Russia now is a story told in pictures, still and moving. Everybody knows about Putin’s anti-gay law, because it’s been at the top of the news, gay and straight, for two weeks running; and if you’ve been following this even slightly, you’ve seen images like these — of homophobes brutally abusing Russian queers.
But what do they mean? Clips and snapshots keep cropping up on Western blogs. Here’s a “horrific video showing Russian thugs have started entrapping gay men and boys,” posted by John Aravosis, with 85,000 hits on YouTube. Yet how can you evaluate it if nobody bothers to say where the hell they got it? Nor do most of the reposters have any qualms about showing the full faces of the people in these videos and photos: apparently once they’ve been outed and humiliated in Russia, they’re fair game in the rest of the world. (“While I am loathe to expose this young man any further, but [sic] this must be shown,” Melanie Nathan blogs while hawking one video. No, it mustn’t.) There’s a panicked compulsion to give us more and more pictures to consume, partly because they drive up Web traffic, partly because they lend an urgency that makes mere explanations seem distracting. But you can’t make sense of it unless you can say, not just see, something about what’s going on.
Pictures are problems. Photos pretend to tell us truths — a photograph “seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects,” wrote Susan Sontag — but, of course, they’re limited in what they tell. A photograph, or even a YouTube fragment of film, lacks context, is pulled free from the background that would give it meaning. You could argue (I’m sure someone has) that photographs of violence have an especially insidious appeal because all photographs are made in violence. Atrocity photos simply express the essence of the form: a few moments ripped from the seamless substance of the world, propped up in lopped and amputated isolation. You can use them, abuse them, put them in new contexts where they say and mean something completely different.
Russia is, as it happens, used to having its story told in images. Orthodoxy pioneered the use of icons for narrating religion to illiterate masses. To many Russian faithful still, these pictures don’t just show the sacred, they are it: a second, visual Gospel, sharing the authority and infallibility of the first. All those modern propaganda posters and imposing Red Square pageants draw on the same tradition: that seeing induces believing.
But we’re talking politics, not religion. And a picture must never be left to speak for itself. It’s not that hard to trace some of the stories behind these images. Due diligence requires it. At the very least, it can show Western activists how repression in Putin’s Russia goes far beyond a single “anti-gay law.” Moreover, you can learn much from the international economy of images in which these pictures circulate.
For example: the photograph at top comes from the page of Mikhail Solovyov, a neo-Nazi in the small, remote Urals city of Kamensk. (More on Kamensk soon.) It’s gone round the world; it’s become symbolic. Last week, a march against Putin’s law in Sweden saw the photo restaged as a tableau vivant, with a bear and a leather queen playing the abusive skinheads. (Isn’t this a peculiar way of protesting violence? I’ve been to countless demonstrations on Darfur, but never saw street theater enacting the invasion of the janjaweed.) How do I know that? Because a picture of the demo made its way back to Kamensk, and Mikhail Solovyov. He put it on his page too: with the caption,
Following the “advanced” West, you first recognize LGBT marriage, then pedophilia [as a] normal sexual orientation. … Pictured, representatives of foreign LGBT organizations protesting against catching pedophiles.
So where did all these pictures start?
Maxim Martsinkevich is probably the place to begin. Nothing about the 29-year-old would-be architect’s page at VK, Russia’s answer to Facebook, suggests a particularly distinctive skinhead. He goes by his nickname, “Tesak,” variously translated “machete,” “cleaver,” or — my favorite — “slasher.” He likes steroids, protein shakes, pointless displays of masculinity (three videos show him having a tooth pulled minus anesthetic), and Adolf Hitler. Yet he’s quite innovative as Nazis go. Early in the Putin years, he was the driving force behind Format18, a violent group that called itself the “armed wing” of Russia’s National Socialist party.
