Living in the Netherlands, Russian doctor Pavel Stotsko and his husband have no intention of moving back to their home country.
Stotsko and his husband Yevgeni Voitsekhovsky made global headlines earlier this year when they thought they had become the first officially recognized same-sex marriage in Russia.
But less than 24 hours after their Danish marriage was rubber-stamped in Moscow, the authorities realized there had been an administrative oversight - as same sex marriage is illegal in Russia - and their passports were annulled.
Facing death threats, the couple fled to the Netherlands where they were granted asylum
Their flight in January became the first in an escalating series of moves this year against Russia’s LGBT+ community which campaigners see as attempts by President Vladimir Putin to draw closer to his electorate, most of whom are Orthodox Christians.
Several LGBT+ websites have been blocked and in recent weeks over 20 LGBT activists been fined 450,000 Russian rubles (US$6,800) for protesting at the annual St. Petersburg pride parade in August after authorities refused to authorize the rally.
“We have seen lots of people being detained at St. Petersburg prides before but we have never seen so many people fined for such amounts of money,” organizer Alexei Nazarov told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
Homosexuality was deemed a criminal offense in Russia until 1993 and classed as a mental illness until 1999.
But Russia’s LGBT+ community has been under mounting pressure since 2013 when the Kremlin adopted a gay “propaganda” law as part of a drive to defend what Putin called Russia’s “traditional values.”
LGBT+ campaigners said the law has not only been used to prevent pride events and to detain activists but has had far wider impact, with violence against gay people on the rise and increased hostility from the wider community.
“It put a target on the back of the entire community of people,” said Stotsko. “It essentially started a hunt for gays.” “Before the ‘gay propaganda’ law it was stressful - you had to hide your sexual orientation to avoid harassment ... but at least we all had hopes that Russian society was moving in the right direction and it will get better. (That) has evaporated.”
The Kremlin’s human rights ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova did not respond to requests for comment on LGBT+ rights in Russia. In several public statements during his third term, Putin has stated there is no discrimination of gay people in Russia.
But Human Rights Watch has described the 2013 law as a tool for anti-gay discrimination coming with a rise in violence and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and homophobic hate speech by some officials and public figures.
TESTING THE LAWS
Stotsko, 28, and his husband, who is also 28 and a doctor, tested the law after finding there were no restrictions on recognizing same-sex marriages registered abroad.
After a Denmark wedding, they went to a local branch of the Interior Ministry who put marriage stamps in their passports.
Stotsko and Voitsekhovsky broke the news to the media, thinking they had won an important battle for the LGBT+ community with first official recognition of a same-sex marriage. But the next day, Moscow police annulled their passports. In a statement published on its website, Russia’s Interior Ministry called the marriage stamps “marks not allowed according to Russian legislation” and launched an administrative probe.
Pavel Krasheninnikov, deputy of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament dominated by Kremlin loyalists, said the Russian family dodge clearly defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman.
“We recognizes marriages (registered abroad), but only if they are not against our regulations. This clearly is,” he was quoted by Russia’s political news site RBC as saying.
Fearing persecution, Stotsko and Voitsekhovsky left the country under the advice of their lawyers.
A few months later Russian courts ordered the blocking of two prominent online LGBT+ resources - Russia’s oldest gay news site Gay.Ru and ParniPlus.Ru, an outlet about gay men and HIV - which were accused of spreading gay “propaganda.”
In August, the same happened to Deti-404, the only online support group for gay teenagers in Russia.
Two weeks after the arrests in St. Petersburg, a court in North Caucasus ruled not to open a criminal investigation into the arrest and torture of Maxim Lapunov, a gay man from Chechnya, an autonomous region in the south of the country.
It was the sixth time Lapunov lost a request for a criminal case into reports of more than 100 gay men being rounded up and ortured in Chechyna in October 2017. Lapunov was the only one of those impacted to lodge an official complaint to the police.
Justice Minister Anton Konovalov said a preliminary probe found no evidence of arrests and torture.
Alexander Kondakov, a sociologist with the Center for Independent Social Research, said studies showed there had been a spike in LGBT+ hate crimes since the 2013 law.
“The attitude towards LGBT worsened and translated into this spike of violent crimes,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Kondakov blamed a media campaign backing the gay “propaganda” law including “pseudo-documenatries” on state-run TV in which gay people were called “defective.”
A survey by the Levada Centre, an independent pollster, released in January found 83 percent of Russians disapproved of same sex relationships, up from 68 percent in a poll in 1998.
Another study, by the VTsIOM state-funded pollster, published this month, found 63 percent of Russians believed there were forces deliberately trying to destroy the country’s “spiritual values” using “gay propaganda.”
As for Stotsko and Voitsekhovsky, they do not plan on coming back to Russian any time soon.
“It is unsafe for us,” Stotsko told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the Netherland, refusing to disclose the couple’s exact location for safety reasons.
“Even here people sometimes recognize us in the streets. Usually they say how much they respect us for what we did. In Russia, people will recognize us, too, but they will have different intentions ... There is no life for us in Russia.”