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The 2022 Russian invasion and the fate of LGBTQIA+ Ukrainians

* By Kanav Narayan Sahgal

Kanav Narayan Sahgal is a Programme Manager at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy located in Delhi. Kanav frequently reports on the global state of LGBT+ rights, with a focus on India.


On February 24, 2022, the Vladimir Putin-led Russian government invaded Ukraine with the aim of overthrowing the democratically-elected Ukrainian government and reunifying what he called “ancient Russian lands”. Putin has, multiple times, also described post-Soviet Ukraine as 'corrupt" and overly dependent on western countries like the US which is why he intended to destabilize the nation and take over its lands.

Putin has also, rather ironically, stated that among other things, this military expedition aims to “demilitarize and de-nazify” Ukraine. Putin’s intent to demilitarize the region comes despite the fact that Russia, not Ukraine, possesses nuclear weapons- weapons that Putin emphasized he was not afraid to use in a recent speech. Interestingly, after the fall of the USSR at the end of the Cold War, it was Ukraine that returned its nuclear weapons to Russia according to the terms and conditions of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. One of Ukraine's conditions upon returning these weapons was an assurance of its security, which the Memorandum guaranteed. Unfortunately, recent history demonstrates that Russia has, time and time again, broken these promises, with the invasion being the most recent example of this. What is rather surprising is that the Russian President’s rhetoric about the purported nazification of Ukraine. It should be noted that both Ukraine's chief rabbi and the Auschwitz Memorial rejected Putin's statements. Current Ukrainian president, and Putin’s ‘Target No.1’, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish himself. Born in 1978 to Jewish parents in Kryvyi Rih (a part of the Soviet republic), his grandfather served in the Soviet armed forces that fought Nazi Germany during World War II. Following Putin’s statements, the Ukrainian government's official Twitter account posted a picture of Adolf Hitler caressing the face of Putin. The caption read: "This is not a 'meme,' but our and your reality right now." Befitting words indeed.

The fate of LGBTQIA+ Ukrainians

According to a recent NPR report, U.S White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan has reason to believe that the Putin government has prepared a "kill list" of Ukrainians ready to be attacked or detained during the invasion; the list is said to include journalists, activists, ethnic and religious minorities, and LGBTQIA+ Ukrainians. Other likely targets include opponents of Russia's strategic goals and dissidents from Russia and Belarus who have taken refuge in Ukraine. This comes as no surprise, given Putin’s notoriety of being exceptionally heavy-handed with journalists, dissidents, political opponents, and the LGBTQIA+ community (among others).

While homosexuality is not a crime in Russia, social attitudes towards the LGBTQIA+ community remain extremely hostile. Putin has incessantly positioned himself as a champion of “traditional and family values”, which, according to him, are incompatible with “Western liberal values” and gay rights. Political theorist, Nikita Sleptcov defines this as Putin’s broader strategy of intentionally ‘othering’ homosexuals as non-Russian in order to scapegoat them as “foreign agents”, which in turn, reinforces a divisive, exclusionary and hostile form of nationalism that is both conservative and homophobic- what Nikita calls ‘Conservative heteronationalism’- a form of nationalism premised on the violent and intentional exclusion of homosexuals through a range of politically motivated homophobic methods.

Over the years, Russia’s foreign policy, and more specifically, its deteriorating ties with the West and NATO, the authoritative influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the disappointingly weak position of the Russian Constitutional Court on gay rights, has led to a spate of anti-gay laws that are now deeply entrenched in Russian polity. The most infamous of these is the federal law “For the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values,” which was unanimously passed by the State Duma on June 30, 2013. Also called the “gay propaganda law” or the “anti-gay law”, it prohibited any public display of non-normative sexuality- from pride parades to music festivals, books, movies, conferences, and organizations. In addition to this, Pride Parades are banned in Moscow for the next 100 years-from March 2012 until May 2112- a law that was upheld by Moscow’s top court. In doing so, Putin has been systematically erasing the existence of non-heterosexual people from the public domain by making the mere expression of homosexuality a crime.

