LGBTI+s arriving in Turkey from Russia: “Support Ukraine, but don’t hate all Russians”

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by Edanur Tanış 

translated by Leo Kendric

As Russia’s attack on Ukraine enters its second month, citizens in both countries are feeling the economic and political pressures caused by the war. Among these citizens is a sizable number of LGBT+ individuals also feeling the effects of the conflict. Since the beginning of the war last month, some LGBT+’s living in Russia have begun to come to Turkey. LISTAG Books editor Yasemin Zeynep Başaran and LGBTI+ activist Metehan Özkan met with LGBTI+ Russian organizer Michael, film producer Vadim, teacher Misha and theater producer Zhenya. Russian LGBTI+s who have recently come to Turkey discussed their decision to come to Istanbul, their time here in the city, and their plans for the near future.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which started on February 24, 2022, is still ongoing. According to the United Nations (UN), at least 3.5 million Ukrainians have taken refuge in other countries, while 6.5 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced.

As the war proceeds in Ukraine, the situation in Russia is also grim. Many who participate in anti-war protests and speak out against the conflict in Russia are arrested or subjected to repression and censorship. LGBTI+ citizens are among those experiencing this repression. As the political pressures resulting from Russia’s attack on Ukraine continue to mount, so have the country’s economic problems. Under these circumstances, many Russians, including a large number of LGBTI+ individuals, have left their home country. While the number of emigrating Russians is not known exactly, Turkey has become a major destination for this group, as it is among a group of countries where Russian citizens are able to travel visa-free.

Yasemin Zeynep Başaran, editor for Association of Families and Relatives of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans Intersex Individuals (LISTAG), and LGBTI+ activist Metehan Özkan, met with LGBTI+ Russians Michael, Vadim, Misha and Zhenya, who have recently come to Turkey. Başaran and Özkan shared details of their meeting with Medyascope.

“We participated in anti-war protests, and even people walking on the street were arrested”

Vadim, a filmmaker, came to Istanbul on 2 March 2022 with his boyfriend, who works as a fashion photographer. Even before the start of the conflict last month, Vadim had planned to leave the country due to the pressure of being openly gay in Russia.
Vadim described how he and his partner, who were in Moscow during the first days of the attacks in Ukraine, participated in the anti-war protests and felt the pressure applied to protestors. Vadim said that on the fifth day of the protests, almost no one was left on the street because of mass arrests, and that police were even arresting people walking on the street.

“We came to Turkey because we were afraid of border closures”

30-year-old Michael, who identifies as bisexual, also recently arrived in Turkey, and had been working in Russia where he organized events for the business world and supported non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Michael said that he had realized the increasing pressures in Russia over the past two years and had hoped to move to the European Union (EU) to escape increasing repression. The sudden onset of the conflict in Ukraine, however, left Michael with little time to prepare. Fearing border closure and with no time to obtain a European visa, Michael packed his bags and left Russia for Turkey, where he is allowed to stay 60 days visa free.

Stating that he realized that the system in Russia was in a deadlock and that the secret pressures would turn into open pressures in time, about two years before the attack on Ukraine started, Michael said that he planned to move to one of the European Union (EU) countries, but he did not have time to do so with the start of the war and he feared that the borders would be closed, so he packed his suitcases and packed his bags without a visa. He said that he came to Turkey, where he could stay for one day.

Italian and English teacher Misha and theater producer and businessman Zhenya have been together for nine years. The couple explained that they were already planning to celebrate their ninth anniversary in Istanbul before the attack on Ukraine started. They purchased their plane tickets for 4 March with the intention of staying in Istanbul for four days. Now long past their planned four-day stay, the couple stated that they are unsure what to do and are unprepared to stay in Turkey long-term.

“We lost the future we had”

Vadim said that his days in Turkey are often stressful and full of uncertainty:

“Within a few days, other friends started to arrive. Every evening we were cooking in one of our apartments, talking about how everything seemed so unreal, about Russia and our future. On the fourth day I got a message from my manager in Russia that my family could be in danger if I continue to share ‘fake news’ about the war. I don’t know if the information they’re sharing is true, but you can imagine how scary that must have been to hear. I am very afraid to go back to Russia. I hope I don’t have to.”

Stating that they will probably not be able to work in the rest of the year, and possibly never again, Vadim said: “We do not know what sort of attitude Europeans and Americans will have towards Russians. For now nobody knows. It was already difficult to find a job before and now it may be impossible. For example, my friends at the Italian production company where I finished my last film asked if we needed help. But festivals like Berlin and Cannes have written letters stating that they do not accept artists from the Putin regime. We have no state support. We have basically lost our future and are unsure what awaits us now.”

“Support should come first to the Ukrainians and then to us”

Explaining that he does not feel supported in Turkey, Vadim said: “I don’t feel like we are welcomed here somehow. I think it would be nice to have support from a local community, but what kind of support should we as Russians ask for? Support should come first to the Ukrainians, and then to us,” he said.

“There are a lot of people helping out but also a lot of people being rude, and that can happen anywhere. For example, a Ukrainian friend tells me similar stories. That he received a lot of help but that there were also people who called them ‘Ukrainian pigs’ because they were refugees. We no longer have a home and we probably won’t be returning to Russia. Staying in a country where I can’t speak with my art is worse for me than being a refugee. Being a refugee means you will ultimately have your voice heard.”

