By Igor Yashin, CWI Moscow
CWI member and LGBT rights activist, Igor Yashin, was arrested and jailed along with others protesting against anti-LGBT laws passed by the Russian parliament last November. Below, Igor describes what happened to him and other protesters on 19 November and the wider issues surrounding the new repressive legislation.
Around 15 people were arrested outside the State Duma (Russian Parliament) in Moscow on 19 December 2012. This was the day when the parliament was due to have the first reading of a law to ban so-called “homosexual propaganda amongst the under-aged”. The law, in reality, will restrict the rights and freedoms of the LGBT community, create a threat of the growth of homophobic prejudices and will create real difficulties for LGBT teenagers.
Russia has one of the highest levels of domestic violence and teenage suicides in the world. It is known that in the West that the suicide rate amongst LGBT teenagers is 3-4 times higher than for other youth, but in Russia such information is not even collected. Covering themselves in concerns for “morality”, the fraudulently elected Duma is trying to exploit the widespread prejudices in society for its own political gain and, in doing so, is completely ignoring the welfare of children and teenagers.
At the same time as passing this new law, the Duma are passing another that bans the adoption of Russian orphans by American families. Orphans in Russia suffer an unenviable fate, but the law-makers feel it necessary to take “revenge” against the US for passing the “Magnitskii law”, which takes action against Russian bureaucrats involved in corrupt activities. These orphan children are being used as pawns in the conflict between Putin and the West. The “patriots” from the Russian Communist Party voted almost completely for these new laws!
The new homophobic law is being pushed through by the Putin regime at the same time as a number of other anti-democratic and anti-social laws. The ruling elite are attempting to maintain their position in power in the face of mass protests.
At a regional level such laws have been passed even before December 2011’s parliamentary election and before the mass opposition protests started. Feeling its position weakened in society, the ruling United Russia party decided to exploit these prejudices for its own political aims.
Noticeably the homophobic law was passed by the regional legislature in St Petersburg, along with five other acts directed at the “protection” of children. But after the election, the Regional Governor rejected all of these laws, except for the one restricting LGBT rights.
Reactionary attacks by the authorities continue. Members of the rock group Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison for a peaceful protest in a cathedral; the government is considering a new law to protect “the rights of believers”; censorship is being introduced to cover the internet and all the while corruption scandals in the government and at the top of the church hierarchy continue.
The negative effects of these new laws are already being felt in a number of regions. The laws themselves have been so badly written that they are practically unenforceable, but their very existence creates huge difficulties for LGBT organisations. People are simply afraid to support LGBT acts or speak openly about rights for LGBT for fear of punishment. There have also been open physical attacks on LGBT activists and on various cultural and social events on LGBT themes.
Even in Moscow, where, to date, no actual anti-LGBT law has yet been passed, the authorities refuse permission to LGBT activists to hold protests against the proposed new law. In their justification for refusing permission, they claim that the protests will “provoke a negative reaction in society” and are “provocative, causing moral harm to children and teenagers, offending religious and moral feelings and harming the human feelings of citizens”.
On Wednesday19 December 2012, CWI activists joined LGBT activists in an “individual picket” outside the State Duma (An individual picket is the only form of protest that does not need permission from the state and consists of one person holding a placard). Our placards read, “We don’t need homophobic laws, but free kinder-gardens, schools and hospitals” and “Homophobia is the enemy of workers – unite together against division, for democratic and social rights”. We stood for an hour and a half in the freezing cold taking it in turns to protest.
By 12.00 about 30 LGBT activists and supporters had gathered and to express their protest decided to organise a flash-mob, kissing on the steps of the State Duma. However, by this time, the pro-government ‘Russian orthodox activists’ started throwing rotten eggs at the protesters. To begin with, the police took no action and then they moved against the victims of the attack. I was arrested by the police just because I complained to them that they were taking no action against the attackers. As a result, 10 LGBT activists and 5 attackers were arrested for several hours.
We were kept in the police cells for 30 hours. Despite a powerful campaign of protest against our arrest only a few people were released after a few hours. They told us we were to be charged with “hooliganism” and faced up to 15 days in jail. Only the evening after our arrest were we allowed to see the charge sheet, which claimed we had been shouting and fighting!
Even the police at the station were unhappy and openly admitted that they did not want to keep us detained, but they had been phoned “from above” and that at each call, the authorities changed their minds about what to do with us. Only at the dead of night did they police release one of us, the journalist Elena Kostyuchenko, who is well known amongst other things for her courage and shocking reporting from Zhanaozen in the few days after the massacre there. On the 16th December Lena spoke at the demonstration in Moscow to commemorate the victims of the Zhanaozen massacre.
The day after our arrest they took us to court, by which time we and our lawyers had managed to gather over ten eye-witnesses and video material to back our case. However, Judge Borovkova, renowned for her willingness to sentence oppositionists to prison, simply refused to hear our case, referring to mistakes made by the police in filling out the charge sheets. We were sent back to the police station. Eventually our lawyers were able to reach agreement from the police that we should be released. We were each given a fine of 500 roubles (12 euros) for ‘hooliganism’ and after 30 hours we were set free.
On 22 January, the first reading of the bill will continue. LGBT activists and their supporters will once again be in opposition. For many LGBT activists it has become clear that the homophobic policies of the authorities are tied up completely to the economic and political crisis in the country. Therefore it is necessary to seek solidarity from any other groups that are currently struggling. Now more LGBT activists are turning up on the different social protests and in defence of other democratic rights. On this year’s May Day demonstration dozens of LGBT activists and feminists joined up with the CWI contingent carrying banners with social slogans and demands for equal rights.
Nikolai Kavkazskii - several months in the police cells
Repression against the opposition is hitting LGBT activists. One of the best known campaigners for LGBT rights, Nikolai Kavkazskii, has already spent several months in the police cells following arrests linked to 6 May mass demonstration, which was brutally attacked by the police. He was arrested just after returning from the CWI’s summer camp. Another LGBT activist has been forced to flee to Europe after it became clear his arrest was imminent.
Unfortunately anti-LGBT prejudices are widespread amongst the Russian Left and protest movement and are hampering their development. On 7 November (Revolution day) a number of “lefts” attacked one of the activists who were carrying a rainbow flag, claiming that “the LGBT movement is “bourgeois”. Ironically the activist who was attacked, a sympathiser of the CWI, was a young electrical worker who had just moved from the Russian far-east to Moscow in search of work. While these “lefts” worry about the presence of LGBT supporters, they have no complaints about the presence of large numbers of far-right nationalists on the same marches.
This incident however provoked a wide-scale discussion of homophobic and nationalist prejudices within the Left movement. Representatives of the independent trade unions have approached the LGBT to propose a joint struggle for equal rights.
Today it is not just the rights of the LGBT that are under threat but the rights and freedoms of the majority – of workers, students and pensioners. Today, as never before, we need to overcome the old prejudices so that we can be united in common struggle to gain our rights.
We therefore call on all LGBT organisations, activists and supporters to carry out acts of solidarity on 22 January in support of those struggling in Russia.