Russia’s Invisible Youth
By Sarah J Young, on 18 June 2014
Maxim Edwards and Imogen Wade introduce a new documentary from Russia that will have its UK premiere at the closing gala of Open City Docs in London (17-22 June 2014).
Footsteps echo through the hallways of an undisclosed school in Russia; a telephone camera rocks to and fro before the grainy, leering faces of classmates. ‘For me, every day at school starts with shouts of ‘Faggot!’, ‘Be careful, he could f*** your ass with that fork’, and other terms of abuse. I think of it as ‘Good Morning.’ So begins the day of one of 45 teenagers, interviewed for Askold Kurov and Pavel Loparev’s 2014 documentary film Children 404.
The ‘404: page not found’ youth of Russia
The effects of Russia’s controversial 2013 law prohibiting ‘LGBT propaganda’ are well known, but as the creator of Deti 404 (Children 404), journalist Yelena Klimova knows, few people have bothered to ask the opinions of those the law supposedly protects – Russia’s children. Deti 404 is an online project for the children who many believe do not exist – Russia’s LGBT teenagers, the ‘404: page not found’ errors who live in daily fear of harassment and intimidation in the classroom and at home. These are the children who have found a voice in Klimova’s project, allowing them to share their stories with the world.
The authorities’ response was predictable. As a result of Deti 404, Klimova was charged with breaking the law, though her trial on 27 February 2014 found no evidence of ‘gay propaganda’ in her activities. With 22,000 people joining its group on Russian social network VKontakte in its first year and 1364 teenagers having shared their stories so far, the project has been described by journalist Valery Panyushkin as the ‘youth crisis centre the state ought to have created, instead of adopting its anti-gay law.’
The film shows a world of faces hidden behind hands and cameras, furtive glances over shoulders and echoing taunts in school corridors. This is nothing to do with cinematic style; the majority of these children were interviewed on condition of anonymity.
A schoolboy tries to eat his lunch under a barrage of homophobic abuse. His breathing is rapid, the camera darting up from his meal for a few seconds towards the distant, malignant pixels at a neighbouring table. It’s claustrophobic, disturbing, and urgent. We will never know most of these children or what became of them. From their descriptions of the psychological toll of their harassment and attempts to repress their sexuality, it seems many do not want to know themselves.
A provincial focus
Children 404 focuses particularly on Russia’s provinces – on Klimova’s life in the small industrial city of Nizhny Tagil, where she was forced to ‘resign’ from her job as an editor at a local newspaper as a result of her activities. We meet two teenagers who have run away from their families in the remote northern city of Ukhta, in Russia’s Komi Republic. In the city of Ulyanovsk on the River Volga we meet Pasha, who takes us back with him to his old school. His dreams of leaving Russia for Canada lead him to pay a visit to his English teacher, where looking at a Russian alphabet chart on the classroom wall, he points to a rainbow. ‘You have our flag.’
As they leave the school, a rainbow breaks through the grey cloudy skies of Ulyanovsk. Pasha’s nightmare, boarding a flight to Toronto only to realise he has returned to Moscow, fortunately didn’t come true – and in the film’s international premiere at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto on 28 April of this year, he joined filmmakers Kurov and Loparev on stage to great applause. It’s a small relief, though what became of Gosha, another interviewee – locked away and sedated by his parents – remains a chilling mystery.
Funded entirely by donors, many of them anonymous, the documentary has been banned in the Russian Federation, though its creators plan to make it available to their Russian audience online. The film’s modest premiere in Moscow, recalled Kurov and Loparev in Toronto, was disrupted by armed Russian Orthodox protesters and police, who searched the premises for under 18s they could then accuse its organisers of exposing to ‘homosexual propaganda.’ The audience then started to chant ‘we want to see the film!’, though its directors do not discount the possibility of further harassment and intimidation in Russia following its online release
. ‘I had not expected the film to be so powerful’, remarked Klimova. ‘I heard these children’s voices. Until then I had seen only the texts, the letters they had written. I heard them, and it was like being struck by lightning. They exist! […] And this seemingly simple thought was such a revelation for me… For me, as someone who was involved in the film, it’s difficult to fully appreciate its power – that’s something for you, the viewers, to do. I, of course, sat and cried.’
The strength of Deti 404 is its portrayal of homophobia as a normative, pervasive element in Russian society.‘If anybody thinks’, one voice wonders aloud towards the end of Children 404 ‘that we are trying to promote gay relationships, then come and see how we are beaten, how we are humiliated, how we are bullied. Come and see how wonderful it is [to be gay in Russia].’ There have been many well-merited column inches devoted to the Russian government’s policy towards its LGBT citizens. The strength of Deti 404 is its portrayal of homophobia as a normative, pervasive element in Russian society. The camera lingers on the faces of these children’s tormenters; they are brazen, unfazed. They have nothing, it seems, to be ashamed of.
Hopeful and brave activists
‘Actually, are gays legal in Russia?’ asks a passer-by casually as Pasha stands in Red Square clutching a protest placard.. Over tea in her Nizhny Tagil apartment, Klimova hopes things will change. She has to hope. After all, she says, 50 years ago, African-Americans had to sit separately on public transport. That has changed, ‘and it only took two generations.’ She believes every LGBT person is under threat, from those who attempt to march on Red Square with their rainbow flags to those who believe that if they sit quietly at home, nothing will happen to them. Yet many of her LGBT friends are leaving Russia, an option which is open to very few. ‘If we can’t sit here quietly…’ she murmurs, head in hands.
‘Then we’ll sit here loudly’ adds her partner.
Maxim Edwards is an Editorial Assistant at openDemocracy. He writes on inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations in post-Soviet countries. His work has been published in Al-Jazeera, Souciant and the Forward. Imogen Wade is a PhD candidate at UCL SSEES, working on the governance of innovation in Russia’s regions, 1989-2010, and an editorial assistant at openDemocracy.
This post was originally published on openDemocracy and is reproduced under the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.
Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.