This article was originally published by Coda Story.
By David Stern
Oleg was a 26-year-old DJ found stabbed close to 30 times in his apartment in Kharkiv in January, last year. Dima was another 20-something, who was also murdered with around 30 stab wounds in his home in Kiev this year.
Maksym was stabbed multiple times, in Odessa in December. He managed to escape his apartment, but his attacker chased after him and finished the job in the entrance to Maksym’s building.
Alexander is from Kharkiv and was beaten last year by a group of about 10 unknown assailants, including two women, in a courtyard near his work. Sergei was attacked recently by a group of young men as he was sitting on a bench in the evening with his boyfriend in a park in his hometown of Vinnytsia.
All these incidents had one thing in common: Their victims were gay men.
Since Ukraine’s February 2014 Maidan revolution, the number of attacks on the LGBTQ community has exploded. According to the Our World gay rights center, which publishes an annual report on anti-gay violence, there were around a dozen hate crimes per year just before the revolution. Then in 2014, these jumped to 27. And the next year, they jumped again, to 60. These include individual beatings, murders, assaults on LBGTQ organizations or offices and violent attempts to break up gay-pride festivals.
These are just the incidents reported to Our World and other gay rights organizations—the actual numbers are believed to be significantly higher. Most victims choose to stay silent. And even fewer report attacks to the authorities. They are afraid of hassle or possibly police violence, sexual or physical, or are scared of being outed within their communities. The attackers prey on this fear: Many of the incidents are robberies or cases of blackmail, where the perpetrators target gay men, knowing they won’t go to the authorities.
Sergei, who was attacked in the park in Vinnytsia, didn’t file a report. He said he intended to, but changed his mind. His attackers, he said, were from the Right Sector far right organization, and, when he went to the police station, he saw what he believed were right-wing activists manning the registration desk.
The immediate cause for the jump could be a combination of factors. Violent crime overall has skyrocketed, since the revolution. The gay and lesbian community has also raised its visibility and become more assertive in pushing for their rights, which some activists say could create a backlash. And in return, far right groups like Right Sector and the Azov Battalion, self-assured and enjoying a measure of public approval for their battlefield exploits, have stepped up their violently anti-gay agenda.
At the same time, though, the environment for gays in Ukraine has unquestionably improved: significant legislation protecting sexual minorities has been passed, and more is in the pipeline. This year’s Kiev gay pride march will receive unprecedented support from city authorities.
What no one seems to be able to answer at the moment is whether these assaults and murders are ultimately a sign that anti-gay forces are on the retreat, and that they are lashing out because they somehow sense Ukrainian society, post-Maidan, is becoming a more tolerant country? Or is this an indication of a growing acceptance of violence against gays both at the grass roots, and in certain circles of the establishment?
The answers to these questions are crucial not just to the LGBTQ community, but also to the country as a whole. In addition to replacing a corrupt government, the Euromaidan revolution was trumpeted as Ukraine’s embrace of “European values” and “rule of law.” However, even as the revolution was unfolding, it was apparent that many of the protestors interpreted these ideals in vastly different ways—and for some, basic civil rights such as freedom of assembly only applied to groups that they approved of.
Now the country’s future is in the balance. Ukraine could still easily go the way of Russia and other former Soviet states, where gays are marginalized—or in worst case scenarios, seen as carriers of a foreign contagion (the dreaded “Gayropa”) and denied full protection of the law. Or Ukraine could live up to the European and democratic principles that many said they supported and defend the rights of minorities, including those of sexual minorities.
The murder of Oleg in Kharkiv illustrates, brutally, the rising violence against the LGBTQ community, and the formidable legal obstacles that prevent the perpetrators from being fully brought to justice. (Individuals’ first names are only being provided, either because they requested anonymity, or the investigations in which they are involved are ongoing. Most names have been changed.) The case also underlines what experts say is a systemic indifference to anti-LGBT violence.
The basics of the case: Oleg was found in his apartment with 28 stab wounds, and his iPhone missing. A few days later, a 17-year-old, Ivan, was detained on suspicion of committing the crime and in possession of the iPhone. Ivan and Oleg had made each other’s acquaintance online, chatted for a few weeks, and then agreed to meet in person. Ivan confessed to killing Oleg, which resulted he said when the two men started to fight, and Ivan stabbed him in what he says was self-defense. In December, last year, a court found Ivan guilty of murder. The case is currently being appealed.
But questions remain. Obviously, the first thing to ask is why it’s necessary to stab someone more than two dozen times in “self-defense”? Or for that matter, why he went to the meeting with something close to a hunting knife in the first place? Or when they started to fight, why didn’t Ivan just leave?
Moreover, the two men first agreed to meet near Oleg’s building, but for some reason ended up going back to his apartment. Oleg’s friends say this was odd, since he was an intensely private person, who was loath to invite people into his home.
