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Hidden in plain view, Russian photographer defies country’s anti-gay law

“For me, it was important, firstly, to give the Russian male audience the opportunity to see their ideas about sexuality from the outside”



With Love from Russia (Photo Credit: Vlad Zorin)

MOSCOW- Since the passage of the measure known colloquially as the “gay propaganda law” by the Russian parliament and signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013, which ostensibly makes any act or event that authorities deem to promote homosexuality to minors illegal and punishable by a fine, it has had broader scope of enforcement by Russian authorities.

The overall effect has been chilling on the country’s LGBTQ community to freely express itself in public spaces, which has led a partial return to circumstances of existing underground in Russian society, although not to the degree as was the case during the era of the former Soviet Union.

The more pronounced effect on chilling freedom of expression has been the legislation deployed by authorities across Russia to prevent LGBTQ+ Pride parades and detain LGBTQ activists.

The passage of the law has also been accompanied by an increase in anti-LGBTQ violence in the country, according to The Russian LGBT Network and Human Rights Watch, both non-governmental organizations which advocate for LGBTQ civil and human rights.

However, the law has also had a detrimental effect on scores of Russian artists, photographers, filmmakers and others who fear running afoul of the interpretation and application of the law by oft times homophobic authorities. There are those in the greater Russian artist community who have chosen to openly defy Russian censorship and the draconian “gay propaganda law.”

Earlier this month, Vlad Zorin, a Chelyabinsk, Western-Central Russia born artist and photographer published his first book of art photographs that depict intimate portraits of gay men alongside stories about their coming out, sexual awakening, romantic relationships, heartbreaks, and dealing with life in an anti-gay nation.

Zorin, who divides his time between the French capital city of Paris and the Russian capital city of Moscow, spoke with the British bimonthly magazine i-D about his book titled, “With Love from Russia.” Contributing i-D editor Douglas Greenwood wrote in a piece published about Zorin’s work:

With Love from Russia — which Vlad worked on with curator Andrey Lopatin and supporter Ksenia Arturovna Chilingarovafor — is as much about identity as it is about sex. To compile it, he spent months travelling across his homeland, tracking down participants via social media, armed with questions about their ‘Firsts’ and ‘Favourites’. But what unfolded is a bleak and revealing portrayal of what it’s like to navigate queerness in isolated places, and how that can ostracise you even further from the few people you have close. There are stories of brief teenage encounters, girlfriends, discovering pornography, heartbreak and, for some, eventual contentment.

Zorin’s website notes: “Vlad’s artistic language was formed from the analysis of male sexuality, sensuality, and youth experience. Such projects as Hare and God, inspired by Vlad’s partner and muse Yulian, became a personal manifest of love and public call for freedom. Vlad explores the themes of personal freedom, the new generation experience and the reflection of sexuality.

“For me, it was important, firstly, to give the Russian male audience the opportunity to see their ideas about sexuality from the outside — with all the problems that are present in our view, which is why the book contains Russian language,” Zorin told i-D’s Greenwood.

“I wanted it to include English to enable foreign audiences to expand their ideas about sex and sexuality in post-Soviet Russia and because the main message of the book lies outside national borders,” he continued. “With Love from Russia is a book that invites you to reflect on your sexuality, listen to yourself and your desires, compare them with other’s experiences and draw parallels.”


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Brittney Griner detention extended for another month

WNBA star taken into custody at Moscow airport in February



Brittney Griner (Photo by Lorie Shaull, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

KHIMKI, Russia — A Russian court on Friday extended WNBA star Brittney Griner’s detention for another month.

Griner — a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife — was taken into custody at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February. Russian officials said customs inspectors found hashish oil in her luggage.

Griner is among the WNBA players who play in Russia during the league’s off-season.

The State Department earlier this month determined Russia “wrongfully detained” Griner. The National Black Justice Coalition is among the groups that have also criticized Russia over Griner’s detention.

Griner on Friday appeared in court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki. Griner’s lawyer, Alexander Boikov, told the Associated Press that her trial could begin soon.

Griner faces up to 10 years in prison.

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Russian court fines Tik-Tok & Instagram for ‘Gay Propaganda’

Instagram and Tik-Tok were guilty of violating the Russian Federation’s law that bans discussions or information regarding LGBTQ+ people



Tagansky Court of Moscow/Government-Courts of the City of Moscow, Russia

MOSCOW, Russia – The Tagansky Court of Moscow ruled Tuesday that social media platforms Instagram and Tik-Tok were guilty of violating the Russian Federation’s law that bans discussions or information regarding LGBTQ+ people or community known as the ‘Gay Propaganda Law.’

