[The german version of this article you will find here.]
By Viktoria Penz
When reports of a new wave of persecution of homosexuals in Chechnya were published in January, the rights of LGBTQI people in Russia became once more the focus of attention. During his trip to Vienna leader of the Russian LGBTQI awareness campaign “It Gets Better” Alexey Mazurov told us how he wants to improve the community’s situation in Russia’s metropolises.
This article was supposed to start with a direct quotation of a report published by the Novaya Gazeta. The report, which is titled “Nazija Stracha” (“The Nation of Fear”), describes why nobody in Chechnya calls the police when people are being abducted, tortured or killed because of their real or alleged sexual orientation. However, soon after the article was released, a preamble was added to it. It said that journalists of the Novaya Gazeta had been publicly threatened due to the coverage of the persecution of the LGBTQI community in Chechnya. Of particular interest was a link to the Instagram account of the Chechen Minister of Information. In a video, he humiliates the Novaya Gazeta (which previously won awards like the Reporters-Without-Borders’ Human Rights Price or the prestigious Henry-Nannen-Price) by calling it a duck which is controlled by Western media.
The preamble makes one thing clear: In Chechnya, no one can talk about what is happening to homosexuals. It also shows that even elsewhere in Russia one should better not utter criticism about the incidents in the autonomous republic in Russia’s South West.
Still, some do speak up. Two weeks ago, the Russian LGBTQI network published information about 14 people who had been illegally detained at the police station of Chechnya’s capital Grozny and had been tortured consequently. In an earlier announcement, the network spoke about another 40 people who had been detained. At least two of them were killed. The network publicly criticized the human rights violations, filed a complaint and submitted personal data of one of the killed men to the Investigative Committee. Since a first wave of persecutions in 2017, the network also evacuates victims.
Only very few of the formerly detained speak in public about their persecution, detention, humiliation, rape and torcher. According to the reports, most of them could return to their families after they had paid a ransom. Often the families were then told to kill the detained on their own. Maxim Lapunov, one of the two men who have ever spoken publicly about their captivation and torcher, left Russia because he was afraid to be attacked again. Despite his detailed descriptions, the responsible investigators did not launch formal investigations, as they said they were unable to corroborate his claims.
“If we would say everything gets better, nobody would believe us”
Alexey Mazurov hardly comments on the situation in Chechnya. He only says that very little is really known and that the things we do know cause questions. On his trip to Vienna, the leader of a group of activists, who inform about the LGBTQI community as part of an international campaign, has another message. Although the campaign’s title is „It Gets Better“, he says that many people do not have any reason to think that their lives are improving. In this way, the Russian campaign differs from its Western equivalents: “The Russians are no optimists. This is the difference between us and the other participating countries. We do not say it gets better. Instead, we want people to tell us their stories about how their lives already got better. If we would say everything gets better, nobody would believe us.”
Russia is a complicated country. Mazurov says one of the two possibilities to better the situation of the LGBTQI persons in Russia is raising the prosperity level. “The living standards of smaller Russian cities or villages are very low. If you speak about the rights of the LGBTQI community in these places, you will not reach anybody. If one does not have enough food, he or she rather looks for a reason to blame somebody for their aggressions. Therefore, we focus on helping people of the LGBTQI community to move to bigger cities and find work and orientation.”
As a matter of fact, the differences between the Russian country side and the cities are much stronger than in other countries. While Moscow’s city centre counts as one of the most expensive places in Europe, the ones left behind in the villages live slightly above subsistence level. The size of Russia, which is one cause for this difference, causes also its geopolitical strength. The strength, on the other hand, is what the Russian leaders concentrated on during the last years – in many cases in opposition to Europe. This opposite standpoint is another reason for the difficult situation of the LGBTQIs, as many homophobes think homosexuality was imported from Europe. The statistics give proof of this: In a 2010 study conducted by the Levada opinion research institute, 70% of the surveyed said homosexuality is morally questionable. Another 45% said that they support equality, but still 80% of the surveyed opposed same sex marriages. In addition to these hostile attitudes, a law, which is known in English-media language as “gay propaganda law”, was introduced in 2013. It makes it illegal to tell or show minors that a sexual orientation or gender identification which differs from heterosexuality is normal or even good.
Mazurov is well aware of these attitudes and the law. He also abides by the law. Nevertheless, speaking and explaining within the law’s confines (meaning to adults) is legal. Hence, this is what Mazurov views as the other possibility to improve the situation of the Russian LGBTQIs: explaining and informing.
“Reacting with denial and aggression on new and unknown things is in the nature of mankind. This is the reason why we have to speak up and explain, even if people have their own theories to explain why homosexuality is bad. If we react with hatred, the whole story would assume a horrible logic of interaction. We want others to listen to us, so we also have to listen to others and not answer with hate.”
Even though Mazurov says Russians are not optimistic, he is fascinatingly optimistic and patient himself. He does not call the Russian LGBTQI people’s situation bad or tough, but complicated, difficult. At the same time, this is exactly what he wants to work on with his fellow activists. Short videos of LGBTQI people who speak about their experiences shall encourage, motivate and create awareness. Not even the ones who believe that homosexuality was imported demotivate Mazurov. “According to the statistics, the number of Russians wanting to get closer to Europe rises. Of course, there is always the other side. Still, we only have one remedy: Speaking, listening and explaining. Russia is a great country. The Russian history, literature and culture are great. What do these things have to do with homophobia? Nothing! Even if it is often denied, LGBTQI people have always been part of the Russian history. For a long time, it was the same in Europe. Europe meanwhile learned to appreciate homosexuals. One day, also Russia will encounter them with respect.”
The benefits of networking
Mazurovs optimism is based on a further pillar. As the different activist groups are well connected, they can make use of the other minorities’ experiences. One of these minorities were (and partially still remain until today) people with special health needs. “30 years ago, people in a wheelchair were left at the kitchen table. ‘Life is hard enough. In addition to that, we have you here, so keep on sitting at home and don’t disturb the others living their lives!’ - This is what they told people in wheelchairs. Nevertheless, the perception has changed within the last 30 years. This story of change shows how the perception of other minorities can change too.”
Is he afraid? Mazurov declines and asks: “Afraid of what?” He is of the opinion that it is important to live for the present and be happy in the current moment. Touching upon the reason for his enduring positive thinking, he mentions one moment which was crucial for him. “After a first multiple sclerosis attack seven years ago, the doctors’ prognoses were very gloomy. But sitting at home and keeping quiet is not a solution. Some people in Russia still believe that multiple sclerosis includes an automatic loss of memory. Should I hate them because of this ignorance? No, as they just do not know. I prefer to speak and explain.”
Mazurov studied culturology and is a guide as well as an English teacher. Maybe this is the reason for which he manages to highly appreciate his country while he can easily explain how to make things better in Russia. In fact, the last months give rise to some hope within the younger generation: The Levada institute, which had published the above quoted figures, recently gained strong media attention when it published ratings agreeing with Mazurov’s optimism. According to the 2019 figures, every fifth Russian is willing to attend “meetings” (demonstrations and public gatherings) for the sake of changes in the country. Half of the people from 18 to 24 years announced that they can picture themselves working for a public or political organisation. A third of this generation can also imagine becoming a volunteer. Obviously, Mazurov’s optimism and willingness to compromise are currently the best way to support the LGBTQI community. Also, he is not the only one who wants to take this road.
[Fotos: AnnaLisa Erdemgil Brandstätter]