Will the Sochi Olympics ease the plight of Russia's gays?

Since the passage of Russia's controversial gay propaganda law in June, gays there have been painted as a threat to marriage, to society, to the church — and labeled as foreign spies and pariahs. A rash of homophobic attacks have gone unpunished, Nahlah Ayed reports.

Some hope the Olympics will shine a new light on gay life, others are fleeing the country

Being gay in Russia

10 years ago
Duration 12:11
CBC's Nahlah Ayed explores the hostility in Russia to gays and why they're viewed by many as a threat to the country

Dmitri Chizhevsky's injured left eye is hidden behind a simple cotton disc and a slash of medical tape.

He imagines that when his eye is finally healed, he will be able to see with it again. The doctors disagree, insisting he's lucky even to be alive.

Watch Nahlah Ayed's documentary on what it is like to be gay in today's Russia on The National tonight on CBC TV.

In November, unknown assailants shot Chizhevsky with a pellet gun. The metallic pill that took away his sight lodged itself directly behind the eye, just centimetres from his brain.

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"I can see lights … I can see very small dots of light," he says. "That brings me hope."

Despite his ordeal, the 27-year-old computer programmer still hangs on to all kinds of hopes. One is that Russia will one day allow gay marriages.

Gay activists take part in a protest called "March against Hatred" in St. Petersburg in November 2013. Some gay Russians are speaking out against the country's new laws, others are just fleeing. ( (Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters)

Another is that the two masked men who shot him, called him a "faggot" and then beat him with a bat, might one day be brought to justice.

To be gay in Russia today is possibly the toughest it has been since Soviet times when homosexuality was a crime.

Since the passage of Russia's controversial gay propaganda law in June, gay people here have been painted as a threat to marriage, to society, to the church — and labeled as foreign spies and pariahs. A rash of homophobic attacks have gone unpunished.

Chizhevsky tries to soothe his anger by speaking out, something he has rarely done before.

He reserves special scorn for the politicians who, he feels, should be held responsible for what's happened to him.

One of them works just a few minutes from the offices of the gay community centre where Dmitri was attacked — and just a short ride from some of St. Petersburg's hippest gay clubs.

Vitaly Milonov is outspoken, too, but on the other side of Russia's sudden debate over homosexuality.

A St. Petersburg legislator who belongs to United Russia, President Vladimir Putin's party, Milonov is the inspiration behind the controversial law that criminalizes homosexual "propaganda" around minors, including any talk of equating same-sex families with traditional ones.

Putin signed it into law last June.

Milonov says stories like Chizhevsky's are fabrications, made up for foreign news cameras. He has also denounced gays and lesbians as unnatural, and far worse.

Dmitri Chizhevsky lost the use of his left eye and was nearly killed when anti-gay thugs shot him with a pellet gun and beat him up in November. (Richard Devey / CBC)

His law, he explained, is aimed at protecting children from them, claiming it's a perfect reflection of Russia's traditional family values.

Pressed to cite examples, though, he could not come up with one that might have inspired this law.

"It was like a protection, preservation against a disease, a spiritual disease," he says.

An organized campaign

As the debate rages, for the first time really, church and state — even some media — weigh in, painting homosexuality as one of the most dangerous threats facing modern Russia.

It was never perfect before, but "all of a sudden it's like back to the dark, dark ages," says activist Masha Gessen. The attack "makes you feel totally exposed. There isn't a closet for you to hide in."

An outspoken gay activist and writer, Gessen has borne the brunt of the backlash. Her family's been called perverted. Critics send her death threats. A politician volunteered to adopt her children.

She spoke to CBC near Moscow just weeks before she relocated with her partner and three children to New York, partly out of fear the state would try to take her children away.

"What we're fleeing is not homophobia," she says. "What we are fleeing is a Kremlin-organized campaign.

"Russia is suddenly becoming this traditional values capital of the world."

Olympic role model?

Arriving virtually on the eve of the Sochi Olympics, Russia's gay propaganda law was condemned by Western governments, including Canada's.

"This mean-spirited and hateful law will affect all Russians 365 days of the year, every year," Foreign Minister John Baird told the Canadian Press. "It is an incitement to intolerance, which breeds hate. And intolerance and hate breed violence."

That certainly seems to be the case. Today you can find online videos of apparently gay Russian teens being shamed and beaten.

In one, a youth is made to drink urine by vigilantes who say they're hunting pedophiles.

Russian activists largely blame the law for such actions, and supporters worldwide have called for a boycott of the Games as a result.

Not Konstantin Yablotsky. The self-described gay sports activist believes that hosting the Olympics may help reshape Russian perceptions about gays.

United Russia deputy Vitaly Milonov hold at rally to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in St. Petersburg in May 17, 2013. Milonov was the instigator behind the anti-gay law that Vladimir Putin signed in June. (Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters)

"When an Olympic champion says that it's okay to be gay, you can be successful, you can do sports, you can win medals … games change the world," Yablotsky said in an interview in Moscow.

Yablotsky, who won gold in figure skating at the Cologne gay games in 2010, is helping plan the first so-called Russian Open Games, to be held right after the Olympics.

The event won't have any big sponsors, but will be gay-friendly and open to everyone.

"We want to show Russia that we are not terrible people, that we take part in sport and we do important things in our lives," says Viktor Romanov, one of the organizers. "We don't just go to gay parades and get drunk."

However, the plans have hit many obstacles. Venues have refused to grant them space when they learn the nature of the event, says Yablotsky.

Even at smaller events that they've put on — like a badminton tournament in November — participants are nervous. Many of them come from small towns where they would never dream of coming out.

Putin's word

The International Olympic Committee has said that it has Putin's assurances there will be no discrimination during the Games based on sexual orientation.

Yet in recent comments to the press, the Russian president seemed to equate gays and pedophiles — a common comparison, it seems, among ordinary Russians.

In answering questions on whether foreign gays and lesbians would be subject to the new law, Putin said no one would be arrested at the Olympics.

"We don't detain people on the street, we don't hold anyone responsible for those relations, unlike a lot of other countries in the world," he said.

The very next day, however, a protester who unfurled a rainbow flag and jumped into the path of the Olympic torch relay was tackled and detained.

"What I think we need is not an athletic boycott of the Olympics, what we need is a political boycott of Vladimir Putin," says Gessen. "We need to see him alone in the box during the Olympic Games.

"It needs to be communicated to Russia that it is a pariah for doing what it does."

No countries are boycotting the competitions, but some have sent clear messages — like the U.S., which has included high-profile gay figures in its official delegation.

Konstantin Yablotsky is hoping the Sochi Olympics will send a message to Russians that you can be gay and still be a successful athlete or whatever. (Nahlah Ayed / CBC)

None of that will really change things for Russians, though. Russia's gays, even in well-established gay communities like St. Petersburg, live in a state of palpable apprehension.

Chizhevsky, for one, can scarcely believe what happened to him. As he speaks to us near where he was attacked, a neighbour emerges to listen.

The man shakes his head in disgust, complains that strange things happen there. Men meeting men. "It's not right," he says.

Chizevsky is concerned he won't be the last to be attacked. As he says, "Now it's very dangerous."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.