Gay-rights activists in St. Petersburg say they have no intention of emigrating or going back into the closet despite claims by a Russian lawmaker that all gays have been "squeezed out" of the city.
St. Petersburg's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community has reacted with dismay to comments by local lawmaker Vitaly Milonov, who announced on September 2 that all of the city's sexual minorities had allegedly "gone to Europe."
Milonov, widely known for his aggressive antigay statements, added that he had started "pinning flags on a world map to see who goes the farthest."
Vykhod, an LGBT rights group based in St. Petersburg, dismisses the remarks as "another PR move" from Russia's most notorious homophobe. "The fact that several LGBT activists have moved to Europe is not at all representative of what's currently happening in St. Petersburg's LGBT community," Vykhod spokeswoman Nika Yureva says.
Milonov, who has claimed that gay people "rape kids," was a driving force behind Russia's controversial law criminalizing the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors.
The legislation was signed by President Vladimir Putin in June 2013.
Although it has resulted in a several fines and what activists describe as increased harassment of gays, Vychod says the law has also spurred the LGBT community to take a more active stand -- particularly in St. Petersburg, the city where the legislation originated.
"Large numbers of people have come forward, including volunteers who genuinely want to do something, who want to foster more tolerance in society and talk about themselves," Yureva says.
Among those activists who have fled Russia is St. Petersburg journalist Artur Akhmetgaliyev, who relocated to Germany with his partner in fall 2014. Both have since applied for political asylum.
Akhmetgaliyev says his troubles started after he covered a humorous contest that awarded a prize to Putin for "the highest protection" of homophobia in Russia. He was assaulted several times and received numerous death threats, according to RFE/RL's Russian Service.
Kirill Kalugin, another gay-rights activist from St. Petersburg, quickly followed suit, asking Germany for political asylum in November.
In September, prominent gay-rights campaigner Yelena Tsymbalova emigrated to Spain after receiving death threats for her participation in a rally in support of Ukraine, where Russia has forcibly annexed Crimea and is thought by Kyiv and NATO to be committing troops and political cover to armed separatists.
Tsymbalova, a founder of the St. Petersburg-based Straight Alliance for LGBT Equality, admits she has "lost hope" for Russia. But her departure, she says, certainly doesn't sound the death knell for St. Petersburg's LGBT activism.
"Milonov is wrong to cry victory, because in reality only a handful of people have left," she says. "The majority are still there, and new activists have emerged in recent years. There are still many, many activists in St Petersburg ready to give Milonov a hard time. So he shouldn't rush to claim that he's kicked out everyone. He's rejoicing too early."