Format18 regularly assaulted immigrants and dark people. Its creativity lay in deciding that visibility — movie cameras coupled with social media — was not its enemy, but its friend. It filmed the attacks, turning them into imitation music videos that went viral on YouTube and VK. Google “Format18” and “funny” and you’ll figure out why: their savage sense of humor. “Lol, I love those videos,” one European neo-Nazi says. “It’s funny when they beat people up then burn their passports.” Some of the videos showed murders.
You might say Slasher dealt in iconography, that Russian tradition of showing, not telling. Made visible, the violence spread terror among the people Format18 wanted scared; made consumable, it helped Format18 recruit. Many Russians had loathed foreigners and especially Southerners at least since the Chechen wars. (There’s ample evidence that Putin sealed his 2000 election victory by having the ex-KGB carry out apartment-building bombings that slaughtered hundreds of Russians — then blaming them on Chechen “terrorists.”) Format18’s videos changed killing foreigners from drab fascist duty into something sexy.
Slasher even became a minor star in Putin’s mainstream media, soundbiting his way onto talk shows. Then disaster struck. Starting in 2008, he was convicted twice for “inciting ethnic hatred”: once for breaking up a debate between democracy activists, and once for a video supposedly showing a Kazakh being hanged and dismembered. (The latter turned out to be staged with actors, though it was rumored to re-enact a real killing.) Format18 fell apart while he was in prison. Slasher’s popularity still smoldered, though. When he was freed in 2011, a video celebrating his release immediately became one of the most-watched YouTube offerings in Russia.
Slasher’s second act really got going sometime in 2012, though. His new idea was to apply Format18’s social-media methods to hunting down sexual perversion. His conceit was that Russia swarmed with chickenhawks chasing young men in impunity; he started gathering skinheads into a movement to combat them, called “Occupy Pedophilia.” The project’s genius lay in the potential drama. Most foreigners, after all, don’t or can’t hide their origin. But someone accused of pedophilia has every incentive to avoid exposure. Hence the titillation of humiliation, of violated privacy, topped off the violence. Reality TV replaced music videos as a model. Slasher seems to draw direct inspiration, in fact, from Dateline NBC‘s deranged To Catch a Predator series. He tries the same tactics: lure “pedophiles” with online ads allegedly placed by kids, then shame them with candid cameras. Except, unlike Dateline‘s wordy hosts, Slasher doesn’t waste time moralizing. He gets straight to the beatings.
Unaware Westerners call Putin a “czar” and focus on the letter of legislation, but this ignores the peculiarly lawless character of his rule. Police persecute dissidents, journalists, and businessmen who don’t pay and play along; meanwhile, many laws go unenforced, much actual crime unpunished. Slasher’s vigilantism thus is a ready route to popularity. And he can carry on his own obviously criminal campaign in the full light of YouTube with little tangible threat of prosecution.
But it’s worth stressing: the passionate, extralegal revulsion against “pedophiles” that Slasher exploits is not just a Russian emotion. The mania’s international. If Slasher donned mufti and put the skinhead clothes in mothballs, he’d have plenty of fans in the US or UK. At one American website, you can cast a ballot: “Should pedophiles and serial rapists be killed?” 86% vote yes; 14% no. That law-and-order Pasionaria Sarah Palin called for lynching child abuser Jerry Sandusky instead of trying him: “Hang him from the highest tree, I’ll bring the rope.” In Britain in 2000, News of the World, Rupert Murdoch’s now-sunken flagship, launched a campaign of “naming and shaming” sex offenders who had already served their time in prison. It
led to lynch-mob attacks, firebombings and rioting in at least 11 communities, with vigilantes in some cases attacking people who looked like the men pictured or who had been incorrectly identified as past offenders. In one town, the home of a pediatrician was attacked when anti-pedophile campaigners got their spelling confused.
Slasher, who probably thinks “pediatrician” is what you call a Jewish pedophile, would have been proud.
