UPDATE, April 22, 2017: In light of recent reports about Chechnya’s anti-gay kidnappings, torture and killings, Reveal revisits stories that expose what it’s like to be gay in Russia. An updated version of the original episode – which includes news of what’s happening in Chechnya – can be heard now.

A Russian journalist is murdered in St. Petersburg – not for what he’s reported, but for being gay. Reveal exposes what it’s like to be gay today in Russia, where hateful rhetoric against the LGBT community appears on a daily basis on TV and in speeches by politicians. Reveal teamed up with Coda Story to trace the roots of the anti-gay movement and shows how President Vladimir Putin uses this agenda to quash political dissent, exert influence on neighboring nations and bash the West. Coda Story is a new media venture that does in-depth crisis reporting, and for the past six months, it’s been focusing on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

We begin in St. Petersburg, which for centuries was known as Russia’s most open and European city but now has become the epicenter of Russian homophobia, with deadly consequences. We tell the story of a gay Russian journalist who was murdered in his apartment by a young suspect who proudly calls himself “the cleaner.” We talk to a politician whose homophobic laws and rhetoric have unleashed this kind of violence and to a vigilante who has targeted dozens of gay and lesbian teachers.

Putin’s anti-gay policies are finding surprising support in our own backyard. Our next segment takes us to a conference in Tbilisi, Georgia, organized by the World Congress of Families, which is based in Illinois. We meet one of Putin’s closest allies, who is developing connections with anti-gay activists in the U.S. and around the world.

Putin and his government have been selling their anti-gay message to the Russian people using the state-run media. We hear the propaganda that Russians are consuming on a daily basis on the evening news.


  • Explore: Coda Story’s coverage of the LGBT crisis
  • Read: Politics and repression – how longtime political activists are overlooked in the West
  • Watch: The story of one man caught up in Kyrgyzstan’s homophobic violence
  • See: What does the rage of Russian homophobia look like?


Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Track list:

  • Camerado, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Aphex Twin, “s950tx16wasr10 [163.97][earth portal mix]” from “Syro” (Warp)
  • Helicalin, “Everything Is Bad (lost-radio reshape)” from “Everything So Stoned, Everything is Bad” (Southern City’s Lab)
  • Helicalin, “Why Everyting So Stoned?” from “Everything So Stoned, Everything is Bad” (Southern City’s Lab)
  • Cory Gray, “Low Rollers” from “Music For Film & TV” (Needle Drop Co.)
  • Helicalin, “Because (feat. lost-radio)” from “Everything So Stoned, Everything is Bad” (Southern City’s Lab)
  • Ketsa, “Sun-Filled” from “Mind Music Matter” (BFW)
  • ERAAS, “Moon” from “ERAAS” (Represented Music)
  • Ketsa, “Sun-Filled” from “Mind Music Matter” (BFW)
  • ERAAS, “Moon” from “ERAAS” (Represented Music)
  • Ryan Cross, “Swingers” from “Music for Video” (Needle Drop Co.)
  • Aphex Twin, “XMAS_EVET10 [120][thanaton3 mix]” from “Syro” (Warp)
  • Monokle, “Warm Control” from “Intelligent Toys: We Make Music” (Sutemos)
  • Pk jazz Collective, “Youth Aspirations” from “Youth Aspirations” (Southern City’s Lab)
  • Vespero, “Glass Rainbow” from “Liventure #19” (Accessory Takes)
  • Graham Bole, “Heebie-Jeebies” from “First New Day”
  • Vespero, “Sever” from “Liventure #19” (Accessory Takes)
  • Graham Bole, “Kirigami” from “First New Day”
  • Kölsch, “Goldfisch” from “1977” (Kompakt)
  • Graham Bole, “Sleep Seeds” from “First New Day”
  • Damon Boucher, “The Game” from “Lithium Instrumentals” (Needle Drop Co.)


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 – 00:10:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. By the summer of 2014, Lyosha Gorshkov’s life had become impossible.
Lyosha Gorshkov: Every single day, it was like, I don’t know, prison. I spend last six months in Russia in the fear that I will be put in jail, I will be killed, I will be beat.
Al Letson: He was so afraid for his life that he avoided going home to his apartment and instead stayed with a friend, but he was still in danger. He felt he had no choice but to leave.
Lyosha Gorshkov: I couldn’t tell anybody. I couldn’t tell my mom, I couldn’t tell my close friends. It was indescribable. I just bought tickets and got flight and got here in the United States.
Al Letson: Lyosha wasn’t a fugitive, he hadn’t committed a crime, there wasn’t a loan shark hunting him down for money.
Lyosha Gorshkov: Actually I’m here because I escaped from my country because I was persecuted as a gay and humiliated and it was only one chance to get out of there.
Al Letson: Can you describe for me, because I think most Americans don’t really know or understand what’s happening in Russia right now. Can you describe for me the daily reality for gay and lesbian people in Russia?
Lyosha Gorshkov: Sure. It’s very complicated question because by the constitution Russia is very democratic country, but in the reality you will face a lot of difficulties because now right wing activists, different groups of people call themselves traditionalists rise up. If you are gay, lesbian, especially transgender, you will be not only beaten, but you will be killed. Government keeps targeting LGBT population because it’s easiest target.
