As a Russian, lesbian ex-pat, I spend a lot of time fantasizing about what a queer inclusive Russia would look like. I think about the scholarship that could emerge when queer voices are no longer censored. I think about the amazing biopics that Russian filmmakers could produce if they would acknowledge the sexual identity of some of Russia’s most cherished cultural icons, such as Marina Tsvetaeva and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Hell, I’ve even made an all-Russian playlist in case they invite me to be the DJ at Moscow’s first official Pride. And then, I am reminded that Moscow banned Pride until the year 2112. I am reminded that an anti-gay propaganda law has been in place since 2013, the specifics of it purposefully vague so that anyone can be arrested for any queer behavior at any time. I am reminded that last July, one of the most vocal queer rights activists, Yelena Grigoryeva, was strangled and stabbed to death after her personal information appeared on the homophobic website SAW, encouraging visitors to hunt down and kill queer people.
For every queer person like me, who left Russia in search of a better future, there are more queer people who stayed — whether out of necessity, or out of love for their country and a belief that things can get better. My fantasies are nothing compared to the bravery, persistence, and beauty of the queer community in Russia that continues to fight for their rights. But it’s not easy when the rest of the world hardly seems to pay attention, as queer people in Russia continue to be censored, threatened, and murdered.
On July 1, Russians will be voting “yes” or “no” on constitutional amendments that, if passed, will enable Vladimir Putin to remain president through 2036. Leading up to this election, some disturbing events have been taking place that target queer people. On June 1, a propaganda video was released by Patriot, a media group that works together with the Federal News Agency. Set in an orphanage in the year 2035, this video imagines life if Russians vote “no” on the amendments: Two female orphanage workers deliver a little boy the good news that he has been adopted. When the three of them step outside, the adoptive parents turn out — to everyone’s shock — to be an openly gay couple. “Come meet your new mama,” one of them says, as the other excitedly pulls out a children’s dress from the car. As the two women watch disapprovingly, a voice-over says: “Is this the Russia you will choose? Decide the future of your country. Vote yes on the constitutional amendments.”
Also this month, Russian authorities arrested queer artist and activist Yulia Tsvetkova, who is facing six years in jail on the charges of “pornography.” Tsvetkova has been a target of censorship for some time. In November 2019, she was put on house arrest for staging a play that tackled conventional ideas of gender, The Blue and The Pink, which the government considered to be “spreading gay propaganda to minors.” The current charges for pornography concern a series of cartoon-like drawings by Tsvetkova promoting body positivity, which she has been posting on her social media platforms. Inspired by the Vagina Monologues, the drawings feature (partially) nude women, accompanied by slogans reading: “Real women have hair / Real women menstruate / Real women have wrinkles.” (“Real women” is a loose translation, the literal translation from Russian is: “Women who are alive.”) Had Tsvetkova been circulating these drawings in the United States, she would’ve likely received criticism for promoting an essentialist idea of womanhood — for, as we know, not all women menstruate. Yet Russia hasn’t even reached the point where cis-women are allowed to talk about their bodies, let alone start deconstructing what womanhood means. Looking at Tsvetkova’s innocent drawings, it becomes obvious that the charges of pornography are simply an excuse to silence another queer activist. It’s almost laughable, if it wasn’t so tragic.
Queer activists in recent years have taken to the streets to protest the repression of queer people, though this often results in arrests under the anti-gay propaganda law. Social media has provided an effective alternative for queers in Russia to raise awareness and visibility, most notably through the online platform O-Zine. As Russia is currently under COVID-19 quarantine, activist artists across the country have taken to social media in defense of Tsvetkova. Eighty artists posted photographs of pickets they staged outside their homes, holding up signs reading “Free Yulia,” and “The Body Is Not Pornography.” They have also been sharing stories about famous artists in history who have been subjected to political persecution for their art. Instagram has blocked the #freeyulia (in Russian: #ЗаЮлю) hashtag, claiming that many posts featured nudity and were flagged for not fitting their guidelines — any picture with the #freeyulia hashtag will now remain hidden.
I spoke with one of the activist campaign leaders, the feminist artist and DJ Lolja Nordic, about what constitution amendments will mean for LGBTQ people Russia. “I will vote against the amendments,” Nordic tells me, “although I am sure that, alas, this will not affect anything. It’s clear that Putin already has decided everything. The amendments proposed in the constitution define the family as the union between a man and a woman, and such official formulations will only increase the stigmatization of LGBTQ people in Russia. It’s known already that after the anti-propaganda law went through, the number of crimes against LGBTQ people have increased.”
Nordic’s own writings on society and culture are often marked with a warning that readers must be 18 or older, only because she discusses feminism and queerness. She tells me that she notices how her active feminist position tends to annoy people in the music industry and art world, and she often finds herself excluded from the local music community because of her strong political views. Nordic is planning another large-scale campaign in support of Yulia Tsvetkova on July 27, which is the day of national celebration of young people in Russia, the details of which she cannot disclose. (You can sign the petition to free Tsvetkova here.)
Before COVID-19 forced us to remain hyper-local, many of us moved freely through a world that was increasingly dissolving its borders. But with or without the freedom of movement, it is still our responsibility to advocate for universal human rights. When a country of 144.5 million people normalizes homophobia and hate, it affects not only the entire queer community, but the entire world. It’s time we pay attention.
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