A flashmob in St Petersburg, Russia organized to draw attention to the harassment of LGBT people was cut short April 15, 2016 when police arrested seven people and pressed others up against a wall.
Approximately 50 activists gathered at Ploschad Vosstaniya (Uprising Square) in downtown St Petersburg to honour the Day of Silence, an annual international day of action to raise awareness about harassment against the LGBT community, started in 1996 in the US by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
“In past years this event has taken place without incident, so we were sure that it would be fine,” activist Maksim Petkov told Daily Xtra.
The event, organized through Russia’s leading social media platform, Vkontakte, called for LGBT people and their allies to gather at the square. Participants were asked to tape their mouths shut with red tape to symbolize how homophobia in Russia is hushed up, despite the fact that, according to the Russian LGBT Network’s research, dozens die annually because of hate crimes.
The group planned to march through downtown distributing pamphlets about the Day of Silence and the impact that silencing hate crimes has on LGBT people.
Although Russia’s anti-gay-propaganda law, passed in 2013, prohibits the dissemination of information about “non-traditional” sexual relations to minors, the flashmob’s activities should not have been criminal as long as the pamphlets were distributed only to adults.
But the procession was cut short when police stopped participants and demanded they remove the tape from their mouths and cease distributing the pamphlets.
(Maksim Petkov holds up one of the pamphlets activists distributed during the peaceful march./Roman Melnik photo)
“The police said that if we continue we will be arrested, although we were not breaking any laws,” Petkov says.
According to Petkov, most of the activists complied by removing the tape, but continued the march, holding out their pamphlets for passersby to read.
Police then forced a group of activists and journalists up against a wall.
“They held us pressed against the wall for 20 minutes, not saying anything,” Petkov says.
Even the journalists’ attempts to say they were covering the event as representatives of the press were ignored by officers, according to Russian news agency, Rosblat.
Although police eventually released the group, they arrested seven other activists, packed them into a police car and drove them around the city for two hours before taking them to a station were they spent the evening being questioned, Petkov says.
The activists were charged with failing to obey police orders and will be fined, he says.
“The Day of Silence was very intense for me,” Sasha Cherny, a first-time participant later wrote on the event’s Vkontakte page. “It was genuinely scary, and even scarier when a mob of people were trying to run away from the police. . . Thank you to those who stood beside me that day.”
This year’s event was especially poignant for the community, as it was dedicated to the memory of Dmitry Tsilkin, a prominent journalist who was killed in his apartment on March 27, 2016, allegedly by a man he met via an online gay dating service.
In tandem with the flashmob, five activists with the Straight Alliance for LGBT Equality stood on Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg’s central promenade, holding posters about Tsilkin’s death and demanding the revocation of “homophobic laws which legitimize homophobic hate crimes.”
“For me this latest murder is a very personal thing because the accused is my age,” a member of the Straight Alliance, Ekaterina, told Russian news site svoboda.org. “That means that we were brought up by people of the same generation, that we read the same books and watched the same films.”
Ekaterina wonders why her values — “that all people deserve respect” — seem to be so different from the values of the man accused of killing Tsilkin.
According to Ekaterina, the situation is growing steadily worse for LGBT rights in Russia.
Russian website gay.ru has already received five reports of deaths due to hate crimes in 2016. Last year, the site reported at least 16 murders motivated by discrimination against LGBT people.
For Petkov, neither Tsilkin’s death, nor the arrests at the flashmob are out of the ordinary.
“This kind of thing is actually happening daily in our country. It just so happened that a famous person was killed,” he says. “My friends and acquaintances face this reality constantly. You can always be threatened, robbed, beaten. And there is no point in complaining to the police because they will just say, ‘What’s the problem? You were not killed.’ It is not considered a hate crime, just everyday life.”