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  • Victoria A. Brownworth

Ukraine, Russia and the Fight for LGBT+ Freedom

March 2, 2022 Philadelphia Gay News

The Russian invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin has highlighted past and present actions by Putin against LGBT+ people in Russia and re-emphasized the threat an occupation of Ukraine would pose for LGBT+ people in the democracy there.

Just days before the invasion, Bathsheba Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. office in Geneva, sent a letter to the U.N. warning that Russia has created a “kill list” of Ukrainians to be attacked or detained if it invades the country, according to White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

The letter described Russia’s kill list as a plan to round up journalists, activists, ethnic and religious minorities and LGBT Ukrainians and either kill them outright or detail them in camps. “There will be an even greater form of brutality because this will not simply be some conventional war between two armies,” Sullivan said on NBC’s Today.

Sullivan said: “It will be a war waged by Russia on the Ukrainian people to repress them, to crush them, to harm them. And that is what we laid out in detail for the U.N.”

On the first day of the invasion, February 24, Kyiv Pride tweeted, “To all our supporters in the world: Call on your governments to stand up and to take action against the war in Ukraine! We need to stop it now, we need to show how powerful we are all together, and Putin will stand no chance!”

On February 27 there was a solidarity protest outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City. LGBTQ Ukrainians, Ukrainian Americans and those sympathetic to Ukraine after the Russian invasion gathered, some draped in the Ukrainian flag and carrying signs reading “Save Ukraine/Stop Putin.”

In Ukraine, Viktor Pylypenko, 34, a veteran who served on the frontlines in Kyiv from 2014 to 2016 and who came out in 2018, established a non-governmental organization to support LGBT+ people in the military. He has been a leader in the LGBTQ civil rights movement in Ukraine and is the first person in the Ukrainian military to come out.

In an interview with Reuters, prior to the annual pride march in Kyiv in September 2021, Pylypenko said, “(LGBT activism) became a continuation of my personal war against the enslavement of a human being’s freedom.”

He added, “I volunteered to go to the frontline because I understood that they (the separatists) want to deprive us of freedom, they want to deprive the whole country of freedom. As a gay man, I was very sensitive to this,” he said.

On February 28, Pylypenko told Gay City News that he was rejoining the military to “defend his nation and save the LGBTQ community from Putin’s persecution.”

When news surfaced that LGBT activists are on a Russian “kill list” that the U.S. intelligence community exposed, Pylypenko, who lives in Kyiv, said, “People are really scared that if the most dark prognosis will take place.” He asserted, “The first thing Russia will do is rid civil society of activists — especially those who belong to the LGBTQ community and who are fighting for human rights. Human rights are the number one enemy for Putin’s regime.”

One of the things that Pylypenko and other LGBTQ people in Ukraine fear with the invasion and the prospect of a Russian occupation of Ukraine is what happened to gay men and lesbians in the Russian Republic of Chechnya and in Russia proper. Men and women were “disappeared” in a series of purges that were the subject of the HBO documentary “Welcome to Chechnya.”

Speaking on a Zoom call from Kyiv, queer activist Jul Sirous, who heads Kyiv Pride, told The Daily Beast that many LGBT Ukrainians are not fleeing the country, but staying to fight the Russians.

“I know a lot of LGBT people who go to our army now,” Sirous said. “They try to fight and it’s also our main message that we try to be one united nation and we try to do everything to make sure that Russia will be defeated.”

Sirous also said that she hoped this solidarity would lead to equality for Ukrainian LGBTQ people. “It’s very important for all Ukrainians — if we still are Ukraine, after this moment — I hope that our people will see us as equal. That’s why we fight, that’s why we always fight. We’re still fighting.”

The concerns over a possible Russian occupation have merit. Putin has tried to erase LGBTQ people from the Russian social landscape and has enacted increasingly more restrictive legislation to control LGBTQ people.

In 2019, Yelena “Lena” Grigoryeva, 41, a prominent Russian LGBTQ-rights activist and journalist, was stalked, threatened and then stabbed and strangled in a gruesome killing. But despite ongoing threats and Grigoryeva being on a kill list, her murder was deemed the result of “an asocial lifestyle, repeatedly drinking alcoholic beverages with various people.”

Lack of safety for LGBTQ people in Russia has become more prevalent. As PGN reported last month, Russia’s Justice Ministry has filed a lawsuit seeking to “liquidate” Sphere Foundation, the legal name under which the Russian LGBT Network operates. The Russian LGBT Network is a non-governmental LGBT rights organization working for the social acceptance of and protection of the rights of LGBT people in Russia. During Chechnya’s anti-gay purge in 2017, the network led the advocacy efforts to stop abuses and evacuate survivors.

On March 1, Ukrainian Armed Forces wrote on Twitter that Magomed Tushayev, a pro-Putin Chechen general who led the gay purge in Chechnya, was killed in Ukraine. Tushayev was responsible for kidnapping, torturing and murdering LGBTQ+ people.

Illia Ponomarenko, a defense reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted: “Magomed Tushayev, one of Ramzan Kadyrov’s top warlords, has been killed in action in Hostomel. Ukraine’s elite Alpha Group is reportedly fighting Chechens in the airfield.”

Ramzan Kadyrov is head of the Chechen Republic and is the architect of the assaults on gay men and lesbians there and elsewhere. Human Rights Watch has said “the forced disappearances and torture” by Kadyrov is “so widespread they constituted crimes against humanity.”

The New York Times and the British newspaper The Independent have reported that Kadyrov has called for restricting the public lives of women and has led anti-gay purges. Kadyrov has been accused of kidnapping, assassination and torture of human rights activists, critics, and their relatives, within both Chechnya as well as in other regions of the Russian Federation. BBC, the Moscow Times and DW have all reported Kadyrov’s human rights abuses.

Kadyrov is featured in “Welcome to Chechnya,” saying that there are no gay or lesbian people in Chechnya. Kadyrov also disputed accounts of Tushayev’s death, telling Reuters that “Chechen fighters did not have one single casualty or wounded” combatant.

About Tushayev’s killing, Peter Tatchell, a British LGBTQ+ activist and human rights campaigner, told The Jerusalem Post that “While I never rejoice at the killing of anyone, his death means one less mass murderer on the loose. Those who live by the sword should not be surprised if they die by the sword. This will mean that he is no longer able to abduct, torture and kill Chechen LGBTs and dissidents, which is is a good thing.”

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