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In Wake of Brutal Murder, Questions About the Roots of Russian Homophobia

Over the past year RuNet Echo has covered the woes of the Russian LGBT community [GV], specifically with regard to laws banning so-called “propaganda of homosexuality,” passed first by the city of St. Petersburg [GV] and now being championed in the Russian parliament [GV] by MPs Sergey Dorofeev and Elena Mizulina (the proposed bill is currently in its second “reading,” or amendment process).

It is unsurprising that this intolerant climate and increasingly hateful rhetoric would finally give rise to actual hate crimes. This is precisely the connection that many Russian bloggers made after learning that the three Volgograd men who were arrested for brutally murdering their drinking companion, the 23 year old Vladislav Tornovoi, on the night following the May 9th Victory Day celebrations, apparently admitted that they did so because he told them he was gay. Boris Vishnevsky blogged [ru] on the Echo Moskvy website:

Убийц, хочется верить, накажут. А кто накажет их идейных вдохновителей? Который уже год абсолютно безнаказанно разжигающих в обществе (в том числе, с использованием парламентской трибуны) вражду и ненависть по признакам сексуальной ориентации? Принимающих безумные законы о запрете «пропаганды гомосексуализма»?

I want to believe that the killers will be punished. But who will punish the ideological instigators? [Those who] for many years have, with impunity, (and with the use of a parliamentary pulpit) spread hate and enmity based on sexual orientation? [Those who] adopt insane laws banning “propaganda of homosexuality?”

One of Tornovoi's murderers (on right) describes to the police how exactly he committed the crime. YouTube screenshot, May 17, 2013.

One of Tornovoi's murderers (on right) describes to the police how exactly he committed the crime. YouTube screenshot, May 17, 2013.

The homophobic motives for the murder are seemingly supported by the fact that after brutally beating Tornovoi the men undressed him and forced empty beer bottles into his rectum, leading the journalist Alexander Timofeevsky to comment [ru] on his Facebook account:

Интересно, понимают ли депутаты Госдумы, шумно, с пиаром моральной позициии принимающие сейчас закон против пропаганды гомосексуализма, что эти пивные бутылки – “две вошли полностью, а третья лишь частично” – подброшены, в сущности, ими?

I wonder, do the State Duma deputies, who while noisily advertising their moral position are right now passing a law banning the propaganda of homosexuality, understand that these beer bottles – “two entered fully, and the third partially” – were basically given [to the murderers] by them?

Others blamed the murder not on Russia's homophobic parliamentarians, but simply on the homophobia endemic to Russian society, according to one theory mainly as the result of a large former inmate population and the associated stigma of homosexuality. DemVybor's Deputy Chairman and prolific blogger Kirill Shulika wrote [ru]:

Гомофобия? Может быть, но только связана она с тем, что собутыльники этого гея сидели. В России вообще гомофобия связана с тем, что полстраны сидело или знает тех, кто сидел. [...] Гомофобия Мизулиной и Милонова имеет совсем другую цель. Она рассчитана как раз на активистов протестного движения [...] с целью отвлечения их внимания от реальных проблем.

Homophobia? Maybe, but it is tied to the fact that the drinking buddies of this gay person were former inmates. In general, in Russia homophobia is tied to the fact that half the country has done time or knows someone who's done time. [...] Mizulina and [St. Petersburg deputy and champion of the original bans on propaganda of homosexuality] Milonov's homophobia has a completely different goal. It is geared towards activists of the protest movement with the goal of distracting them from real problems.

A similar point was made by journalist Andrey Gromov [ru], and publicist Pavel Sviatenkov [ru], who also blamed prison culture where homosexuality is widely practiced, and yet homosexuals are considered to be a lower caste. Because such conduct is often part of power relations in prison society, Sviatenkov says:

С точки зрения блатной философии, позорно быть пассивным гомосексуалистом, «петухом». Зато активный гомосексуалист воспринимается как «настоящий пасан».

From the point of view of criminal philosophy its is shameful to be a passive homosexual, a “rooster.” But an active homosexual is considered a “real man.”

Vladislav Tornovoi's VKontakte photograph.

The question of what constitutes homosexuality was at the forefront of reporting on Tornovoi's death, especially after bloggers found his VKontakte page [ru]. Tornovoi appears to be a fairly regular guy, and a fan of the popular rap group Kasta, which led Anton Krasovsky, a TV personality who recently came out on television and was summarily dismissed from his position, to note that he was a “common gopnik” [in modern Russian the term gopnik [ru], the etymology of which is contested, is closest to the British chav in meaning]. Tornovoi's friends were also quick to jump to his “defense” [ru] on YouTube, claiming that they “didn't notice” anything homosexual [ru] about him. In an article [ru] published several days after the murder in the Echo Moskvy affiliated online newspaper Publicpost, these friends claimed that because Tornovoi “liked girls” and because he never had an erection while visiting the public baths with them, he simply could not be gay.

These claims were picked up on by nationalist/conservative blogger Natalia Kholmogorova, who insinuated [ru] that it was the murderers who were gay:

Несколько мужчин набрасываются на одного, имитируют извращенный половой акт с ним, совершают садистские манипуляции с его половыми органами (пардон за подробности), затем убивают. [...] Это не “гомофобы поймали и замучили бедного гея” – это группа садистов совершила над своей жертвой гомосексуальное насилие.

Several men attack one, imitate a perverse sexual act with him, sadistically manipulate his sexual organs (sorry for the details), then kill him.  [...] This isn't “homophobes caught and tortured a poor gay” – it's a group of sadists who perpetrated homosexual violence on their victim.

Regardless of such loopy, homophobic opinions, if Tornovoi was not actually gay, then his murderers had to have made up the fact that he told them that he was. This worries Alexander Timofeevsky, because it might mean that Russian homophobia is even worse than we thought:

Это обозначает, что, на их взгляд, гомосексуальность жертвы является смягчающм, если не извиняющим, мотивом. Типа, пидаров убивать сам Бог велел. Вот и депутат Елена Мизулина, важная женщина из Москвы, по телевизору говорит, что им нет оправдания.

This means that they think that homosexuality of a victim is a mitigating, if not exonerating, motive. As in, killing fags is the natural order of things. Look at deputy Elena Mizulina, an important woman from Moscow, who says on TV that their [the homosexuals'] behavior can't be excused.

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