wolfgang tillmans profiles russia's queer community

Last year, German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans travelled to Russia to meet members of the LGBT community in Saint Petersburg, an inspiring group of young men and women who risk their jobs and more to promote change. Here he photographs ten...

by i-D Staff
12 May 2015, 12:25pm

Since 2006, Vladimir Putin's Russia has been slowly cracking down on the rights of LGBT people, so when Wolfgang Tillmans found himself in Russia last year for Manifesta 10, which was being held in Saint Petersburg, Russia's old, Baroque capital, he knew he had to make a statement. Saint Petersburg was traditionally one of Russia's more liberal enclaves, but it's from here that Russia's homophobic laws have begun to spiral outwards, with the city's mayor even saying, "They can do whatever they want in their homes, in the special 'garbage' places called gay night clubs. But they're not allowed to do it in the streets."

"I had to find a way to make a comment," Wolfgang explains, "I included two photographs of ugly new Orthodox churches, built by the government. I also photographed television static in my Saint Petersburg hotel room as a symbol of censorship and of potential loss of connection. These became two huge pictures in the show."

Tillmans was planning on going to the Saint Petersburg Pride festival while he was there, but this too fell victim to the Russian government. The federal law banning the "promotion of homosexuality to minors" is being used as a cloak for all kinds of homophobic behavior, for the police to attack protesters and to encourage vigilante style mob "justice", as well as stopping demonstrations and Pride events. "I felt bad that I didn't get this connection with the community there during Manifesta," he says, "so I got in touch with Amnesty International to arrange to do these portraits, to meet and talk with people."

"These aren't the outstanding figureheads of the movement, just the normal people, willing to be photographed," Tillmans is quick to stress. "None of them had a heroic street fighting rhetoric. In the West, activism of this sort always has a sense of something heroic and subversive about it. When I first got interested in different types of activism in Germany and the UK, there was always a style element to it, but it's interesting that in a setting where there is so much real danger, activists can't look at the aesthetics and coolness of fighting for a cause, and must instead focus on the matter at hand."

The resulting pictures, though, don't betray the fear of living a life in which you can't be openly out of the closet, in which Pride marches are continually targeted by thugs, and Saint Petersburg's activists have been shot at and even murdered. Last year there were over 300 homophobic attacks recorded by Human Rights Watch, and depressingly, only a handful of prosecutions. These are photographs that show a quiet hopefulness, a determination to make things better and a dedication to do what's right.

"I find it so admirable [that they] keep doing what they're doing, in the light of real threat, because I've never been in a situation like that," says Tillmans. "All my life I've been involved in a political and cultural context that has become ever more free. I guess I wanted to just see for myself, and speak to people myself, to really get an idea of what it feels like to live in this situation. When you meet people everything becomes less black and white. You hear all these horror stories, but there's always hope. There are terrible things, but wherever there's people, there's also hope, and that's what I like my photography to do, to amplify and give a voice to hope and solidarity."

Wolfgang Tillmans: Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993, the age of consent is 16, and gender change has been legal since 1997, yet it is not against the law to discriminate, and hate speech is widespread. It doesn't make any sense?
Ruslan Savolainen: Propaganda in Russia claims that LGBT is something foreign to Russian values and the Russian people. They believe that it came from the West and that it imposes European values. This standpoint - that it is "foreign to Russia" - is aggressively pushed by the media and the government.
Dmitry Musolin: A lot of us are trying to understand why Russia is so homophobic. Some people say that it's related to political history, because male homosexuality was illegal for 60 years during the Soviet Union - actually female homosexuality was not, but people don't make that differentiation. In the minds of a lot of people it's still something bad; [they still see it as] criminal, even though it's not anymore. Also, the Russian Orthodox Church is very homophobic and very conservative and now, in the post-Soviet time, the church wants to play a much more important role in society and it has very strong support from the state. The state needs something - like ideology - and the church has something to offer.
Ivan Surok: There are two factors: the fact that the image of an inner enemy needed to be created to distract people from other problems and the [inherent] homophobia of the Russian people.
Dmitry Musolin: It's easier to manipulate people when there is an enemy, so now and again propaganda and government [suggest] that it is America or Europe - the EU is a big enemy of Russia and this idea is strongly promoted by the state's media. It's also important to have an internal enemy, inside the country, so somehow it was decided that gay people could be this kind of enemy, because for a lot of people it's still criminal.