To be sure, there are specifically Russian inflections to Slasher’s popularity. “Protecting children” has taken on acute political meaning: exaggerated anxieties about Russia’s falling birthrate translate into fears that the national future is in danger. Putin’s state-promoted homophobia feeds on that. And Occupy Pedophilia is explicit in its homophobia. They have no evident interest in men who seek girls for sex. (One member told a reporter, “Why should we catch girls who have sex for money? That’s normal for me. A pedophile is a different kind of person.”) For them, male homosexuality and preying on children are pretty much the same thing.
In Kamensk, the online news source Lenta.ru interviewed Occupy Pedophilia members. “Homosexuals are almost sacred in this country,” one leader complained. “We are against pedophiles, but we also do not like homosexuals. I don’t know why homosexuals protect pedophiles.” He added:
Some representatives of homosexuals came to my home recently … They said we mock people. They asked why we hate them. They said they feel oppressed. It just happened that they both somehow jumped into the garbage cans.
“If you see two young men walking down the street and holding hands, what would you do?” the reporter asks. The answer: “Interrogation. And then it all depends on them.”
That slippage between gays and predators is a common enough prejudice, in Russia as elsewhere. On the other hand, when Western activists redefine the men simply as “gay” victims, they should be aware they’re just reinforcing a widespread Russian belief that gays are identical to pedophiles. They need to note the nuance and stress the difference, not just confirm the belief.
Occupy Pedophilia has taken off. Its website claims groups in 21 cities. A Russian journalist counted 359 Occupy Pedophilia groups on VK; one of those pages has 75,000 followers. Most of the videos circulating in the West that show “gays” being beaten are from Occupy Pedophilia’s sites. (This page has almost 400 clips from around the country.) I’m not going to embed the full videos here, because I’m not going to show the men’s faces. Slasher’s own films are less violent than some of his provincial acolytes’. He strips victims, interrogates them, humiliates them. Other groups douse the victims with urine, or force them to drink it. This month, a police raid on the Occupy Pedophilia HQ in Sverdlovsk found “20 knives and sharpeners … 5 brass knuckles, 3 shuriken (Ninja throwing stars), nunchaku [Japanese chain sticks], a self-defense weapon ‘Blow,‘ 12 rounds of ammunition of various calibers and labels, as well as a wooden handle attached to a weighted chain, a metal hook with a chain, a metal hedgehog, 2 scythes, axes, wooden bats, and pepper spray.”
Several things should be emphasized. The entrapped men are of varying ages — from early 20s to 50s or 60s. Most were apparently lured by ads that promised teenage youths.
But there’s no evidence that most of them would be “pedophiles” under Russian law, or that, answering the ad aside, they’ve done anything wrong. The Occupy goons don’t care about the legal age of consent, which is 16 in Russia. Homosexuals “say a 16-year-old boy is already an adult, and can’t be corrupted,” a Kamensk skinhead complained to Lenta.ru. Reminded this is the law, “he shrugged.”
Indeed, sometimes Occupy Pedophilia doesn’t bother with the ads and the bait: they just pick up guys they think are gay on the street. One victim, Evgeny, told Rosbalt News that he went for an excursion with a girl “who’s dating a guy from ‘Occupy Pedophilia.’ … Based on others’ opinions, he decided I was gay, and it’s terrible that his girlfriend is talking to me.” At a bus stop,
Suddenly the guy attacked me. Hit my face and kicked my body… When I started bleeding from the nose, he stopped. I tried to get away to a safe distance, where a couple with a child were sitting. They lent a handkerchief but refused to help. After 10 minutes, three men approached. They began to ask me obscene questions and take pictures with their phones. … “When did you become gay? Do you have anal and oral sex?” They told passers-by that I was gay and would become a pedophile in the future. Some people got in conversations with them and even laughed. Next two of them tried to shove me into a car. They said they want to interview me … A woman waiting for a bus shouted she’d call the police. Hearing this … they jumped into the car [without me] and drove away.
Any hit TV series spawns a spinoff. Slasher’s violent reality show already has one. It’s called “Occupy Gerontophilia.”
