A few days before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the safety of the Russian gay community is worse than ever. Channel 4’s harrowing new documentary, Hunted, follows the Russian gangs that hunt gay men for sport.
Investigative journalist Liz MacKean got inside the St Petersburg branch of Occupy Paedophilia, an anti-gay organisation with at least 37 chapters across Russia. The group tracks down and abducts gay men, torturing and humiliating them, before posting the footage on the internet.
Despite some low-tech harassment outside a gay film festival, the vigilantes aren’t afraid of using technology to hunt their prey – they use gay dating websites for what they call ‘safaris’, attempting to lure gay men to a flat where they wait in ambush.
Most of the group don’t seem concerned to hide their identities, unworried that their actions might have repercussions. MacKean explained to PinkNews.co.uk on Monday that they enjoy huge public support in Russia, and “genuinely think they’re doing right.”
In the film, showing off for the camera, the group find a man looking for a hookup, and lure him back to the flat. He is caught and held down, as the group set about extracting a confession from him. “We will ruin his life, as usual”, one quips.
Cameraman and director Ben Steele carried on filming despite the man’s discomfort, and recalled the horror of being unable to help him. He said on Monday: “It was deeply uncomfortable not knowing what was going to happen. The only way I could cope with being in that situation was to document it.”
The group humiliate the man, coercing him into an ‘interview’ about his sexuality, and forcing him to dance. Compared to some of the other victims of the vigilante groups, he is lucky; being beaten and drenched in urine is the standard humiliation, but some of the assaults have been much, much worse.
Another man, Dima, was left blinded in one eye after an attack by an anti-gay group. He says he can almost understand why the groups target gay men, as the country’s anti-gay propaganda law silences anyone who speaks positively or neutrally about gay rights: “First they stopped us responding, and then they called us paedophiles and rapists.”
Across town a lesbian couple, Yulia and Svette, live in constant fear that they will be targeted, or that their three children from previous marriages will be taken away from them under the propaganda law. They are tired of hiding their relationship, but make clear they will fight to keep their children. “They’d have to shoot me first,” Yulia says.
MacKean agrees that the constant negative reinforcement that gay people are paedophiles is making things worse, and is held up by an ‘unholy alliance’ of President Putin and the ultra-conservative Russian Orthodox Church.
She said: “The fact that just 1% of the gay population dares to live openly shows how bad the problem is.”
“Most Russians don’t knowingly know anyone who’s gay, and so for them the old prejudice, the connection with paedophilia and homosexuals, there’s nothing to break that up.”
The police and justice system seems to do very little to stop the groups or the attacks. In Dima’s case no arrest was made, and in another, anti-gay activist Gleb Likhotkin was let off with a suspended sentence despite video evidence of him shooting a gay man in the face with a rubber bullet. As no gay hate crime law exists in Russia, he was only charged with hooliganism.
With the media gaze currently on Sochi for the Olympics, it remains to be seen how the situation will evolve, but Human Rights Watch are doubtful it will get better anytime soon.
‘Hunted: the terror facing gay people in Russia’ was broadcast on Wednesday evening.