Russia’s pioneering “LGBT extremism” case. In Orenburg, Pose bar raid and criminal case set precedent for future repression
Дмитрий Швец
Russia’s pioneering “LGBT extremism” case. In Orenburg, Pose bar raid and criminal case set precedent for future repression
5 April 2024, 5:13

Alexander Klimov. Photo: Orenday

In early spring, the Ministry of Justice added the “international LGBT movement” to the list of extremist organisations, allowing criminal cases to be opened against those who, according to security forces, promote “non-traditional values.” The staff and owner of the Pose bar in Orenburg in southwest Russia are implicated in the first such case. The bar had previously been featured in the local press as a place where “they try to instil a taste for non-traditionalism,” but now the attacks by loyalist media have been replaced with raids by security forces and nationalists, which ended in three arrests. According to human rights activists, this may only be the beginning of mass criminal prosecutions. They told Mediazona what the LGBT community now has in common with FBK, Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, AUE, the vaguely defined Russian criminals’ subculture, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The bar

Vyacheslav Khasanov opened the first Pose bar in Ufa, Bashkortostan, in mid-2020, and a second one under the same name appeared in Orenburg a year later. Both were positioned not as gay clubs, but as establishments with theatrical drag shows.

Despite the increasingly conservative backdrop, the clubs managed to operate relatively unbothered for some time—even after the full-scale war in Ukraine began. If the security forces showed any interest in them, it was only in a general manner: checking alcohol licences.

However, local conservatives were unhappy from the very beginning. Six months after Pose opened in Ufa,, a publication launched by the local government, published a complaint from “concerned citizens of the city, worried about an underground nightclub” and its “LGBT thematics.” The matter went no further at the time, but in September 2023, one of the residents living near the Ufa club was enraged by the queue at the bar: as its patrons recall, a lot of people came to a concert by the extravagant diva Albina Sexova. Photos of this queue were shared by local online communities, with mentions of complaints addressed to the head of the republic, Radiy Khabirov, a former Kremlin political operator.

Local media published articles with headlines like “Ufa residents outraged by queue of gays and transvestites at nightclub” and quoted one of the complaints: “We bought flats in a business-class building, hoping for peace and development, but we have to live in fear that our child will see this nightmare. Every weekend night we can’t sleep, but watch and listen in horror to what’s going on, constant fights, shouting, drunken conversations, jumping on our cars and damaging our property. Since when are these outrages allowed in Russia?” In November, the club had to close, according to our information—due to threats.

The establishment in Orenburg also predictably outraged the conservative public. Orenburg media shared this discontent. Back in the summer of 2022, reporters from the local publication Orenday went to the establishment incognito and wrote a critical report—emphasising, for example, that the address of the establishment was not listed online and had to be obtained by contacting staff via messenging app. “An hour later, people started showing up, which made us uncomfortable with their profligateness and weirdness. Of course, we didn’t check IDs, but some didn’t look older than sixteen,” the journalists described their impressions.

Until March 1, 2024, despite increased raids by security forces, closed events did not violate Russian law. But in early spring, the Ministry of Justice added the (non-existent) “international LGBT movement” to the list of extremist organisations. Human rights activists immediately began to say that criminal cases would follow—and they were right.

The raid

Our sources who frequented Pose in Orenburg say that security forces were regularly seen near the club from early March, that is, immediately after the Ministry of Justice updated its list. However, the first time they came, they simply stood nearby all night.

A week later, on the night of March 9, a raid started. It was conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (the police) and the National Guard (Rosgvardia) together with the Russian Community of Orenburg (ROO)—an organisation that had not previously attracted much attention.

According to Pose regulars, a few minutes before the raid began, a security guard forcibly took several bracelets from a hostess and gave them to underage young men who were standing at the entrance and whom the staff did not intend to let inside. After that, around 1:30 am, security forces burst into the club.

ROO was the first to publish a video of the raid on March 9. A man in civilian clothes on stage speaks into a microphone: “A special operation of the FSB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs is being carried out. No need to provoke anyone.” He then asks “those under eighteen to come up to the stage on their own, behave well.” The abbreviation FSB is muted in the video, probably because the security service had nothing to do with the raid, and ROO simply decided to use the high-profile name.

Judging by the video, some people were laid on the floor, while others were spread around the room. One of the eyewitnesses to the incident recalls that the security forces beat patrons and staff with their boots and electric shock devices. The performers were forced to state their personal data and address on camera, and then these videos were posted on local online communities, probably by Interior Ministry employees or members of the Russian Community. Later, some of the footage, already posted online, was also published by the Orenburg region Interior Ministry, but there the faces of the guests are blurred and ROO is not mentioned.

One frequent visitor to the bar told Mediazona that he learned from eyewitnesses that guests were taken to a separate room and forced to write statements about “LGBT propaganda,” and those who refused were threatened with electric shocks. According to him, the DJ was beaten right on stage.

