Analytics and Interview

On 16 January 2015 late in the evening the website of the Ministry of Justice published a statement that the NGO Committee Against Torture had been added to the register of non-profit organizations designated as ‘foreign agents’.
Tanya Lokshina is the Russia program director at Human Rights Watch and Honorary Participant of International Youth Human Rights Movement: As the crisis in Ukraine escalated this spring, the Kremlin’s vicious crackdown on civil society also escalated. Space for independent civic activity in Russia is shrinking dramatically, but international policymakers and the media have been understandably too distracted to do much about it. Since early spring, it seems as though every week brings a new pernicious law or legislative proposal.
Earlier this year, the correspondent of Youth Human Rights Movement from Germany Jakob Stürmann interviewed Konstantin Baranov, member of the Coordination Council of the International Youth Human Rights Movement. They discussed so called “law against homosexual propaganda” and the overall situation of LGBT in Russia.  

Search on site


Oleg Sentsov, Olexander Kolchenko, Hennadiy Afanasiev and Oleksiy Chyrniy have been held in Russian jails for two years already under fabricated charges of ‘terrorism’. We consider it being necessary to express solidarity with those who are persecuted due to their pro-Ukrainian views, civic stand and desire for freedom in Russia-annexed Crimea.
Helsinki Committee of Armenia has published “Human Rights in Armenia 2014” Annual Report. The report reflects on the Right to Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association, Torture, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, Political Persecutions, Freedom of Conscience and Religion, The Rights of the Child, Protection of Labor Rights.
«We have a few questions for you,» a border guard told Sinaver Kadyrov, a Crimean Tatar activist, at the Armyansk checkpoint in northern Crimea on Jan. 23. Kadyrov was on his way to Kherson, in southern Ukraine, to fly to Turkey for medical treatment. It was the beginning of an ordeal that ended with a local court expelling him from Crimea, his home of almost 25 years.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority It is time to sit back and reflect.

Mark Twain


Youth Human Rights Movement

We have nothing to celebrate at the moment

Earlier this year, the correspondent of Youth Human Rights Movement from Germany Jakob Stürmann interviewed Konstantin Baranov, member of the Coordination Council of the International Youth Human Rights Movement. They discussed so called “law against homosexual propaganda” and the overall situation of LGBT in Russia.

Who are you, how would you describe yourself?

My name is Konstantin Baranov, I’m a human rights activist living in Russia, who started his activism about 10 years ago with regional human rights and environmental groups in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and gradually became involved in nationwide and international projects and campaigns. Now I’m a member of the Coordination Council of the international Youth Human Rights Movement ( and also cooperate with other Russian and international human rights NGOs.

Dear Kostja, thank you for the opportunity to have an interview with you. You are a Russian human right activist, in this context you are involved in actions against homophobia. In the German press we heard a lot about the so called “law against homosexual propaganda”. Could you describe to a German audience what this law is about?

This law, adopted in June, bans disseminating among minors information promoting “non-traditional sexual relations” and providing a “distorted notion of social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations.” This means that any positive information about LGBT issues is forbidden and can be an administrative offense punishable by heavy fines or a maximum 15-day jail term and, for foreign nationals, deportation.
This law is based on an assumption that homosexuality is abnormal, and sends a message that LGBT people are alien to Russian society. It is inhumane and degrading, in fact making it impossible for LGBT people to live openly without concealing their identity. Moreover, in fact it provides justification for homophobic hate speech and sanctions homophobic violence.

Is this law against male and female or only against male “homosexual propaganda”? How do they define the term and what will happen if you resist the law?

