‘He wasn’t worthy of being a man’ How gay people are murdered in Russia, while the justice system remains silent about homophobia
According to new research by sociologist Alexander Kondakov, Russia has recorded at least 267 violent crimes (murders, assaults, and robberies) targeting members of the LGBT community in the past seven years. In the vast majority of these cases, the police and the courts have treated these incidents as “ordinary crimes” (not hate crimes), resulting in lighter penalties than would have been applicable, if the charges cited homophobia. In a special report for Meduza, Perm-based journalist Mikhail Danilovich learned more about a few specific crimes against gay people, exploring why Russia’s law enforcement agencies and courts don’t treat these cases as hate crimes.
On December 31, 2015, twenty-six-year-old Alexander went to visit his friends, Darya and Rustam, in Berezniki to celebrate New Year’s Eve. (Alexander asked Meduza not to reveal his surname.) Later that evening, Alexander’s friends went to a sauna, but he stayed behind at their apartment, feeling too tired to tag along. Today, he says this was a mistake.
Alexander says he was later awakened by someone saying, “There’s this faggot sleeping here.” When he opened his eyes, he saw a whole group of drunk men whom he’d encountered before. More than once, they’d teased him in the street, saying things like, “Come over here, faggot.” A common acquaintance had told them about his sexual orientation. “I trusted the wrong people,” Alexander explains.
He found out later that these men had met up with Darya and Rustam at the sauna and invited themselves over, arriving before his friends got home. They grabbed a bottle of vodka and started drinking. Alexander says he wanted to leave, but they wouldn’t let him, pinning him to the couch and hitting him. He says they threw him to the floor several times and kicked him, as well. When Alexander started coughing up blood, he says the men dragged him into the hallway, so he didn’t bleed on the carpet. He says he screamed for help, but nobody came.
Later, the men dragged Alexander back into his friends’ apartment. He says he heard one of them say, “He should be enjoying this.” Then they tore off his clothes and shoved a hairbrush up his anus. One of the assailants even kicked it in deeper. (The owner of the apartment, one of Alexander’s friends, managed to hide the hairbrush and later turned it over to police.) Alexander says his friends wanted to help him, but they were also afraid of the men in their home. (The next day, he noticed that Rustam had a black eye.) The men eventually left Alexander alone, but he wasn’t able to leave the apartment until the morning, when his rapists had already gone.
At first, Alexander says he didn’t want to file a police report, fearing that the police would only further harass him. But his grandmother insisted, seeing the bruises on his face, body, and neck. She was the one who called the police and said that her grandson had been attacked because of his sexual orientation. Fifteen minutes later, Alexander was already answering questions at the police station, where officers and forensic experts, to his surprise, behaved professionally.
Before the trial, Alexander says he almost never walked the streets, always taking a taxi to meet with the police. One of the attackers came to his home and asked him to drop the charges, but he refused. In March 2016, a court convicted the men of assault “motivated by hatred against a social group,” specifically “against people of non-traditional sexual orientation.” One of the attackers was also convicted of violent sexual acts, and sentenced to three years in prison. The rest of the gang got off with 10 months of community service.
Alexander says he didn’t expect this outcome. Despite winning in court, however, he quickly started to fear reprisal attacks, after someone warned him that the rapist’s friends wanted revenge for the prison sentence. As a result, Alexander moved to Latvia.
Alexander’s story is a rare exception in Russian law and order. Usually, such attacks aren’t prosecuted as hate crimes. In September 2017, sociologist Alexander Kondakov published research identifying 267 Russian court rulings in the past seven years where he argues violence was committed against people because of their sexual orientations. The judges recognized the presence of a hate crime in only two of these cases.
Hostile personal attitudes
Russian law imposes lighter penalties on “ordinary” crimes, relative to hate crimes. For example, “ordinary” murderers can count on prison sentences ranging from six to 15 years. People convicted of hate-motivated murder, on the other hand, face anywhere from eight years behind bars to life imprisonment. The maximum penalty for the “ordinary” deliberate infliction of mild injuries is punishable by four months incarceration. Do it as a hate crime, and the penalty is as high as two years in prison.
On December 30, 2010, in a southern region of Russia, Dmitry (who asked Meduza not to reveal his surname or home city) heard a knock at his window. Behind the glass, he saw a group of men who had already attacked him once because he is gay. They surrounded his house and then broke the window. Dmitry then phoned his mother, and the group ran away, when she arrived. She managed to grab one of the attackers by the hand, which was covered in the same blood that was later discovered in the broken glass. The man was sentenced to 15 days in jail for petty hooliganism. When Dmitry’s mother asked the police why their report didn’t mention the assailants’ homophobia, she was told, “Enough already with your gayness.”
