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A Grim Death, A Confession -- But No Closure In Russian LGBT Activist's Killing

Days before her killing, LGBT campaigner Yelena Grigoryeva's name was published by an anonymous network of homophobic activists. (file photo)
Days before her killing, LGBT campaigner Yelena Grigoryeva's name was published by an anonymous network of homophobic activists. (file photo)

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Yelena Grigoryeva's body lay in the bushes near her apartment building for over 12 hours before it was discovered by a passerby. She had been stabbed in the face and body at least eight times and had strangulation marks on her neck. A murder investigation was launched.

Grigoryeva had been one of the most prominent opposition activists in St. Petersburg and an outspoken gay rights advocate in a country where few remain. News of her killing rocked Russian civil society and particularly its embattled lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, amid fears that she had fallen victim to another homophobic attack in a city that had seen too many.

Investigators quickly dismissed suspicions that hate was the motive. On July 26 -- five days after the grim discovery -- they announced that Grigoryeva had been stabbed in a drunken dispute with an acquaintance. Two suspects were quickly arrested and released, and by July 31 investigators had a third -- a 28-year-old named Aleksei Volnyanko.

Two days later, according to the authorities, Volnyanko confessed. In a grainy video published by Russia's Investigative Committee on August 2, he stands ostensibly at the scene of the crime, and lays out his motives in bureaucratic jargon and a deadpan voice.

"She insulted me too much," he says. "And I, being in a state of alcoholic inebriation, lost my temper."

But in interviews with RFE/RL, Grigoryeva's friends, fellow LGBT activists, and lawyers involved in the case expressed deep doubts about the official version. None had previously heard of Volnyanko, who was convicted on drug possession charges a month before his confession, and many voiced suspicion that he was a scapegoat in a targeted political killing.

Most agree that Grigoryeva, a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin and his government, had acquired many enemies over the years. In particular, they point to Saw, a self-declared anonymous network of anti-gay activists that was formed in 2018, took its name from a series of American cult horror movies, and has encouraged attacks on members of Russia's LGBT community. Some suspect Grigoryeva, whose name was published by Saw days before her killing, became the group's first real victim.

For friends and relatives, Grigoryeva's case remains unsolved despite the confession videotape. And amid a paucity of evidence, few are optimistic that they'll get the answers they demand.

"I think it's immediately clear that this was a contract killing," said Aleksandr Khmelev, a friend of Grigoryeva's. "We've had them before."

A Hunt For Gays

Grigoryeva, whom friends called Lena, moved to St. Petersburg in February 2018 from Novgorod -- a city to the south where her 19-year-old daughter and other relatives remained -- and moved in with her boyfriend Andrei Gneushev, whom she met online several months earlier.

She quickly integrated into the activist community in St. Petersburg, staging one-person pickets -- one of the few forms of protest that does not require a permit -- in support of numerous causes. She protested for the release of Crimean Tatars accused of terrorism by Russia, for LGBT rights, against domestic violence, and against Russia's takeover of Crimea and all the consequences of its undeclared military activity in eastern Ukraine.

Gneushev and Grigoryeva split up in March 2019. Shortly afterwards, Grigoryeva came out as bisexual. It was around that time, friends say, that the threats against her starting coming in thick and fast.

"Her coming out was a surprise to me, and I didn't approve of it," said Olga Smirnova, a fellow opposition activist and friend. "I told her 'Listen, Lena, you already have a target painted on you because of your political activity. You've just pinned another to your chest."

It was also around this time that the online activists from Saw stepped up their threats against LGBT people. News of the group first emerged in April 2018 in Ufa -- capital of the Bashkortostan region, far southeast of St. Petersburg -- where online posts announced a game called Saw: A Hunt For Gays In Ufa.

"All gays, trans and bisexuals will feel real pain," read one of the posts. "More homophobia. More set-ups. More violence."

Attacks against LGBT activists in Bashkortostan spiked, and activists lamented what they said was police inaction. But evidence of Saw's direct involvement, and even of its existence as a coordinated movement, was slim.

That summer Saw launched a website, where it began calling for a nationwide hunt for homosexuals and their ultimate transfer to Chechnya, a region in the North Caucasus where authorities have been accused of conducting a concerted campaign of abuse against the gay community and subjecting its members to torture and extrajudicial killings in special prisons. Saw demanded payment in digital currency in exchange for the freedom of anyone captured. It also published the names, addresses and contact details of alleged homosexuals across Russia.

