Evgeny Belyakov is a gay political commentator, LGBTQ+ advocate, and human rights activist. 

Originally from Vladivostok, Russia, he is now based in Budapest, Hungary. He has worked for Human Rights Watch, Front Line Defenders, and the Prague Civil Society Center, where he focused on the wide range of human rights issues in the former Soviet Union.

Here, Belyakov shares how he watched Russia erode civil liberties over several decades and how that made him the advocate he is today. 

You can read more from the In My Own Words series here.

I was born in 1987 in Vladivostok, Russia. The Soviet Union was on its knees. The economy had collapsed. Poverty was rampant and crime was ubiquitous. The whole of society was saturated with it. As a child, I saw so much violence. 

We grew our own food because we had no money to buy food and we would spend most summers in the field picking potatoes, cabbages, carrots, and the like. It was almost like we went back to medieval times.

Just three years later, the Soviet hammer and sickle flag would be lowered for the last time over the Kremlin. At just three years old, I didn’t know that at the time, of course. I just thought I’d been born into a very unfortunate place because everybody complained about how horrible everything was and everyone was depressed. These people thought that the Soviet Union collapsing was not some great moment of liberation, it was a disaster.  

Growing up, I wasn’t really exposed to any LGBTQ+ material. Around seven years old, I watched a Brazilian soap opera with my grandmother that had a gay couple in it. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything approaching same-sex love in the media. But at that time I didn’t understand what was going on and I don’t think my grandmother understood it either. 

My grandmother had grown up after the Russian Revolution of 1917, which saw the Tsarist government overthrown and the foundation of the world's first socialist state in 1922. The Bolsheviks — Lenin’s far-left, revolutionary Marxist faction — rewrote the constitution and an article prohibiting gay sex was left off, effectively legalizing homosexuality in Russia. To give you an idea of the times, in 1925, Dr. Grigorii Batkis, director of the Institute for Social Hygiene in Moscow, published a report called, "The Sexual Revolution in Russia". In it, he wrote that homosexuality was "perfectly natural." 

However, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Soviet policy and attitudes on homosexuality and homosexual rights changed, alongside wider social backlashes against homosexual rights in general in the USSR. In 1933, Stalin recriminalized sex between men. 

It wasn’t until 1999 that homosexuality was formally removed from the list of Russian mental disorders.

I remember very well when I realized I was gay. It was 1998 and I was 11. Titanic had just been released. I went to watch the movie and I fell in love with Leonardo DiCaprio. The way his hair fell over his face was really nice. Normally, we would just watch movies on TV because we didn’t have any money to go to the cinema. But this time we had gone to the local movie theater. I was completely blown away by the whole movie and story. 

In the village I grew up in, the dominant mood around gay rights was negative. A poll conducted two years after I was born, in 1989, reported that homosexuals were the most hated group in Russian society. But it was “everyday” homophobia. It wasn’t rational or politicized. People would say they hated gays but they didn’t think gay people wanted to destroy the church, for example. This was everyday prejudice born from ignorance. Now, it’s part of a bigger system of beliefs connected to nationalism and religious bigotry. 

I didn’t tell anyone at the time. It was a great journey. Later on, I told a few of my classmates. I was kind of bullied in school. When I was 13, I figured out that one of my classmates was gay too. I finally had someone to talk to and we became friends. 

Then, at 16, I fell in love. He was my first boyfriend but it was a horrible relationship. We had to keep it a secret. He pretended to be heterosexual in front of other guys. He would make fun of me for being gay in public. It was very abusive. 

Two years later in 2005, aged 18, I went to college and started to become interested in activism. I was reading everything I could get my hands on from oppositional literature and memoirs by political activists to works by Naomi Klein. At that time, the internet was very free and you could still criticize Putin without facing arrest.  

Meanwhile in Moscow that same year, the LGBT human rights project Gayrussia.ru was taking shape to fight discrimination and raise awareness of issues in Russia.

I really tried to push my classmates to organize a university circle to discuss political ideas relating to LGBTQ+ issues where we could engage more people. But all my attempts failed. The university didn’t like it and most of my classmates were pro-Putin, who in his second term was tightening state-control of universities. My fellow students made fun of me and thought I was a weird anti-patriotic gay guy. It was a hangover from this belief that homosexuality was inconsistent with Communist morality. 

Saddened by this and with a tinge of nostalgia for my high school, I decided to go back for the first day of term, where the teachers, principal, and incoming students gathered together for an opening ceremony. 

I was listening to speeches from teachers wishing students a good academic year when the headmaster introduced the local leader of United Russia — Vladimir Putin’s political party. All I could think was: “This is so authoritarian.” I don’t remember what he said. That was a typical Soviet tradition and propaganda cliché: empty words. I knew then that Russia was changing, and not in a good way. 

