Eastern Europe Project: LGBT+ lives in Russia (Part 1)

You can read Part 2 of this article here.

Our choir project for 2021 is focussed on Eastern Europe and throughout the year we will be collaborating with two other LGBT+ choirs: Voces Gaudii based in Warsaw, Poland, and Obochina, based in St. Petersburg, Russia.

To kickstart the project off we took some time to understand what it’s like to be LGBT+ and living in Russia. Pippa gives us a summary of our first #PSEasternEurope event

A few weeks ago, the documentary Welcome to Chechnya (dir. David France) was released on BBC iPlayer. Under the Chechnyan regime, LGBT+ people are routinely kidnapped, tortured, and forced to turn other LGBT+ people in. The documentary tracks the story of a group of Russian activists, working to get people out of Chechnya to a safehouse in Moscow, in the hope that they will be able to go to other, safer countries from there.

Following the release of the documentary, the Pink Singers set up a roundtable discussion with Russian LGBT+ activists for members of the choir, to gain a better understanding of what the situation is like in Russia at the moment. Attendees were instructed to watch the documentary beforehand, and join in the roundtable via video link.

The roundtable was chaired by Ali and Hsien in the choir, with the participants Misha Tumasov  of the Russian LGBT Network, Misza Czerniak of the Poland-based Voces Gaudii choir, Paul J Dillane of Rainbow Railroad. Because of technical difficulties, Максим Дрожжин of Obochina choir could only join for the last couple of minutes, and Olga Baranova (who features in the documentary) of the Moscow LGBT Center was unable to join at all.

While the documentary is beautifully made, it is also incredibly harrowing. Being faced with the direct footage of people committing homophobic violence, and hearing the terrible stories of torture, made it very difficult to feel like there is still any good left in the world at all. On the one hand, this is absolutely necessary: real people are being subjected to this government-sanctioned violence, and we cannot simply pretend that this isn’t the case, just because it makes us uncomfortable.

However, on the other hand, the panel felt a necessary extension of the documentary. Being able not to only see the work that activists do, but also be able to have a conversation, felt central to my understanding of what we can do to stand in solidarity with people in Russia, and Chechnya in particular. One specific discussion that stayed with me, was the discussion around the role of the UK in this issue. Misza Czerniak noted that Russians living in the UK are arguably the richest Russian diaspora in the world, and he voiced his hope that this group, as well as UK-based politicians more broadly, can use their international leverage to make demands of Russia, as well as impose sanctions on the country if it is seen to violate human rights.

Misha Tumasov added that the Dublin III regulation, which covers asylum claims, needs to be updated for a contemporary context. One of the factors taken into account when processing asylum claims is the family unit. However, when someone is in a relationship or a family that doesn’t have governmental recognition, it means that there is no proof to substantiate this claim: a gay Russian couple will not be able to show a marriage certificate to prove that they are a family.

Paul J Dillane added to this that in his work with UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) that Britain is the only country in Europe which has no time limit on detention of refugees. This means that the UK’s answer to people fleeing inhumane treatment in their countries of origin, is often to lock these people up indefinitely, for the ‘crime’ of seeking a life free of fear and torture. Indeed, there is much that can be done in the UK to provide a safe and dignified haven for LGBT+ migrants, including Chechnyan migrants.

Look out for more posts about our Eastern Europe Project. The ‘Storyville – Welcome to Chechnya’ programme is still available to watch on BBC iPlayer https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000kjnt

You can read Part 2 of this article here.

Timeline datestamp: 11 September 2020

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