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Sasha Calm

Putin's war on gays

Skinhead attacks and suicides: LGBT Russians reveal their stories of living under attack

Documentary photographer Isabella Moore travelled to Russia to investigate the plight of those directly affected by Russian homophobia and the recent anti-gay lesgislation. She shares exclusive pictures and testimonials from her series with Dazed, and speaks about her experience in Russia:

My photo-essay is a collection of visual biographies, each hoping to represent a smaller part of the whole constellation of those directly affected since the ban on "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" was signed into law last year. Everybody strongly advised me against going to Russia; they said that it would be dangerous, and some even thought I could get killed. I could face fines and imprisonment under the new jurisdiction for ‘propagating homosexuality’, especially for interviewing LGBT minors and same-sex couples with children. I set out to put faces to the names behind a media frenzy that, alarmingly, provided no real insight into LGBT people and their stories.

I applied for a one-month tourist visa, which was the easiest way to have it approved with no questions asked. I found most of the people through friends of friends. The others were through a 27-year-old Russian girl called Gaya – she acted as my fixer, using the internet and Russian social network VK. A sense of tension hovered in the air whenever I met people to photograph. Although it’s no longer illegal to be gay (the restriction was lifted in 1993), a homophobic atmosphere is thriving thanks to the stigmatisation of homosexuals and the wave of anti-gay hate crimes.

“what’s most disheartening about the current situation in Russia is the regression to a more intolerant and inequitable society"

The flood of anti-gay legislation continues with the prohibition on adoption rights for same-sex couples and a more recent bill filed last September, which proposes to take children away from LGBT parents (the bill has been momentarily withdrawn by Putin’s party, and will be re-submitted for voting after the Olympics have finished). In a country that once decriminalised homosexuality, what’s most disheartening about the current situation in Russia is the regression to a more intolerant and inequitable society. 

"Things are likely to become more tragic"

Aleksey, 36, works in the music business and his partner Aleksey works in information security. The newly-instated law has made Aleksey and Aleksey think of leaving their homeland of Russia: “If there is going to be more aggression against gay people in Russia, supported by the state, it is the only way to survive."

Aleksey and Aleksey have been together for almost 11 years and met via the internet. Aleksey says he is disillusioned by the increasingly homophobic nature of the Russian government: “We travel and we see that things are changing in many countries for gay people in a positive way. In Russia, because of President Putin, his KGB wing and the Orthodox Church, things are likely to become more tragic for gay people. The sad state of affairs in Russia at the moment, the new laws, open homophobia on the television, by politicians and the Church, affect the whole society”.

"I think we live in the 19th century, I hate it"

Vita Holkina, 17, fears there will be no information and no one for younger LGBT Russians to turn to when they begin to identify as gay. "During my childhood nobody told me that it was bad. Nowadays children will be under pressure by their parents and other adults who will tell them that being gay is bad, and so when they realise that they are LGBT, they'll think it is unnatural and they will even try to kill themselves. Two girls committed suicide by jumping from the roof of a building after the anti-gay bill was passed. Our government tried not to see there was a link and took no blame. I think we live in the 19th century, I hate it."

"What could be a better way to distract people’s attention from real problems to such 'important' things as morality?"

Sergey, 33, and his French partner Philippe, 39, have been together for nine years and are in a French-recognised civil union. Sergey, who works as a journalist, believes the new anti-gay laws serve to distract people’s attention from the real problems Putin’s government faces. "The country is at the edge of a major crisis; we have been profiting from enormous hydrocarbon revenues without investing in development of any kind."

"Together with the world economic crisis, Russian GDP growth has started to decrease, economic growth has stopped, and we are technically not far from a recession. During the last presidential elections Vladimir Putin has made plenty of promises including pensions and military allowances which he doesn’t have the money to fulfil. So what could be a better way to distract people’s attention from real problems to such 'important' things as morality and migration?”

"This law basically bans me from communicating with my gay friends"

Sasha Calm, 15, says that "this law basically bans me from communicating with my gay friends and makes my existence illegal” says Sasha, who came out when he was thirteen. My friends and family were surprised but accepted me for who I am. The public opinion about me got worse though, I became a second-rate person instantaneously and everyone around me was acting as if they suddenly had the right to humiliate and belittle me, laugh at me and call me names.

The teachers at his school took no action and ignored the abuse – not a surprising response, as if Sasha’s homosexuality is seen to be supported, teachers would immediately be breaking the law. "Teachers told me, 'Yes, yes, I'll talk to them’ but nothing ever happened," he says. "Almost every day I heard insulting things, I've been kicked, pushed around, they have wanted to punch me. With time I grew able to ignore it, but for the sake of my own safety I had to switch to being home-schooled." 

"Protests that are seen by no one are useless"

Kirill Kalugin, a 21-year-old undergraduate student and LGBT activist, wasborn in Chita, a town located at the confluence of the Chita and Ingoda Rivers. Last August, he shot to fame for holding a one-man protest at Palace Square during celebrations of a military holiday, where he unfolded a rainbow banner reading "This is promotion of tolerance". Within seconds, he was attacked and arrested by uniformed veteran paratroopers. He was also arrested in St. Petersburg whilst kissing his friend during a protest at the Field of Mars to support the equal rights of sexual minorities, on October 14th, 2013. Although a 2012 law prohibits the holding of gay parades for the next hundred years, Kirill believes that his activism for LGBT people is most significant in order to evoke any form of change. 

