The battle against homophobia can seem daunting in Russia, where rights groups accuse the government of fostering enmity toward LGBT people through legislation and a failure to crack down on violence against sexual minorities.
But opponents of an ultraconservative businessman’s grocery chain are claiming a small victory after authorities requested that he remove a sign at one of his stores stating that “faggots” will not be served.
German Sterligov, an enigmatic multimillionaire and owner of the high-end chain Bread And Salt, said on his account on the Russian social network VKontakte this week that he is selling the chain’s six stores in Moscow due to pressure from authorities.
He posted images of letters he received late last month from local police and prosecutors about the homophobic signs, which he said had been changed from “No Faggots Allowed” to “No Sodomites Allowed” in a concession to authorities.
“We would rather forgo profits in Moscow,” Sterligov wrote in his announcement that he plans to sell his Moscow stores.
Sterligov, who portrays himself as a pious Russian Orthodox Christian and a defender of traditional values, has made homophobia a central ideological tenet of the chain, which sells natural food and other products made by "Russian peasants."
The crude signs on the chain’s storefronts have angered some residents in several Russian cities where its stores are located, though pressure to force their removal had previously been met with a shrug by authorities.
In August, police in the Urals city of Perm refused to launch an investigation into a Bread And Salt shop there, saying the words referred to in the sign -- pederast and pederasty -- are “scientific” terms and not expletives. (In fact, the word on the sign is a vulgar derivative, with a different spelling, of the word pederast.)
Vera Vrubel, a St. Petersburg-based freelance editor who has spearheaded nationwide efforts against the signs, called the pressure from Moscow authorities on Sterligov “the first victory over a homophobe.”
“Up next: all of the other cities that he is insulting with his invective,” she wrote on Facebook this week.
Vrubel told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that she and “hundreds of other people all across Russia” have bombarded authorities in several cities with complaints, and that she hopes other regions will take a cue from the police and prosecutors in the capital.
The October 30 letter from Moscow city police asked Sterligov to remove the sign from one of his stores, while city prosecutors said in an October 27 notice that they were conducting a probe to see whether that same store was in violation of laws to protect children from “harmful” information.
“If Moscow prosecutors tackled [Sterligov], then just maybe others won’t have a choice but to react,” she said.
'Because We're Christians'
Rights activists and Western governments have repeatedly criticized what they call escalating discrimination against sexual minorities in Russia since President Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012 after four years as prime minister.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in June ruled that a 2013 law signed by Putin that bans the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships" to minors violates the right to free expression, is discriminatory toward LGBT people, and endorses homophobia.
Russia, which has repeatedly rejected accusations that it discriminates against sexual minorities, said it would appeal the Strasbourg-based court’s ruling.
Rights groups also say Russian authorities are emboldening violence against LGBT people by failing to sufficiently investigate hate crimes against them, including an alleged campaign of abuse and torture by authorities in the southern Chechnya region that has triggered international condemnation.
Vrubel expressed disappointment that Moscow authorities had not pursued a hate-speech investigation against Sterligov in connection with the signs.
But despite the “very polite” tone of authorities in their outreach to Sterligov, “it is the first real result” of their campaign, she added. The letter from police cited “numerous complaints from citizens” about the signs.
She suggested that Sterligov’s announcement that he is selling his Moscow stores may have more to do with the financial state of the chain, which sells traditional Russian bread and other food items at premium prices.
Aleksandr Kalinin, head of the small-business Russian lobby group Opora, echoed that assessment.
“I won’t attempt to assess his business, but it’s definitely the case that the margins in his sector have fallen recently due to rising competition,” the state-run TASS news agency cited Kalinin as saying. “So I think there could be some economic problems.”
Sterligov, for his part, said in his announcement that sales at his Moscow stores are “brisk.”
He added that his decision to sell the stores was not a defeat, saying a “victory for the sodomites” would be to “force us to offer service” to gay men.
“Those dirty perverts can keep dreaming, but we won’t do it,” Sterligov wrote. “Because we’re Christians.”