Why The End of Communism Didn't End Antigay Hate in Russia

Russia may have adopted a few modern trappings, but this in-depth look examines how LGBT lives there have only gotten worse in the last several decades.


  UPDATED: February 11 2014 2:35 PM ET

When the government views LGBT victims as criminals, it only enables and perpetuates a climate of violence and fear, leaving many LGBT people with little recourse other than to go further underground. In many cases, the only option is to leave the country — just as Smakov did almost 40 years ago.

But while Smakov’s most difficult challenge was escaping the USSR to the United States, modern LGBT Russians face the daunting task of convincing the U.S. government or other countries to grant them asylum. Escaping an authoritarian communist regime is one thing, but seeking asylum from a developed, modern, and presumably democratic nation, like Russia, is quite another. The legal process of seeking asylum is constantly evolving, and the rules are always changing. Fortunately organizations and people like Aaron Morris can help.

“If Russia for a long time was not safe for LGBT people, it’s a bit different now that the government is actually taking steps to enshrine that homophobia in the law,” explains Morris, legal director of the New York City-based LGBT group Immigration Equality. “And I think that’s especially scary for people in Russia who are trying to get out.”

Immigration Equality works to end discrimination in U.S. immigration law, and helps win asylum for those fleeing persecution based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status. The organization’s staff has witnessed the impact of Russia’s growing political and cultural homophobia. Morris reports a “dramatically higher increase” in asylum applications from Russia in the past year. Calls to the organization’s free immigration advice hotline tripled in September alone.

Morris says Immigration Equality is currently working on 45 Russian cases. In fact, the organization received a 350 percent spike in inquiries, or requests for assistance.

“If the recent trend continues, then our Russian clients will become a much greater percentage of our overall case load than ever before. That seems certain,” says Morris.

Morris predicted that the increased volume of requests for support will continue, which is why Immigration Equality’s new “Russia Emergency Fund” was established. The fund raises money to ensure that every LGBT and HIV-positive Russian seeking asylum in the U.S. has competent legal representation.

In Russia, it’s not only dangerous to be gay, but also separately dangerous to be HIV-positive because of the rampant stigmatization and equating of the two identities. “There’s an association between those two things, where if you’re gay often you’re assumed to be HIV-positive,” explains Morris. “Or, where if somebody discovers [your HIV status], they also assume that you’re gay.”

Being HIV-positive can be reason to be considered for asylum in the United States, if the asylum-seekers can prove that the government is severely stigmatizing those testing positive, or restricting medical access. While it’s not difficult to prove one’s HIV status, it’s important for non-U.S. citizens to prove past persecution in order to win asylum in an immigration court.

(Sasha Kargalstev at a protest in New York)

Unfortunately, for many LGBT Russian immigrants, such documented examples of persecution are regularly relayed in police reports, or even worse, in hospital records. That’s precisely what happened to Gleb Vakhrushev and Sasha Kargalstev, two Russians who successfully sought asylum in the U.S., with the assistance of Immigration Equality.

Both men were the victims of multiple savage and brutal attacks. Kargalstev was part of group beaten by both skinheads and police at an unsanctioned Moscow Pride rally in 2009. Both men are now safe in New York, where a growing group of LGBT Russian immigrants have formed a close-knit community, bonding over the horrifying experiences that are fast becoming less unique.

“It's getting worse and worse,” says Kargalstev. “People are leaving the country — all my friends left the country already. The reason is that Russia is dying and nothing will help. It's too late now.”

Kargalstev won a scholarship to study at the New York Film Academy in 2010, then applied for asylum immediately after arriving in New York City. Similarly, Vakhrushev was able to secure a temporary student visa to make his way into the U.S., where he could safely apply for asylum and avoid returning to the violence and harassment he used to encounter daily.

“There was a time that Russia was better,” says Vakhrushev. “Since the early '90s to middle 2000s, the situation was better than it is today.”

Without hesitation, Vakhrushev said Russia is “an antigay society.” While the blame could easily be placed on the government, he lays blame with his fellow countrymen, as well.