Al Letson: It’s been just over the past few years that the gay community has become a target in Russia. That’s not to say homophobia and gay bashing didn’t exist before, they did, but things for the LGBT community had been gradually getting easier. In the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian society was steadily becoming more accepting, more open. All that changed when a series of laws were passed that made gay and lesbian Russians outsiders in their own country. For Lyosha it meant the end of a successful career.
Lyosha Gorshkov: I was a professor at university for last 13 years and I was open gay. In 2015 I became a deputy dean of student affairs. Because I became a deputy dean I became a target for Federal Security Service.
Al Letson: The Federal Security Service is the modern version of the KGB. It’s the main security agency in the country. There was an agent now working at the university as a security advisor. One day he called Lyosha into his office.
Lyosha Gorshkov: I came over and he shut the door and started to engage me, try to engage me in some activities, you know?
Al Letson: He wanted Lyosha to tell him the names of any communists or homosexuals he knew. The agent said they were a threat to the nation, but it didn’t stop there.
Lyosha Gorshkov: He would follow me every single week, calling me, looking for me at the university. I realize that he’s going to catch me, he’s going to do something to kick me from the system.
Al Letson: Not long afterwards it happened. A bogus article about Lyosha and a colleague circulated on social media at the university.
Lyosha Gorshkov: It say that those people tried to promote sodomy, literally, and you have to fire them. It was a scandalous article and I realize this is time I have to do something. It was very tough experience.
Al Letson: What does that feel like to be a part of a group of people that basically the government ignores at best, and at worst encourages that kind of violence against?
Lyosha Gorshkov: I’ve got some ambiguous feelings about this. From the one side it’s fear, it’s the fear of course, it’s very dangerous and you’re always under some kind of feelings that you could be the next. From the other hand, it gives you strengths. It separates you from the majority and you understand that you have to fight. Basically, I’ve got tough skin because of my identity.
Al Letson: These days, Lyosha lives in New York and is seeking asylum in the US. He’s the coordinator for RUSA LGBT, an American organization that helps people like him who have fled Russia and neighboring countries out of fear. In a typical week, he says he has three new arrivals.
All this hour, we’ll be looking at the country Lyosha left behind to try and understand why over the past few years it’s become dangerous to be gay, lesbian, transgender, or bisexual in Russia. We’re going to hear from people who are creating this atmosphere of hate. I have to warn you that what they have to say, it’s really difficult to listen to. The first time I heard some of the soundbites, it took my breath away, but we feel that it’s the only way to truly understand what Lyosha and other members of the LGBT community in Russia are dealing with.
We’re teaming up with Coda Story on today’s show. They’re a new media venture that does in depth crisis reporting and for the past six months they’ve been focusing on LGBT rights in Russia and the former Soviet Union. We begin in Saint Petersburg, which for centuries was known as Russia’s most open and European city, but now has become the epicenter for Russian homophobia.
We sent reporter Amy MacKinnon there to find out more.
Amy Mackinnon: My tickets were booked and I was packing my bag when I received a message from a friend in Saint Petersburg. A journalist, Dmitry Tsilikin, had been murdered. Russia can be a dangerous place for journalists. Over the years dozens have been killed for getting on the wrong side of corrupt politicians and gang bosses, but this explanation just didn’t fit for Dmitry. He was an art supporter, he reviewed the city’s ballet and opera. Dmitry’s friends and local media believe that Dmitry was killed because he was gay.
When I arrive in Saint Petersburg I seek out Dmitry’s friends and colleagues to find out more about what happened. Tatyana Moskvina was best friends with Dmitry since college. When I meet her at her home, she is visibly still in shock.
Tatyana : [Russian language 00:07:10]
F Interpreter: When I try and imagine that our neat intelligent Dmitry was killed with a knife in the tidy apartment where I have been, he cleaned it twice a week. Everything had its place, books, CDs. A vase of flowers was carefully placed on the windowsill. I cannot imagine that apartment covered in blood.
Tatyana : [Russian language 00:07:31]
Amy Mackinnon: Police believe Dmitry met his killer on an online dating site and invited the man to his apartment. Homophobic vigilantes have been known to prowl these sites, leering gay men and women out on dates only to humiliate, attack, or even kill them. When the police found Dmitry, he was lying in a pool of blood with multiple stab wounds. His killer had taken his cell phone, his laptop, and house keys, leaving him trapped to bleed to death in his own home.
By the time I meet Tatyana, the police have arrested a 21 year old student, Sergei Kozyrev on suspicion of murder. Local media reported that during police questioning he said that his life was “a crusade against certain social groups” and that he’d asked to be referred to as The Cleaner. Kozyrev’s lawyer has dismissed these statements as total nonsense, but Tatyana believes the police have got their guy. “The case is closed.” She tells me with a heavy sigh.
Tatyana : [Russian language 00:08:38]
F Interpreter: Imagine all his life Dmitry wrote about art and culture and he ended up in the crime pages.
