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A Performance By Russian Cadets Shocks An Audience, And Adds To Fears About Rising Homophobia

Many in the crowd were shocked by the display during the cadets' performance in Yaroslavl.
Many in the crowd were shocked by the display during the cadets' performance in Yaroslavl.

Teenagers garbed in camouflage fatigues and military cadet attire took to the stage at a local theater northeast of Moscow, showing off their martial skills as part of an anniversary celebration for a local patriotic military club.

But that wasn't all.

As an unsuspecting audience looked on, the men hoisted a shirtless colleague above their heads, placed a concrete block on his stomach that suggested gay people should be killed, and proceeded to smash the symbolic object with what appeared to be a sledgehammer.

Many in the crowd were shocked by the display during the August 29 performance in the city of Yaroslavl. Not the head of the paratrooper club, who, judging by his remarks afterward, saw nothing wrong with the homophobic display.

"What's the problem? They just don't like" gay people, Andrei Palachev later was quoted as telling reporters, using an offensive slur for gays. "And neither do I."

Homophobia, Intolerance On The Rise?

The performance in Yaroslavl is just the latest example of rising homophobia and intolerance toward minority groups in Russia, a trend that appears to be worsening in part because of seeming official indifference to such displays.

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.

In Chechnya, a mainly Muslim region in the North Caucasus, the situation is particularly dire, say LGBT activists, who accuse Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov of targeting sexual minorities, including the use of abductions, torture, and extrajudicial killings.

In contrast to Palachev, the director of the Dobrynin Palace of Culture, Igor Derbin, said he and other leaders of the theater were "outraged" by the performance. "Initially, the event was to be upbeat and positive. Their trick was a surprise for all of us. It wasn't preplanned or agreed upon because they knew we wouldn't allow it," Derbin said.

Igor Sidorin, who witnessed the display, said in a Facebook post that he was so shocked that he filed a police report. "And this was happening on the stage while underage children were present," said Sidorin, the local head of an organization for veterans who served in the North Caucasus.

Literary Festival Canceled

The incident in Yaroslavl came two days before a literary festival in the Tula region, south of Moscow, was canceled because of numerous complaints about the participation of a lesbian writer, Oksana Vasyakina.

The organizer of the event, the Tula History and Architectural Museum, said on its website that it was cancelling the event "due to the epidemiological situation with the coronavirus." The museum did not explain what it meant.

However, Daria Serenko, a local feminist activist, said the event was canceled due to the fact Vasyakina was due to take part, and she blamed in part local security officials, known informally as "siloviki."

"Orthodox 'activists' and the siloviki tried to expel my friend, the writer Oksana Vasyakina, from the Tula literary festival simply because she is a lesbian," Serenko wrote on Instagram. "When this didn't work, they canceled the whole festival."

Health-Food Chain's Ad Draws Ire

Some Russian businesses that have embraced marketing using progressive messages -- for example, showing multiracial groups of people or even same-sex families -- have come under withering abuse from nationalist and conservative groups in recent months.

In July, a health-food chain called VkusVill produced a commercial featuring an LGBT couple. But the chain later pulled the ad after being attacked by conservative activists, some of whom cited the "gay propaganda" law.

The chain apologized to its customers for what it called "a mistake that exposed the unprofessionalism of some employees." VkusVill was then lambasted by some clients for pulling it and apologizing in the fact of pressure from homophobes.

The consequences for the LGBT couple featured in the ad were far more dire: the two women last month revealed they had fled the country with their family, amid death threats from activists.

Others haven't been so lucky.

Back in 2019, a list circulated on Russian websites and social media featuring dozens of names: 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, named for a series of American cult horror films. She later disappeared and her body was ultimately found in her St. Petersburg apartment, stabbed multiple times, according to activists and acquaintances.

In the North Caucasus, the Russian LGBT Network -- Russia's largest gay and lesbian support group -- said on August 25 that a Daghestani native had been abducted earlier this year in Moscow and forcibly brought to Chechnya, where authorities pressed him for information on gay people in the region.

Days later, according to the group, the man was released to the custody of his mother, but he then managed to leave the region for Moscow, where he filed a police complaint.

Back in Yaroslavl, few expect the cadets to face any repercussions, despite the action taken by Sidorin. Not only have officials so far failed to condemn the incident but at least one local member of the ruling United Russia party has praised it.

Olga Khitrova, a member of the local legislature, called the performance "bravery and good family traditions of military-patriotic education."

In a Facebook post, Khitrova also thanked Palachev "for his many years of work with teenagers," and his "loyalty to the best military traditions and love of the motherland."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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