MOSCOW -- It seemed like a good idea at the time: create a series of YouTube videos in which children sit down to talk to people who are often marginalized by society. For instance, the elderly, the disabled, people with eating disorders, or homosexuals.
"It was a purely social project," a source involved with the project told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity out of fear of harassment or persecution. "It was absolutely noncommercial."
But one video in the Real Talk series – in which children between the ages of 6 and 13 ask questions of a male homosexual -- caught the attention of a group of socially conservative Russian State Duma deputies. Under pressure from the lawmakers, the Investigative Committee announced on November 2 that it was opening a criminal probe on suspicion of "violent sexual assault on a minor under the age of 14."
It is not clear yet who might be the target of the investigation, but the charge carries a possible prison term ranging from 12 to 20 years.
Real Talk was created in December 2018 and modeled on a successful U.S. channel called HiHo Kids. Several Russian vloggers, including children, worked "off and on" to create the channel, RFE/RL's source said.
"The point was that children know that various people [including gays] exist, but they think of them like some sort of aliens because they are presented negatively in public forums," he said. "Here, they have the chance, in front of their parents, to see such people and ask them questions. That doesn't mean that they need to be like those people."
In February, Real Talk posted a 12-minute video in which a group of children spoke with Maksim Pankratov, who is gay. The children asked questions like, "When did you understand that you were gay?" and "Did you ever like girls?" They asked about marriage and children and whether Pankratov planned to emigrate from Russia. There was not a word about sex.
The entire process of making the video went off without incident, he added. "The parents were very sweet," Pankratov told RFE/RL. "They took photographs with me and everything was great. There was no hint of a problem."
'Ethically Impermissible And Immoral'
For several months, the video didn't attract any particular attention. But sometime in the summer, State Duma deputy speaker Pyotr Tolstoi, Duma Deputy Vitaly Milonov, and Public Chamber member Elina Zhgutova began filing complaints with law enforcement agencies, urging them to look into alleged violations of the rights of children.
The authorities did not seem particularly eager to take up the case. Finally, on September 12, the Roskomnadzor state communications monitor responded to the inquiries by saying that the video "does not meet the conditions for the intentional inculcation in children of nontraditional sexual behavior." The video, the agency concluded, did not violate Russia's 2013 law criminalizing "propagandizing" "nontraditional relationships" to minors.
In addition, the Roskomnadzor statement also included an explanation of the intent of the 2013 law: "The realization of the right to receive and disseminate information of general, neutral content about nontraditional sexual relations or to conduct public events does not fall under the term 'propaganda' in this law, including open public debates about the status of sexual minorities...."
The following day, however, the campaign against the video moved into high gear. The Kremlin-friendly daily Izvestia published a long article on the video and Tolstoi's contention that it "has a negative influence on the psyches of schoolchildren and must be blocked." Tolstoi told the daily the video was "ethically impermissible and immoral."
Other state media, including the state-run Rossia-24 television channel, quickly picked up on the story:
Almost immediately, law enforcement took up the case. The Interior Ministry issued an administrative protocol against the creator of the channel, who asked not to be named in this article, for violating the 2013 law. He and some of the parents of the children in the video were summoned to police headquarters for questioning. According to police sources who asked not to be named, the Interior Ministry felt at that time that there were no grounds for a criminal case.
RFE/RL's contact in the Real Talk project said the outcry was "artificially created." "Izvestia wrote about it and Rossia-24 covered it and everything began to be forced artificially," he said. "Bots stirred things up with comments. I am a blogger myself and I saw this perfectly. There were many comments from bots."
The parents of the children in the video generally have no complaints about it. Instead, some of them say their children and families have been traumatized by the police investigation. "They have come to us repeatedly," the mother of one child, who asked not to be identified because of the ongoing criminal investigation, told RFE/RL. "They called our neighbors.... It was very unpleasant."
She added that social workers had also paid her a visit, which she interpreted as a hint that her parental rights could be revoked.
On November 1, the individual involved in the project who spoke with RFE/RL was summoned to the Investigative Committee. Just minutes after he arrived, the criminal case into the matter was officially filed. According to the source, investigator Anton Ivlev told him not to worry because "so far" he was only being questioned as a witness.
The criminal investigation was opened under Article 132 of the Criminal Code, which covers "violent acts of a sexual nature." According to the Investigative Committee's filing, the creators of the video "organized and conducted an interview between the victims and people of a nontraditional sexual orientation, in the course of which there were conversations on various topics of a depraved character intended to sexually arouse the victims, as well as to stimulate their interest in sexual relations."
Only one parent had complaints about the topic of the video, but she told RFE/RL that "nothing like that happened" when she was showed the Investigative Committee document. She told RFE/RL that her son had appeared in several Real Talk videos and that in the past the topics had been announced in advance. In this case, however, she merely dropped off her son and was not present at the filming. She still has not seen the video, but told RFE/RL that she viewed discussing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT)-related issues with children "negatively."
Nonetheless, she added, her son was fine after the shooting and didn't say anything in particular about it. The whole family was surprised when she received her police summons.
'This Madness Has To Stop'
The mother of a third child in the video told RFE/RL she didn't understand what the fuss is about. "What sort of objection could I have that my child learns that such people exist," she said. "I think it is totally natural that children should learn and grow up to be tolerant. In a normal society, children know that there are -- for instance -- dwarves or anorexics or, for instance, homosexuals. It isn't as if they were terrorists. I think it is completely normal to interact with members of the LGBT community directly rather than gathering all sorts of negative garbage."
"In general," she added, "children get this information in school and usually it is harshly negative, although these are people just like us. I'm much more upset when I see someone being persecuted for who he is."
On November 7, Pankratov, the gay man in the video, reported that he had been subjected to "threats" and an attempted assault. He said that he had been threatened via social media and on the streets since the criminal case was filed.
On November 6, the New York-based Human Rights Watch NGO criticized the Investigative Committee's probe into the video, saying that "this madness has to stop."
Caught In A Vise
The Real Talk case sits at the nexus of two parallel phenomena under Russian President Vladimir Putin. First, Russia has a history of intolerance toward LGBT people, who have long faced harassment, bullying, and abuse. In a 2018 report, Human Rights Watch called the 2013 "gay propaganda" law "a classic example of political homophobia."
At the same time, since 2010, the government has sought to exercise steadily increasing control over the Internet. Earlier this year, Russia adopted a controversial law imposing fines for using electronic media to express "disrespect" toward officials, society, or state symbols. On November 1, a new law on a "sovereign" Russian Internet came into effect that critics say is aimed at squelching political dissent.
Everyone connected with the Real Talk case is now in a state of fear -- those who have been questioned as "witnesses" fear being named as suspects, while the parents dread further contact with social workers.
"Everyone is afraid of being involved," RFE/RL's Real Time source said. "My friends, bloggers, journalists, those who are connected with the deputies.... Many of them have run away and simply stopped communicating with me."