"The protests should make people think, reflect, create discussions in our society," he explains. "Protests that are seen by no one are useless. People usually pay attention to something that has not been standardised, something extravagant and provocative, like my slogan ‘Sodom to everyone's home’. It draws attention, it's ironic, it makes the haters go crazy. Everyone still remembers it. But I realise that many activists are afraid of this kind of strategy."

"One of the aggressors pulled out a gun on the crowd of 25 to 30 attendees and shot a young man in the face"

Valery Sozaev, 30, is the co-founder of two LGBT community support groups. He believes that "the Russian state has been looking for an national idea for quite some time. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Orthodox Church became very attractive for the people who didn’t even consider themselves Orthodox believers, so now they have decided to become part of the Church even if their actions are not sometimes very Christian. Orthodoxy is not a religious identity but it is a cultural and national identity. Their political beliefs have become very conservative and the power of the Church is a very useful tool."

The 30-year-old founded LaSky, an HIV prevention group. Last November, a weekly social held for LGBT youth and heterosexual allies at Valery’s St. Petersburg office, was attacked by two assailants who entered the community centre pretending to "look for a friend". One of the aggressors pulled out a gun on the crowd of 25 to 30 attendees and shot a young man in the face (the victim later lost his eye). A young woman was also beaten with a baseball bat. As is common in many similar cases, the aggressors have not been found.

"Think about it: the bill makes it an offence to claim social equality"

Masha Gessen, 46, is a Russian political journalist who is in the process of moving her family to the USA where they hold US citizenship, as she fears her children will be removed by social services if more anti-gay laws are passed.  “It had not been a difficult choice," she explains. "If our children were in danger, however great or small the danger ultimately turned out to be, we could not continue living in Russia. In effect, we had been given no choice, and this made things easier.”

The anti-gay propaganda bill passed last year meant that Masha and her partner are already breaking the law, every day: just by existing, they are propagating ‘non-traditional’ relations to their children who are under the age of 18. "(The bill) enshrines second-class citizenship for LGBT people," Masha says. "Think about it: it makes it an offence to claim social equality."

"I was shaking. I felt like she was talking to me, about me"

Anton Kuzmin, 27, is a Christian Protestant who belongs to the United Methodist Church. When he revealed his sexual orientation to his pastor and some other fellows from the church, they initially accepted him – but as time went on it was clear they did not appreciate him as an equal member. "I remember one Sunday my pastor read a sermon on the extract from the letter of Paul, 1 Corinthians 6. This was the first time I heard the word 'homosexualists' within the church. 'It is a choice,' she said. 'They, along with alcoholics, thieves and adulterers, won't possess the Kingdom of God.' If I had more courage, I would have stood up and left the sanctuary. This was such bullshit! I was shaking. I felt like she was talking to me, about me.”

Anton continued to attend his church until "I brought my boyfriend to the church. But we had to keep it a secret even though most of the people knew about us. I wanted to do the same PDA as heterosexual couples did but I couldn't. So, what was the point of staying? Church became a torture for me." He currently attends an LGBT believers group. "Our people are not aware there are LGBT believers, to be Christian and gay is something you cannot have, but you in the West know it can be possible."

"Even if a girl loves another girl it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her child"

Irina Fedorishcheva, 28, and Svetlana Shompolova, 28, share a small apartment in Moscow with Irina’s daughter and Svetlana’s son. Irina and Svetlana are friends and have been renting the apartment together to save on rent. Svetlana’s husband accused her of being in a lesbian relationship with Irina so that he could take custody of their son. "There was a 15 page psychological expertise presented in our court case based on words from Svetlana’s parents that stated Svetlana, myself and our lawyer Anastasia were aggressive lesbians, crazy, that all gay people are horrible drunkards, having AIDS, obnoxious sluts and so on,” Irina says. 

She believes that taking away children from parents on the grounds of their sexual orientation comes terrifyingly close to fascism: "This is evil... And you can't prove anything, you can't prove them wrong... Even if a girl loves another girl it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her child. These two things have nothing in common. And I can’t understand in what way it could even possibly harm the child."

"I was seen to be destroying moral values of the society because of my bisexuality"

Vera Kichanova, 22, and Paul Melkiades, 22, got married to one another soon after meeting at an Occupy protest in Moscow. In 2012, Vera was elected as a municipal deputy in Moscow. During her election campaign, she was in a relationship with a girl. “It was not a secret, I published photos of us, we went out together. After I was elected there were several articles about me as I was seen to be destroying moral values of the society because of my bisexuality,” she says.

Paul and Vera were also victims of a homophobic attack by skinheads whilst on a night out in Moscow. “We were celebrating my friend’s birthday in a bar when a woman shouted a homophobic slur at one of my friends and started hitting him. Four more people, one woman and three men, came over crying 'Faggots!' My husband and I were beaten too. It was clear the security guards were on the side of the aggressors: I asked them to call the police, but they refused. The next day one of the attackers sent me some threatening messages. He warned us not to come back because we 'looked gay' and that he and his friends 'beat gays half to death'."