Things get especially vicious here. “Philip Doenitz” founded Occupy Gerontophilia. That’s a pseudonym for Philip Razinsky, a fresh-faced Moscow student and Slasher groupie. He renamed himself after HItler’s successor: perhaps that’s how he sees himself next to Slasher, who probably should watch his back. At one point, Slasher used him as bait in entrapping older “pedophiles.” Then Philip branched out on his own.
Instead of hunting hawks, Occupy Gerontophilia chases the chickens. Doenitz assembled gangs of homophobic teenagers; they try to entrap other young guys into meetings with imaginary older ones, sometimes with the promise of money. A blogger explains,
Caught through social networks, 12-16 year-olds are invited to meet, then beaten and forced to talk to their about their homosexuality. Then it’s all laid out in VK groups, with the slogan “Do repost — break his life.” The teen is terrorized by sending out these videos to his friends, acquaintances and parents.
Occupy Gerontophilia is smaller than its anti-pedophile model: a reporter found only 14 VK groups, against over 300 for Occupy Pedophilia. VK keeps closing these down, much more often than it does Slasher’s direct progeny. In early July, a video Doenitz’s followers took in the town of Tambov provoked a surge of indignation. Local news recounts that “On a dating site [the Occupy members] posed as a 23-year-old man and met a 12-year old schoolboy. They promised him money for the meeting; during all this, services of a sexual nature were not discussed. The child agreed and went.” Instead they bullied him in a 15-minute video, taunting him for homosexuality and prostitution. Police opened an investigation against the abusers; the video has been removed from the web. The newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets followed up on the 12-year-old’s fate:
He now refuses to go out or socialize with friends. But sadly, he doesn’t have many friends. Teenagers are cruel; the majority turned away from the humiliated boy. He will likely be removed from the school where he was studying before. … His mother even thinks about moving to a remote province, where there is no Internet and no one will know her son.
According to the Russian LGBT blog AntiDogma, in another July video Doenitz is seen blackmailing one of his victims, promising to release him and suppress the footage they’re filming if he gives one of his abusers a blow job. “I understand you don’t want it, but this is the only option or the movie hits the Internet. Your friends will see it 100%, and your parents.” He tells the child that sucking the guy won’t hurt: “One time only, shallow, a little bit.” This video too is mercifully gone from Doenitz’s VK page.
If Dateline offered inspiration to Slasher’s scams, Doenitz’s abuses are pure kid-on-kid bullying — but with a brutal, militaristic edge. Interviewed by Moskovskij Komsomolets, Doenitz defended his videos. Better that a child’s life “be broken in this way, than that he grow up gay, and continue to engage in prostitution for money. I care about their future. But a quiet life? They’re just not going to have it.” He added that, as outrage over his methods grows, he’s getting tougher.
I’ve decided to apply the methods of urine therapy with regard to juvenile gays — simply pour urine on them at the meeting. I will lead the conversation, too, in a more rigid form. The level of aggression at the present time will increase significantly.
In the provincial city of Lipetsk, Oleg, an Occupy Gerontophilia member, explained to another journalist that “I do not want to live in a society where they tell me that homosexuality is the norm. And if a teenager is selling himself for money, where’s the guarantee that after a few years he won’t start to seduce children?” Oleg says his group has “50 like-minded people, but I think there will be more soon.”
Among the questions all this raises, some stand out.
a) What’s the relationship between skinhead violence and Putin’s State? Through the first decade of Putin’s rule, neo-Nazis were usually found, if uneasily, among the opposition. Putin used them to divide his opponents — many democrats wouldn’t be seen at the same demo with them — but distrusted them. The 3 1/2 year sentence meted out to Slasher for staging a Kazakh’s mock-murder was indicative: where possible, Putin wanted their violence kept under control.