“Homophobia is an idea being forwarded by people, not government,” Vakhrushev says. But he does fault the Putin regime for perpetuating the status quo in the interest of — at its most innocuous — political gain. In a severely conservative state, capitalizing on such a collective ideology is undoubtedly a means to capture and retain power. Classifying homosexuals as a direct threat to the family and the survival of the state is a popular political platform for the Kremlin, State Duma, and the increasingly powerful Russian Orthodox Church, and one that echoes dictatorships of the past.

“The government doesn't want to educate people, it wants to sell oil,” says Vakhrushev. “It wants to be popular, and antigay law is very popular.”

Smakov spoke candidly of the Soviet regime’s labeling homosexuals as “threats to the system” and “dangerous” to the state. In the past, such rhetoric has been closely accompanied by a systematic constriction of free speech — one of the many charges consistently leveled against Putin’s United Russia party.

Almost unknowingly quoting the late Smakov, Vakhrushev speaks about gay life in Russia today as if it’s still forbidden to exist.

“It’s almost impossible to live your life there,” Vakhrushev says. “Society has a long way of evolution. It’s not a modern society yet, which is very sad of course.”

But unlike his fellow expatriate, Vakhrushev doesn’t hesitate to condemn his government’s role in the deteriorating situation.

“It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse,” he says. “Because of the United Russia party, and this LGBT legislation, people are being very violated against.”

And that violation isn’t limited to the Russian Federation, Vakhrushev contends. It’s perpetuated by Russian-language media, much of which is overseen by the Kremlin.  

“It’s actually not only problematic in Russia, but all of the countries that speak Russian,” explains Vakhrushev. “Those countries that watch or listen to Russian news channels that come from Russia, or even RT, based here in the U.S. They make people become intolerant to each other, they create an atmosphere where anybody who is a little different are not welcome.”

With the opening ceremonies for the 2014 Winter Olympics today, the eyes of the world will again be squarely focused on this oft ignored giant of a nation, possibly for reasons less to do with sport and more to do with justice and equality. The Games will be the first Olympics held in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

What happens on the slopes and on the ice will receive worldwide coverage, yet will have little lasting impact on a group of people still living in a fear strikingly similar to that of decades past. While activists are hoping to borrow the spotlight in Sochi, it’s unknown just how much vocal dissent the Russian government will accept. After initially banning all demonstrations and protests in or around Sochi during the Olympics, the Kremlin recently announced that demonstrations would be allowed — but only in a designated area several miles from any Olympic venue. Any demonstration must receive prior approval from the Kremlin, and cannot be directly related to the Winter Games.

It’s doubtful that Olympic athletes themselves will be able to offer much support either, as Rule 50 of the International Olympic Committee’s charter prohibits athletes from expressing political opinion, stating that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

While Putin has said that visitors to Sochi this February will not be harassed or mistreated due to their sexual orientation, he’s also stated that they must obey Russian law. Most recently, Putin reiterated his pledge that LGBT spectators would be welcomed in Sochi — so long as they “leave the children in peace.” With the nationwide ban on vaguely defined “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” already being enforced, media pundits covering the event are left in a vast legal grey area.

In a few weeks, after the Olympic and Paralympic games end in Sochi, many wonder what will happen to LGBT Russians when the international spotlight dims. Certainly, LGBT Russians will still be at the mercy of a government used to operating autonomously and without explanation. Will international media continue to highlight and report on the legitimate fears of LGBT Russian parents, who are waiting for their democratic government to declare them unilaterally unfit parents and forcibly remove their children?

Like Gennedy Smakov’s flight from the USSR nearly 40 years ago, the current “dissenters,” “disturbers,” and “threats to the system,” still struggle for peace in a nation that has come so far, and yet changed so little — but perhaps today’s radicals can agitate loudly enough that not even an autocratic regime headed by a former KGB agent can silence their protest.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Aaron Morris's title. He is the legal director of Immigration Equality, which is based in New York City. The Advocate regrets this error.