Guest Blogger

Escape from Russia: My Independence Day

Filed By Guest Blogger | July 21, 2014 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Andrew Nasonov, beating, harassment, hate crime, Igor Bazilevsky, intimidation, police brutality, Russia, Russian anti-LGBT laws, Russian gay propaganda, Russian LGBT people, violence, Vladimir Putin

Editor's Note: Guest blogger Andrew Nasonov (on the left in photo below) is an LGBT human rights activist from Voronezh, Russia, a city of one million people located approximately 125 miles from the Ukrainian border. He and his longtime partner Igor Bazilevsky (right) now live in Washington, D.C. and are seeking asylum in the United States. They recently became engaged.

andrey-igor.jpgWe walked down a street filled with people. I was afraid to take his hand; I worried that people will condemn us. I thought that walking down the street hand in hand was dangerous. In Russia we are considered second-class citizens, and it seemed like the hatred towards our family would never end.

For a moment, I'd forgotten that we were in the United States. It was July 4th, Independence Day.

Our names are Andrew Nasonov and Igor Bazilevsky. We have been together for 4 years. We love each other. Two days before, we'd left Russia. We decided to change our life and finally have a taste of freedom.

Shyly and timidly I took Igor's hand. He smiled. We looked at the people around us with fear. But there was no hatred in their eyes; everyone was smiling and enjoying the holiday. We wept with happiness, because we were walking down the street hand in hand -- without fear -- for the first time!

And then we realized: this country takes us. She accepts us as we are.

Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters that the situation for LGBT people in Russia is greatly exaggerated. I want to tell you the real story of our lives -- a story our president has never heard, because he does not care for his own citizens.

LGBT Life in Russia: Harassment and Intimidation

We left Russia after Voronezh, the city where we lived, launched a persecution of the Human Rights House, where numerous human rights organizations are headquartered. Activists held radical pro-Putin rallies to discredit human rights defenders and advocates. They handed out provocative leaflets, and in the center was written "Wall of Shame: the Fifth Column of Voronezh. They are traitors, scum, and freaks. Know their faces."

The poster also had photographs of all known human rights defenders in the city, including me. We want to file a lawsuit for public insult, humiliation, and degradation, but we know that we cannot get justice. And just one day before we left Russia, famous human rights activist Andrei Yurov was beaten in Voronezh.

I think it makes no sense to talk about each action in which we participated -- because there were a lot of them. They were usually human rights events. But I do want to discuss what happened after the presidential elections in Russia in 2012.

At that time, we participated in protests demanding fair elections in Moscow and Voronezh. (In Voronezh I acted as the coordinator of the "League of Voters.") Among other things, Igor and I participated in a public event called the "March of the Millions" on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012. Several people were sentenced to prison earlier this year for participating in this event.

I collaborated with the newspaper Novaya Gazeta in Moscow. One of the stories that I published revealed how the police brought torture techniques from Chechnya in to other regions of Russia.

It's also worth noting that information about my relationship with Igor Bazilevsky was collected and published, apparently to make our life miserable. Igor received threatening phone calls at his office. In addition, after the details of our relationship were publicized he was asked to resign from the children's drama school where he worked as a teacher and to which he devoted more than 10 years of his life.

Beatings and Death Threats

On January 11, 2013, I was one of the demonstrators who applied to hold a picket against Russia's anti-gay law prohibiting "homosexual propaganda." We planned to hold our rally on January 20 in the center of Voronezh.

Almost immediately after we filed our application, information about our plans appeared in the media and on the Internet. At the same time I started receiving death threats, both published publicly on the Internet and in private messages. I also received several threatening telephone calls, where the caller threatened to kill me unless I canceled the event.

russia-voronezh-rally.pngI filed statements with the police, the investigation committee, and the Center to Combat Extremism about the threats to my life and health. However, no action was taken and the threats continued. But I decided to hold the action and not give up, because I believe that we have the constitutional right to assemble freely and express our objections to the law banning "gay propaganda."

On the day of our action, they beat us. There were only a few of us demonstrators (10-12 people), but we were attacked by a few hundred thugs. There are plenty of videos and photos, publications in Russian and foreign media, affidavits of various Russian and international organizations such as PACE, Human Rights Watch, Front Line Defenders, and others documenting this event.

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. I received some basic first aid at the scene and also assisted Igor, who always was with me. After the picket, we filed a complaint with the police.

Kidnapped by Police

Afterwards, threats on the Internet continued to arrive. A few days after the picket, Igor and I went to the police to testify in the criminal investigation into the attack on me. But then I was kidnapped by four men who said they were members of the Moscow Criminal Investigation.

They took me away from Igor. They confiscated my cell phone, passport, and all my personal belongings, and locked me in the basement; they would not allow me to get in touch with my lawyer. The men harshly interrogated me about a crime that had allegedly occurred recently in Moscow -- one I had nothing to do with. They said that I was an accomplice in an attempted murder, which I of course knew absolutely nothing about and was not connected to in any way.

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. 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.

No Justice for LGBT People in Russia

The criminal investigation into the January 20 attack on me was eventually suspended because the police said they couldn't identify anyone to prosecute for it. I have no doubt that the criminal case will soon be closed completely, and I have every reason to believe that the police deliberately chose to ignore my case, instead of finding and punishing the criminals.
Bureaucratic red tape lasted for several months.

After that, my attorney and I filed suit over the inaction of law enforcement agencies. The trial took a long time, with long intervals of inaction. Several times during breaks between hearings, the police colonel threatened me -- in front of witnesses. We lost the case.

scales-of-justice-broken.jpgRecently I have learned that one man who had beaten an activist at the January 20 protest was indeed arrested, but he was released on amnesty and his case was eventually closed. Thus, the only person detained in the attacks of that day was soon released and did not receive the just punishment for his crimes required by law. This reinforces the already strong assumption that a criminal can continue harassing human rights activists and even take revenge on them.

This is how it is in Russia: when a person is detained for violence against LGBT people, they ultimately receive no consequence. Evidence is "lost," witnesses refuse to testify and disappear, and the case is closed. It happens over and over again.

Our life in Russia was becoming unbearable and getting harder and harder every day. Given the events that took place in our country in recent years, including homophobic laws, the growth of anti-LGBT hate crimes, and the crackdown that preceded the Olympics in Sochi, we have every reason to believe that the human rights situation in Russia will only worsen and we are facing a real danger.

For us, the only way to survive is to leave the country.

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