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A Filmmaker’s Chilling View Of Russia's Antigay 'Vigilantes'

A screenshot from Ben Steele's documentary, “Hunted: The War Against Gays In Russia”

WASHINGTON -- The terror drifts through the dim apartment in muffled grunts. The hostage’s assailants hold him down, threatening to rape him with a stick or urinate on him, eliciting cackles from their cohorts. Within seconds, a muscle-bound man uses his fists to calm the captive.

The victim has been lured inside by a Russian group calling itself Occupy Pedophilia, which grabbed worldwide attention last year by distributing videos of such brutal, humiliating assaults against gay people on the Internet.

Unlike those videos, however, the footage in the St. Petersburg apartment late last year was shot by British filmmaker Ben Steele, whose documentary on these guerrilla crimes is set to air October 6 on the U.S. cable network HBO.

In “Hunted: The War Against Gays In Russia,” Steele gives a chilling behind-the-scenes glimpse of this movement. He credits this access partly to his promise of journalistic objectivity to his subjects, and partly to the pride they take in their violence against homosexuals.

“They do believe that they have the support of the Russian authorities, and they do believe that they’re in some way representing what they see to be the majority of the Russian people,” Steele told RFE/RL.

The group’s members have claimed their videos are aimed at shaming pedophiles, regardless of sexual orientation. But the movement regularly equates homosexuality with pedophilia, a position echoed by a Russian Orthodox priest interviewed in the film.

Director Ben Steele attends the New York premiere of "Hunted."
Director Ben Steele attends the New York premiere of "Hunted."

“Hunted” includes footage of planning sessions of Occupy Pedophilia militants, whose main modus operandi for setting up victims is to lure them to meetings via social networking sites with the promise of same-sex romantic liaisons.

As the attack unfolded in the St. Petersburg apartment, Steele was forced out of the room and told to stop filming. But he managed to push his way back in and keep a camera on the action. It was, he says, his best available tactic for trying to stop the situation from escalating, adding that he was “genuinely frightened for the young man who’d been lured to the flat.”

"I felt that by being in the room, and by holding the camera, it is acting as a brake on more extreme violence," he said.

‘They Will Pick Up A Gun’

Steele’s film is set against the backdrop of a controversial law signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin last year that outlawed "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships” among minors in Russia, where opinion polls show widespread antipathy toward homosexuals.

The loosely worded law was portrayed by Putin and other Russian officials as aimed at protecting children and encouraging Russia’s birth rate, while Western governments and rights groups decried it as discriminatory toward gays.

While there have been few instances of fines levied against violators of the law, members of Russia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community say it has served to bolster a sense of impunity among groups like Occupy Pedophilia.

In “Hunted,” a man identified as Dima tells how he and several other gay men were beaten up by assailants who ransacked an apartment where they were meeting. Gunfire erupted during the attack, and Dima was left with injuries that permanently blinded him in one eye.

He tells the filmmakers that antigay legislation in Russia has left the LGBT community essentially unable to publicly defend itself, creating a vacuum now being filled with bile against homosexuals that could prove deadly.

"If it’s constantly drilled into people that we are murderers, scum, and perverts, I understand why these guys shot at me,” Dima says in the film. “If you repeat something all the time, sooner or later there will be a click, and they will pick up a gun and go and shoot."

International Outrage

Steele said he chose to center his film around the so-called vigilante groups like Occupy Pedophilia in part because of the raw, horrific power of the group’s viral videos.

"We kind of understood that most people knew that being gay in Russia was probably less fun than being gay in London or gay in New York,” he said. “So we wanted to make a film that would actually have an emotional resonance and an emotional impact.”

Indeed, while Russia’s antigay “propaganda” law sparked protests and outrage throughout the world, the brutality of these videos played a significant role in galvanizing broad international support for Russia’s beleaguered LGBT community.

"If anyone was on the sidelines or anyone was not exercised about [the law], those videos put everyone over the top," Dan Savage, a U.S. author and prominent gay rights activist, told RFE/RL.


Steele’s film notes the sluggish nature of Russian authorities’ investigations of abuses carried by antigay militants, who are rarely prosecuted for their crimes. The Russian government, however, has dismissed suggestions that this violence is tacitly supported by the state.

After “Hunted” premiered on British television days before the Sochi Winter Olympics began in February, the Russian Embassy in London issued a statement saying the film was “specially timed” to coincide with the Sochi Games and “smacks of well-timed and cynical propaganda.”

It also noted that Maxim Martsinkevich, founder of the “illegal vigilante group Occupy Pedophilia,” had been arrested and was being held on charges of extremism.

The statement echoed the position voiced by the group’s militants in Steele’s film, saying that Occupy Pedophilia, “as its name suggests, targets only pedophiles [both straight and gay].”

‘Baying For A Fight’

Steele says that filming the entrapment of the Occupy Pedophilia victim in the St. Petersburg apartment was the most intense experience in the making of the film.

"I’m not a weakling, but I’m not an Arnold Schwarzenegger character either, and there were 13 men in that room who were baying for a fight,” he told RFE/RL. “I was the only man in that room who wasn’t a vigilante. I think had I attempted to intervene, it would have been counterproductive."

The ability of his camera to mitigate the violence was referenced at one point during the incident by a female leader of the group, identified in the film as “Katya.” She tells the hostage that he is lucky that there are journalists present, that their removal from the scene would bode poorly for his physical well-being.

Eventually, the victim gives in to the physical and verbal abuse and tells them that he is gay. He is then forced to perform a dance for his captors as they film him.

The film informs the viewers that Steele and his team then accompanied the victim out of the building and offered any assistance they could.

He asked them not to go to the police.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.