Dmitry: [Russian language 00:08:48]
Amy Mackinnon: I go to the offices of Saint Petersburg Delovoy where Dmitry worked for years. It’s the city’s leading business newspaper and it’s well known for its independent stance. When I meet with Dmitry’s editor, another Dmitry, [Dmitry Grozny 00:09:03] he blames politicians and state owned media for stirring up this hatred.
Dmitry: [Russian language 00:09:08]
M Interpreter: In Russia now, there is such a concentrated amount of hatred. At any given time you can just turn on the TV and watch the news. It’s Orwellian. The [inaudible 00:09:22] hate or they tell people to hate their neighbors. Unfortunately, it’s directed towards gay people.
Amy Mackinnon: I head to Saint Isaac’s Square, a busy plaza in the center of the city. It is emblematic of Saint Petersburg’s imperial style and is dominated by the Mariinsky Palace, built by Tsar Nicholas as a gift to his daughter. It’s now home to the Saint Petersburg city legislature.
I’m here to meet a member of the assembly, Vitaly Milonov. In 2012 he became the face of homophobia here when he masterminded the city’s infamous gay propaganda law. The law is so vaguely worded and bizarre that it can be difficult to explain.
Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 – 00:10:04]
Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 – 00:20:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Amy Mackinnon: -law is so vaguely worded and bizarre that it can be difficult to explain. It’s based on the assumption that LGBT people propagandize to children by supposedly spreading their ideas to them, so the law prohibits any public portrayals of LGBT issues in a positive or even neutral way. That means no articles in magazines, no gay characters on TV, no support for LGBT kids in school, nothing. The St. Petersburg law paved the way for a nationwide ban one year later. Milonov is also the guy who said that gay athletes could be arrested on the twenty-four team winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He’s a busy man, but he readily agrees to meet me in his office. While I wait, I chat with some of his staff members, two giggly interns and his assistant, Ilya. I ask them what they think of their boss’ sponsorship of the gay propaganda law.
Ilya: Like the spring’s first day, like the sunshine, homophobia is a beautiful like a rainbow.
Amy Mackinnon: Just in case you didn’t catch that, Ilya is comparing homophobia to “spring’s first day.” He says it is, “A beautiful thing, like a rainbow.” I get the signal that Milonov is ready, and I’m shown to his office. Before I continue, I just want to give a quick heads-up: Milonov is known for making controversial statements, so I’m expecting to hear some of the slurs and hate-speech that he is infamous for. He shifts uncomfortably in his chair and scarcely makes eye-contact during our interview.
Why did you feel it was necessary to introduce such a bill?
Milonov: We have to face moral dangers, moral factors of present world, like homosexual propaganda, which is disgusting, immoral disease of a modern anti-Christian society.
Amy Mackinnon: Milonov is a devoutly religious man. The walls of his room are lined with religious icons and a black flag which reads, “Orthodoxy or Death,” hangs behind his desk. There is no nation-wide monitoring of hate crimes committed against LGBT people in Russia. Local and international rights groups piece together what they can and both have reported a sharp increase in homophobic and transphobic violence since the gay propaganda law was passed. Human Rights Watch blames this violence on the anti-gay rhetoric coming from politicians and the state media. I asked Milonov what he makes of this.
Milonov: Humans Rights Watch is a cheap piece of shit. I’m sorry for my French. We have no serious figures of [inaudible 00:12:58] of violence against homosexuals. There is quite a big number of criminal cases that are connected with the homosexuals, because many homosexuals, at the same time, they love little kids.
Amy Mackinnon: Do you have any evidence of that?
Milonov: Yeah, sure. Absolutely.
Amy Mackinnon: Where?
Milonov: It’s just statistics.
Amy Mackinnon: This anti-gay myth is standard rhetoric, not just in Russia, but anywhere that people are attacking the LGBT community, and in St. Petersburg, these kind of statements have inspired violence against LGBT people, the kind of violence that police believe led to the murder of Dmitry Tsilikin, which I ask about next.
Well, if I could give you a very recent example here in St. Petersburg, I’m sure you heard about the murder of the journalist Dmitry Tsilikin, who was stabbed in his apartment. It’s believed this was motivated by the fact that he was gay. The young man who killed him-
Milonov: I know this case.
Amy Mackinnon: -and local media have reported that he was an admirer of yours.
Milonov: This guy, what happened with him, this old faggot got acquainted by the internet with a young guy, and he invited him to his house either to rape him-. At least the main reason for his invitation was sexual harassment.
Amy Mackinnon: But that’s not what the police believe at all. They think that the suspected murderer set up the date with Dmitry with the intention to kill him. My interview with Milonov goes on for a while, and he continues to spout the hate-filled propaganda that has turned this cultured city into the epicenter of the anti-gay movement in Russia.
The next day, I manage to set up an interview with one of the city’s most infamous anti-gay vigilantes, Timur Bulatov. Like Dmitry’s suspected killer, he also calls himself “The Cleaner.” Bulatov has not been known to be violent, but he does seek to destroy the livelihoods of LGBT people by combing through the social media accounts of St. Petersburg teachers, singling out the ones he suspects of being gay and reporting them to their schools. We agree to meet at his office in the district council building, but as I’m in the taxi on my way there, he messages me with a different meeting point. This last minute switch makes me nervous.
