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BARRY DUKE examines the continued rise of homophobia in Russia

AN image that has been dominating Gay Pride events across the globe over the past few years has been one of Vladimir Putin Putin wearing make-up and mascara, created after Russia introduced a stupid “gay propaganda” law in 2013. So powerful did the image become that it was even used in 2014 by Brew Dog, a specialist beer company in the Britain.

The company promoted the “Hello, my name is Vladimir” brew with the words: “I am a beer for uber hetero men who ride horses while topless and carrying knives. I am a beer to mark the 2014 Winter Olympics. But I am not for gays. Love wrestling burly men on the Judo mat or fishing in your Speedos? Then this is the beer for you!”

The pride posters, and japes by companies like Brew Dog, got right up the noses of the Russian authorities and in April this year The Telegraph reported that Russia’s Justice Ministry branded the images as “extremist” and banned it.

According to the description posted on the Justice Ministry’s register, the ban applies specifically to a picture posted on Vkontakte, a Russian social network, intended to represent “the supposed nonstandard sexual orientation of the president of the Russian Federation” and carries the caption: “Putin voters … they say there are lots of them, but there aren’t any among the people I know.”

The picture was one of several posted by a man called Alexander Tsvetkov which were banned by a court in Tver, a city northwest of Moscow, in May last year.

The “gay propaganda” law, which bans the promotion of homosexuality to minors, was criticised as state-sponsored homophobia and a sop to an extreme conservative constituency.

Putin said at the time that the law was not an attack on homosexuality, which is legal in Russia, but an attempt to protect children.

The Putin image was the 4,071th banned item on the register of 4,074 banned materials that also includes Nazi imagery, white power slogans, and jihadist websites encouraging terrorism.

Growing up in apartheid South Africa, which banned around 60,000 books, films, posters and other items regarded as offensive or seditious taught me that censorship is inextricably tied up with tyranny and human rights abuses, and I am convinced that the move against the Putin images is the part of of a much larger strategy in that god-besotted nation to stifle free speech and demonise minorities.

Putin, left, and Kadyrov at a meeting outside Moscow in 2007. Photograph: Dmitry Astakhov/AFP/Getty Images 

Evidence for this comes from Chechnya, Russia’s Muslim majority semi-autonomous republic. It was reported in April by the Guardian that many gay men had been rounded up and some killed in the ultra-conservative Russian republic as part of a vicious an anti-gay campaign.

The Guardian was following up a report in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and claims by human rights activists. The newspaper’s report, by an author regarded as a leading authority on Chechnya, claimed that more than 100 people had been detained and three men killed in the roundup. It claimed that among those detained were well-known local television personalities and religious figures.

Alvi Karimov, spokesperson for Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, described the report as “absolute lies and disinformation”, basing his denial on the claim that there were no gay people in Chechnya. “You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist in the republic,” he told Interfax news agency.

“If there were such people in Chechnya, the law-enforcement organs wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.”

On April 21, PinkNews, reported that Kadyrov had vowed to purge Chechnya of all gay men before the start of Ramadan on May 26.

Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, Russia project director for the International Crisis Group, told the Guardian she had been receiving worrying information about the issue from various sources a ten-day period. “I have heard about it happening in Grozny [the Chechen capital], outside Grozny, and among people of very different ages and professions,” she said.

The extreme taboo nature of the subject meant that much of the information was arriving second or third hand, and as yet there are no fully verifiable cases, she added. “It’s next to impossible to get information from the victims or their families, but the number of signals I’m receiving from different people makes it hard not to believe detentions and violence are indeed happening.”

Chechnya is formally part of Russia, but functions as a quasi-independent state in which the word of Kadyrov often seems to transcend Russian laws. He has overseen the rebuilding of the republic with Moscow’s money, after two devastating wars. Kadyrov has at various times endorsed polygamy, compulsory wearing of the hijab for women in public places, and collective punishment for the relatives of those involved in the Islamist underground.

Chechen society is strictly conservative, meaning that unlike other cases where relatives or rights activists may put pressure on authorities when a homosexual relative disappears, those suspected are likely to be disowned by their own families. Locals say that if a family was known to have a gay member, other relatives would find it difficult to marry due to the “shame”.

Attitudes to LGBT rights are mixed in Russia, with an infamous law banning the “propaganda of homosexuality among minors” on the books.

But Moscow and other big cities have a thriving gay scene, even if much of it remains underground.

In Chechnya and the other Muslim republics of the North Caucasus, there is no discussion of the issue, and gay men do not even tell their closest friends of their orientation.

The Novaya Gazeta article claimed that three people had been killed, and suggested others could have been handed to their families with the expectation that the family would perform an honour killing.

Igor Kochetkov, a gay rights activist from St Petersburg, has helped organise an emergency contact centre which gay people in Chechnya can reach out to securely to get help with evacuation. He said “dozens” of people had got in touch to ask for help. Many are in hiding from both their families and the authorities.

“We are talking about the mass persecution of gay people, with hundreds of people kidnapped by authorities,” Kochetkov told the Guardian. “This is unprecedented not only in Russia but in recent world history. There is little doubt that we are dealing with crimes against humanity.”

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