Then there was the issue of the “third man”: Ivan went to meet Oleg with a friend, who, Ivan said, then waited outside while Ivan went into Oleg’s first-floor apartment. The friend, Ivan said, stood near the building, but didn’t come in, even when he and Oleg started to fight, which was probably audible from the street. Police questioned the friend, but his name completely dropped soon thereafter from the investigation.
This was noteworthy since, at around 5-foot-2 and 110 pounds, Ivan was considerably smaller than Oleg and it’s not clear how he overpowered his victim. On the other hand, the friend was taller and heavier than both of them, and, significantly, practiced martial arts.
Oleg’s closest relative was his aunt, as both his parents had passed away. She felt the police showed a lack of interest in investigating what actually happened—for instance, officials first characterized the motive as a robbery, although Oleg’s money, laptop computer, iPad, and other valuable objects were untouched. So she engaged a lawyer, Roman Likhachev.
Likhachev says there were other equally important discrepancies. For one, Oleg was found with a belt around his neck and signs that he had been strangled, which was then played down during the investigation. He also says that most of the stab wounds targeted critical areas—showing the attacker had knowledge of fighting and human physiognomy that Ivan most likely did not possess. Likhachev says Ivan was “intellectually limited” and “practically cannot write.” All text messages were made from Ivan’s friend’s telephone.
Ivan was convicted for premeditated murder which carries a sentence of 7-15 years. The judge, however, gave him close to the minimum — eight years. In his verdict, he cited Ivan’s outspoken hatred of gays, and the number of times he stabbed Oleg as “mitigating circumstances.” No further explanation was given.
“It’s difficult for me to understand the logic behind this,” said Likhachev. “But I have the impression that the court intended to show that if you kill someone of a non-traditional sexual orientation, the verdict will be sufficiently easy.”
Ukraine’s criminal and administrative codes lack any statute for homophobic hate crimes. Without this, police and courts lack the legal basis to fully investigate and prosecute instances, which may have targeted someone because they belonged to a sexual minority.
Furthermore, even if there were such a statute, it’s not given that law enforcement bodies would use it. The criminal code does have a paragraph defining crimes based on hate towards race, religion, or ethnic group. But this is applied sparingly. Many assaults on the LGBTQ community are characterized as “hooliganism”—such as an arson attack on a gay-themed film in at the Zhovten cinema in Kiev last year.
Ukrainian police nevertheless have begun to investigate some cases as LGBTQ hate crimes. Last year, according to official records, there was one, and eight listed as “possible.”
“We have a paradoxical situation: The court did not assign homophobic motivation to the crime, but it found a lot of “extenuating circumstances,” said Alexander Zinchenkov of the Our World gay rights organization in reference to the cinema incident. “Our law enforcement bodies are not only unable to qualify crimes as homophobic—they also don’t want to,” he continued. “And society and the government turn a blind eye to this—although no one is protected from hate crimes. Today it’s gays, tomorrow refugees, and further down the road, who knows.”
In March 2016, LGBTQ activists gathered in a hotel in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv for a gay-pride festival. Their location was unannounced, but 200-300 far-right extremists found them anyway and congregated outside the building. Police arrived eventually and formed a cordon to escort the LGBTQ activists into buses. The extremists threw rocks and shouted, “Kill, kill, kill!” but the buses managed to get away. A few dozen extremists also took a group photograph, identifying them as members of the neo-Nazi “Misanthropic Division,” and showing raised-hand Nazi salutes.
In addition to mass actions like the one in Lviv and brutal assault on a gay pride march in Kiev, last year, ultra-nationalists may also be linked to individual attacks and murders. Their modus operandi is to meet gay people through social media with the intention of setting up a face-to-face rendezvous. Once they get together, the extremists can humiliate, beat, torture, or even kill their victims. Often the encounter is filmed, in order to blackmail or further demean them.
These methods seem to have originated among Russian homophobic organizations—indeed they are standard operating procedure among groups targeting gays, and especially homosexual men, and the template has migrated as far as North America. In Ukraine, activists from a Russian group called “Occupy Pedophilia” are known to have trained local extremists.
In Ukraine, the two most active homophobic groups are “Fashionable Verdict” and “Nazhdak.” Information about them is difficult to obtain, since they communicate primarily in chat rooms closed to the general public. However, at least one of the people interviewed for this article—Alexander, who was attacked by a group in Kharkiv—believes he was targeted by “Fashionable Verdict.”
A big question mark also hangs over parts of the law enforcement establishment about their commitment to combatting anti-gay crime. In Lviv, the police’s performance was far from reassuring, though in the end they protected the LGBTQ activists They were slow to come at the hotel, and, reportedly, only after strong prodding from officials in Kiev. Once they arrived, they appeared unwilling to disperse the threatening crowd. And afterwards, not one arrest was made.
