The Worst Days of Our Lives
Award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter Anton Yarush on anti-gay propaganda and the alarming situation for LGBT-people in today's Russia.
Anton Yarush (St Petersburg) is a screenwriter, filmmaker, activists and wants to be deined as”gender fluid”. Yarush won the FIPRESSI prize on this years filmfestival in Cannes for the film "Tesnota”/”Closeness”. This is an edited version of speech that was given by Anton Yarush in Stockholm on the 15 of November - The Day of the Imprisioned Writer – in a programme arranged by Swedish PEN at Kulturhuset Stadsteatern that focused on freedom of speech and LGBT-perspectives.
Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Thank you for coming here today. Thank you for your interest in me and my country.
It’s the end of April. I’m on the metro. The train is fairly busy – everyone is on their way home from work. A young man gets on at one of the stops. Our eyes meet, and I look down at my phone immediately: I know this is someone I’d do best to avoid. Suddenly he’s right beside me. The first blow comes before I can even register what he says. And another. I’m now on the floor of the carriage, trying to shield my head with my arms. The rest of the commuters just sit there: I’m not the only one who is scared. For some reason, I try to get up, but it isn’t long before I’m back on the floor. Eventually someone tries to come to my defence. I hear the words death to the fags. Something about the Jews, too. The man gets out a knife. I am saved by a woman who acts as a human shield: “You’ll have to take me first!” she shouts. The man can’t bring himself to stab her. He gets off at the next stop.
This was in 2012. One month before, Saint Petersburg’s Legislative Assembly had passed Vitaly Milonov’s law banning “gay propaganda”. Just over one year later, the federal law known popularly as the “Mizulina Law” would come into effect throughout Russia, officially setting in motion a state machinery of homophobia. Experiences such as mine would soon become everyday occurrences. The victims, fearing public derision, would stop reporting crimes; the police, for their part, would stop viewing them as LGBT hate crimes at all. In September 2017, sociologist Alexander Kondakov published research identifying 267 Russian court rulings in the past seven years where he argues violence was committed against people because of their sexual orientations. The judges recognized the presence of a hate crime in only two of these cases. The police wouldn’t even take up my assault on the metro: the investigator didn’t find enough evidence of a crime.
I am now 32 years old. For the last 17 years – the greater part of my life – I have lived in Putin’s Russia, during the worst years the LGBT community here has known since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the early 1990s and its depathologisation in 1999. In the late 90’s Russians enjoyed a relatively high level of personal freedom. The media had openly started to discuss issues faced by the LGBT community, the most stigmatised social group of the time. Even if such discussions were not always well balanced or objective, the very fact that they were happening was progress. Ever-responsive to the pulse of the times, Russia’s cultural scene was prompt to find new names to reflect these changes. In literature, we had Lida Yusupova, Alexander Ilyanen, Dmitry Kuzmin, Margarita Meklina, Slava Mogutin, Vadim Kalinin and more. Dozens of music videos of the day depicted same-sex relationships, re-examining ideas of gender and sexuality and flirting with the queer aesthetic. All of these were broadcast on national television networks. In 1998, these same networks – in between films directed by Moodysson, Demme, Almodóvar, Visconti and more – would also air the famous Sprite advert (link in Russian) filmed in Red Square, with its positive representation of the gay man.
Despite this, in those days I was a teenager who had to hide the fact I was gay. I very clearly remember once trying to convince my parents I wasn’t “queer”, when my older brother, who knew I had had a sexual relationship with a man, told them as much. They wouldn’t believe him. I started to hate myself, not because I couldn’t accept being gay, but because I kept quiet: I lied, I accepted the everyday homophobia, I laughed at the jokes about “queers” that hit too close to home – anything to go under the radar. I was complicit.
15 years ago, I was at the first Pride parade in Russia. It was not in Moscow. It was in my hometown, 1800 kilometers from Moscow, in Yekaterinburg. Bottles flew, but we were not beaten or killed. The next three years, the LGBT community in Yekaterinburg had the chance to say: “We are here. We are the same as you. And we will be here.” At that time, the police at Pride protected us. It was already Putin’s Russia, but authorities didn’t care about of bunch of over the top people. I’m still in Russia. But the situation is completely different now. That’s why I’m here today. The LGBT community is experiencing the worst time in Russia.
I was beaten countless times, just because I was gay. I lost my friend, he died, because he was gay. What’s so wrong with Russian society or mentality that makes LGBT community so vulnerable to political scapegoating? The problem is anti-gay propaganda; Russians fear gay people.
We are degraded, insulted and persecuted. We are banned from doing research into queer studies at university. Publishers refuse to publish our books. Upon submitting her latest novel to publishers in Russia, Polina Zherebtsova, author of the famous Chechen diaries Ant in a Glass Jar, received the following response: “You are very talented, but the subject – no, we don’t want any masked riot police storming our offices. They could accuse us of disloyalty.” The situation is no different in the film industry. Homosexuality is one of a list of banned subjects, alongside nationalism. If a gay character does make it onto our screens, it is only as an object of ridicule.
We are losing our jobs: a number of teachers and university lecturers have been fired. Anton Krasovsky, a journalist and television personality who came out live on air, was fired practically on the spot.
We are being tortured; we are being killed. In 2013, the brutal murder of Vlad Tornovy, a hate crime based on Tornovy’s sexual orientation, shook the entire world. With the exception of Russian lawmakers, that is. When Vlad was found, his head had been crushed, his body was covered in bruises, and empty beer bottles had been forced up his anal passage. The young man’s murder took place at the height of the anti-gay campaign; one month later, the “gay propaganda” law was passed.
On 1 April 2017, Novaya Gazeta published a piece by Elena Milashina on the mass persecution of gay people in Chechnya by representatives of the republic’s power structures. According to this article, roughly, 100 men were detained on the basis of their sexual orientation – real or perceived – and dozens were killed.
I do not say this lightly. Russia is very close to a genocidal situation with LGBTQ people.
Writers, artists, journalist researching LGBT are at risk. Authorities imprisons the voices of freedom, those who disagree with their policy. A single Post on Facebook could be enough to get problems. Being a journalist, a writer means that you could be beaten or killed for your views.
300 journalists were killed in last 25 years.
Today, writers, journalists, artists, all of us must continue to fight against a medieval view of the world. We need to inform people. We can’t fail the people at risk. We must tell them “we all different, but we all equal”, despite the massive anti-gay propaganda, anti-west propaganda. We should condemn all forms of discrimination openly and fight against homophobia strongly. We shouldn’t be afraid to lose audience, or a publisher. Or to have your work not accepted in Russia. I turn to my brothers and sisters from Russia, who are well-known and gay but still in the closet. You do not need to be brave to come out. It’s enough to start being yourself. Your voice and your pride can save lives.
I ask you, I ask the international community: “Please, do not turn away from us. Do not turn away from gay refugees. We had the case, when Germany denied gay Chechen refugee. Do not forgive crimes. Say “no” to Putin’s world famous propagandists, boycotts their concerts, screenings, exhibitions, books. Foreign politicians must start a conversation with Russian colleagues, and ask them:
“How many lives should be ended before you start to investigate illegal detentions and murders in Chechnya?”
Please, email the Russian embassy, wherever you are, ask them to explain the situation with LGBT rights in Russia. Tell your friends about the horrifying situation and ask them to tell their friends, because most Russians still have no idea about the executions in Chechnya.
We need to turn the wheel of a million voices in the world.
We can do it. We cannot be stopped.
Otherwise, one voice, the voice of hate, will kill all of us.