We meet at his rented office, a cramped and claustrophobic room. The rest of the building seems to be empty. As I walk in, I notice a camera set up on a tripod so that he can film whatever happens next. Bulatov’s assistant, a tall man in a roll-neck sweatshirt sits in the corner of the room and fixes a silent stare on us. The feeling that maybe I’ve been set up doesn’t seem so paranoid anymore, given how many journalists have been attacked for their reporting here in Russia. I asked Bulatov to introduce himself, and he jumps straight to the point.
Bulatov: [Russian 00:16:12]
Interpreter: We fight for the unifying moral issues of traditional family values, for faith, for the Fatherland, for the fight for statehood.
Amy Mackinnon: Bulatov is deeply proud of his work and boasts about how many teachers he claims to have gotten fired.
Interpreter: At first it was like 29, but now it’s more like 50. [inaudible 00:16:35] scandal went though the courts. The more prudent perverts who understand their perversion chose to quit themselves.
Amy Mackinnon: It’s not actually illegal in Russia to be a teacher if you’re gay, but if a teacher is publicly outed, the stigma is so strong that they won’t last long in their position. Bulatov speaks with such a single-minded hatred of LGBT people that, at one point, he actually breaks out into a sweat. When I ask what he thinks of the attacks on LGBT people in the city, he says he doesn’t condone violence against homosexuals, but he certainly doesn’t condemn it either.
Interpreter: Well, society reacts the way it reacts. Why are we always talking about gay people as victims? Why are we not talking about the actions of these homosexuals, these lesbians and faggots, what they do to provoke a reaction?
Amy Mackinnon: Halfway through the interview, I notice a handgun sitting on the table next to him. I’m too afraid to ask what it’s for. By the time I leave, I am so on edge that I head straight to a dive bar across the street and settle my nerves with a shot of vodka. I’m glad the interview is over, but it’s not long before I bump into Bulatov again.
I’m here in St. Petersburg on the 15th of April. It’s actually the Day of Silence. It’s an international day viewed by LGBT activists in many countries as a day of remembrance for people who’ve been killed or harassed or bullied for being gay. Local activists have organized a meeting here in the center of St. Petersburg in front of the train station. Events like this are quite often broken up by skinheads or by the police, so I’m interested to see how this going to go. There’s already a very heavy police presence. I can see a truck of OMON, which is Russian Special Forces, sitting out front.
Timur Bulatov, who we met yesterday, has shown up to disrupt the event. He’s got a broom with a toy rat hanging off it. The toy rat is holding rainbow flags. He’s walking around telling people watching that these are perverts. There’s a group of two dozen or so young activists. I watch them put duct tape over their mouths. It’s the symbolic gesture of silence. They walk down the city’s main street, Nevsky Prospect. Along the way, I get chatting to Mark, an activist for a local LGBT group called Coming Out. Mark’s job today is to document any acts of hate-speech or homophobic violence at the demonstration. As a transgender person himself, Mark is at an even greater risk of being harassed or attacked on the street. He tells me that at today’s protest, someone has already verbally attacked one of their activists.
Who was it? Who tried to attack him?
Mark: Just some [inaudible 00:19:35] guy. He was very young. He was speaking just some government propaganda, like, “We are an Orthodox country. We have traditions. You have no place here.”
Amy Mackinnon: Does it frighten you?
Mark: No. Not now. I was very frightened before, but then my friend committed suicide because of homophobia. [inaudible 00:20:03]
Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 – 00:20:04]
Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 – 00:30:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Mark: Committed suicide because of homophobia, then I understood that silence will not help anyone and I must speak for myself and for those who cannot speak themselves.
Amy Mackinnon: Just moments after we speak, the police show up with a loudspeaker telling everyone that the protest is illegal. In Russia, to hold any kind of protest or demonstration which involves more than just one person, you have to go to the city to get a special permit.
Out of nowhere the police just rush at the protesters and line them up against the wall. Some of them stand with their mouths still taped up in silence, but others try and reason with the police. Then, seemingly at random, seven of the activists are just picked out of the lineup and taken away to police vans parked around the corner.
The next day I head down to one of the cities small LGBT community centers. It’s in the heart of the city but tucked away in a basement unmarked. You’d never guess it was here. I’m greeted by a veteran of the cities LGBT activism movement, Alexei. He’s asked that we don’t use his last name out of fear that he could be targeted. It’s a humble space, three rooms and hardly any furniture, but despite their tiny budget they’ve done what they can to make it cozy. A number of young activists from the center were arrested at yesterday’s demonstration. They were charged 200 dollars each for participating in an unsanctioned protest. That’s a small fortune in a country where the national minimum wage is just 109 dollars per month.
They’ve gathered here tonight to discuss what happened yesterday. They ask for privacy so I step into the next room to have a chat with Alexei.
Alexie: It’s very important to us to protect the right to be who we are, yeah? As for me, I have got so much support. I’m ready to help to the people around in return.
