Last year, when anti-LGBT violence broke out in Charlotte’s Russian sister city of Voronezh, local LGBT activists in the Queen City stepped up and asked Charlotte City Council to sever its ties with the city. The local efforts in Charlotte came as anti-LGBT violence mounted across the Russian nation and political leaders there, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, pushed for draconian anti-LGBT legislation.
Calls to sever Charlotte’s Russian sister city ties weren’t successful, but they did result in discussions between then-Mayor Patsy Kinsey, several Council members, including LaWana Mayfield, the city’s sister city committee, the U.S. State Department and Human Rights Watch. (In Chapel Hill, town leaders did later drop their own Russian sister city relationship.) qnotes covered the incidents in-depth at about this time last year as Charlotte Pride was ramping up for its 2013 activities.
The violence in Voronezh was both verbal and physical, targeted toward several human rights activists and LGBT people, including leading local activist Pavel Lebedev, fellow activist Andrew Nasonov and his boyfriend Igor Bazilevsky.
Now, Nasonov, 25, and Bazilevsky are living in Washington, D.C., where they traveled after Nasonov says he was kidnapped by Russian police. He and Bazilevsky are seeking asylum in the U.S. (Lebedev also left Russia and is currently living in Germany.)
Violence and harassment in Voronezh has continued despite international attention to the Russian anti-LGBT crackdown.
“The city has engaged in a real persecution of human rights activists connected with the Human Rights House,” Nasonav told qnotes, referring to the home in which he and several human rights activists lived and worked. “One human rights activist, Andrei Yurov, was beaten and doused with green paint. Igor and I decided again to leave the country. We arrived in the United States on July 2, 2014, and are still here.”
Born in the Chamlyk-Nikolsky Lipetsk region, Nasonov moved in 2007 to Voronezh, a city of about one million people located 515 kilometers from Moscow and about 270 kilometers from the Russian-Ukranian border. He was 17 and entering school to study journalism at Voronezh State University. He’d realized he was gay as a teenager and college gave him some, though few and cautious, opportunities to meet others. He said he lived a double life, “conscious of each meeting, every action, every phrase, and every look” and regretting every visit he had with another gay man.
After an attempted suicide, Nasonov came to terms and came out. His mother “cried a lot,” he said, and was very worried, but remained supportive of him. He soon became acquainted with more LGBT people, meeting like-minded, activism-oriented individuals online and, later, at the Human Rights House, where he and local activists began Voronezh’s first LGBT activist group. They held their first meeting on April 2, 2010, he said, organizing demonstrations, events and meetings in Voronezh and traveling to St. Petersburg and Moscow for demonstrations there.
Harassment directed toward Nasonov began as he ramped up his activism in 2010. He had been writing for Moscow’s Novaya Gazeta, a liberal opposition newspaper. An article on Voronezh police torture irked local officials, he believes.
“At first I did not take all the threats seriously — I got used to it, and I learned to ignore it. But over time, the negative attacks against me began to intensify. Subsequently, nationalists and Orthodox radicals began to collect and publish incriminating and false reports about members of the Voronezh LGBT community.”
Meetings of the LGBT group went underground. Bazilevsky also received threats, lost his small business and was fired from a job at a children’s drama school. Nasonov said critics unfairly connected his activism to his boyfriend and were “playing into the false stereotype of gay men as pedophiles.”
Nasonov and fellow activist Pavel Lebedev worked together to organize the Jan. 20, 2013, Voronezh demonstration and one later demonstration as the Olympic torch wound its way through Voronezh on its way toward Sochi.
Death threats started pouring in immediately when news of the Jan. 20 protest spread through the city. This time, Nasonov took them seriously. “They were very specific and targeted, qualitatively different from those I received earlier,” he said. “Homophobes published the home addresses of LGBT activists, links to our social media accounts, and photos.”
One of the threats read, “I will come. I will come and kill you. When it’s over and you disperse home, I will catch you and smash your head.”
Nasonov said the police refused to address the threats, but they moved ahead with plans for the protest.