Dmitry has never been one to hide that fact that he’s gay. “When I was 13 or 14, I started going to school wearing really bright makeup, women’s fur coats, and I grew my hair out long,” he says. His mother Elena recalls how she spent two years trying to talk him out of it. “Nobody ever told me that it’s not a disease,” she explains. Later, she accepted him as a gay man. When he was still a student, she often had to meet him at school after classes were done. Once she found him beaten up in the boys’ restroom.
Dmitry says he was once raped by the same men who broke his window in December 2010. Then threatened to kill him, he says. When that happened, Elena also went to the police, but they told her they’d only take a statement from the victim. Dmitry said things would only get worse, if he pressed charges. He says the police used to harass him regularly. He remembers one time when officers stopped him on the street and said, “Hey, faggot, you want to suck us off for 200 rubles?” and promised to lock him up in a cell where “hungry convicts would screw him.” Dmitry’s father still lives in southern Russia. His mother now lives outside Moscow, and he’s since moved to Finland, where he’s trying to win political asylum.
In December 2011, in the city of Liski, outside Voronezh, a young man invited his friend over to drink moonshine and “mess with some gay guy.” According to the case files, when the man arrived at his friend’s home, he found a stranger lying in the bathroom covered in blood, and a bloody hammer in the washing machine. The next day, the defendants claim, the three men all decided to return to their homes. In the car, however, the victim supposedly started groping one of the men, and so he and his friend pulled over and strangled him “with a pipe that resembled a crowbar.” Afterwards, they dragged his body into a ditch and buried him. The court didn’t treat the killing as a hate crime, and the two men were charged with assault and murder.
In 2014, three men gathered around a kitchen table in a Chelyabinsk apartment. At one point, two of them left to use the bathroom. The third man says he soon heard them arguing. “If you want, go ahead and wash your hands first,” one of them said. “No, you wash first,” the other answered. The argument continued in the next room. According to the witness in the case, the defendant's issue was that his opponent was “a person of non-traditional sexual orientation.” The man then walked into the kitchen, grabbed the knife that they’d just used to open a package of pelmeni, and stabbed his friend to death. Next, he cut off the man’s penis and declared, “That’s what this homosexual needed.” The verdict describes the killer’s motive as “the sudden emergence of hostile personal relations,” caused in part by the victim’s sexual orientation, but the court nonetheless sentenced him for “ordinary” murder.
In June 2015, a businessman named Bogdanov was sharing a friend’s apartment in Yalta. One morning, he says he woke up to find his friend masturbating with one hand and stroking him on the shoulder with the other hand. According to the case files, Bogdanov then grabbed a hammer and beat his friend to death. Next he used a saw and a knife to dismember the body, before carrying the pieces to the corridor and covering them in concrete. In his confession, Bogdanov wrote that his motive for killing the man was the victim’s “homosexual orientation,” but the court sentenced him to just nine years in prison for an “ordinary” homicide.
In January 2016, two brothers in Perm beat up one of their friends. According to the verdict in the case, one of them borrowed the victim’s mobile phone to use the Internet, and found that it contained photos of naked men. The Shipilovsky brothers then strapped the man to a chair, tying his legs with a power cord, and beat him for an hour. Afterwards, they untied him, and dumped him outside. A few hours later, an ambulance picked him up, and he died at the hospital. The court determined that the fight started because of “hostile personal attitudes,” and the brothers were convicted of “deliberately inflicting serious injuries that resulted in the death of their victim by negligence.” Investigators never mentioned a word about a hate crime.
In June 2016, a stranger walked up to a man named Bakayev at a tram stop in Izhevsk and asked for a cigarette. Next, he invited him over for a beer. Already a tad inebriated, Bakayev agreed. When they arrived at his home, Bakayev says his new friend suddenly stripped naked and “wrapped his arms around my chest and started whispering in my ear, ‘I loved you at first sight.’” Bakayev then grabbed a knife from the table and stabbed the man 29 times in the chest and neck. Next, he cut off the man’s testicles and penis, shoved them in the victim’s face, and stuck the knife in the victim’s chest. Then he walked out of the apartment. In his confession letter, Bakayev says he acted in self-defense, though forensic experts found no injuries on his body. Bakayev told investigators that his drinking companion “wasn’t worthy of being a man because of his behavior.”