Amy Mackinnon: It’s been a long week in St. Petersburg and I am exhausted by all the hatred that I have seen, but when I ask Alexei if he has hope for the future he says he does.
Alexie: Hope. I do. I do.
Amy Mackinnon: Despite everything that’s going on, he speaks with such determination, such optimism that his voice begins to crack.
Alexie: We are at risk but my optimism helps me to believe that everything will be good, sooner or later. Not now, not in a year, not in three years, but in twenty years everything will be fine. I’m sure.
Al Letson: That report was from Amy Mackinnon of Coda Story. The crackdown on the gay community in St. Petersburg became a blueprint for Vladimir Putin’s national policy, a policy that’s been finding support from religious activists in our own back yard.
Speaker 5: I wish the President of my country was as forceful in promoting and at least saying the right thing regarding family values as Putin is for Russia.
Al Letson: That’s next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Julia B. Chan: Hey there. Julia B. Chan here, Reveal’s digital editor, and I wanted to tell you a little bit more about our partner this hour, Coda Story. It’s a new media venture that does in depth crisis reporting. Coda focuses on a single issue and puts a team of journalists on it in order to gain a greater understanding of the situation. You can learn more about their coverage of the anti-gay movement in Russia by visiting their website codastory.com. Again, that’s codastory.com.
Al Letson: From the Center of Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. The kind of gay bashing we just heard about is not just happening in St. Petersburg. Over the past few years it’s become common across Russia and even in some neighboring countries. Here to help us understand why this is happening is Natalie Antelava from Coda Story, our partner in this episode. Welcome Natalia.
Natalia: Thanks. Good to be here.
Al Letson: The anti-gay movement, is this a product of zealous local politicians or is it something bigger than that?
Natalia: Well I think this was one of the things that we were trying to understand when we started this deep dive into what we call the LGBT crisis in Russia and in the neighboring countries. Trying to understand what is it that is truly driving it, and yes while the violence is being carried out by local vigilantes, people who have always hated gays, the question we really wanted to answer is why now? Why weren’t gays being attacked to this extent back in the 1990’s when the crime was much higher in Russia than today? What is it that’s making it such an issue now? I think one of the things that we found out is that really this hatred against gay people goes all the way back up to the Kremlin and to Vladimir Putin.
Al Letson: Now does that have to do with Vladimir Putin’s image of being a very manly man? Is it something that he’s just pushing against because LGBT doesn’t really jive with him riding around with no shirt on and wrestling bears and all that type of thing?
Natalia: Well I’m sure that’s part of it, for sure. We know the public persona of Putin that is projected. I think the question is also whether is Putin homophobic himself. Personally I don’t think that he is because there are plenty of people in his government who are gay, so no, I don’t think he’s personally necessarily a homophobe.
Al Letson: If it’s not homophobia then, what is it?
Natalia: I think it’s some pretty clever political thinking and strategizing because I think what Vladimir Putin has managed to do is turn homophobia into an instrument for strengthening his power. To understand how he did it I think one thing that we need to understand is what happened in Russia in 2011. Here, let me play you this bit of audio.
Al Letson: What’s happening here? Is sounds like a riot.
Natalia: It is a riot. It’s the sound of the Russian police clashing with protesters back in 2011, beating them with batons, arresting them, pushing them into cars. This happened after tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow after Vladimir Putin’s party won Parliamentary elections in 2011. Opposition back then said that Putin rigged the election and stole the victory. The Russians who were already fed up with this deep-seated [inaudible 00:27:23] and corruption in the Russian government decided to come out into the streets. These were, in fact, the biggest protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was a massive crackdown on all sorts of dissent. The Western media was very much focused on the anti-gay legislation, on the anti-gay rhetoric and that diverted the media’s attention away from the real crackdown that was happening.
Al Letson: Let me get this straight. Basically what you’re saying is that this is a bait and switch. He’s focusing eyes on the LGBT issue but he’s actually arresting democratic protesters who are probably more of a threat to his reign than LGBT people.
Natalia: Absolutely. They anti-gay legislation was, in a way, a diversion tactic for Putin. He calculated that the Western media would become obsessed with the anti-gay legislation, which they did. There were hundreds and hundreds of stories dedicated to the anti-gay legislation and only a handful dedicated to that real crackdown on dissent that happened. On one hand the anti-gay rhetoric coming from the Kremlin certainly unleashed a very frightening violence against gay people in Russia, but at the same time it was a little bit of a diversion tactic in order to really clam down on political dissent that was threatening Putin’s rule.
Al Letson: This strategy that Putin’s put together seems like it’s really working out for him.
Natalia: It looks like it really is and it is incredible that homophobia can be a political strategy but Vladimir Putin seems to prove that it works. It worked for him at home. He has crushed the political dissent. He has created an enemy at home, that gays are seen as an enemy at home. After annexing Crimea and his intervention in Syria, his popularity has soared to the unprecedented 89%. What’s really interesting, in my opinion, is that he has also managed to use this anti-gay rhetoric, this homophobia to spread Russia’s influence outside of its borders. It’s happening everywhere in the former Soviet Union, including the country where I am based, Georgia, where I recently attended a very curious international event.
