LGBT+ activists forced to flee Russia as vicious dictator Putin clamps down on queerness

A demonstrator holds a poster depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin with make-up.

LGBT+ activists are fleeing Russia after a charity that advocates for their rights was liquidated by the courts.

Sphere is a charitable foundation that has been working to advance LGBT+ rights and to support the wider queer community in Russia for more than a decade.

Their work – at least in an official capacity – came to an end on Thursday (19 April) when a Russian court agreed to dissolve Sphere, as had been requested by the ministry of justice.

That decision didn’t come as a surprise to Dilya Gafurova, who leads Sphere. The government ordered an “unscheduled audit” of the charity in late 2021, which led to the handing over of 5,000 pages of documentation.

Months later, the ministry asked a court to dissolve the charity after its audit found that “all the actual activities of the organisation are aimed at supporting the LGBT+ movement in Russia”.

The court decision, while expected, came as a devastating blow to Dilya and the other activists involved with Sphere, who have spent the last decade trying to make life better for LGBT+ Russians.

“It’s the end of more than a decade’s old history,” Dilya tells PinkNews. “Over the years we have, I believe, helped a lot of people and our work really mattered. We are very confused about how our future will look and what the future of the Russian LGBT+ community will look like without the help we can provide.”

She continues: “I’m just really afraid that now LGBT+ people will be left without help. We’re seeing from our numbers that requests for assistance, especially psychological and legal assistance, have been spiking since February. It’s unprecedented for us to be receiving those kinds of requests.”

While Sphere was formally dissolved, it is currently continuing its work – although activists don’t currently know what the future will look like.

“We’re still intent on continuing the work because we cannot allow ourselves, even ethically or morally, to just stop providing assistance,” Dilya says.

Gay rights activists march in Russia's second city of St. Petersburg May 1, 2013.

Gay rights activists march in Russia’s second city of St. Petersburg May 1, 2013. (OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty)

Sphere’s legal fight also continues. They’re planning to appeal the court’s decision, although they’re not holding out much hope.

“The system is against us, but we’re willing to give the case visibility because we believe it’s important. It’s probably one of the most important cases about the LGBT+ movement in the history of modern Russia because there has never before been a case where an organisation has just been ended simply because of the work that it does.”

LGBT+ activists are being branded as ‘foreign agents’ by Russia

Dilya and her fellow activists are currently continuing their work from outside of Russia – many made the difficult decision to flee the country in recent weeks. Dilya does not want to disclose what country she’s now based in for security reasons.

“I’m completely sure that if I continue being public and visible about the issues we’re facing as an organisation, about the issues that the LGBT+ movement is facing, sooner or later I will be targeted personally as well,” Dilya says.

Dilya is expecting that the government will identify her as a “foreign agent” in the coming weeks. She knows of three LGBT+ activists who have been branded with that classification in recent weeks alone – “foreign agents” face particular scrutiny from the government.

“I think that our work from inside of Russia is not possible anymore, not only because we are known activists and because Sphere as an organisation is very recognisable to Russian authorities, but also because the situation overall has become extremely dangerous for any human rights activists,” Dilya says.

“Human rights activists and even journalists in Russia are leaving the country in hordes at the moment because they’re afraid of persecution. We’re an organisation that definitely has a target on its back. Right now, most of my colleagues have already left the country.”

Dilya Gafurova, head of Sphere, pictured against a white background

Dilya Gafurova is just one of the activists working with Sphere who has had to flee Russia. (Sphere)

The government’s recent attacks on Sphere are part of a wider pattern that’s been gathering pace in Russia over the last decade. Any pushback against the Putin regime is seen as a threat.

“This vendetta against the LGBT+ community and movement started long ago, even with the passing of the ‘gay propaganda’ law and the discussion of new bills over the course of the last year and this year,” Dilya explains.

“I believe this is because the Russian government equates the LGBT+ movement with western influence. In the interpretation of the Russian government, from the point of view of state ideology, being LGBT+ cannot possibly be inherent to a person – it is something that can be flown in from abroad.

“Russia has long been pushing this state policy where it’s trying to position itself as a juxtaposition to the west and western values, and for some reason LGBT+ people have become this very vulnerable target that is being used in this vendetta against the west.”

Part of the problem is that much of the Russian public accepts at face value what it’s told by the government.

“When the government says it’s possible to propagandise LGBT+ relations, the people believe that and they’re easily swayed into this being a necessary measure to protect the children. So that’s why LGBT+ people are largely invisible and why our issues are being muzzled.

“It doesn’t only render them invisible, it renders them enemies of the state and demonises them.”

Dilya isn’t going to let the dissolution of Sphere go anytime soon – she and her fellow activists plan to fight the court decision at every turn, and they’re prepared to bring it as far as the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) if they need to. While Russia is no longer part of the Council of Europe, they can still bring cases to the ECHR until September.

“At the national level we’re not going to see any justice, but at the very least, we want for this case to be acknowledged and we want for it to be seen. If the Russian government doesn’t want to see it and recognise it, then we at least hope it will gain visibility from the international community.”