It should be noted that public opinion on homosexuality remains negative even in Ukraine, with some studies even showing a decline in acceptance. Not only have LGBTQIA+ groups in Ukraine failed to coalesce with other civil society institutions, but various state and non-state actors- including the media- have also failed to rally around LGBTQIA+ rights. Various Ukrainian politicians, such as Oleksandr Turchynov, Mykola Danilin, and Viktor Yushchenko (who was the President of Ukraine from 2005 to 2010) have expressed either outright hostility or careful apprehension towards gay rights. Even MPs belonging to current Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People have proposed legislation targeting “homosexual propaganda” in language that seems to be borrowed directly from Russia. Another bill, tabled by MPs Georgii Mazurashu and Olena Lys, also from Zelenskyy’s party, aimed at establishing administrative responsibilities for “homosexual and transgenderism propaganda”. This too seems to have been copied from Russia. Indeed, the LGBTQIA+ community appears to have been caught between a rock and a hard place, with their homes, lives, and livelihoods destroyed by the Russians on the one hand, and their identities systematically maligned by both Ukrainians and Russians on the other.

The Way Forward

The United Nations, NATO, the EU, and other Western nations failed to act swiftly against Russia after it annexed Crimea in 2014 and instigated the Donbas conflict soon after. Reports estimate that almost one million people have already been displaced from Ukraine in the ongoing Russian invasion. Shabia Mantoo, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has called this ‘Europe's largest refugee crisis this century’- one that has not only adversely affected Russian and Ukrainian economies, but also global markets (especially the sunflower oil, wheat, energy, and gas markets). In the middle of all this, vulnerable LGBTQIA+ people, an already marginalized community in Ukraine, fear the worst under impending Russian occupation.

In addition to sanctioning Russia (more specifically Putin and his allies) and granting asylum to Ukrainian refugees, the global community must take concrete steps to protect LGBTQIA+ people fleeing persecution by not only granting them political asylum but also protection from Russian authorities. It is rather ironic that Russia holds a permanent seat at the UN Security Council (a body established to "maintain international peace and security") which is why it was unsurprising that Russia vetoed the UN Security Council resolution that condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia has, in the past, vetoed security council resolutions that mentioned LGBTQIA+ rights (such as a resolution thanking Ban Ki-moon's work on LGBTQIA+ rights).

Even though the UN General Assembly was able to overwhelming vote in favor of reprimanding Russia for invading Ukraine in a rare emergency session, that resolution was non-binding and hence, purely symbolic. Such actions expose the flaws of multilateral intergovernmental organizations like the UN in protecting human rights, averting war, and protecting the most marginalized. Scholars like Francine D’Amico have already pointed out that the purported ‘universality’ of human rights in the UN human rights discourse had systematically excluded LGBTQIA+ people for years. And while many issues important to LGBTQIA+ people are now on the UN agenda; the UN still has a long way to go. For starters, there still does not exist any legally binding global treaty that explicitly recognizes the right of LGBTQIA+ people to be free from discrimination, violence, and persecution and to enjoy all the rights articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, the persistent notion that LGBTQIA+ rights are somehow 'Western' and against ‘religious and family values’ continues to exist despite vocal opposition from LGBTQIA+ groups and allies. These unresolved cultural debates, when coupled with the power exercised by non-LGBTQIA+ friendly regimes like Russia and China have held the LGBTQIA+ rights agenda hostage at UN fora.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan rightfully alerted rights groups all over the world about the dangers of radical religious authoritarianism on women and LGBTQIA+ rights. Similar concerns seem to be flaring now with Russian’s invasion of Ukraine. In addition to cracking down on gay rights, restricting abortion rights has also been on Putin’s agenda for quite a while now. In the past, the Russian Orthodox Church has described, in unequivocal terms, that abortion was “full scale murder” and Anna Kuznetsova, Putin’s ombudsman for children’s rights, once famously stated that wombs “remember the death” of aborted fetuses. Even though 72 percent of Russians oppose banning abortion (according to a survey by state-run pollster VTsIOM in 2016), the pro-life movement in Russia has been on the rise. Hence, restrictions on a woman’s right to choose (like the kind found in certain US States such as Texas) cannot be ruled out completely under a Putin-ruled Ukraine (or even Russia for that matter).

In these trying times, the international community must come together to stand in solidarity with Ukraine. Equally so, the world must condemn any act of aggression towards minority communities- especially those who have been oppressed and marginalized by both states (what one transgender woman calls a ‘war within a war’). Indeed, the time has come to end all wars against all people.

* All views expressed are personal

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