When the current Occupy antics go too far in rousing outrage, the authorities will step in with at least token threats of prosecution. (In Sverdlovsk oblast, Occupy Pedophilia is under investigation by the Ministry of the Interior’s Center for Combating Extremism; most Russians would be surprised there is such a thing.) But since the 2011 protests against his rigged re-election — the most serious challenge to his rule in over a decade — Putin has lurched rightward in calculated fashion. He hopes to peel off ultra-nationalists from the anti-Putin coalition, where they’ve been perhaps the most reliable street presence. His current nationalist, natalist, morally conservative language (and legislation) is part of the plan.
In this sense, Slasher et. al. are playing Putin’s game, rousing public anger against imaginary enemies — and, by their vigilantism, whipping up demand for an ever-stronger State to step in. The very fact that they’ve dubbed their moral-minority movements “Occupy” is telling. “Occupy” was a totemic term among the 2011-2012 anti-Putin demonstrators, as for many democracy activists around the world. By co-opting it for trivial moral policing, Slasher depoliticizes the word, and helps channel those revolutionary energies toward private ends. He makes deviance the issue, not democracy. Most ultra-rightists in Russia still loathe Putin. But whether or not Slasher realizes it, he’s acting out Putin’s strategy.
b) Are the abuses a recent thing, a product of Putin’s new law? You’d think so, to read the gay blogosphere, which only just heard about them. Most Western gay commentators haven’t followed anything in Russia for the last ten years except the highly public, counterproductive efforts to stage Gay Pride in Moscow — a fiasco that has run at cross-purposes to other Russian LGBT activists’ patient efforts at building communities. So naturally, all these stories surprise them, and get lumped together with the panic over Putin’s law.
Melanie Nathan blogs that “since the introduction of new homophobic laws in Russia, the violence against gays has increased.” But there’s no evidence for this. It’s language that creates an atmosphere of urgent crisis (“the terror is so rife at this time, that it is equally criminal for us to be silent”), in which something — anything — must be done (“To my way of thinking it should be all or nothing“). It negates the fact that the repression in Russia has been going on for a long time and has deep roots. Occupy Pedophilia is at least a year old, and many of the videos cited as evidence of abuses now actually go back months. The Occupy Gerontophilia film that Nathan points to, as proof of “new terror unfold[ing] before our eyes” in August, shows snow on the ground.
It’s quite plausible that the Occupy twins, Pedo and Geronto, have fed on the anti-homosexual rhetoric of Putin’s party. They certainly will feed on the political restrictions and stigma that the new legislation will create. Easy to fight enemies who can’t talk back! But it’s equally plausible that they’ve been nourished by the same general environment — of demonizing difference, marginalizing minorities, doling out rights like sweets to the deserving — that powered Putin’s legislation in the first place.
The anti-propaganda bill is odious, and must be scrapped. But repealing it will not make Slasher go away, or ensure gay men’s and children’s safety, or guarantee the civil liberties of LGBT people or anybody else in Russia. The problems are more profound than a single law. They involve the regime’s use of violence and murder against opponents, its stigmatizing and scapegoating of convenient Others, its suppression of civil society across the board. The current publicity is a chance to engage Western activists with Russian issues over the long haul; letting them rest content with short-term answers is a catastrophic failure. To tell Western gays that they need only pressure Putin about a single issue, then sit back satisfied if their demands are met, is to offer all the Slashers carte blanche for a future career of abuse.
c) Is this just a gay issue? No. Slasher and other neo-Nazis were attacking — and murdering — guest workers, immigrants, and other foreigners, along with dark-looking Russians and Muslims of all sorts, for years before Occupy Pedophilia started. That’s still their first priority. Even the Occupy Pedophilia thugs are never happier than when a gay-seeming “Uzbek waiter” or Korean student falls into their hands.
