A short while ago, I made a youtube video in which I drew attention to the draconian law, which Putin signed on 30th june 2013, condemned as a violation of human rights both in 2017 and 2019 by the European Court of Human Rights, but currently enforced in Russia and which makes it illegal to discuss homosexuality with children under 18; specifically, it prohibits “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations around minors.” I made a comparison in my own film with clause 28 (1988) which was thankfully repealed in the UK in 2003.
A survey in 2013 conducted by VTsIOM claimed that the propaganda law was supported by 90% the Russian population. At time time, Putin claimed, “I want everyone to understand that in Russia there are no infringements on sexual minorities’ rights. They’re people, just like everyone else, and they enjoy full rights and freedoms”. He went on to joke about the improbability of gay marriage in Chechnya. The Chechnyan leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, later pointed out that no one was gay in his country. He went on in a televised interview for HBO to say, “They are devils. They are for sale. They are not people.”
Over the last few years, as a result of this law, there have been a number of claims made about intimidation and assault in Russia, most notably by Gleb Latnik who was struck around the head; he was visibly bruised and had a swollen eye. Latnik said that when he went to file a complaint, but the police replied, “It’s all right, you’re gay so it’s normal that you were attacked. Why would you need to file a complaint?”
Earlier this year, a same-sex russian couple living in Magnitogorsk fled the country with their two children after a suspected appendicitis flagged up their relationship. The case workers in the State Guardianship office who had given the family a regular positive evaluation were subsequently carpeted for the “inadequate performance of duties”, a criminal offence that carries up to three months in prison. So, it s not only gay people who fall foul of the new regime.
Today, it is clear that the penalties for infringing the 2013 Russian law, are being ramped up. 21 year-old Maxim Pankratov and Victoria Pich, the producer of the Russian version of “real time” are today reported to be threatened with between 12 and 20 years’ imprisonment. Maxim says he has received death threats, been physically attacked and that both he and Victoria Pich have gone into hiding and are now living in fear.
Pankratov said that the youtube video programme he had fronted almost a year ago, a version of an American tv format called “Kids meet”, was a conversation with 4 children who asked him simple questions about his life. The programme had earlier shown children between the ages of 6 and 13 talking about a number of other prejudices. Pankratov said, “It was a normal conversation and (now) they want to put me in jail. It was about what it’s like to be a gay man in Russia and how I live. We wanted to show society that you can be tolerant.” He told reporters, “I thought it was a normal conversation with children, there was no discussion of sex.” From October, the programme was blocked by Roskomnadzor, the state media and communications watchdog agency.
It has taken some months for the authorities to react, but they were led by a particularly nasty member of the DUMA, a man called Pytor Tolstoy, a direct descendant of the 19th Century author, who agitated repeatedly about the programme. He is a man who has come up, oddly a few times in conversations I have had in Moscow. A few years’ ago, he made outrageous anti-semitic claims that Jews had been –and were still– desecrating Russian Churches. Unfortunately, he is a man with significant power as a deputy-speaker of the Russian Parliament. What he says, therefore, however outrageous, has an effect.
So, Tolstoy’s badgering led to an investigation by the Department of Internal Affairs who questioned what they called the “dissemination of destructive information”. They wrote, “Currently, investigators have interrogated the organizer of the video shoot, and also are establishing the circle of victims and conducting other investigative actions aimed at establishing all the circumstances of the incident.”
As far as I can see, the organiser of the video shoot, the producer Victoria Pich, was never formally “interrogated”. She seems to have gone into hiding after she received a very aggressive letter, while Pankratov has been both physically attacked and received a stream of abuse through social media before also going into hiding. The letter they received claims that their video was of “a debauched character whose aim was to sexually abuse the children.” Victoria Pich has told the BBC that she felt like her freedom was threatened.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, have tried to distance themselves from the problem. The usual spokesman, Dmitry Peskov has been wheeled out to say in the Press today about opening a criminal case against Pankratov and Pich, “If there is a crime, then it is worth it, if there is no crime, then it’s not worth it.”
Putin himself has always defended the 2013 law. He says that “our strategic choice is for traditional families, healthy families and a healthy nation.” I hope that this statement is not an invitation to look too closely at his own domestic arrangements.
I have had a very positive experience for the last 5 years of teaching in a major Russian university, but the current climate makes it difficult, regrettably, to think of going back to Moscow anytime soon.