Olga, LGBTQ+ russia – red-haired woman posing next to a dirty-blonde guy beard and a beard.
Olga and her friend Sergei. Photo: Courtesy of Olga

How Russia Is Erasing All Traces of Its Queer People

Since Russia’s Supreme Court labelled the LGBTQ+ movement as extremist, the country has unleashed a witch hunt against its queer people.
Lisa Lotens
Amsterdam, NL

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

Olga (who asked to remain anonymous to protect her identity) is a 26-year-old chemical engineer from Russia and a trans woman. Last November, she fled her home country to the Netherlands and has since been staying at the Ter Apel asylum seekers’ centre in the north of the country. “I had no other choice,” she says. 


Olga’s escape was motivated by a Russian Supreme Court decision to ban the “international LGBTQ+ movement” and label it as an “extremist group”, on a legal par with organisations like Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Alexei Navalny's anti-corruption movement. The proceedings were held behind closed doors and the verdict was vague, allowing the authorities to interpret it how they want.

The result is that violence against queer people in Russia is now fair game. If you “participate in LGBTQ+ activities” – which essentially means if you’re suspected of not being cisgender or heterosexual, or if you speak out about queer rights – you can now face criminal prosecution and receive a two to six year prison sentence.

Days after the decision, police raided a number of queer clubs, bars and saunas in Moscow and St. Petersburg under the guise of conducting regular drug raids. In some cases, they took pictures of people’s identification documents. The oldest gay club in St. Petersburg has since closed its doors as a precaution. 


In response, many queer people are trying to leave Russia. This isn’t easy, thanks to the international sanctions imposed due to the war in Ukraine. Reachable countries where Russians are still allowed – like the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Georgia – aren’t safe for LGBTQ+ individuals, either. The international LGBTQ+ advocacy organisation ILGA has urged European countries to protect this group, but so far no country has made concrete commitments.

“All the forms of protection you are normally entitled to as a citizen are gone because of this verdict,” Olga says. “You are seen as a criminal. When you face violence, you can call the police, but there's a good chance you'll be arrested too.” 

The 2023 attack on LGBTQ+ rights also included a law banning transgender healthcare that was passed in July. According to information Olga found in a Telegram group, Russian security services now have access to the medical data of people who have undergone transition. One specific hate group has also put together a list of queer activists and journalists who have fled Russia. They have demanded that they return to Russia and threatened a “clean-up operation” to assassinate them in the countries where they now reside.


The ruling of the Russian Supreme Court didn't come out of nowhere. The Kremlin has been gradually erasing LGBTQ+ people from society for over a decade. 

Maria Kozlovskaya is a former human rights lawyer in Russia who now works for the COC, a Dutch LGBTQ+ rights group. She and her wife fled Russia seven years ago. “In Russia, there is no independent judiciary,” Kozlovskaya explains. “This was a political decision to scare people, to silence queer organisations, to push people back into the closet, force them to escape and imprison them.”

Maria Kozlovskaya – two women with short hair holding hands under an arch made out plants and flowers.

Maria Kozlovskaya (left) and her wife. Photo: Courtesy of Maria Kozlovskaya

The year 2013 marked a turning point. “The ‘promotion' of LGBTQ+ propaganda to minors was banned,” Kozlovskaya says. “Anyone sharing information about being queer with minors, in any form, could be prosecuted.” In 2020, same-sex marriage was prohibited, and two years later the 2013 propaganda law was expanded to adults. Dating websites, along with queer relationships in movies, TV series, books, music, posters, and social media were banned and censored.

These measures have had wide-ranging social repercussions. Between 2010 and 2020, over 1,000 hate crimes were committed against queer people in Russia, resulting in 356 deaths. The overall number of hate crime victims tripled after the introduction of the 2013 gay propaganda law – from 34 in 2010, to 138 in 2015. An independent poll also showed that the percentage of people saying they were afraid of, or disgusted by, queer people increased from 26 percent to 38 percent between 2003 and 2021. 


Individuals are also being persecuted by the authorities. In May 2023, Russian trans activist Jan Dvorkin had his parental rights revoked after a woman he knew filed a complaint claiming that, as a trans gay man, he couldn't take care of his son. Dvorkin ultimately arranged for the child to be taken in by a family in Russia before fleeing the country.