In the case against Tik-Tok, Judge Timur Vakhrameev found TikTok guilty under Part 2 of Art. 13.41 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation (“Non-deletion by the site owner of information if the obligation to delete is provided for by the legislation of the Russian Federation”) for violating the tenets of the Gay Propaganda law requiring deletion of the offending materials.

Vakhrameev fined the social network 2 million rubles, which is roughly equivalent to $27,000 U.S. dollars.

In another case the court found that Meta, parent company of Instagram had also violated “Part 2 of Article 13.41,” and imposed a fine of 4 million rubles, which is roughly equivalent to $54,000 U.S. dollars, for not deleting materials on Instagram promoting “non-traditional sexual values to minors”

Since the start of the war with Ukraine, the Russian government’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, abbreviated as Roskomnadzor has blocked Facebook, Instagram, and Tik-Tok from operating in the Russian Federation.

Deputy Head of Roskomnadzor Vadim Subbotin told Russian media outlet that his agency also has worked with the courts to fine Google-owned YouTube. “In total, the court on the claims of Roskomnadzor imposed fines for not removing prohibited content on YouTube video hosting, the amount of which already exceeds 7 billion rubles,” he said.

Subbotin added that “false information” about the activities of the Russian Armed Forces on the territory of Ukraine is being spread on social networks. He said that Roskomnadzor is taking appropriate response measures.

“In response to this, we are taking measures aimed at protecting our citizens and the interests of our country in the information space. Roskomnadzor has blocked more than 85 thousand of this kind of materials, including entire resources that systematically generate such content, ”said the deputy head of the department.

Earlier, according to Brand Analytics, from February 24 to April 20, the number of active Russian-speaking authors on YouTube decreased by 21%.

The Tagansky Court of Moscow fined Google for 7 million rubles on charges of distributing YouTube videos calling for terrorist attacks in Russia the outlet reported that the Prosecutor General’s Office said.

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Russian court dissolves St. Petersburg LGBTQ+ human rights group

Sphere provided legal and psychological assistance to LGBTQ+ people throughout Russia and provided emergency assistance in crisis situations



Igor Kochetkov (Center with Pride flag) being detained by police in St. Petersburg during 2018 LGBTQ+/human rights protest (Photo by Alexander Lvovich Gorshkov/Facebook)

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Last week the Kuibyshevsky District Court in St. Petersburg ordered that LGBTQ+ Human Rights Charitable Foundation Sphere be liquidated. In February, Russia’s Justice Ministry filed a lawsuit seeking to “liquidate” [disband & dissolve] Sphere Foundation, the legal entity under which the Russian LGBT Network operates, arguing the group’s activities run contrary to “traditional values.”

On Thursday, April 21, Judge Tatiana Kuzovkina ruled in favour of the Justice Ministry’s argument that the activities of Sphere ran contrary to the Russian state policy designed to preserve, expand and develop [the country’s] human capital.”

The ministry also accused Sphere of spreading “LGBT views” and working with people under the age of 18, aspiring, among other things, to “change Russian federal legislation regarding the LGBT movement” – in other words, the country’s infamous discriminatory “gay propaganda” law.

Sphere Foundation was founded in 2011 by Russian LGBT rights activist, Igor Kochetkov. In 2016, authorities designated Sphere Foundation a “foreign agent.” In 2021, Russian LGBT Network and Kochetkov personally were also slapped with the toxic “foreign agent” designation. At around that time, state-sponsored media organized a vicious smear campaign against the network and Kochetkov.

“During [its] 11 years, Sphere … was never found in breach of any regulations. The government’s claims against us are ideological, rather than law-based,” Kochetkov said in a social media post.

Upon learning of the ruling Kochetkov stated; ” No, I’m not crying or crying. I’m proud of the work done by the Foundation in 11 years. It should be clear that the ministry and the court made this decision not on legal, but on ideological basis. No Russian law prohibits the activity of organizations that “do not correspond” to any values. There is simply no such basis in the law for the liquidation of NGOs. In this sense, the decision of the court is iconic – mandatory state ideology has returned. It is now official.” The he added; “The work continues. Their hands are dirty but too short to ban us.”

Tanya Lokshina, the Associate Director, Europe and Central Asia Division for Human Rights Watch wrote at the time of the lawsuit being filed;

“With Sphere, the authorities have explicitly disclosed their political and anti-rights motivation from the starting block. After years of hindering the work of LGBT rights activists with the use of the “foreign agent” and “gay propaganda” laws, the authorities now demand the organization be shut down in the name of “traditional values.” The courts should not be compliant with this act of political, homophobic censorship that blatantly violate Russia’s human rights obligations.”

Vitaly Isakov, a lawyer from the Institute of Law and Public Policy, who defended Sphere during the court sessions narrated the timeline of events leading up to Kuzovkina’s ruling:

In the fall of 2021, the Russian Ministry of Justice began an unscheduled audit of the foundation. In the course of the audit, Sphere provided the Ministry of Justice with more than 5,000 pages of documents — the entire documentation flow over the past three years.