Pride rallies in Russia are now illegal, and attempts to hold unauthorized Pride gatherings have almost always been met with violent attacks by religious conservatives and neo-Nazis, while the police arrest LGBT demonstrators. What are your experiences of this?
Olga Panova: At last year's Gay Pride [in Saint Petersburg] there weren't too many activists, but there were a large group of homophobes who came and threw eggs and stones. They were very aggressive, but the police didn't arrest them, while all the activists were arrested. It was my first time at a police station, and while it was very interesting and funny, it was unfair. I just came out to say that I exist and that my friends shouldn't be killed for loving people of the same sex or gender. Someone hurt me, threw a stone at me and wasn't taken to the police station. That is unfair.
Daniel Grachev: When you go to a demonstration that is banned by the police, you see riot police there and you start wondering whether they will arrest you or not. But you know that you cannot just go away, [that you are ready] to spend the night in a police station and go to court. This is the worst time to be an activist in this country. But with LGBT activism you are giving people some kind of hope for change. During the two years I've been doing LGBT activism, I've received a lot of letters where people write, "Thank you for fighting for our rights because somebody has to, you bring me hope that not everything is lost".

Olga Panova: Maybe it won't change politics hugely, but I hope that seeing me standing there in the street will make some people think or read about LGBT people and change their minds. They see that I exist, that I'm not just someone you read about on the internet or see on TV, but that I'm standing there, I'm real.
Elena Leontieva: LGBT activism makes me feel like I am doing a great thing and making the world more beautiful.
Daniel Grachev: Nothing serious has happened to me so far, but I've been attacked by hooligans at street demonstrations several times. For some time I had post-traumatic stress syndrome, I was afraid of every football fan or every guy with a shaved head. You never know who the government will aim at. For example, those people who went to jail [for the pro-democracy protests in Bolotnaya Square in Moscow in 2012] were randomly chosen, just to [make a point] that it is a "bad" idea to participate in demonstrations.
Dmitry Musolin: There's strong pressure from conservative circles, and the state supports the conservative movement. You have to be very brave to speak up for LGBT people now, especially if you're a public figure.
Ruslan Savolainen: I'm scared every day.

Being publicly "out" in Russia leaves people open to being sacked from their jobs or physically attacked. How has this affected the way you speak about your sexuality?
Artyom Stadnik: With close friends, I am [out]. My mum also knows and accepts it. But being completely open is dangerous in this country.
Dmitry Musolin: I don't have a rainbow flag in my office, but if people ask I tell. I don't lie. I work in a university and there are many older people working there who probably don't know, but younger teachers and PhD students, if they are on Facebook or VKontakte, can easily understand who I am because they see what I post.
Svetlana Zakharova: In my environment people are nice to me, I don't think I lost any friends because of my homosexuality. I do face aggression sometimes, but so do immigrants and women in Russia; we are not the only group.

Legal changes prohibiting "propaganda for non-traditional sexual relationships" were adopted in Russia in 2013. This followed local bans on "the promotion of homosexual, lesbian, bisexual and transgender practices among minors" in cities like Saint Petersburg the year before.
Dmitry Musolin: We didn't believe that it would happen in Saint Petersburg, because it's an important, cultured, modern, big city, so when they started [to promote the law] we had this campaign to stop it. But the people promoting these laws are not stupid, they put gay, lesbian and transgender people together with pedophiles, just separated by commas. When we tried to protest, they said, "You're protecting pedophiles." It's impossible to have a public discussion. They say, "This law is not against gay people, it's against pedophiles."
Ivan Surok: The government practically gave the "attack" command with these laws, so the public thinks it has the right to judge without trial, that killing and torturing is okay and that a murder can be justified by the fact that the victim was gay. There have been several murders in Russia already. The most famous case is that of Vlad Tornovoi, who was sadistically murdered [in May 2013 in Volgograd]. The murderers claimed that they killed him because he told them he was gay. They believed that if they pointed out that he was gay, their penalty would be reduced.

