LGBT+ group flees Russia amid anti-war police raids: ‘Staying would be the way to jail’

Between police raids and censorship, an LGBT+ group has fled Russia as they fear the “responsibility” for losing the Ukraine war “will be assigned” to the queer community.

Watching Vladimir Putin invade Ukraine, Aleksandr Voronov, the CEO of the St. Petersburg-based LGBT+ group Coming Out, told PinkNews he knew what was going to happen next.

His group, as well as human rights campaigners, political opponents and anti-war protesters, will all become public enemy number one – something that the Kremlin has sought to do for decades.

And it’s already started. Voronov said that the authorities within days of the conflict raided the homes and offices of human rights and feminist activists. Some are being arrested for holding pieces of paper.

“The Russian State has already lost the war: all the world sees how the Russian army can’t do anything to the small country that Russian authorities told us was so weak,” Voronov said.

“The question is not about winning or losing. The question is where the authorities will find a reason for the loss: human rights defenders, ‘foreign agents’, traitors of ‘traditional values’ and everyone who was against the war.

“The responsibility for the loss will be assigned to us.”

Fearful of what is to come, Voronov told PinkNews that the organisation is currently moving its staff abroad for their safety and will move their support services and advocacy work online.

“Continuing working from Russia would be the way to jail I’m afraid,” he said.

Activists faced ‘police raids’ in first week of the war, says Russian LGBT+ group

The suffering in Ukraine shows no signs of ending. At least 847 civilians have died in Ukraine since 24 February, according to the United Nations’ human rights office. Three million – and counting – Ukrainians have fled, the UN’s refugee agency says.

“As all the world was, we were shocked,” said Voronov. “Nobody expected this. And of course, we were scared.”

For LGBT+ Russians, their existence for years has been illegal, if their existence is even acknowledged at all. But in times of war, things can change quickly

Putin’s political playbook has long been one of blending Soviet Era nostalgia with an aggressive form of social conservatism.

Among the planks of his presidency is the nation’s so-called “gay propaganda” bill that outlaws the mere mention of “non-traditional sexual relationships”. Putin later strengthened a ban on marriage equality and sought to legally erase trans people in 2020.

Russian president Vladimir Putin meets with governor of Russia’s Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region Dmitry Artyukhov at the Kremlin in Moscow. (Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik / AFP) (Photo by MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

So what happened next didn’t surprise Voronov. “What really came in the first few weeks of war: a lot of organisations, initiatives and personal activists faced a wave of police raids in offices and homes,” he said.

“We can suggest that is only the beginning.”

Soon after, Russia stamped harder on free speech and the free press harder than at any time in Putin’s 22-year-long presidency.

New laws blocked access to major social media services, while public opposition or independent news reports about the bloodshed was effectively criminalised. Some Russian outlets shut down in fear of punishment, leaving Russians with just state-sanctioned information.

Even simply calling the war a “war” is now a crime – the Kremlin for weeks has remained steadfast in calling it a “special military operation”.

“It’s quite easy to control people in need who haven’t got access to independent media and see only what propaganda wants them to see,” said Voronov.

Voronov explained how he’s seen police arrest not only picketers bravely buttressing placards against the battle but even people holding “sheets of white paper”.

“Most Russian people don’t understand the catastrophe that is taking place,” he said. “They can’t afford to think about all these political things — they care about what to eat today, how to pay rent, et cetera.

Demonstrators hold a rainbow flag expressing peace during a protest against Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine in Rome. (Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP) (Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images)

“That is what our State has been doing for the last 20 years.”

Voronov said that since the war, Coming Out, which provides legal support for queer Russians, has seen an “increased number” of people seeking help on how to emigrate out of Russia.

Many have said they’re wary of forced military conscription, while others are fleeing a life of hardship. Voronov said that research from Coming Out has found that LGBT+ Russians are “very vulnerable”, face higher rates of violence, earn less and suffer more mental health and medical issues.

“Nowadays Russia is coming to a new age: dark and poor,” he said, “and it doesn’t seem that in this new age LGBTQ people’s lives will be easier, and most people understand that.”

“The Russian State needs to search for enemies all the time, and these enemies are human rights defenders, LGBTQ people and activists, political opposition, ‘The West’, et cetera.”

But in seeing Putin’s Russia as the “enemy”, Voronov said, he hopes that the world can unite.

“I hope and wish that everything will be peaceful in Ukraine soon,” Voronov added.