It’s a very windy day and I am in a taxi heading into Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. This is the main highway that leads from the airport into the city and from the first glance it’s a pretty regular for-
Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 – 00:30:04]
Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 – 00:40:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Natalia: City, and from the first glance, it’s a pretty regular four lane road, slightly dilapidated buildings on both sides, some of them have been spruced up. There an apartment complex that’s been painted bright pink to the right of me, but the rest of it is really the landscape that you pretty much get in any post-Soviet country. What is unusual about this road, though, is it’s name. This is George W. Bush Highway. That’s right, and there he is, the man himself, waving and smiling from a giant poster just as we turn into the city.
My American friends find it totally bizarre that there is a major road here named after their controversial, and not exactly internationally-loved president, but Georgians, at least at the time, thought it was a great idea. In 2005, Bush became the first US president ever to visit this tiny country. Hundreds of thousands of people came out to greet him.
George W. Bush: Laura and I were in the neighborhood. We thought we’d swing by and say, “Gaumarjos.”
Natalia: The visit was meant, above all else, to send a signal to the Kremlin. This was one superpower, the US, telling a former superpower that Georgia was now part of the Western world.
George W. Bush: You claimed your liberty, and because you acted, Georgia is today both sovereign and free and a beacon of liberty for this region and the world.
Natalia: Moscow was annoyed. Velisi was ecstatic. Today, the dynamic here is shifting. Georgia is still very pro-American, but the Anti-Russian sentiment has softened because many Georgians like what Putin has to say about traditional values. His anti-LGBT rhetoric is spreading to Georgia in a big way, and with it, Russia’s influence here is enjoying a comeback.
In May, I went to this conference in Velisi. It was organized by the World Congress of Families, which is an international organization that considers itself pro-family. It’s anti-gay agenda sounds like something dreamed up by the Kremlin, but the group is based in Illinois. Hundreds of guests from all over the world filled the main concert hall in the city. Most of them were Americans. They came together to talk about ways to save the world from what they call “the threat of homosexuality.” Throughout the four days, there was a lot of praise for Moscow and for President Putin. Here’s Allan Carlson, the founder and President of the organization.
Allan Carlson: I wish the president of my country was as forceful as, in promoting or at least saying the right thing regarding family values, and also in protecting his country’s interests as Putin does for Russia.
Natalia: He says Russia now plays a key role in pushing their values globally.
Alexey Komov: What kind of message are they transmitting to our children? We know the answer.
Natalia: Some of Putin’s closest allies were at the meeting, like Alexey Komov. He’s developed Moscow’s growing connections with far-right groups in Europe and more and more with anti-abortion, anti-gay activists in the United States. He speaks several languages, and charms the crowd with his wide smile and boyish good looks. He’s giving a power point presentation, and this is now a joke, about what he calls satanic messages spread by Disney and Hollywood.
Alexey Komov: Look at the toys for boys. Almost half or over, toys that are being offered in modern shops for our children, are, you know, monsters and vampires, et cetera.
Natalia: Komov says Russia, on the other hand, is a pioneer in adopting what he calls pro-family laws, like banning any positive depiction of homosexuality on Russian TV. Afterwards, I try, several times, to get Komov to tell me more about his government’s policies.
Tell me why you don’t want to talk to me. Just tell me why.
Alexey Komov: I don’t want to make a propaganda out of this peaceful event. I don’t want to participate in your efforts. Why should I? I’m a free person. I can refuse, right?
Natalia: Of course.
Alexey Komov: So what? So please don’t bug me.
Natalia: I go back to Allan Carlson to ask him whether the fact that Putin’s allies are so prominent at the event undermines the organization’s supposedly apolitical nature.
I understand that the Congress wants to distance itself from President Putin and his policies, and yet some of his strongest proponents, strongest supporters, are present here. How do you walk that fine line? How do you embrace them without being seen as a tool for Moscow?
Allan Carlson: Well, you’re right, it is a fine line. The World Congress of Families does not endorse political actions, let’s say, like the annexation of the Crimea. We also don’t’ condemn it. We’re trying to avoid being sucked into those kinds of political questions.
Natalia: The things I was hearing at the conference mirror what you hear on Russia’s state-controlled television. This, for example, is [Levon Pasata 00:36:01]. He’s considered the most famous homophobe in Georgia. He does a lot of business in Russia, and is the one who brought this event to Velisi.
Here are three main points he gave during his speech. Western liberalism is destroying the world, homosexuality is part of the American agenda, and the West has lost Georgia and must back off.
Speaker after speaker takes the stage, and all of them say the same basic things. A German delegate says homosexuality has to be eradicated. A Russian representative calls the LGBT movement “a new form of dictatorship.” This is Josiah Trenham, an Eastern Orthodox priest from California.
Josiah Trenham: I have witnessed my nation disgrace itself before God and men. My counsel to beloved Georgians is this: stand firm in your faith against the LGBT revolution. Do not give in or your cities will become like San Francisco, where there are 80,000 more dogs in the city than there are children. Tell the LGBT tolerance tyrants, this lavender mafia, these homofascists, these rainbow radicals, that they are not welcome to promote their anti-religious anti-civilizational propaganda in your nations.
