Homophobia in Russia

by Mads Nissen


NOW AND then something happens that changes everything.

A single incident that unfolds in front of me and I know I’m no longer just a silent eyewitness with a camera. From now it’s no longer just a story. From now it’s personal.

On a bright summer day, June 2013, in Saint Petersburg, something like this happened. “Are you a faggot? Are you a fucking faggot?”, a young man with a military style haircut and a sporty outfit screams at Pavel.

Kirill Fedorov, 21, is bleeding from his face after national-conservative extremists surrounded, beat and kicked him and his friends while they were attending a Gay Pride rally in St. Petersburg. The group of friends try to stick together and seek cover behind the police as stones and eggs are thrown at them. The rally was declared illegal under the law banning “gay propaganda” and Kirill Fedorov and the other LGBT-activists were arrested and later taken to court.

Pavel Lebedev is 23 years old. He is wearing an orange shirt and an insecure smile. I met Pavel the previous day when he told me how he made the tough decision to come out of the closet. And he told me about the price he had to pay for following his heart. Now, he was being yelled at once again.

Pavel calmly answers the question: “Yes, I am gay…”.

He barely gets to finish the word “gay” before the first punch hits him. The young man in the sporty outfit has obviously waited for this situation. Filled with hate, he cannot hold himself back any longer, and tries to give Pavel another punch in his face.

I’m outraged. How can this be happening? Today? Punching, kicking and spitting at a gentle and shy young man like Pavel, simply because he is more attracted to men than women.

It’s unbelievable. It’s not fair. And something needs to be done! But instead of getting involved in the fistfight, I keep my camera in my hands—and I’m not letting it go before this story has been told to the rest of the world.

Since that summer day I’ve been dedicating myself to tell the story of modern homophobia in Russia. Not only the violent attacks, but also the new, so-called anti-gay law and the everyday stigma LGBT-persons in Russia are facing.

Being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) is becoming more and more difficult in Russia, where sexual minorities are facing legal and social discrimination, harassment, and even violent hate crime attacks from religious and neo-nazi groups. In June 2013, Russia’s homophobia moved from the streets into the country’s legislation as the State Duma unanimously adopted an anti-gay law banning "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations".

Because of this severe stigma, and continuing violent assaults on individuals and organizations, the LGBT community in Russia is often very suspicious and cautious about letting strangers in. Because of this, my collaboration with the leading LGBT NGO, Coming Out, has been essential. Not only did they help me to understand the many aspects of Russian homophobia, but every time something new happened they would let me know, and I could easily fly to Saint Petersburg and photograph the latest development—like the portrait of Dmitry Chizhevskiy, who’s left eye was destroyed after he was the victim of a hate-crime.

As the story was published around the world, the activists from Coming Out would share it on social media. They told me how much it means when someone takes them seriously. When someone is witnessing all they have to go through and tries to involve the rest of the world in their struggle for freedom.

If not arrested by the police, LGBT-activists usually leave rallies together in buses to avoid being followed and attacked. As the bus waits in traffic, national-conservative extremists surround and attack the bus and try to smash the windows with rocks.

Dmitry Chizhevskiy, 27, had his left eye permanently destroyed by homophobes on 3 November 2013 when three armed men entered into a private meeting of homosexuals in St. Petersburg. They beat people with baseball bats and Dmitry Chizhevskiy was shot at point-blank range in his left eye with an air gun. The perpetrators have still not been found.

Ekaterina Alekseeva, 21, appears in court after being arrested at a Gay Pride Rally on 29 June 2013. The rally was declared illegal under the law banning “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” and Ekaterina Alekseeva is now facing the consequences. The so-called “gay-propaganda” law was introduced locally in St. Petersburg in 2012. The day before this picture was taken, President Putin signed it into law nationwide.

Jonathan Jacques Louis, 21, and Alexander Semyonov, 25.

Maxim Martsinkevich (wearing a black T-shirt) is a self-declared militant homophobe and the host of a popular online video-show where gays are tricked into fake dates but instead of a romantic encounter, a band of armed national-conservative extremists are waiting to take them away. The victims are sexually humiliated and tortured, while everything is filmed and posted online.

Activists gather to remember those who have died of HIV/ AIDS on International HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, 18 May 2014.

From a safe distance, three members of the special OMOH (pronounced OMON) police force watch an LGBT rally in St. Petersburg. Despite the law banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships”, popularly known as the law against “homosexual propaganda”, this rally was allowed to go ahead. The organizers of the rally had allegedly agreed with the police in advance that they would avoid certain signs and slogans.

The intimate nightclub Central Station is one of the few havens for LGBT-people in St. Petersburg. 27-year-old Ruslan, a ballet dancer at The Academy of Russian Ballet, was married to a woman for five years but came out after they divorced.

Yaroslav Yevtushenko (left) embraces his boyfriend Dmitry Chunosov at St. Petersburg's registry office where the couple attempts to officially register their marriage as an act of protest. Since same sex marriages are not recognized in Russia, their submission was promptly rejected by the authorities.

follow mads

catch light

Berkeley, CA