The site was eventually blocked in the spring of 2019, after multiple appeals by an LGBT activist based in Yekaterinburg, but another page was soon created. On July 1, in one of the last posts to this page before it also went offline, Saw announced the imminent launch of an anti-gay political movement that it claimed had backing from the Russian state. In addition to two news organizations, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta and RFE/RL's Russian Service, it named 19 people who would soon receive "very dangerous and harsh gifts." Among them were at least five LGBT activists from St. Petersburg, including Grigoryeva.

A screenshot provided to RFE/RL by a Russian homophobic group calling itself "Saw Against LGBT," which published a hit list of gay and lesbian activists.
A screenshot provided to RFE/RL by a Russian homophobic group calling itself "Saw Against LGBT," which published a hit list of gay and lesbian activists.

A Drunken Scrap?

Among the first to share news of Saw's latest threat was Vitaly Bespalov, who edits an LGBT-friendly website in St. Petersburg and was one of those named on the list. When Bespalov posted about it on Facebook on July 2, Grigoryeva was the second person to comment.

"And I'm there too for some reason. What an honor that they've listed me alongside you and Kochetkov," she wrote, referring to Bespalov and Igor Kochetkov of gay rights group The Russian LGBT Network.

"We laughed about it at the time," Bespalov said in a recent interview in St. Petersburg. "And then when I heard she'd been murdered, I didn't suspect any connection with Saw at all. But I knew that Lena had a huge number of ill-wishers."

Following Grigoryeva's death, suspicion that Saw organized her killing was widespread, and popular YouTubers posted videos implicating the homophobic group.

Numerous appeals were launched by LGBT activists urging Russian law enforcement authorities to investigate Saw and find its authors. On August 4, authorities said that a probe could not be launched because the movement's site had been deactivated.

Saw, or its imitators, continued to operate despite the closure of two of its websites, moving to email correspondence with potential victims and channels on the Telegram messenger.

In the meantime, Russian state media sought to counter allegations that Grigoryeva's killing was a hate crime and promote the version advanced by investigators: that she had an "antisocial lifestyle" and an alcohol problem, and that Volnyanko, the alleged killer, was one of several men she'd been drinking vodka with on the night she died.

An impromptu memorial to Yelena Grigoryeva in St. Petersburg earlier this year.
An impromptu memorial to Yelena Grigoryeva in St. Petersburg earlier this year.

In reports saturated with the homophobic language typical of state-supported news outlets in Russia, presenters dismissed Saw as either a harmless PR campaign or a stunt by LGBT activists seeking asylum abroad. Grigoryeva's slaying, some suggested, was just the foreseeable result of a drunken scrap.

"With a friend, and four men, she drank spirits worth 45 rubles per bottle on a bench at night. So what do you expect?" asked one such report on the state-run news channel Rossia-24. "The headlines will no doubt be loud, and they're unlikely to be about a banal domestic killing. After all, that doesn't sound as pretty as 'death for LGBT ideals.'"

Death Threats

Among the people interviewed by Russian state TV was Timur Bulatov, a Muslim self-styled civic activist who has gained prominence in recent years with his anti-LGBT remarks. Bulatov routinely trolls members of the gay community online, and campaigns for children to be taken away from gay couples and for schoolteachers perceived as gay to be dismissed and shunned by society.

Grigoryeva was one of many LGBT activists whom Bulatov threatened on social media. But one exchange in the days before her murder has fueled suspicion of his complicity among her friends and fellow activists.

On June 11, Bulatov sent Grigoryeva a photo of a knife he had carved himself. Using an expletive and derogatory wording to refer to gay people, he asked her if it would be "awesome" to kill them with the weapon. The following day, apparently interpreting one of her comments as a threat, he wrote: "Get ready scum. You said everything!"

Aleksandr Khmelev
Aleksandr Khmelev

Grigoryeva immediately sent screenshots of that exchange to Khmelev. "If something happens to me, you know my address," she wrote. Khmelev saved the screenshots and shared them with RFE/RL.