Natalia: Then, as he stands at stage in this packed concert hall, Father Trenham gives him interpretation of a passage from the Quran, which he says calls for killing of gay people. Even more shocking to me than what he’s saying is the fact that people next to me start clapping.
Josiah Trenham: Mohammad is recorded as ordering the execution of anyone practicing sodomy. If you find anyone doing as lots people did, kill the one who does it and the one to whom it is done. It’s recorded in the hadith, the sacred text of Judaism.
Natalia: As I listened to this, I wonder if he would dare to make this speech in the US, so after he’s done talking, I pull him aside and ask him.
Josiah Trenham: Absolutely. I’m bewildered a bit by your question.
Natalia: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Josiah Trenham: Why would you ask me a question like that?
Natalia: The reason I ask you these questions is because, personally, I thought your speech was very controversial.
Josiah Trenham: What was controversial about my speech?
Natalia: Well, quite a few statements, but in particular, there was a moment when you read from one of the scriptures, I think it was a hadith about gays being killed.
Josiah Trenham: Yes.
Natalia: People applauded.
Josiah Trenham: That particular reference you make is when I referred to the Seventh Surah in the Quran in which Islam presents homosexuality not just as a sin, but as a crime, and as a capital crime, and there were some people who clapped and I was not happy with that, and if you notice, I immediately continued my talk. I allowed no time for the clapping whatsoever.
Natalia: Yet you didn’t stop and say, “I don’t want you to be clapping.” You didn’t emphasize … A lot of people took that as an incitement of violence in a country which is known for really bad violence against the LGBT community.
Josiah Trenham: You’re suggesting things to me about Georgia that I do not agree with and do not accept. It’s been my experience that those who are for provocation and violence are the LGBTs themselves who are very aggressive and very openly mocking people of traditional faith, so the idea that somehow they are …
Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 – 00:40:04]
Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 – 00:52:10] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Amy Mackinnon: Who have traditional faith so the idea that somehow they are a threatened minority, I think that they are doing the threatening.
Natalia: Father Trenham doesn’t have much time to talk. The conference is wrapping up and everyone starts pouring out into the main street. The delegates are greeted by hundreds of local Orthodox activists as they all get ready to set off on a march across the city carrying religious icons and signs quoting the Bible.
Just then, my phone rings. It’s an LGBT activist whom I’ve interviewed before. He’s panicking because he says ten of his friends have just been arrested for writing, “Love is equal,” on a sidewalk only a few blocks away. But here at the march there is a sense of celebration.
I can see a woman from Germany who I talked to earlier and she told me that homosexuality was a dangerous infectious disease. Now she’s chatting to a Georgian man who is holding and Orthodox icon in a golden frame. I start chatting with a tall, round-faced man who turns out to represent an anti-abortion organization from Poland. He tells me why he thinks the Russian narrative is winning over the western one.
Male 1: The west has no idea how the Russian soul clicks while the Russians have figured out Americans 100%. They know how to manipulate you. They’re much better at it than you are. That’s one thing. You have to understand that in the west politicians are thinking in four year terms, you know?
Male 2: Reelection …
Male 1: Reelection and things like that, but in Russia they think more like emperors.
Natalia: The procession swells as hundreds of people make their way down towards the very same square where George W. Bush spoke to crowds just over a decade ago, and just like then there are Americans and American flags in the crowd here. Except now they’re waving in support of the ideas that Russia is promoting.
Al: That story was from Natalia Antelava from Code Story who’s been looking at how Vladimir Putin and his government have been selling their message to the Russian people. Putin’s propaganda machine, next up on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Michael Corey: Hey listeners. This is Michael Corey, a data journalist here at Reveal. For more than a year we’ve been trying to solve a water mystery. In drought-parched Los Angeles who guzzled more than 11 million gallons of water in a single year? Enough water for 90 average California families. We called the mystery customer “The Wet Prince of Bel Air” and Los Angeles wouldn’t tell us who it was so we got creative and used satellites, science, and a lot of public records to identify seven likely culprits. Seven wet princes and princesses. The list includes an NBA owner, a WalMart heiress, a soap opera producer, even a US ambassador. Visit our website, Revealnews.org/water, for photos of their estates and finally some names.
Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
All this hour we’ve been talking about the LGBT community in Russia and how they’ve become a target of politicians and vigilantes. These days it’s dangerous to be gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual in Russia. People have lost jobs, they’ve been arrest, physically attacked, and in some cases even killed because of who they are. Joining us again is Natalia Antelava from Code Story, our partner in this episode. Natalia, how is this homophobic rhetoric being spread throughout Russia?
Natalia: Well a very simple answer to that is Russian television.
Automated: [foreign]
Natalia: I have watched a lot of Russian TV in the past few months and I have come to the conclusion that it’s completely impossible to understand what is happening in Russia today without actually watching Russian TV. What happens when you do watch it is that you’re transported into a parallel reality. All of the main channels are controlled by the Kremlin and a lot of what happens on Russian television in that parallel reality is a very extreme homophobic rhetoric. There are dozens and dozens of examples that I could play you but here’s one example and I’ll translate what they say.