Actually, the law does not use the term “homosexual” at all – it disappeared from the text while the bill was being debated by the Russian State Duma (lower chamber of the federal parliament). It was replaced by “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”, which was an attempt to reduce international criticism of the law and to conceal its discriminatory nature.
The tricky thing is that the term of “non-traditional sexual relationships” is not defined as such, which gives a wide opportunity for interpretation and abuse. The bill’s main author, Elena Mizulina, in various media interviews stated that this should cover any non-heterosexual relations, but we can only guess how it may be interpreted by the law enforcement and the courts which are to implement it. And “propaganda” of these is defined as “distribution of information aimed at forming non-traditional sexual orientations, the attraction of non-traditional sexual relations, distorted notion of social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations among minors, or imposing information on non-traditional sexual relations which evoke interest in these kinds of relations”.
I’d say that this law makes LGBT activism and any public advocacy in defense of the rights of LGBT people practically impossible. Any attempt to publicly challenge the law itself may also be considered “propaganda”. Fines that it introduced for organizations are so high that no LGBT or human rights group would be able to afford paying it, and thus would have to close down. The same applies to mass media. Individual activists can also be fined and detained. So, now there are basically two options for those who want to resist: to do it in a very accurate way, assessing one’s every word and step and self-censoring themselves, or to take the risk and launch a genuine civil disobedience campaign, refusing to pay those fines, etc.

Why did this law passed the Russian Duma at this moment? Do you think that there might be a connection with the re-election of the president Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and the strategy of the government to fight the whole opposition?

We in the human rights movement generally see this law as part of the general crackdown of the authorities on civil society and political opposition, which also includes other laws imposing harsh restrictions on freedom of assembly and association, the Internet, etc., a number of politically motivated trials and other elements, although the very idea of such anti-LGBT legislation dates back to the time before Putin’s re-election as president. The regional law in St.Petersburg, for instance, was adopted in 2011, during president Medvedev’s term.
Actually, before this law was adopted at the federal level, similar provisions were already enacted in 10 regions of Russia, and before it was introduced to the State Duma, a lot was already done by the authorities and the state-controlled media to prepare public opinion for that. LGBT along with migrants proved to be the two best targets of popular xenophobia among Russian people. So, the authorities try to exploit those attitudes to channel people’s discontent and distract them from other social and political problems.
Russian authorities started to develop homophobic policies in mid-2000s – banning manifestations in defense of LGBT rights, denying registration to LGBT groups, refusing to prosecute homophobic hate crimes – but they had no legal basis for this. Now they found a way to justify these actions, which was successfully tested in several regions. They cannot directly persecute LGBT just for the way they are (as they did until 1993, when homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia), so they came up with what they think is a wise way to do it – by restricting freedom of expression for the sake of “protecting minors”.
Besides, Russia currently tries to present itself at the international arena as one of the main defenders of the “traditional values” – a relatively new concept coined to oppose the ideology of human rights based on fundamental freedoms and non-discrimination, which is presented as being purely Western and not compatible with other world cultures. And in order to be persuasive enough in promoting this concept internationally, the Russian authorities have to show their dedication to persecuting “homosexual propaganda” at home, which is presented to the public as part of the “destructive Western influence” aimed at weakening our country. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that this happens not only in Russia – Moldova has also adopted similar legislation, Ukraine is currently debating one, there are attempts to propose it in Armenia, etc. So, this is a much wider trend.

How do Russian citizens react to this new law?

I would say that debating this law in the Duma polarized the Russian society in its relation to LGBT issues, mobilizing both radical opponents and supporters of the LGBT community. Now we have much less people who are indifferent to this topic than we used to have a couple of years ago. Before this law was introduced LGBT issues were not widely discussed in the media – it was a deeply marginal topic touched upon mostly either in showbiz gossip or criminal reports. Now it has become really mainstream and political, and on the other hand – far more conflict provoking.
For me it is hard to generalize if the reaction was mostly positive or negative. Those people who believe official propaganda are supporting this law quite emotionally, but those who are critical of the authorities in general are more likely to criticize it as well and support the LGBT as one of the “victims of the regime”, while before they preferred to stay silent on these issues.
So, on the one hand, as I already mentioned, the degree of hatred towards LGBT in Russia has risen, or at least it became more visible – with loads of hate speech in the statements of politicians and the media, threats to LGBT activists and groups and open violence.
But at the same time I have to admit that I have never seen so many strong statements against homophobia and in support of LGBT equality, and so many manifestations of solidarity from Russian public figures and ordinary people as over the last months, which gives us some hope.