In an interview at his home in St. Petersburg, Bulatov said that he was called in for questioning by police at some point after Grigoryeva's killing, and that he told them he was home at the time of the incident and has video footage to prove it. Volnyanko had already confessed by that time, and Bulatov was quickly released.

"They just called me in so they mark it off in their files," Bulatov told RFE/RL. He said he has not heard from investigators since.

Bulatov denied involvement in Grigoryeva's killing. He alleged that she had repeatedly threatened his family, and that his efforts to report this to police led to no action against her. In response to one of his reports, authorities told him there was evidence that Grigoryeva's account on VK, which in 2014 was taken over by allies of President Vladimir Putin, had been hacked.

Self-styled anti-LGBT activist Timur Bulatov
Self-styled anti-LGBT activist Timur Bulatov

Bulatov dismissed that idea. As evidence of what he claimed were Grigoryeva's threats, he showed a part of the June 11 VK exchange in which she appears to have posted a screenshot of his passport and asked whether she should send someone "to his son and wife." RFE/RL was not able to confirm the authenticity of that exchange.

Bulatov also denied any link to Saw, and alleged, as state media have suggested, that the online project was created by Russia's LGBT community as a way of securing grounds for asylum in the West.

But in posts to his now removed VK account, screenshots of which were provided to RFE/RL by Kseniya Mikhailova, a lawyer representing Grigoryeva's family, Bulatov appeared to claim authorship of Saw.

"Inshallah we will SAW OUT the ROT, mold and DECAY," he wrote, using language with which he regularly refers to the LGBT community online. "WHO'S NEXT?"

In addition, Bespalov shared with RFE/RL several messages that Bulatov allegedly sent to another LGBT activist in St. Petersburg on August 17, almost a month after Grigoryeva's killing. "And when will you, scum, saw yourself?" he wrote. "Or do you also need to be added to Saw's lists?"

Asked about the post, Bulatov called it "trolling." He did not hide his apparent glee over Grigoryeva's death, and he issued a chilling warning of what he was prepared to do in the wake of her alleged threats.

"I prayed twice before sunset, and asked the Almighty to take her away so I don't take this sin upon myself," he said. "Because I would have been forced to do it, to protect my family."

He added: "She was butchered five days later."

'A Community No One Will Protect'

Despite his bluster, few of Grigoryeva's friends believe Bulatov was directly implicated in her murder, even if they distrust the official investigation and suspect he was somehow involved. Mikhailova said she's crossed him off her own list of direct suspects, and Smirnova described him as a "troll."

Lawyer Kseniya Mikhailova
Lawyer Kseniya Mikhailova

But Grigoryeva's killing, and the questions that surround it, have aggravated a climate of fear among LGBT activists that was already present before Saw began publishing its death threats and encouraging attacks. And even after her passing, the threats continue.

On August 25, an email came through to Bespalov's private inbox from the address

"Hi Vitaly! My name is Saw and I want to play the fourth level of the game with you and all your rear-driven friends," it read. "You are our holy sacrifice."

Bespalov was told he had until October 1 to find and murder Maksim Lapunov, a gay man who said he was abducted and tortured in Chechnya. Otherwise he would be "liquidated."

"You have probably not forgotten about the murder of the boozer Yelena Grigoryeva," the message continued, taking responsibility for her killing. "You will not find the people who ordered it. And it will be the same for you, if you don't meet our conditions."

Bespalov reported the threat to the police on August 27, and said he has not received an answer.

While he sees no direct connection between Saw and Grigoryeva's killing, he is worried about something else: the possibility that Saw and other homophobic groups are inspiring attacks by people who buy into their ideas.

"I'm not afraid that I'll be killed by people who write these threats," he said. "But I don't discount the possibility of attacks by people whom this situation could inspire."

If Saw's threats were aimed at pro-Kremlin politicians, Russian Orthodox believers, or even migrants, Bespalov said, the people behind them would be found. But Russia's LGBT community, which is frequently portrayed by officials and state media as a dangerous cult and a product of Western decadence, has very few places to seek refuge at home.

"This is a community that no one will protect. Not the police, not investigative organs, no one," Bespalov said. "So the message is: this is fair game."

"That's my main fear," he said. "I know that if something happens and I go to the police, they'll do nothing. And that's an unpleasant feeling."

He never answered the e-mail.

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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