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Artur Levin's column

Fighting the rainbow. Arthur Levin on LGBTQ rights in Russia


"What worries me is the lack of freedom of speech in the country. That we're slipping into medieval obscurantism. I'm worried about the decline in real incomes. That everything "different from" is being squeezed out of Russia, from gays to Zemfira.

Science is dying. I already know dozen scientists who were forced to leave, because if you aren’t in the defense industry no one fucking needs you. The ruble is falling. Food prices are rising. In short, hopelessness.

I have been friends with B. for two decades now. And for the first time, I swear, we've had such a long and detailed conversation about politics. Not about the avant-garde artists of the 20th century or about the work of writer Shehan Karunatilak, who won the coveted Booker Prize. Not about the weather or nature, dammit, but about the war and the situation in our home country, from which B. fled in the autumn of 2022. All this time he has been wandering around Europe in the hope of finding his new home.

Just so you understand, B. is homosexual and no longer feels safe in Russia.

Why not? Let me explain.

The fight against "rainbow", albeit not as explicit as it is now, started back in 2020. First, the conservative public was offended by LGBTQ+ flags that appeared on the US and British embassy buildings in Moscow. Then fans of the film Boomer lambasted BMW's foreign account for supporting "Pride month". Next, the head of the Russian Women's Union saw propaganda in Rainbow ice cream and even complained to Vladimir Putin.
At the time, it seemed rather absurd. Many people were surprised, some were seriously worried, but no one, at least none of my acquaintances, packed their suitcases.

It is nonsense to accuse random things of supporting gays and lesbians.

However, it was precisely these, for any sane person… absolutely mindless and feeble-minded events that heralded a truly serious crackdown on members of the Russian LGBTQ+ community.

In the summer of that year, activist Yulia Tsvetkova was prosecuted for propaganda for the third time. Specifically, for drawings with a same-sex couple and a child.

Yulia Tsvetkova
Photo: Anna Khodyreva archive

Then RIA FAN published a video with the question "This is the kind of Russia you would choose?" about a same-sex couple who adopted a child from an orphanage. The video was implied as campaigning for constitutional amendments. In response, a flash mob with the hashtag #DaVyberu was launched on social media in which the activist took part. The police immediately found signs of propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations in Tsvetkova's pictures. This is part 2 of Article 6.21 of the Code of Administrative Offences.

"What does it say? That I'm not being left behind? That the country is homophobic? About the fact that a shell can hit the same place three times? About the fact that none of this is OK? Why spell out the obvious?", Tsvetkova wrote on her social media.

Also in 2020, director David France's Welcome to Chechnya, a film about the persecution of LGBTQ+ activists in the republic, was released on HBO. One of the central characters in the film is Maxim Lapunov, the first person to openly declare that he was a victim of torture in Chechnya because of his homosexuality.

Maxim Lapunov

The film chronicles the systematic torture and killing of LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya and shows fragments of a secret evacuation organised by Russian activists David Isteev, coordinator of the "Emergency Aid" programme, and Olga Baranova of the Moscow Community Centre.

The film's narrative focuses mainly on two stories: the lesbian "Ani", daughter of a Chechen official, who was forced by her uncle to have sex with him in exchange for not telling a secret about her homosexuality, and the gay "Grisha" (that same Maxim Lapunov), who was tortured in a "gay prison". He and his partner and family will eventually manage to leave Russia. And he will become the first person to openly and officially identify himself as a torture victim in Chechnya.

And yet up until 2022 these cases seemed to be isolated. Something out of the ordinary. And Chechnya seemed to the residents of the capital's Moscow and St. Petersburg a distant and dreary place.

So in December the president of Russia signed a law "banning the promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships or preferences, paedophilia, and sex reassignment. Along with this document Putin signed another one. It bans the distribution of material that "promotes non-traditional sexual relationships or preferences" - in advertisements, books, films and the media.

Citizens can now be fined between 50,000 and 100,000 roubles for LGBTQ+ propaganda among adults. And if the propaganda was among minors, they can be fined as much as 200,000 roubles.

The penalties for propaganda on the internet are even higher. For businesses, the alternative to a fine of 800,000-5,000,000 roubles, depending on the charges, is suspension of work for up to 90 days.

How the courts will deal with LGBT propaganda cases is still unclear. The fact is that the adopted laws do not clearly define "non-traditional sexual relationships" and "gender reassignment". What the courts will mean by dissemination of information is also unclear.

The book industry is the most concerned.

Following the adoption of the laws, Oleg Novikov, head of one of Russia's largest publishing groups, Eksmo-AST, said that the vague wording threatened up to 50% of book titles on the market.

The publishing service Ridero sent a letter to authors asking them to check their books for violations of the law banning LGBTQ+ propaganda. The representatives of the service gave a list of topics that must be avoided in the text, on the cover, in illustrations and other parts of the book: information about the attractiveness of non-traditional sexual relationships or preferences, information that forms a distorted view of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relationships, information about sex reassignment. These are all formulations from the law.

The Labyrinth bookstore has temporarily suspended sales of some books. Representatives of the shop have not published a list of works, but Summer in the Pioneer's Tie and The Tartan are now unavailable for purchase on the site.

Popcorn Books, which specialises in topics such as self-identity, racism, sexism and attitudes to one's body, has warned that their books with LGBTQ+ characters are likely to stop selling.

The book service Livelyb has withheld two books because "there is a lot of attention on them".

The same attention, assures B., has been focused on him lately. Although he has never openly declared his sexual orientation and has led a rather modest lifestyle. He has, though, repeatedly spoken out against the war in Ukraine on social media.

The situation of my friend and others like him in Russia today is really unenviable.

Gays are not allowed to marry or adopt children, they are not allowed to display their symbols, including the rainbow; LGBTQ+ members are increasingly recognized as foreign agents, and no one really protects their rights.

The course towards integration into civilised society has been left far behind. Russia now has its own particular path. It has already lost a huge number of people who have left their homes and gone elsewhere in search of freedom of speech and expression.

By: Artur Levin

Cover photo: Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters

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