“People have been removing their blogs and personal information on social media for self-protection,” says Kozlovskaya. Many queer families are stuck, unable to obtain visas on the basis of political asylum and afraid of being exposed to violence after they flee. “They teach their children to lie about their home situation,” she continues.

Salim, who is speaking anonymously, is a queer historian and social scientist who fled Russia 14 months ago and is currently housed at an asylum seekers' centre in Dutch city of Echt. “I fled because of the bullying, the humiliation, the friends I lost, the secrecy, the looming police violence,” he says. “I couldn't get a job. The decisive factor was the expansion of the propaganda law last year.”

At the centre, he shared a room with another queer asylum seeker from Russia, Mikhail, who he fell in love with. Unfortunately, Mikhail took his own life in early December. “Every day, I see the bed where he slept, the chair he sat on,” Salim says. “I walk through the forest where we went on walks, I brew the chamomile tea we gathered together last summer. I feel empty. It's very difficult.”


On the 12th of December 2023 Salim took part in his first ever demonstration in front of the Russian embassy in the Hague. The day marked precisely 30 years since Russia introduced its constitution, which protects people of any sexual orientation. “It was thrilling and liberating at the same time,” he says. The police showed up, but only to tell protesters to stand a bit further apart. “I found that incredible,” Salim continues. “In Russia, you get arrested just for walking around with a sign.”

Salim, Russian embassy – man holding a sign reading "for our and your liberty" and a rainbow flag in front of a large house.

Salim demonstrates in front of the Russian embassy. Photo: Courtesy of Salim

Critics say Russia’s anti-LGBTQ+ policies are being used to scapegoat queer people. “The quality of life in Russia is rapidly declining, there is so much chaos in the country,” Olga says. “A way to unite [Putin’s] electorate is to create a common enemy. Putin essentially says: ‘Things aren’t bad because of my policies, but because of threats and enemies from outside.’ It's the same tactic the Nazis used.”

In recent decades, Putin and his allies have successfully associated queer people with Western powers trying to impose themselves on Russian culture. “LGBTQ+ groups are organised, vocal, and with many connections to the outside world, like the United Nations, human rights organisations and organisations critical of Russian policies,” Kozlovskaya adds. “There's a certain threat in that, which Putin wants to suppress. He also wants to push his own ideology and traditional ideas about the heteronormative family. He sees LGBTQ+ people as not belonging to Russia.”


Russia is not the only country cracking down on LGBTQ+ rights. Far-right voices are growing in Argentina, Turkey, the U.S., Italy, India and Hungary, along with anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-refugee rhetoric. Even the Netherlands – the country where Maria, Salim, and Olga have sought protection – elected a far-right leader, Geert Wilders. His party, PVV, also stated in the past that children are being “indoctrinated” by the “gender ideology”.

“When Wilders won, I thought: ‘Luckily, my wife managed to secure her Dutch nationality in time. She can no longer be sent back,’” says Kozlovskaya. “We are safe now, but I know people waiting in asylum centres who are terrified.” Wilder’s anti-immigration stance is particularly threatening to Russian dissidents who fled the country after speaking up against the war in Ukraine, and they could face up to ten years of imprisonment if they are sent back.

“In Russia, you read a lot of anti-refugee propaganda,” Olga adds. “It's bizarre to think that I am suddenly a refugee, too. The asylum centre is not a safe place, there are also many people here from countries where LGBTQ+ people are not accepted. But it's better than staying in Russia.”

Stuck in administrative limbo with no guarantees, Olga can only hope to stay. “In the past year, it became illegal for me to write or speak about being transgender in Russia,” she says. “I could no longer receive medical treatment, and eventually, I couldn't even live a normal life. I cannot live in a country where my existence is seen as extremist.”

Salim has now been waiting for his residence permit for 14 months. “I see people around me getting angry and desperate because of the uncertainty and the total arbitrariness with which the Dutch immigration office issues residence permits,” he says. “It causes people to create disturbances and, in the worst case scenario, end their lives.”