That same year, the Russian version of News Week wrote in a summary of the year that Russia was heading back to the 1970s Soviet Union in terms of the political climate. I remember reading this and thinking: “I don’t want to be in the 1970s union.” The 70s was the height of the Cold War and Leonid Brezhnev-era police persecuted gay people. Russia was a state that isolated itself from the world and the Communist party attempted to exercise total ideological dominion. 

Once I’d finished my degree in 2008, aged 21, I moved to Budapest to study at the Central European University. Suddenly, so many more opportunities for activism opened up to me. The university was actually very supportive. I started an LGBTQ+ club and we organized lectures, movie screenings, protests, demonstrations, community events, and roundtable discussions.

Five years later, I went back to Russia to work for Human Rights Watch. Vladimir Putin had just reversed all of former President Dmitry Medvedev’s timid advances on political freedoms and unleashed an unprecedented crackdown against civic activism. 

Fresh authoritarian laws in 2012 restricted nongovernmental organizations as well as freedoms of expression and assembly, while new legislation at a local level discriminated against LGBTQ+ people. These laws basically gave local mayors and policemen carte blanche to do whatever they wanted to LGBTQ+ people.

That was the year the real political homophobia started. 

There was a request to hold a gay pride in the city of Sochi. The request was denied but the guy decided to go to court to appeal the decision. The court upheld the ban and this was their justification: gay pride was threatening the national security of Russia. Why? Because gay pride promotes homosexuality. Russia is in a demographic crisis and the population growth is negative. Homosexuality will make this worse because homosexuals cannot have children. Therefore, there will be less people to join the Russian military which is a threat to national security. Crazy, right?

I decided to join a group called the Rainbow Association. We raised money for political prisoners, imprisoned for peaceful demonstrations. We also drafted an anti-discrimination statement which we managed to get the teachers’ union to sign and add as a clause to their charter. They publicly declared they were going to resist any discrimination based on sexual orientation. At the time, there were threats teachers would be fired for being gay so that was a small victory, but it was one of few. 

I also attended many protests and was frequently detained. The Russian police were very polite — if you were obedient. But if you start to argue or resist in any way, they can quickly become aggressive. At the police station, many of them are really not as horrible as you expect. Some of them showed sympathy with us and just said: “This is our job, but we understand why you are doing this.” They were just following orders. 

What people don’t realize about Russia is that it's very expensive to protest because if you are arrested — which many are — you have to pay a fine and go to court. 

It was around this time, when I was in my late 20s, that I came out to my mum and my sister. By the time I told them, they were expecting it. I don’t think they were very surprised. My mum tried to negotiate with me but I I told her it wasn’t up for debate. There are some family members I didn’t tell and to be frank I don’t want to tell them.

Working for Human Rights Watch, I interviewed people to document the effects Putin’s homophobic laws were having. I met a lesbian couple once who wanted to have children. At the time, this was out of the question. The Kremlin had threatened to take away any same-sex couples’ children. So these women bought two apartments next to each other and lived side by side as two heterosexual couples, but raising the children as two mothers. They were so afraid of losing the children that they had agreed not even to tell them until they were old enough to keep it a secret. 

In 2019, the Russian LGBTQ+ activist, ​​Yelena Grigoryeva, was stabbed to death in St. Petersburg after her name was posted on a Russian website encouraging people to “hunt” LGBTQ+ activists.

The hostile homophobic climate that Putin has nurtured has been a long time in the making. It was a very gradual process. That’s how they did it, step by step, taking away people’s liberties and civil society. That’s how they got us. They didn’t take away everything at once because people would have revolted. No. They took tiny freedoms here and there, bit by bit. By the time we realized, it was too late. It would be almost admirably smart if it wasn’t so abhorrent.

I don’t really go back to Russia now and I’m not sure I ever will. What is happening now is unprecedented. For many years, Western politicians were saying that Putin was cracking down on liberties but nobody did anything. Now it looks like the final blow. Special censorship laws have been introduced since the invasion of Ukraine. The last TV channel, the last radio station, the last independent media, they were all shut down in the past few weeks. 

Many people are trying to escape the country but it is very hard to leave. They question you for hours when you try to leave the country. Some people are even denied permission to leave.

Now, if you’re going to criticize Putin, it has to be from outside of the country. I’m afraid for the LGBTQ+ people community there. They will be the first ones vulnerable to attacks in this hateful environment that the government has created. 

As told to Tess Lowery.

In My Own Words

Demand Equity

‘Bit by Bit, That’s How They Got Us’: I Saw Russia Erode LGBTQ+ Rights Until There Was Nothing Left