A gay refugee claimant living in Vancouver says he fled to Canada from his native Russia to escape being persecuted for his sexual orientation.

Maxim Zhuravlev is staying at a homeless shelter in downtown Vancouver, but says the conditions are far safer than what he faced in Russia.

'It is considered an honour for a Russian to harm or even kill a gay person.' —Maxim Zhuravlev

"I feel that I'm protected. I feel that I can be myself. I don't have be worried about violence," Zhuravlev told CBC News.

"It is considered an honour for a Russian to harm or even kill a gay person. They will be honoured by society and tell everyone, 'I killed a gay person.' Everyone basically will be proud of that."

Zhuravlev arrived in Canada two months ago, just before Russia's new anti-gay law was passed.

The law imposes fines and jail time for spreading "propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations." There are also penalties for expressing homosexuality or homosexual views publicly, online or in the news media.

Many critics of the new law point to it as evidence that homophobia is on the rise in Russia.

In recent weeks, questions have been raised about how best to keep athletes and fans who support gay rights safe at the Sochi Olympics this winter. Some have called for a boycott of the Games to protest Russia's anti-gay laws, while others have suggested the Olympics be moved to Vancouver.

Violent attacks on gay-rights activists in Russia have become "frequent," according to Amnesty International.

"I was a victim of gay bashing in Russia," Zhuravlev said. "They ambushed me… near [my] apartment block several times. Life became a nightmare for me."

Zhuravlev says he was an interpreter in Russia and had long heard about the acceptance of gay rights in Vancouver. He said becoming a refugee was his only option.

'May be a bigger trend'

Zhuravlev is now waiting for his application to be processed and says he's hoping to get a work permit.

His lawyer, Rob Hughes, deals with same-sex immigration cases and said his client is the first Russian claimant he's handled since the 1990s.


Maxim Zhuravlev, left, and his lawyer Rob Hughes in Vancouver. (CBC)

In recent years, most of the claims he sees come from countries in Africa and the Middle East. But Hughes said just two weeks ago, he heard from a gay activist in Russia who, like Zhuravlev, was trying to leave.

"It's kind of odd that I would get two within such a short space of time that are not connected with each other in any way. I see this as the beginning of what may be a bigger trend," Hughes said.

Zhuravlev said he knows there are other gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people who are trying to leave Russia.

"I would even encourage them to do so. Even while in process, you are safe in Western country," he said. "I am very grateful to Canadian government."

On Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said he hopes "decency will prevail" when it comes to Russia's anti-gay law.

"This is not just a mean-spirited law, but obviously it just lacks common decency, and whenever you have intolerance and hatred it leads to discrimination and even violence, and that's what should really concern us about this," Baird said.