Young gay man from Charlotte’s Russian sister city speaks out

Activist fled Russia for safety, now lives in D.C.

As many as 1,500 counter-protesters demonstrated against 14 gay rights activists’ protest in Voronezh. The counter-protesters’ signs read: “LGBT people prejudice our rights,””Voronezh is not Sodom,””We stand for morality,” “Mom, dad - good. Daddy, daddy - bad,” “Protect our children from the depravity.” Photo Credit: Article20.org. Republished with permission.

As many as 1,500 counter-protesters demonstrated against 14 gay rights activists’ protest in Voronezh. The counter-protesters’ signs read: “LGBT people prejudice our rights,””Voronezh is not Sodom,””We stand for morality,” “Mom, dad – good. Daddy, daddy – bad,” “Protect our children from the depravity.”
Photo Credit: Article20.org. Republished with permission.

Last year, when anti-LGBT violence broke out in Charlotte’s Russian sister city of Voronezh, local LGBT activists in the Queen City stepped up and asked Charlotte City Council to sever its ties with the city. The local efforts in Charlotte came as anti-LGBT violence mounted across the Russian nation and political leaders there, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, called for draconian anti-LGBT legislation.

Calls to sever Charlotte’s Russian sister city ties weren’t successful, but they did result in discussions between then-Mayor Patsy Kinsey, several Council members, including LaWana Mayfield, the city’s sister city committee, the U.S. State Department and Human Rights Watch. (In Chapel Hill, town leaders did later drop their own Russian sister city relationship.) qnotes covered the incidents in-depth last year. You can see an archive of the coverage here.

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The violence in Voronezh — with one extreme incident in the city’s square on Jan. 20, 2013 — was both verbal and physical, targeted toward several human rights activists and LGBT people, including leading local activist Pavel Lebedev, fellow activist Andrew Nasonov and his newly-minted fiancé Igor Bazilevsky.

Now, Nasonov, 25, and Bazilevsky are living in Washington, D.C., where they traveled after Nasonov says he was kidnapped by Russian police. He and his fiancé are seeking asylum in the U.S. (Lebedev also left Russia and is currently living in Germany.)

Nasonov — whom qnotes will interview for a follow-up to last year’s extensive Charlotte Pride-related coverage in a forthcoming print edition for this year’s Charlotte Pride Festival & Parade — has shared his and his fiancé’s story in a guest commentary published Monday at The Bilerico Project. An excerpted version of his commentary is below. You can read the full commentary here.

Escape from Russia: My Independence Day

by Andrew Nasonov, The Bilerico Project (reprinted with permission)

We 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.

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.

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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.

I 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.

Read the full version of Nasonov’s commentary at The Bilerico Project, including more details about the protest and its aftermath, Nasonov’s kidnapping and the arrests of, and later dismissal of charges against Nasonov’s assailants.

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.