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Chain Of Russian Shops Brings Homophobia Into The Open

Pictured here standing on a truck in a knee-length, brown-leather jacket at the opening of one of his food stores, Russian businessman German Sterligov has sparked controversy by displaying homophobic signs on his premises.

ST. PETERSBURG -- A small but growing chain of throwback shops in Russia recently gained notoriety because each of its dozen or so outlets prominently displayed a crudely homophobic sign in the window declaring, "No pederasts allowed."

Now, one branch has gone a step further. Local media say the Bread And Salt shop in the central city of Kirov is selling hand-carved wooden signs with the slogan for 2,000 rubles ($35).

For the most part, locals in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kirov appear to be unperturbed by signs, despite the fact that they use a strongly derogatory term for gays that most media refuse to print in full.

Passersby can frequently be seen pausing in front of the signs for beaming selfies. In Moscow, however, one store had a window broken overnight on June 1, prompting Russian state television to comment that the stores "have long been in the crosshairs of the LGBT community."

In a St. Petersburg branch of the store just off the major thoroughfare of Ligovsky Prospekt, one customer who declined to give her name told RFE/RL that the sign was an indication of how tolerant St. Petersburg is. After all, she argued, everyone should have the right to say and think as they choose.

Eccentric Multimillionaire

The Bread And Salt chain -- which sells natural food, cosmetics, and other products made by "Russian peasants" -- is the brainchild of eccentric multimillionaire German Sterligov.

An avowed monarchist, Sterligov lives as if he is stuck in the 19th century, following Russia's pre-revolutionary calendar that he has modified by adding eight years to reflect his interpretation of when Jesus Christ was born. He asserts, for instance, that his website was created on "May 28, 2018, from the birth of Christ," noting parenthetically that the new-style date was June 11, 2010. He spells the Russian word for free -- besplatny -- with a "z" in order to avoid writing "bes," which means demon.

In the past, he has advocated selling all of Russia's territory east of the Ural Mountains to the West and resettling the population of that region on peasant farms in European Russia.

German Sterligov is well known for holding unorthodox views on a number of issues. (file photo)
German Sterligov is well known for holding unorthodox views on a number of issues. (file photo)

​At the recent opening of one of his St. Petersburg stores, Sterligov invited supporters to throw eggs at portraits of Albert Einstein and other scientists whose work supposedly led to the "poisoning of all humanity."

Sterligov also espouses his own version of Russian Orthodoxy. He says he is not baptized and is not a member of the Russian Orthodox Church because he considers virtually all clerics to be mired in heresy. He holds ultraconservative social views, speaking out forcefully against abortion and homosexuality. He has been accused of organizing a training camp for neo-Nazis and of offering to pay thugs to attack homosexuals.

The signs openly displayed in Sterligov's stores are one manifestation of a growing homophobic wave in Russia. In 2013, Russia adopted a law making it illegal to distribute "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships" or "distorted ideas about the equal social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relationships."

'Systematic' Persecution

More recently, the Russian government and state media have largely ignored reports by independent media and activist groups that gay men are being systematically persecuted in the North Caucasus region of Chechnya.

On May 30, a St. Petersburg court sentenced 21-year-old nationalist student Sergei Kosyrev to 8 1/2 years in prison for murdering journalist Dmitry Tsilikin, who was homosexual. Although the trial was held in a closed court, activists believe the murder was a homophobic hate crime.

Not all Russians, however, are indifferent to the signs in Sterligov's stores or the attitude behind them.

Vera Vrubel, 45, lives in a St. Petersburg building where a Bread And Salt -- the name is ironically synonymous with warm hospitality -- outlet is located. When the sign went up, Vrubel's daughter noticed it.

"The whole story started with my daughter," Vrubel, who is a freelance editor, told RFE/RL. "She is 15 and she asked me: 'Mama, what is that? What kind of sign is that? How can such a thing be?' And the same question occurred to me: How is this possible?"

"The owner of that store is insulting us all," she continued. "He is insulting St. Petersburg, the entire city. He is insulting the governor personally."

An employee arranges products on display next to a sign saying "No pederasts allowed" at a Bread And Salt store in central Moscow.
An employee arranges products on display next to a sign saying "No pederasts allowed" at a Bread And Salt store in central Moscow.

Vrubel then took her outrage to social media, posting a tirade on Facebook that quickly garnered attention and more than 1,600 "likes."

"I will make every effort to ensure that in my building there are no businesses with fascist signs," she wrote. "Next to such a sign, it would be perfectly natural to see one that said, 'No Jews or Blacks.' As long as there exists one anti-Semite, I am a Jew. As long as there is a homophobic store in my neighborhood, I am a gay."

She then complained to her local police, but the Bread And Salt signs remain in place. In the meantime, Sterligov's supporters complained en masse to Facebook, which deleted her post and briefly suspended her account.

In Moscow, journalist Denis Shlyantsev is conducting a similar campaign, filing a complaint to the Russian consumer-protection agency in April. On May 31, Sterligov told the Interfax news agency that he had received no order from the authorities to remove the sign or stop discriminating against gays.

Vrubel told RFE/RL that "several lawyers" have offered their services to her cause, and she is preparing to file a lawsuit against Sterligov over the issue. She also estimates that "tens of people" of Moscow and St. Petersburg have filed complaints with police against the signs using her complaint as a model.

'Unabashed Homophobes'

Vrubel said the responses to her campaign and her original Facebook post have been interesting. Her friends and relations have expressed concern for her safety, asking why she is getting involved in the matter.

As for strangers, she said many have been supportive and have expressed hope that the law will punish Sterligov. Others have called for more radical measures, including breaking windows and throwing Molotov cocktails. Of course, there have been many responses from "unabashed homophobes who just hurl insults."

Civil activist Vera Vrubel (file photo)
Civil activist Vera Vrubel (file photo)

Vrubel views her campaign in pragmatic terms.

"I am not some sort of opponent of the system," she said. "I understand perfectly well that one helpless woman can't fight against that colossus. But everyone is in a position to look after their own home. Someone has made a mess in my home and I am obligated to clean it up. We should do the little bit that we can do…. I'm doing a small thing, but I am doing something. Let this be my drop that helps wear away the stone. It is small, but I assure you I won't give up."

As for others, Vrubel is surprised at their indifference.

"My grandmother recently for some reason said to me, 'Why are you all silent? This isn't 1937. It is 2017.' I would like to repeat these words to my compatriots -- that this is 2017 and not 1937," she explained, referring to the peak year of Stalin's Great Terror of the 1930s. "But I don't know how to reach them. Because I see there are a lot of people who are not indifferent to this. But there are only a tiny, tiny number who are willing to spend 15 minutes of their time doing something for the good of their city and their home."

RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report