Excuse Me, Are You Lesbians?

Viola's life in Moscow and curious policemen, “gay propaganda,” and the struggle of Russian women to push for the domestic violence law.

LGBT Russia, Gay propaganda, Russia protests
Viola at an Action! movement protest near the United Russia office in Moscow

At a major protest in Moscow, Viola saw a group of young girls holding a rainbow flag and stopped to talk to them. People were strolling past, smiling at the flag, high-fiving the girls, and shouting supportively “You are so brave, keep it up!”. Many people stopped to take pictures with the flag in front of a row of police in black bulletproof vests and helmets – an Instagramable contrast between openness and repression.

A small crowd began to form around the girls. Suddenly, a man jumped out from the crowd, pulled the flag from the girl holding it and pushed her to the ground. He broke the flag on the knee and threw it to the ground. Bystanders began to shout, “What are you doing?!” and called for the police. "I was so outraged! I don’t know where I got the strength from, but I grabbed that guy, and screamed ‘Police!,’" Viola remembers."Even though there were a lot of police everywhere, nobody was rushing to help. I was holding the guy for a couple minutes while we got the police to pay attention. I have no idea how I managed to not let go - my hands were frozen."

"When the policemen came and asked me to let him go, I was physically incapable of unclenching my hands, so I was like 'Wait a second, please, my hands are stuck!'"

Viola went to the police department as a witness. The girl holding the flag wanted to file a charge against the attacker, but she was only 16. Since she was a minor, she had to call her mother in order to file a charge. The girl told Viola that her relationship with her mother is very bad to the extent that her mother hits her. Viola tried to convince the police that they shouldn’t make the girl call her mother in order to file the claim considering facts of domestic violence it might entail, but they still required her mother’s presence for filing the claim.

“We ended up filing the claim, but I still, after several weeks, haven’t heard any results. I still talk to that girl. You know, I want to support her and let her know somebody is there for her. I offered her to stay with us if her mum threatens or beats her again.”

It was brave of Viola to offer support to that girl. Viola lives with her girlfriend, and since the girl is a minor, it can be considered “propaganda of homosexual relations toward minors.” Being gay in Russia is not illegal, but the law prohibits “gay propaganda” towards minors, so any LGBT content that might potentially be seen by minors can constitute an offense. For Viola, even being in contact with a minor could be a potential risk, because the law is so vague.

"Anything can happen. But it’s funny because that 16-year-old girl was the one holding a rainbow flag at the protest in the first place. Propaganda worked!"

Excuse me for asking, you are lesbians?

Even though Viola describes her everyday life as "pretty normal", the feeling that anything can happen is ubiquitous and forces her to always be on alert and suspect the worst. Once, when Viola and her girlfriend were sitting on the grass in the park, a policeman called them to come up to him. Scared and thinking they were in trouble for showing their affection in public, they approached the policeman. It turned out that it was prohibited to sit on the grass. After the police officer reprimanded them for sitting on the public lawn, he said: "Excuse me for asking... you are lesbians? I am also a person, I’m curious!" and let them go.

Regarding their everyday life, Viola says:

“The neighbors don’t know, but they don’t ask. If somebody asks me if I am a lesbian or if I live with my girlfriend, I wouldn’t evade or lie. But I work at a pretty liberal youth organization. My girlfriend, however, works at a more conservative place, so at her work, nobody knows. In public we hold hands, hug and it’s all fine. The sad thing is that we know we can’t have family here. It’s not a good environment for a child with two mothers. <…> I want my child to have a normal life, to feel like having two mothers is a normal thing. In Russia it’s unreal. It’s possible to live here as a couple, but not with a kid. I went through a lot growing up in the South of Russia, in the society that would never accept who I am. <…> Even my farther until very recently struggled to accept that I am a lesbian and I live with a woman, and it’s not just a phase. It was very hard and traumatic. If we wanted to have a child, we’d have to move to another country.”