Can you describe the current situation in Russia – how does the LGBT movement react on the fact that the law passed the Duma, how does the human rights movement respond?

The LGBT movement, of course, mobilized to oppose the draft law while it was debated in the Duma, with actions ranging from rather radical ones (street protests, calls for imposing international sanctions to authors of the law, etc.) to attempts to advocate for postponing the adoption of the law and proposing amendments to it which would make it less harmful. After the law was adopted regardless of this strong criticism, most of the efforts focused on raising international awareness about it – also in the context of the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and other big international cultural and sports events taking place in Russia.
Within the human rights movement there are ongoing discussions on how this law can be challenged in a legal way, but for this purpose cases of its implementation are needed, and there are no such ones yet.
In general this law led to a closer cooperation and consolidation of various LGBT initiatives and human rights NGOs, as it was seen as a major common challenge. Hope, this cooperation will bring real results in fighting this law and LGBT discrimination in general.

How can we imagine your everyday work? How do you support the LGBT movement?

Actually I used to be more involved in the LGBT movement before than I am at the moment. I helped launching local LGBT groups in two Russian cities – Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh, supported them by training, consultation and fundraising and facilitated their contacts with human rights NGOs. I was closely involved in the first efforts to monitor manifestations of homophobia and discrimination of LGBT in Russia. And I also was one of the founding members of the Russian LGBT network (
The Youth Human Rights Movement, which I’m part of, was one of the first human rights NGOs in Russia to openly show their support to the LGBT movement back in 2006 – we organized first trainings for LGBT activists, launched the first Week against Homophobia – a large awareness-raising campaign which became annual afterwards, and made a number of publications on LGBT issues for wider audience. Many activists of the LGBT movement participated in our human rights schools and after that joined YHRM. Last year, when the draft “anti-propaganda” law introduced at the federal level, we tried jointly with LGBT activists to launch a large awareness-raising campaign “Right to Identity”.
Now I mostly help LGBT movement as a consultant on international advocacy, anti-discrimination and hate crimes – we cooperate in preparing reports and appeals addressed to international organizations, disseminating information, etc. And sometimes I personally take part in public actions against homophobia and discrimination of LGBT.

Have there been already any convictions against LGBT persons in Russia? (Can you give us some examples)

Well, if we speak about the new “anti-propaganda” federal law, it has not been applied in any case yet. But the similar regional laws were. LGBT activists have been detained at street rallies and fined for using slogans with a general message that “being gay is OK”. For instance, several months ago this happened in St. Petersburg, where one of the activists was accused of “homosexual propaganda” for standing in front of a children’s library with an ironic poster “Homosexuality is not a perversion. Hockey on grass and ballet on ice are” (a quotation of a famous Russian actress of Soviet times). But in most of the cases where the authorities could invoke those laws, they try to avoid doing so and use other punitive legal provisions instead. For instance, recently there was an incident with a group of Dutch LGBT activists who were detained at a summer camp in the northern city of Murmansk, allegedly for “homosexual propaganda”. But at the end they got no official charges of this offense and were fined and told to leave Russia for violating the visa rules.
We all understand that the main intention behind the adoption of this law was not to apply it directly. Its main aim is to marginalize any discussions on LGBT issues in the public discourse and stimulate all kinds of censorship and self-censorship. What we see now is that cultural events are cancelled, films are prohibited from screening, books – from selling, etc. – because they are considered as potentially falling under the scope of this law. Notably, in most cases this is done not by the authorities, but by private companies and ordinary people, who are just scared and want to avoid possible problems.
And, of course, the most dangerous effect of this law is a significant rise in the level of homophobic violence. Since January of this year there were at least a dozen of reported cases of hate motivated violence against LGBT or those who were perceived as such, and we know that the real number of such cases is times bigger. Right-wing activists started creating groups all over Russia, which are hunting young homosexuals to intimidate and threaten them, and these scenes are video recorded and then disseminated on the Internet. And the law enforcement refuses to investigate these actions.