The court established that the killer’s motive was based on “hostile personal attitudes toward the victim that resulted [...] after the victim expressed feelings for the defendant.” The verdict says nothing about a hate crime. The court also found that the victim’s sexual advances constituted “immoral behavior” that was grounds for reducing Bakayev’s punishment. In the end, he was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Bakayev isn’t the only killer who’s gotten a lighter sentence because he murdered a man for sexual advances. Alexander Kondakov’s research mentions a similar case in Vilyuchinsk, outside Kamchatka, where the judge ruled that the victim’s “unlawful, immoral behavior” constituted mitigating circumstances.
There are high-profile cases that have ended analogously. The man who killed St. Petersburg journalist Dmitry Tsilikin in March 2016 called himself “a cleaner,” arguing that he was cleansing society of gay people. He was convicted of “ordinary” murder and sentenced to 8.5 years in prison.
A question of tolerance
In his research, sociologist Alexander Kondakov points out that the 267 cases he’s identified hardly represent the real extent of the crimes committed against members of Russia’s LGBT community. In reality, most victims of violent crimes in these situations never go to the police, and they’re even more reluctant about pressing charges, fearing publicity and bullying. Nevertheless, even with these incomplete statistics, every year since 2013, Russia has averaged at least 50 murders, assaults, and other violent attacks against gay people that aren’t prosecuted as hate crimes. According to Kondakov’s data, these crimes have become twice as common since 2013, when the Russian federal government banned so-called “gay propaganda” in the presence of minors.
Meduza reached out to 11 police departments, regional Investigative Committee branches, and judges. Most of these people refused to comment on the evidence that Russian law enforcement doesn’t treat the murder of gay people as a hate crime.
“If there are no grounds to classify a case as a hate crime, it means there were no grounds,” says Vladimir Shishkov, a spokesperson for the regional Investigative Committee in Chelyabinsk, where a man stabbed his gay friend to death in 2015.
Andrey Olin, a representative for the Investigative Committee’s branch in Perm (which worked the Berezniki beating and the Shipilovsky brothers’ murder cases), told Meduza, “What is homophobia? Does Russian law recognize such a thing? [...] You’ve got to understand that you put together two lawyers and they’ll have three opinions. There’s no uniform practice here. [If a verdict doesn’t mention hatred as a motive, it means] there wasn’t enough evidence. If there wasn’t enough, there wasn’t enough,” Olin explained.
According to Stanislav Berestov, the director of Izhevsk’s Investigative Committee, detectives from his office initially considered homophobia to be the motive in a local murder where the victim’s penis was cut off, but ultimately rejected the explanation. “[The defendant] was outraged not because the victim was a homosexual,” Berestov said, “but because he thought the victim was [a homosexual]. It was personal animosity.” In Berestov’s opinion, it only makes sense to talk about a hate crime when someone decided, “Hey, now I’ll go stab some gays because they’re gays.”
“Who cares what the defendant said,” argued Sergey Kapitonov, the representative of the Investigative Committee’s branch in St. Petersburg, when asked about the “cleaner” who murdered Dmitry Tsilikin. Kapitonov refused to discuss the case further, citing investigatory privilege (although case materials are unsealed by law after an investigation is completed).
A source in Perm’s Investigative Committee branch, who asked not to be named, told Meduza that qualifying cases as hate crimes depends on the beliefs of the individuals investigating a case, as well as the level of tolerance in a particular region. He said it’s simpler to prove ethnic hatred than homophobia. “Unfortunately, this isn’t written down anywhere… There’s no praxis here. It’s not because nobody wants to use it — it’s just because it simply hasn’t been established,” the source said.
According to the head of a law firm in Perm, who also asked Meduza not to reveal his name, the exact criminal charges filed in any case are, as a rule, the result of bargaining between the investigators and the defendant and his representative. He says clients have told him how police offer them the chance to confess to “ordinary” felonies, while threatening to find aggravating circumstances, if they refuse. “If the murder victim was a migrant or gay, the suspect can be scared. They’ll say they can prove he’s guilty no matter what, and hey they could also tack on a hate crime,” the lawyer explained. In his opinion, identifying homophobia as a criminal motive is easy. The only question police need to ask, he says, is “would the victim have suffered if their sexual orientation had been different?” Investigators try to avoid any extra work, he says, and both sides benefit from these bargains: the cops get quicker confessions, and the criminals get reduced sentences.
“Advocacy groups should draw attention to this problem,” says Meduza’s source in the Perm Investigative Committee, though he’s not confident it would produce immediate results. “It’s unlikely that Russia is ready to maintain that level of tolerance — at the level of applying the Criminal Code.”