Automated: [foreign]
Natalia: Today we will discuss how the western expansion of sin into Russia is dangerous, how this problem stopped being about gender and became political. Western European sodomites … And this is how the Russians refer to homosexuals on television … Are attempting to penetrate Russia and create a protest movement here among our Russian perverts.
This is not some marginal channel. This is prime time program on one of the main most popular channels in Russia. Millions of people watch it, and all of the television is state controlled, and there is a very strong sense that is created by Russian TV that Russia is under attack, that it’s under siege, and that the west is waging a war and that, bizarre as it sounds, that the homosexuality is one of the main instruments for the west in this attack against Russia.
Al: So what does the state-funded media use to prove that the west is attacking Russia?
Natalia: You know, they all live in a slightly post-factual world where facts don’t matter as much as the narratives. All these narratives are based on myths. If you dig deeper into the myths there is a little bit of factual information that is then kind of ballooned and packaged into lies. At Code Story we tried to dig in into few of the very dominant myths because there’s some things that have really become part of the public discourse.
Recently I was speaking to a Georgian Orthodox priest who said to me, “Do you know that in Europe children are forced to masturbate from age four?” These are things that are broadcast on state TV and then are repeated by thousands of people across the region. They kind of become accepted narratives. They’re myths that replace facts. All of them have a little grain of truth somewhere in them. It’s like a little seed of a fact that then grows out into this myth. For example, this story about the masturbation is that apparently there is a World Health Organization document that says that children from about age three or age four can be seen as touching their genitalia and it’s completely normal. This, in Russia, somehow has turned into children are being forced to masturbate from age four. This happens again and again with all sorts of stories, with all sorts of myths that are presented as facts and are used in this narrative that Russia is under attack from the west.
Al: So it’s clear that Vladimir Putin is using his anti-LGBT agenda to basically solidify his rule in Russia and also to make the western world the boogeyman that he can fight up against. We know how that’s playing out in Russia but what does that mean in a larger context for the world?
Natalia: I think the really, really important thing to understand is that all of this stuff that is being said on Russian TV, all of them have very, very real impact on the world that we live in. One of the big conflicts today in the world is the conflict over Ukraine. It has changed the balance of power, it has changed Russia’s relationship with Europe, Russia’s relationship with the United States. It has had huge consequences. It has really affected the war in Syria. It’s all interconnected. Yet I can’t begin to tell you how much that anti-gay rhetoric, what a role it played in the Ukraine conflict. I covered the Ukraine war throughout and I was always amazed that every time people who wanted to break away from Ukraine who would say to me, and I quote, “We need to fight because if we don’t this homo-fascist from Europe will come and force us into homosexual marriages.”
Al: Wow.
Natalia: This is being said to me in the middle of a real war when real people are dying.
Al: Natalia, one final question before we go. Here in the United States obviously there are issues with LGBT rights and obviously there are vigilantes who do crazy ridiculous things here, but nothing on the scale of what feels like state sponsored terrorism against a community. I’m just curious for you as a reporter and editor working on these type of stories, what’s that like? What’s that like to hear these stories day in, day out? To go to a war torn area and understand that the media is fueling this anti-LGBT agenda that really has very little to do with LGBT people?
Natalia: Mostly it’s hugely frustrating because you do feel like there’re two parallel realities and there’re two bubbles and people are very much choosing sides and not speaking to each other. It’s very had to imagine a way out of it. I think it’s very frustrating to see the western media really struggle with covering it because I don’t think the western media has fully realized what they’re dealing with.
Al: Natalia Antelava of Code Story, thank you so much for bringing us this piece.
Natalia: My pleasure. Thanks a lot.
Al: Our show today was reported by our partners at Code Story, a new media venture that does in depth crisis reporting. You can learn more about their coverage of the anti-gay movement in Russia by visiting Revealnews.org.
Taki Telonidis was our senior editor for the show. Katharine Mieszkowski is our lead producer. Our sound design team is the wonder twins, my man, J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Claire “C-Note” Mullen. Our head of studios, Christa Scharfenberg. Amy Pyle is our editor in chief. Susanne Reber is our executive editor and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [inaudible 00:51:38], “Lightning.” Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva & David Logan Foundation, The Forward Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a core production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.
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Julia B. Chan worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until June, 2017. Julia B. Chan is a producer and the digital editor for Reveal's national public radio program. She’s the voice of Reveal online and manages the production and curation of digital story assets that are sent to more than 200 stations across the country. Previously, Chan helped The Center for Investigative Reporting launch YouTube’s first investigative news channel, The I Files, and led engagement strategies – online and off – for multimedia projects. She oversaw communications, worked to better connect CIR’s work with a bigger audience and developed creative content and collaborations to garner conversation and impact.

Before joining CIR, Chan worked as a Web editor and reporter at the San Francisco Examiner. She managed the newspaper’s digital strategy and orchestrated its first foray into social media and online engagement. A rare San Francisco native, she studied broadcasting at San Francisco State University, focusing on audio production and recording. Chan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.