The refugee family

Having to seek refuge in another country is a reoccurring theme in the lives of Viola and her family. Viola’s parents are ethnic Armenians, but born and raised in Azerbaijan. They were forced to leave Azerbaijan when the simmering conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh escalated into a full-scale war with the fall of the Soviet Union. Societal pressure and national animosity caused massive population displacement, with some, like Viola's parents, fleeing to Russia.

Viola’s parents arrived in the small town of Armavir, Russia, where the local population was unwelcoming and their status as refugees went unrecognized. “I think living through all these injustices made my family and myself so critical of the Russian system later on,” Viola concludes.

"Their situation was hell – they had to kill to stop it"

When Viola moved to Moscow as a young adult, these seeds of a critical outlook found fertile ground to grow into action. Moscow residents are more engaged in civic activity than anywhere else in Russia, and Viola found more opportunities to make her voice heard.

Many such opportunities she discovered through social media. “One of the first protests I went to was a protest to support the Khachaturyan sisters. I just saw an event on Facebook, and I saw that some of my friends were going.”

The case of the Khachaturian sisters is an ongoing criminal case in Russia. Three sisters (17, 18 and 19 years-old) were charged with the premeditated murder of their father, punishable by up to twenty years of imprisonment. The defense states that the sisters acted in self-defense, having no other choice, as they were subjected to constant violence and sexual abuse by their father for an extended period of time prior to the alleged crime.

The story goes to the heart of the issue of domestic violence in Russia, where victims lack both legal protections and appropriate social services. As activists say, this system left the sisters with no other way out. The case has sparked public protests in Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and other cities in support of the sisters and calling for a change in legislation governing domestic violence.

“I knew about the case of Khachaturyan sisters for a while before I saw that event. It affected me on a personal level - it made me feel so vulnerable. Their situation was hell – they had to kill to stop horrific things happening to them. There was no law or practice in place to help them. That’s why I went to the protest. I wanted fairness for the Khachatuyan sisters because they are the victims in this case. They need support and rehabilitation.

women's rights, Khachaturian sisters case, domestic violence in Russia
The sign says: "Khachaturyan sisters need rehabilitation and not prison"

It was a very inspiring event because so many people showed up. It was a solitary picket and I think around 200 people showed up. We had to wait in line for a while. Just to clarify, a solitary picket is the only form of protest that doesn’t require registration with local authorities, and to be considered solitary, a distance between the picketers should be 50 meters. So everybody who came waited in line just to stand 5 minutes near the courthouse holding the banner with demands to reconsider the Khachatuyan sister’s criminal charge and to pass the domestic violence prevention law.

I really believe this law can change things. Now there are only two extremes: be beaten, or kill your abuser, as the Khachaturyan sisters did. And the law we are advocating for is calling to prevent those cases at an early stage. It’s not about punishment. Very often women don’t go to the police because they are afraid to end up alone. The law can actually help to keep the family together because it would give an opportunity for an abuser to learn anger management. Measures should be in place for before violence happens, like that one case when a guy cut off his wife’s hands for cheating on him and after that, he felt sorry and even brought her to the hospital where they managed to reattach one hand. We want to prevent things like that.”

As of December 2019, a new iteration of the law against domestic violence was released, but it is bound to face strong opposition from traditionalists in the State Duma (Russian parliament) and the broader public. But the movement to pass the law is growing: the petition to adopt the domestic violence law, put forward by a prominent women's rights advocate Alena Popova, was signed by more than 900,000 people.

To learn more about the law you can read the text of the petition, available in English: https://www.change.org/p/state-duma-adopt-the-domestic-violence-law-in-russia.


After the interview, Viola participated in the Moscow Open School of Human Rights, where she met people from LGBTQ+ organization “Action”, whom she recently joined. We are happy to follow her development as an activist in areas she’s passionate about.

#domesticviolence #womensrights #LGBT #RussiaLGBT

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