Dmitry Musolin: I'm not teaching minors, so my situation is much easier. People who are teaching in schools are definitely under pressure from this new law, because if they say something positive, or even neutral, about gay people, they are violating the law. I know that some people are losing their jobs. High school teachers, as well as anyone working for small companies where the boss can decide everything, are not protected. This guy who is staying with us lost his job in an advertising agency after it was shown on TV that he took part in a protest.
Ivan Surok: The law is slippery; there is no specific definition of what "gay propaganda" is, so it can be used in a selective way against those who are inconvenient to the government.
Svetlana Zakharova: We tried to launch this program of private donations, but we [ran into] difficulties. We tried to work with one of the biggest crowdfunding platforms in Russia and initially they were okay with us, but they decided that it was too dangerous to work with us.

LGBT activists in the West have tried to draw attention to the deteriorating situation in Russia, but politicians inside the country have claimed that demonstrations abroad are  just examples of anti-Russian prejudice. How does this make you feel?
Daniel Grachev: Foreign support is very important. It was especially strong during the Sochi Olympics when a lot of journalists came to Russia to report on gay rights.
Dmitry Musolin: It's important to have this kind of support. But there are many people, even LGBT people, [in Russia] who think that all protest makes the situation worse. I don't agree with this. I think it's still important to feel that we are not alone, that people share our values and support what we are doing here. If there were no voices from outside, the situation would probably be worse.
Daniel Grachev: Photography is a very strong instrument in influencing people as it allows them to see what's actually going on, like my friends beaten and bloody, and me being arrested by riot policemen. The Sochi Olympics, the photographs of the LGBT protests, and the anti-Russian and anti-Putin attitudes in Europe have all boosted the European media's interest in the Russian LGBT community. It is very important to understand that there are people who support us, like Front Line Defenders and Amnesty International, who find money for some of our activities and even protect us, for instance if we need shelter in a European country.
Ivan Surok: It's obviously good that they voice solidarity with Russians, but it has not been in any way helpful for me as an ordinary person.

The number of LGBT Russians seeking asylum in Western countries has increased significantly in recent years. Have you been personally affected?
Daniel Grachev: I have a lot of friends who have left because it was too dangerous for them to stay. Dmitry Chizhevsky, who was shot and lost his eye; Natalya Tsymbalova, the coordinator of the organization Straights Alliance for LGBT Equality; Dmitry Chunosov from Voronezh; and Pavel Lebedev, an LGBT activist who left after the demonstrations on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, because he fought with the riot police and could have become a victim of the Bolotnaya criminal case.
Olga Panova: I would love to leave Russia, but I don't want to miss the revolution. What if it starts after I leave? It would be sad because I would like to be part of it.

It took decades of campaigning to win LGBT rights in Europe and the US, but some activists in Russia fear that they might have to struggle for much longer. How close do you feel you are to a breakthrough?
Ivan Surok: It seems to me that nothing good will come out of this. [With] the voices of homophobia under the current regime, there won't be changes for the better. The inner enemy is still much needed, and the current government apparently satisfies people.
Daniel Grachev: Civil society in Russia is really weak. There are good organizations, but there are still too few people who believe that something can be changed. So I actually believe that this is only going to end after some global political changes. But [I am] not very optimistic because we don't know when [Putin's] presidency will end.
Elena Leontieva: The situation is getting more depressing, but we are trying to do what we can. That gives us a lot of power and strength to move forward and to be equal. But at this time it's quite dangerous to fight against the government.
Ruslan Savolainen: Europe took a long path to get to this point. And so did America. So this cannot be achieved in a year or two. It will take tremendous effort.
Svetlana Zakharova: I truly do believe that things can change, otherwise it's all pointless, but I'm quite aware that it's not going to happen soon. But I don't think it will be like this forever.


Photography and interviews Wolfgang Tillmans
Introduction Felix Petty
Interviews edited by Matthew Collin
With thanks to Frauke Nelissen, Vasilisa Grebenshchikova, Matthew Collin and Amnesty International.

LGBT rights
the activist issue
generation z
Gay Rights
Matthew Collin
wolfgang tillmans
Gen Z