More disturbing are indications that the extreme far right and homophobes occupy top positions within Ukrainian law enforcement. Vadym Troyan was previously the head of the Kiev regional police and, in March, he was named deputy head of the country’s newly constituted national police force. Until 2014, though, he was listed as an “active member” of the neo-Nazi “Patriot of Ukraine” organization, which calls for a “white crusade” against “Semitic-led sub-humans” and is violently homophobic.
Troyan was additionally a leader in the Azov volunteer military battalion, which now has been incorporated as a regiment in Ukraine’s national guard. Azov—which has Patriot of Ukraine members in key positions and officially employs three modified Nazi symbols—has reportedly worked closely with the Kiev regional police.
The former head of the police’s narcotics division, Ilya Kiva, tweeted a verse from the Old Testament, which said gays should be executed. Kiva also at one point spoke of working with Azov, who he said was “fighting for the purity of the Ukrainian nation.”
Despite the preponderance of the anti-gay violence, there are nonetheless reasons to be optimistic. Ultra nationalists may have strong links to parts of the government, but they’re still very much on the electoral fringe, having failed to enter parliament in the last elections.
The old police force is being replaced—not fired en masse, but phased out gradually, so the two forces exist everywhere side-by-side. The old interior ministry police, or “militsia,” is believed to be a bastion of un-reformed homophobes—but as the presence of Troyan and the ex-narco head, Kiva, indicate, the new one raises concerns, too. The new police force—full of fresh-faced, photogenic new recruits who make their rounds in environmentally-friendly Toyota Prius cars—will receive “tolerance training.” Top officials have also that they will create two separate departments for human rights and hate crimes, though they have yet to begin to staff them.
LGBTQ activists say that, post-revolution, the attitude of the government has tangibly changed. “Now officials are taking steps, and even if this is all very unclear, at least it is happening. Slowly but it’s happening,” said Alexandra Zaharova of the Gay Alliance organization. “Now they’re freely talking about LGBT rights,” she said. “Two years ago they wouldn’t even give a peep about that.”
Some big battles have already taken place. Already deputies have added a paragraph to the country’s labor code that outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation. This was done in order for Ukraine to qualify for visa-free travel to the European Union. But, nevertheless, the law had to overcome considerable resistance. One of the bill’s supporters, Hryhoria Nemyria, chairman of parliament’s human rights committee, says it needs “to be closely monitored.”
Nemyria says the next order of business is to draft and present a “human rights action plan,” which, among other things, will remove loopholes and contradictions in the various legal codes so that homophobic hate crimes can be adequately investigated and prosecuted.
But he warns against being “overly optimistic.” Ukraine, he says, is still extracting itself from a post-Soviet legacy, where homosexuality was both taboo and criminalized. “We learned a painful lesson in of raising expectation that then bred frustration,” he said. “What’s important is a sense of direction, to avoid a classic ‘one step forward and two steps back,’” he added. “When you have something change positively and then, either through implementation or lack of consistency in the legislation, you basically have more of the same.”
On a recent Friday night at the Jam Club, where the murdered Oleg worked as a disc-jockey, there were few patrons—but then again, it was just 11 p.m. and still early in the evening. Nevertheless, once past the unmarked door, and the two security men who doubled as ticket sellers, the music was pounding.
Oleg’s murder, of course, hadn’t been forgotten, especially since the circumstances of his acquaintance with Ivan were somewhat typical. In Kharkiv, outside the Jam Club, opportunities to get to know other gay people are very limited, and many people are dependent on the internet. “This is something that could have happened to anyone—if you meet someone, you can never know who they are completely,” Sasha, one of the clients, said.
Sasha said that he himself didn’t feel particularly at risk—he had a boyfriend. But he was careful: Not many people know he is gay. He didn’t tell his co-workers, for instance. “It’s better that way—no unnecessary questions,” he said. Tanya, Jam’s administrator, remembered Oleg as a thoughtful but private co-worker, who went straight home after work. Someone who knew everyone’s favorite song, which he would play if they were in a down mood.
But the hows and whys of his murder, more than one year later, remained shrouded in mystery.
Sasha said that he himself didn’t feel particularly at risk—he had a boyfriend. But he was careful: Not many people know he is gay. He didn’t tell his co-workers, for instance. “It’s better that way—no unnecessary questions,” he said. Tanya, Jam’s administrator, remembered Oleg as a thoughtful but private co-worker, who went straight home after work. Someone who knew everyone’s favorite song, which he would play if they were in a down mood. But the hows and whys of his murder, more than one year later, remained shrouded in mystery.
Tanya went to the morgue with Oleg’s aunt, to help identify his body. “He was carved up like an animal,” she said.
David Stern is an independent journalist covering Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. He lives in Kiev.
[Illustration courtesy of Anna Jibladze]