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Days After A Hit List For Gays And Lesbians Disappears, A Russian Activist Is Killed

Yelena Grigoryeva had been frequently threatened because of her activism.
Yelena Grigoryeva had been frequently threatened because of her activism.

The Saw list started circulating on Russian websites and social media earlier this year, its name taken from a series of American cult horror films. There were dozens of names on it: Russian gays, lesbians, activists and supporters of LGBT causes, even journalists. Readers were encouraged to hunt them down.

Yelena Grigoryeva, an outspoken activist in St. Petersburg, was among those on the list, which disappeared publicly from the Internet sometime around July 17.

Four days later, Grigoryeva’s body was found in her St. Petersburg apartment, stabbed multiple times, according to activists and acquaintances.

The killing has stunned gay people across Russia, where members of the LGBT community and advocates for their rights have faced worsening threats for years now.

It’s not yet clear whether Grigoryeva, 41, a member of the St. Petersburg-based Alliance of Heterosexuals and LGBT People for Equal Rights, was targeted for her activism. But friends and supporters say the facts paint a stark and frightening picture: She was repeatedly threatened as a result of her activism, those threats were reported to police, and, nothing was done, they contend.

“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.

Propaganda Law

Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in the 1990s, but LGBT people have faced varying degrees of discrimination over the years. Rights defenders say bias has been encouraged by a law targeting gay “propaganda,” which President Vladimir Putin signed in 2013.

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.

The St. Petersburg unit of the Investigative Committee -- Russia’s equivalent of the FBI -- said in a statement that a woman’s body had been found on the evening of July 21 with multiple stab wounds, and that the death was being investigated as a murder. The statement did not identify the woman, nor give any further details.

The St. Petersburg news site reported that the body was that of Grigoryeva, that she had been stabbed at least eight times, and that there was evidence she may have been strangled.

In a post on his Facebook page, one acquaintance of Grigoryeva, political opposition activist Dinar Idrisov, said that it appeared she had been killed on July 18, two days before her body was found.

“A civil society activist of the democratic, anti-war, and LGBT movements, Yelena Grigoryeva, was brutally murdered near her home,” he wrote. “In the recent past, she had become a victim of violence and she was frequently threatened.”

Idrisov, who did not respond to requests for further comment, said that Grigoryeva, who also campaigned against Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, had reported threats of violence to the police but that they took no action.

On July 23, Fontanka reported that a man who worked as a janitor in Grigoryeva’s apartment building was being questioned in connection with the killing.

It is unclear who exactly is behind the Saw lists, which have been circulating for years on social-media networks and “dark web” sites, calling for readers to locate and attack gay people in Russia.

In early 2018, the group went public, with its first listed website, according to LGBT-rights activists.

'Very Dangerous And Harsh Gifts'

Since then, the site has promoted an event called “Chechnya Comeback” -- a reference to a so-called gay purge in which media investigations and harrowing personal accounts revealed that gay and bisexual men in the Chechnya region were being targeted.

It has also published personal details about gays and lesbians in Russia, such as addresses and phone numbers, and sold the information to people willing to pay for it.

According to a screenshot provided to RFE/RL, one page from the website, dated July 1, features a hangman’s noose, and says the site is marking its fifth anniversary. The site says it promises new “very dangerous and harsh gifts” for an LGBT advocacy group in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg as well as more than a dozen other activists including Grigoryeva.

A screenshot from the website of the homophobic group calling itself “Saw Against LGBT.”
A screenshot from the website of the homophobic group calling itself “Saw Against LGBT.”

RFE/RL’s Russian Service is also named, as is Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper that was the first to report that law-enforcement authorities in Chechnya were rounding up gay and bisexual men.

Zakharova said that activists were unable to confirm that anyone had been attacked specifically as a result of the site.

Another list that also targeted LGBT activists began circulating as early as the spring of 2018, Zakharova said. Activists across Russia, Grigoryeva included, had complained to local police as well as to federal regulators who routinely block websites deemed to violate the country’s stringent anti-extremism laws. Kremlin critics say those laws are applied selectively as a tool to quash dissent.

Zakharova told RFE/RL that the Russian LGBT Network had filed a legal complaint with federal authorities on July 17. That same day, Russia’s main media regulator, Roskomnadzor, appeared to block the site, she said.

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.

"If there were arrests and criminal investigations [of LGBT activists] before, now there are killings," he wrote.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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