Diana Kamilyanova. Photo: Telegram channel

Three employees, including manager Diana Kamilyanova and art director Alexander Klimov, were released from the police only by midday of the next day, and searches were also conducted at their homes at that time.

After the searches, Klimov and Kamilyanova were released, but they were verbally prohibited from leaving Orenburg without an official written document not to leave, one of the club’s regulars tells Mediazona. According to him, there was no talk of a criminal case at that time, but a week later, on March 18, several employees were summoned to the investigator, supposedly to return their confiscated phones. They arrived—and ended up being questioned in a criminal case.

The criminal case

By the evening of March 18, the head of the Safe Internet League, a para-governmental intimidation outfit, Ekaterina Mizulina, announced that the first case of organising the activities of an LGBT extremist organisation. Two days later, the Central District Court of Orenburg, in closed sessions, sent both Pose employees to pre-trial detention. A press release from the court stated that the suspects in the case were “persons with non-traditional sexual orientation” who “support the views and activities of the international LGBT public association banned in our country, worked at the Pose bar, and ensured its functioning.”

The manager is accused of recruiting staff, monitoring service quality, approving event programmes, and ensuring the filming of performances “promoting non-traditional sexual relations.” The art director is said to have “selected drag artists, held meetings with them, and promoted non-traditional sexual relations among bar patrons and on the Telegram mobile app.”

When asked about outing of the suspects, a court press officer told Mediazona that the press release “does not list last names” and that “this information is taken from the indictment, which means that they gave such testimony when they were interrogated.” Indeed, the court release does not contain last names, but the first and last names of both arrested, along with their photographs, were published by local media. A week later, Vyacheslav Khasanov was arrested. In his case, the court’s press service did not elaborate on what he was allegedly doing, according to the investigation—he was the owner of the bar.

All three arrests took place in closed hearings, and the suspects’ lawyers have so far refused to comment on the case to press. As human rights activists note in conversations with Mediazona, such caution may be related to the case of participation in an extremist organisation that has been opened against Alexei Navalny’s lawyers, although they were engaged in their usual professional activities.

The outlook

Many people are at risk of criminal prosecution, according to lawyers from the Net Freedoms human rights project who specialise in defending cases of extremism. “Any activism, even if it is only mentioning LGBT, can serve as a basis for persecution. This means not only fundraising, but also organising events, discussions, publishing approving statements on the topic, such that experts or prosecutors see as normalising an LGBT culture that seems abnormal to them,” warns one of the lawyers, who asked not to be named.

A lawyer from the Memorial Human Rights Centre, who also requested anonymity, agrees with her colleague. She adds that by the time the “LGBT movement” was added to the Ministry of Justice’s list, activists already understood full well that they were under serious threat and therefore stopped their public work. “It’s much easier to raid a club than a specific person [’s apartment], even if it’s known that he’s an activist and cooperates with someone. It’s easier to catch people in the moment,” she says, discussing why the first such case is specifically related to the Pose bar.

The Net Freedoms lawyer believes that the Orenburg case will be a landmark case, but when speculating on how security forces will further persecute for “LGBT extremism,” he suggests paying attention to two groups of cases. First, there are Jehovah’s Witnesses, recognised as an extremist organisation in Russia years ago. According to him, this is where security forces have developed the most extensive experience: believers have already been handed more than 450 sentences, with imprisonment in 157 cases.

Second, there is AUE, a vaguely criminal subculture that romanticises the prison way of life, which was also recognised as an extremist movement in Russia. The lawyer suggests studying the established practice in AUE cases, where typical charges look like this: “Engaged in the propaganda of the vory ideology, organised the collection of the obshchak, continued to participate in its activities, expressed adherence to the rules and cultivation of foundations.”

“Just take the quotes from indictments and sentences: the investigator substitutes ‘penitentiary’ with ‘entertainment’, ‘criminal’ with ‘sexual’—and the indictment is done,” is how the Mediazona source predicts the content of future criminal cases on “LGBT extremism.”

The Memorial lawyer draws another parallel—with the repression against Alexei Navalny’s supporters. “First there was the persecution of former coordinators of [Anti-Corruption Foundation regional offices] who did not leave, then Navalny’s lawyers, and then it spread to those who did not hold such high positions. I think all this will be aimed primarily at getting people who are somehow involved in organising LGBT-related events to stop their activities or leave the country. In principle, this goal is being achieved: a huge number of activists have left,” she says.

It is still difficult to predict the number of such cases, as well as why people from the Orenburg bar were unlucky enough to be the first to be arrested. Perhaps local security forces or ultraconservative activists showed particular zeal. The Net Freedoms lawyer suggests that in the future, cases may emerge as a reaction to events outside Russia.

“In the summer, Russian television will inevitably begin discussing pride parades, which will cause some increase in the popularity of the topic, naturally triggering active citizens who are present in every region and carry a list of extremists in their notebooks. They will start sending denunciations. And having received a signal, law enforcement agencies will be obliged to react,” he believes.

Editor: Mika Golubovsky

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