I noticed that – after the law passed the Duma Russian people who are fighting for LGBT rights use the pink triangle in the internet as a distinctive mark. Can you explain the background of this?

Pink triangle is a world known symbol of remembrance to commemorate gay victims of the Holocaust, sometimes also used as a symbol of resistance to homophobic policies of nowadays.
I was one of those who put it on his avatar in social networks and started to wear a pin with it on my clothes, as I thought it was a good way to show personal protest and solidarity in a visible way. Not only LGBT themselves, but many concerned heterosexual people also did so, which reminds us the story when during WWII the Danish king was among those who put a yellow Star on his clothes to show solidarity with persecuted Jews.
Another symbol of the LGBT movement, the rainbow, seems to be too positive and joyful for this cause. We have nothing to celebrate at the moment, as LGBT pride has never been so much in danger in this country. We have to remind people of the dark pages of history and say “never again!”

In Germany this symbol is connected with the crimes of the Nazi-regime and the homosexual victims in concentration camps. In my opinion there might be a problematic part in using this symbol, because during the 1930s/40s they killed homosexual persons systematically in concentration camps, which is still a way more brutal prosecution than in our days in Russia – even though the Russian law is really frightening. Can you share somehow my argument and have you had any negative response in using this symbol until now?

I see your argument, but actually I do not see a problem here. For me wearing a pink triangle today is both a way to commemorate those who were killed in concentration camps and to remind people of how far inhumane policies, which often start from everyday discrimination, can go.
We already have victims of those policies, who are intimidated, beaten, tortured and even killed because our state says they are not normal. And we have to appeal to tragic examples from history to prevent this situation from becoming even worse.

A totally other topic: Russia is still a fascinating country for many people. Do you think it is still possible at the moment for LGBT persons with a European passport to visit Russia?

Sure, it is possible. Of course, in certain ways it may appear to be more risky than coming to other countries, but it should also not be forgotten that foreigners (particularly those coming from the Western countries) may traditionally expect a more decent treatment in Russia than most of its citizens. It may sound paradoxical, but the authorities are still interested in creating a good image of the country abroad and want to avoid international scandals whenever possible.
Now there are numerous calls to boycott big international sports or cultural events taking place in Russia to show protest against policies of the Russian state. But I don’t think boycott is a good idea in case you really want to show your solidarity. Russian media will never report on someone’s refusal to come to the country. But coming here and making some kind of a public statement in front of the Russian audience will for sure attract public attention. So, the more openly LGBT or LGBT-friendly public figures come here now to show their support and solidarity with their Russian fellows – the better.

Is there any possibility for us, citizens of the European Union, to support your fight against homophobia in Russia?

Now we are already witnessing a really wide range of actions in many countries in solidarity with LGBT in Russia. Some of these call for boycott of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, others – for imposing sanctions on politicians who are responsible for adopting these laws, etc. From a human rights activist’s viewpoint, I would say that these actions can only be effective if they put the issues of homophobia and LGBT discrimination in Russia in a wider context – that of the overall crackdown on fundamental rights in the country over the last 1,5 years, which practically outlawed any kind of criticism or dissent with the official views and policies. Focusing only on homophobia and LGBT discrimination may even be counter-productive, as it in a way alienates the Russian LGBT movement from the general struggle for freedom and equality in the country, and gives the Russian authorities an additional argument in their anti-Western and anti-LGBT propaganda.
There should be more voices openly critical of human rights abuses in Russia, and there should be more pressure on the politicians of other states and representatives of international organizations, so that they switch from comforting words to real actions to make Russia comply with its international human rights obligations.