According to the act on the results of the audit, which Sphere received in December of 2021, the Ministry of Justice believes that gross violations were committed in the activities of the fund. Among the claims of the Ministry of Justice is that “all the actual activities of the organization are aimed at supporting the LGBT movement in Russia”: according to the state agency, the Constitution of the country enshrines “basic traditional family values”, and the foundation’s work is aimed at “changing the legislation and moral foundations in the Russian Federation.”

The claim for liquidation was filed with the Main Department of the Ministry of Justice on February 4  of 2022 following an unscheduled inspection. On February 9, 2022, the judge of the Kuibyshev Court, Irina Vorobyova, left the claim for the liquidation of the Sphere without movement.

The judge pointed out the need to refer to the specific grounds provided for by the current legislation, through which the plaintiff — the Ministry of Justice — asks for liquidation. The arguments in this part were not presented to the court.

Judging by the case file on the court’s website, the liquidation claim was filed again on March 9, 2022, with another judge, Tatyana Kuzovkina.

The court process began on March 29, when Isakov and Vyacheslav Samonov, a lawyer working with Sphere, appeared at the court hearing on behalf of the foundation. The hearing was postponed on technicality until April 21st.

Due to the pressure of the authorities, many organizations that contribute to solving a wide range of human rights problems, as well as the independent media, are forced to stop their work in Russia, — the news about the liquidation of the International Memorial and the Memorial Human Rights Center at the end of 2021 was especially shocking .

In many ways, a similar attempt to liquidate Sphere is the contribution of the ruling structures to negating the entire human rights movement, including the LGBT movement. After the start of unscheduled inspection concerning Sphere in November of 2021, the registers of “foreign agents” got longer with the inclusion of Igor Kochetkov, the founder of Sphere, and the Russian LGBT Network, a movement whose programs are implemented by Sphere.

By the end of 2021, the Far Eastern Center for LGBT and Victims of Violence “Mayak” and the St. Petersburg LGBT initiative group “Coming Out” also got into the registers of “foreign agents”.

The register of the Ministry of Justice clearly states that Mayak, Exit and the Russian LGBT Network receive funding from Sphere – in other words, these organizations were persecuted among the first because their connection with the Sphere is the most obvious, which means that actions against them are easier to justify.

There is every reason to believe that this trend will continue. At the moment, the register of “unregistered public associations that are recognized as foreign agents” consists of seven items, five of which are represented by LGBT initiatives: it seems that the authorities have created a separate list to suppress the LGBT movement, bypassing the need to name it as such directly.

Additionally, starting from November of 2021 5 LGBT+ activists found themselves recognized as ‘media-foreign agents’ by the Russian Ministry of Justice.

In particular, Sphere is the initiator of a campaign to counteract the discriminatory law banning “LGBT propaganda”, which stigmatizes the LGBT+ community, creates conditions of social hostility and complicates the living conditions of many people.

In addition, Sphere has contributed to helping hundreds of LGBT+ survivors of abduction and torture in the North Caucasus, helping them to start a new life in a safe place.

In 2017, when the massive nature of these crimes became known for the first time, the representatives of the foundation and its partners managed to activate the mechanisms of international investigation and draw the attention of the general public to this problem. At the same time, Russia demonstrated a complete lack of political will to recognize these crimes.

Isakov also released a statement on behalf of Sphere Thursday after the ruling:

As the team of Sphere, we declare: “The decision to liquidate the fund, especially on these grounds, is absolutely unreasonable and inconsistent with the norms of the law. We consider it politically and ideologically motivated, separately noting the state’s desire to destroy the majority of civil and human rights organizations in the country.

At the moment, our services continue to provide legal, psychological and emergency assistance to the LGBT+ community, and we will do everything possible to ensure that this work continues without interruption, regardless of the legal status of our team.

We cannot leave the community without protection and support at such a difficult time. Our team has always seen it as its duty to help the community and unite it based on the principles of human rights and humanitarianism.

Sphere provides legal and psychological assistance to LGBT+ people throughout the country, supports various initiatives and organizations, provides emergency assistance in crisis situations, and is engaged in monitoring and advocacy. 

Earlier this month the Justice Ministry on April 8, 2022 canceled the registration of Human Rights Watch, along with Amnesty International and 13 other offices of foreign nongovernmental organizations and foundations.

Human Rights Watch had maintained an office in Russia for 30 years. The action was announced just days after an appeals court upheld the liquidation of Russia’s human rights giant, Memorial.

“Human Rights Watch has been working on and in Russia since the Soviet era, and we will continue to do so,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “This new iron curtain will not stop our ongoing efforts to defend the rights of all Russians and to protect civilians in Ukraine.”

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