No Russian LGBT activist would fail to see the link between homophobic violence and this history of racism (possibly excepting Nikolai Alekseev, who’s flirted with racist extremists at various points in his career). It’s irresponsible for Western LGBT activists to ignore it. When they complain of “terrorism” against gays, and don’t admit that immigrants and ethnic minorities have faced the same terror for decades, they’re not just wrong: they hurt their own cause. “We should not be silent when a country is being oppressive to our friends,” Duncan Osborne of New York’s Gay City News said in promoting a Russia boycott. Are gays the West’s only friends? Are ethnic Uzbeks, Koreans, or Chechens strangers or, worse, enemies? To foster that impression is morally intolerable.
d) Are they killing gays? There have been horrible homophobic murders — most recently a 23-year-old in Volgograd, killed by two acquaintances in May when he told them he was gay. But for some of the stories circulating now, there’s no evidence.
The latest account comes from Kamensk (again). In mid-July, Mikhail Solovyov of the Occupy Pedophilia group posted a video showing an entrapped “Uzbek” being questioned: a “pedophile, who worked as a waiter in a restaurant,” and “came to visit a 14-year-old teenager.” There were also photos of him (like the one at top) abused and humiliated: stripped, smeared with red paint, forced to hold a dildo, painted blue and doused in piss. These were picked up by Valentin Degterev, a doctor living in Kamensk, on his blog, and went around the world.
On August 1, Degterev announced that the Uzbek had died of his injuries. No one has been able to confirm this, and a number of things don’t quite make sense. For one, this news came more than two weeks after the first pictures of the “interrogation” appeared. For another, the images circulating show the victim being degraded, but don’t suggest life-threatening injuries. Degterev is a passionate, even heroic anti-Fascist who follows the local neo-Nazis obsessively: but I can’t vouch for his reliability on this without independent verification. Still, the story mushroomed on the Internet in grossly distorted form. In the UK, both Pink News (which called the killing a “claim”) and Gay Star News (which reported it as gospel) turned the “murder victim” into a “gay teen” for sensation’s sake — despite the obvious fact that he was, from the pictures, in his twenties at minimum.
Earlier stories of deaths in Kamensk had failed to check out. In April, Occupy Pedophilia entrapped a 19-year-old, Alex Bulygin, to meet a fake 16-year-old. They “interrogated” him, beat him, and forced him to drink urine. In June, the group gloatingly claimed on their VK page that he had hanged himself in shame, which they presented as an “exemplary” encouragement to their members. Yet a Lenta.ru reporter, visiting Kamensk in July, learned that Bulygin was alive.
Occupy Pedophilia Kamensk is, however, renowned for its toughness even among the movement’s reprobates. As one journalist writes, it “operates much more harshly than other branches.” Allusions to death haunt its doings. At a July 1 rally in support of Putin’s anti-propaganda law, in the nearby town of Bogdanovich, the okkupatsi carried banners saying “50% of gays are pedophiles,” and a coffin. They titled a clip of the march “Bulygin’s funeral.”
If the Kamensk group hasn’t killed anybody yet, they stand a good chance of doing so in future. The weapons cache I mentioned, found at their lair in nearby Sverdlovsk, is telling. Their videos seem more violent than others in the Occupy Pedophilia movement, too — at least judging from those on the page of movement activist Lev Vychurov (whose permanent status is “I HATE YOU ALL”). They force foam in victims’ anuses (as in the video above, titled “Anal Watchman”). They make them swallow urine, which they call the “magic elixir.” In one film, “Loser on the Run,” a man is electroshocked, sprayed with what seems to be urine in his eyes, beaten both indoors and outdoors, and kicked in the head. And here I’ll break my own strictures and show part of his face — because the face says more than all my words ever could:
The world and the Internet are now full of passionate proposals for doing something about Russia: boycotts, protests, shows of solidarity from the sincere to the specious. I don’t know what to add. But I’d suggest pressuring VK.com to act vigorously to remove pages from its site that portray abuses or promote criminal acts. (The company’s financial history is shady, but information on its ownership structure can be found here.) That would at least slow the ceaseless circulation of these images of violence, which (to paraphrase words that Jorge Luis Borges once attributed to an imaginary heretic) multiply the most abominable aspects of humankind.