“I want to live in a country where my taxes are not stolen”

Stating that he took $15,000 with him when he came to Turkey and declared this when entering the country, Michael said: “I have savings. I managed to convert some of them to cryptocurrency. Part of the funds remained in Russian banks. I rented a temporary room through Airbnb. It was not difficult for me because I had used this application every time I came to Turkey. Now I have a more difficult task ahead of me: finding an apartment where I will stay long-term. I found some sites where I can see the flats for rent, but there is a language barrier as I do not speak Turkish. Not everyone speaks English or Russian. I plan to go to courses and learn Turkish,” he said.

Vadim, who plans to live and work in Turkey for five years, said: “I will also get European citizenship as I had already planned. I would like to live in a country where I feel safe and am sure that my taxes are not stolen. I’d love to live in a country where I know its economy won’t collapse overnight because of the madness of one ruler. If I understand that Turkey is a country that can give me my rights and freedoms, I will gladly become a citizen and contribute to this country,” he added.

“Russia acts as if LGBTI+s do not exist”

Underlining that the Russian bureaucracy is mired in laziness and corruption, Michael said: “This is the result of the lack of a transparent election process. Public opinion does not affect election results. In order to do business or implement public projects, you must either be completely loyal to power or remain silent. Otherwise, the authorities will find a way to shut your mouth. Of course you must never reveal your sexual orientation. Authorities encourage society to adopt an intolerant attitude towards people of non-traditional sexual orientation. What they’re doing is pretending to accept the existence of the LGBTI+ community when in reality they are pretending that such a community doesn’t exist.” 

“Therefore, the country is losing a large number of well-equipped people who are professionals in their fields,” Michael continued, “These people have been leaving for years. There is a joke among educated and liberal people in Russia: The last person to leave the country should not forget to turn off the lights at the airport.”“Half the country understands the horror of what is happening and does not support the war. The other half do support the war, and these are the people who have spent more than 20 years in front of the TV being brainwashed the entire time. They believe in the danger of a NATO attack, the danger of revolution in Ukraine and Georgia, that people in these countries have become slaves of European and Western countries, and it is impossible to convince them otherwise. They do not understand that the fascist regime itself is in power in Russia. This regime not only wants to remove Ukraine from the world map as an independent state, but has also been systematically repressing its own citizens for decades. The power is concentrated in one hand,” he said.

“Perhaps there would be no war if people were more interested in politics”

Misha and Zhenya explained that during their first day in Istanbul they wandered around the city like normal tourists, hoping to relax and distract themselves from dark thoughts. The two continued, saying:

“As you read the news about the war in Ukraine, you realize how dire the situation is. The situation is getting worse day by day, not only for Ukraine, but also for Russia. When you look at all these sanctions and these economic consequences, most of the people in Russia don’t understand it yet, because the impact of the sanctions is not felt immediately, but after a few months.”

Misha and Zhenya stated that they received the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine while in Russia, but because this vaccine is not valid in Europe, they were forced to pay 400 Turkish Liras for the BioNTech vaccine upon arrival in Istanbul:
“Actually, the biggest problem is about money, all our money is left in Russia and we can no longer use our credit cards due to sanctions. Our cards are blocked here. We are currently trying to find a solution to these problems because when outside of Russia it becomes extremely complicated and difficult. It is impossible to predict what may become banned for Russian people tomorrow.”

“We were always aware of what was going on in Russia”

Misha and Zhenya stated that they were always politically active and therefore always aware of what is going on in Russia, adding: “The problem is that most people in Russia try to stay away from politics because politicians try to convince society that politics is a dirty thing that should not be touched. On the other hand, many people have tried not to get involved in these issues by focusing on their own problems. Now they have to pay for this indifference, and we have to pay because society’s indifference to politics has a price. Now we see that people were not interested in politics, but they ignored that politics was interested in them. That’s why our country is in this situation right now. I’m sure that if people had been more interested in politics, we wouldn’t be in this terrible situation, and maybe there wouldn’t have been a war,” he continued.

“Support Ukraine but don’t hate all Russians”

Describing how many people fled Russia in panic while men were forced to serve in the war, Misha and Zhenya continued as follows:

“We have friends in Moscow, a couple. They are really scared because they don’t speak English, they don’t have money, and they don’t know how to escape from Russia right now. I think they’re really in danger because Russia has announced its exit from the Council of Europe, which means that starting January 1, 2023, Russia can actually bring back the death penalty. Support Ukraine but don’t hate all Russians because we need your support too. That’s all I want to say.”

LGBTI+ rights in Russia
Even before Russia’s attack on Ukraine, LGBTI+s in Russia were living under significant pressure and restrictions. In Russia, where homosexuality is not considered a crime, gender reassignment surgeries are legally permitted, but same-sex marriage is not allowed and same-sex couples are unable to adopt children. There is no anti-discrimination law in Russia and LGBTI+s are not under legal protection.

In 2013, a law “aimed at protecting children from information advocating the denial of traditional family values”, known as the gay propaganda law, was passed in Russia. The law, which aims to prohibit the sharing of homosexual content among minors, promotes discrimination against homosexuals and hinders the defense of gay rights. Many LGBTI+ who defended their rights were punished under this law.

In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the law be annulled on the grounds that different sexual orientations are protected by the European Convention on Human Rights and freedom of expression cannot be restricted.

In June 2017, 15 LGBTI+ activists in Moscow who unfurled a rainbow flag with the words “Make Love Not War” at a planned Pride Parade were arrested by the police.

According to the 2021 results of the Rainbow Map and Index, which evaluates LGBTI+ rights in European countries, Russia ranks 46th among 49 European countries. Rainbow Map and Index is prepared by ILGA Europe, the European arm of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Union.

*Interviewees B., V., M. and Z. did not want their names to appear in the news because they were worried about their safety.

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