On 22 July, Yelena Grigoryeva, a prominent Russian LGBT rights campaigner, was found murdered with multiple stab wounds and signs of strangulation in St Petersburg. Along with campaigning for LGBT rights, Grigoryeva also demonstrated against Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, the ill treatment of prisoners and a number of other human rights causes.
“An activist of democratic, anti-war and LGBT movements, Yelena Grigoryeva was brutally murdered near her house,” said her friend and activist Dinar Idrisov in a post on Facebook. “She had recently been the victim of violence and death threats,” he wrote, adding that she had “filed several complaints to the police regarding the violence and threats, but there was no reaction.”
Several dozen demonstrators took to the streets in St Petersburg on 23 July to mourn her death.
Laurie Bristow, the British ambassador in Moscow, said in a statement on Twitter that he was “shocked and saddened at reports of the murder of human rights activist Yelena Grigoryeva.”
Alexander Khmeev, a friend and priest of the Association of Christian Eucharistic Communities, told The Village why Grigoryeva was such a prominent human rights defender: “She said that it was not only for her rights, but also for the rights of her daughter to live in a free Russia.”
LGBT rights in Russia
Homosexuality was decriminalised in Russia in the 1990s, but LGBT people have faced varying degrees of discrimination over the years and increasingly so since 2013 when President Vladimir Putin introduced a law banning the spreading of what was described as “gay propaganda”. Since then, LGBT rights campaigners and hate-crime researchers have reported a notable uptick in violence and harassment against gays and lesbians, often from conservative activists, or those espousing Orthodox Christian beliefs.
Earlier this year, the so-called Saw list – an online blacklist published by the “Saw Against LGBT” movement – started circulating on Russian websites and social media, its name taken from a series of American horror films. There were dozens of names on it: Russian gays, lesbians, activists and supporters of LGBT causes, including Girgoryeva, and readers were encouraged to hunt them down.
“Of course, people are shocked [by the killing],” said Svetlana Zakharova of the Russian LGBT Network, one of the country’s largest advocacy organizations for gays and lesbians. “People are scared, people don’t know what to do. And we are absolutely outraged that police haven’t done anything to find the people behind this list,” she told RFE/RL.
In a Facebook post, Georgy Markov, a St Petersburg-based photographer, specifically linked Grigoryeva’s killing to her name’s appearance on the Saw list, saying:
“If there were arrests and criminal investigations [of LGBT activists] before, now there are killings.”
And Grigoryeva is not the only one. In January last year, Russian opposition activist Konstantin Sinitsyn, 53, was found dead near his home in St Petersburg after suffering head injuries. Police said the attack appeared to be a robbery. In December 2017, Vladimir Ivanyutenko was attacked and suffered several knife wounds. Last August, dozens of LGBT rights activists were arrested during a banned protest in St Petersburg to promote the rights of sexual minorities and the same happened in April this year during the annual Day of Silence protest in St Petersburg.
The LGBT purge in Chechnya
In Chechnya, a republic within Russia, a crackdown against LGBT people has been ongoing since the 2017 purge which saw dozens of gay men in Chechnya abducted and tortured and others killed. The Russian LGBT Network believes about 40 people have been imprisoned since December 2018 – two of whom they say have died under torture and the group has helped more than 140 people escape the region since the persecution began.
“Two years after reports of a ‘gay purge’ sent shockwaves worldwide, it’s clear that the perpetrators have gone unpunished because of state-sponsored homophobia and impunity for human rights violations in Chechnya,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, in a statement from April 2019.
The targeting of LGBT groups and NGOs
The European Court of Human Rights ruled on 16 July that the Russian government must pay 42,500 euros in damages to three lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights groups for having refused their registration in recent years. From 2006 to 2011, Rainbow House, the Movement for Marriage Equality, and the Sochi Pride House attempted to register their respective organisations with Russian authorities. The government denied their applications, claiming the organisations “will destroy the moral values of society” or “undermine [Russia’s] sovereignty and territorial integrity…by decreasing its population.”
In October 2018, Amnesty International released a report about Russia’s attempts to silence NGOs and to obstruct the efforts of human rights defenders. In the last four years, the report stated, 148 organisations have been included on the list of “foreign agents”, of which 27 have closed down altogether.
“Once again the Russian authorities are targeting independent organisations and individuals – but this time their weapon is suffocating fines. Using a host of draconian laws, the authorities are levying one extortionate fine after another in what appears to be a coordinated attack to drive critical organisations out of existence altogether,” said Natalia Zviagina, Director of Amnesty International’s Office in Moscow.
These NGOs have performed important roles in protecting the rights of ordinary people. In many cases they provided services that the state has failed to provide, such as legal representation or psychological support for victims of discrimination or violence and environmental monitoring.