in Russia, his activity raises many controversies among Russian homosexuals. Many accuse him of seeking fame.
“Alexeyev permanently resides in France. He comes to Russia very rarely, and brings out extreme emotions. But it is later our doors that are burnt,” complains a manager of a Moscow shop for gays and lesbians.
The majority of Russian homosexuals do not want to fight for their rights in the street. They also do not negate the political order in Russia, although today’s government is not favourable to their situation.
“Alexeyev is a revolutionary. We support organic work,” says Vitus Megis. “We want to help the government in protecting human rights. The state has a duty to accept our help and we are not going to ask if anybody likes it or not”.
Above all, the activists demand an introduction of sanctions against public incitement to hatred towards sexual orientation into the penal code. But for this to happen, the good will of officials at different levels is necessary.
“We want to build bridges,” declares Igor Petrov, leader of the Network for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transsexuals.
On May 17th, one day after Alexeyev’s Moscow demonstration, the LGBT Network organized a “rainbow flashmob” in a few Russian cities. Although the organizers were determined not to use the word “parade”, it was the largest ever action of the Russian gay and lesbian movement. Over one hundred people went onto the streets of Saint Petersburg, and although in other cities only a few people participated, the network’s activists talk about its success. Local press covered the events and nobody was arrested.
Igor Petrov is convinced that the most important changes have taken place in the background as a result of daunting negotiations and compromises. As an example he points to Krasnoyarsk where local policemen would raid gay clubs for fun. A year on, out of the three hundred victims, it was only possible to convince two people to file complaints with the prosecutor’s office. The incident raised interest among the media.
“People do not like gays, but even more they do not like the police,” laughs Petrov. Although the case did not reach the final stage in the court, because the prosecutor’s office refused to initiate an investigation, justice was not passed over. The overly zealous policemen were deprived of their bonuses and the raids have not taken place since.
Igor has recently talked to Russia’s Representative for Human Rights, Vladimir Lukin. Although he appliedfor this meeting for two years, he believes it was worth it because a representative of the state met with Russian LGBT activists for the first time and convinced them of his positive attitude.
The activists of the movement are consolidating their forces. They are organizing support and psychological services for those who want to come out.
“People call us and say: ‘I have just come out’ and they ask what to do next. They are not certain whether their parents will alow them to come back home,” explains Vasilina Rachinska.
Igor Petrov argues that there will be more “coming outs”. A generation which is now reaching adulthood knows article 121 only from spoken stories. Young people are more ready to come out, something which the older generation associated more to harakiri.
“A few years ago we were not even sure if the LGBT community really existed. Today we know that it does, although it is still in its early stages of development,“ says Maria Sabunayeva.
Ukrainian LGBT activists, with whom I talked before my departure to Russia, unanimously agreed that the situation of sexual minorities in Russia is very poor, not to say tragic. Igor Petrov still convinces us not to fall for stereotypes, “Russia is unpredictable. When asked when homosexual marriages will be allowed here, I respond: I do not know, but maybe tomorrow?”
Katarzyna Kwiatkowska is a graduate of Eastern Studies at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. She is a regular contributor to the quarterly Res Publica Nowa and journalist covering Eastern Europe.
Kwiatkowska, K. Ivan & Ivan // Nowa Europa Wschodnia, 2 (10) 2010.