“We knew that many homophobes would attend our picket, but we still decided to do it because we were confident that the police would not allow mass brawls in the city center. We hoped that the police would protect us,” Nasonov said.
At the demonstration, as many as 1,500 counter-protesters hurled snowballs, chunks of ice, stones and bottles as shouts of “kill the fags” and “beat the faggots” were heard. At some point, Nasonov recalls, a large crowd rushed toward him and the few other demonstrators.
“I was beaten, knocked to the ground, and kicked repeatedly in the head, neck, and shoulders — so severely that I later had to have a scan to check for brain damage,” Nasonov recounted in a recent commentary published at The Bilerico Project.
After getting treatment, Nasonov went into hiding. A few days later, he went to police to file a complaint in the attack against him. Instead of assistance, Nasonov was faced by four men who identified themselves as Moscow criminal investigators. They took him into custody and confiscated his cell phone, passport and personal belongings. For five hours, the men interrogated Nasonov about an alleged crime in Moscow to which Nasonov had no connection.
“I was intimidated, threatened, and beaten, and they also threatened the safety of my family and close friends. All of this lasted about five hours,” Nasonov wrote at Bilerico. “When they finally let me go, they warned me that if I tried to flee, I would be placed on the federal most-wanted list and they would find me. Because my kidnappers had threatened my safety and that of my family and friends, I was afraid to tell anyone about what they’d done to me.”
Police did open a criminal investigation in the Jan. 20 attacks, but no prosecutions ever came. For months, red tape kept the case from moving forward. Nasonov recently learned one assailant was eventually released and has received no punishment for the criminal assault.
“Voronezh authorities totally ignore the problems that are connected to the LGBT community,” Nasonov told qnotes. “They do not even try to understand the essence of the problems that sometimes arise, and they display a total ignorance and unwillingness to dialogue.”
Nasonov heard about efforts last year to address Charlotte’s sister city relationship with Voronezh and he publicly supported efforts to sever ties. Such campaigns, he told The Moscow News last November, ”raise the question of homophobia not just on the federal, but on the regional, level.”
He added, “City authorities should feel a reaction to [the city’s] open homophobia, which they in fact support and encourage.”
Nasonov said he would still support cutting the sister city relationship. “Then and now I hold the same position: it is necessary to take every opportunity to make it clear to the authorities in Russia that homophobia is never acceptable — in Russia, or in other countries,” he said. “I think that the more serious the consequences are for their homophobia and ignorance, the more likely it is that the situation will change.”
Though Nasonov and Bazilevsky are now in Washington, D.C., thoughts of home are never far behind. Nasonov wants people to continue to speak out, especially in cities like Charlotte.
“It seems to me that from a distance, people can help Russian LGBTs only by disseminating truthful information about the situation in Russia, and through dialogue with their local authorities,” he said. “Those local authorities, in cities like Charlotte, can raise relevant questions on the diplomatic level or at the level of cultural interaction.”
Back to Voronezh
Miss our in-depth coverage on Voronezh last year? Read all of our past coverage, including last year’s “Got Pride?” issue
Nasonov continues to plan to speak out. He wants change in his home country — change he says won’t come unless Putin is ousted from power. “I have always believed, and will continue to believe, that Vladimir Putin is criminal. And Russia will never have peace while he is in power,” he said.
Meanwhile, he and Bazilevsky are making their home in the U.S. The two were recently engaged last month. They’ve made friends with a variety of U.S. nationals, as well as other Russian refugees. Nasonov loves being in the U.S. This year’s Independence Day celebrations in D.C. was the first time he and his fiancé were able to hold hands publicly without fear.
“We are very pleased with the sense of freedom and security we have here,” Nasonov said.
But, the road to a stable home won’t be easy, Nasonov explained: “There are a number of problems associated with living here. One of these problems is the inability to get a job, which is forbidden under U.S. law. We are fleeing persecution in our home country, but have no opportunity to even make a living in our new one. It is very difficult.” : :
— The interview with Nasonov was conducted via email, using Google Translate to assist with translation. The Bilerico Project’s John Becker assisted with translation clarity. Learn more about The Bilerico Project at bilerico.com.