The war in Ukraine has changed lives of many members of the Russian independent media, non-profit, and human rights projects who had no choice but to leave Russia under the threat of criminal prosecution and increased pressure from security agencies. The St. Petersburg-based initiative group Vyhod (Coming Out), that serves LGBT community members, has also left the country. In the spring, almost the entire staff moved to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. In the new place the human rights activists are even more efficient in their assistance to the Russian queer community. "7x7" tells the story of Vyhod.
The first day of the armed conflict in Ukraine Oleg spent with his partner Alexander. A few days later, the two Yekaterinburg students decided to drop out of school and leave the country. According to Alexander, who was studying journalism, when all independent media got blocked, he finally realized that journalism in Russia was "forbidden.” They decided to go to Georgia: Russians don’t need visas to enter the country, prices in Georgia are reasonable, and you can stay there for up to 12 months.
In Batumi, Oleg started looking for employment as an artist and illustrator for computer game companies, but only to be turned down several times. Then Alexander told him that at Vyhod (Coming Out) initiative group he could receive free career counseling.
“A specialist from Vyhod looked at my resume and helped me improve it," Oleg says. “He also gave me some contacts in game-producing companies, so my search ceased to be "blind.” At the second meeting we discussed how to act during the interview.
Soon Oleg got a job at the Georgian branch of Azur Games, a large mobile game development company.
Career counseling for members of the LGBT community is one of the most popular services provided by Vyhod. 80 people signed up for it in 2021. In 2022, the number is expected to double up. The members of the LGBT community who have found themselves abroad after the start of the special operation in Ukraine are looking for new jobs.
Largest in St. Petersburg
A group of activists and volunteers started Vyhod in St. Petersburg in 2008 to support members of the LGBT community.
"We are not fighting for power, and we are not engaged in political activities. But we want respect for human rights from every government institution. We believe that human rights are of the highest value, and everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, race, nationality, or other characteristics, deserves respect," the organization's website says.
A few years later, Vyhod was the largest project of its kind in the city. They opened an office and a community center on Ligovsky Avenue that served as a place for legal and psychological consultations, meetings of the parents' club, and other events.
The initiative group worked on various issues. For example, something called "strategic litigation.” The Vyhod lawyers and invited attorneys helped community members in protecting their rights in court. For instance, they had helped their clients win several cases against men who had arranged fake dates and then extorted money from the victims. In January and March 2022, several abusers were sentenced and paid compensation for moral damages (major media outlets including "7x7," "Takiye Dela" and "Afisha.Daily" reported on these cases).
The organization has filed 17 cases that are currently under consideration at the European Court of Human Rights and three others are being reviewed by the UN Human Rights Committee.
Since 2014 the initiative group has been collecting data on discrimination and violence against members of the community in Russia. Based on this information, Vyhod publishes a report for Russian government agencies, international institutions, NGOs, and the media. The purpose of this document is to show the magnitude and dangers of homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia that members of the community face on a daily basis.
The last year’s report shows that about a quarter of the respondents surveyed in St. Petersburg had experienced pressure at work or school because of their sexual orientation or had been treated with discrimination by medical professionals.
A Critical Mass of Threats
Alexander Voronov, executive director, a tall, short-haired, intelligent guy with glasses, has scheduled a meeting with a 7x7 correspondent in downtown Vilnius, not far from a sports court and a skate park. Here he and his colleagues from Vyhod, who had moved to Vilnius in the spring and summer of 2022, occasionally play table tennis.
Alexander joined a non-profit organization right after serving in the army because he had seen too many soldiers with "broken lives." He wanted to fix this situation. He split his time between the public relations office and fundraising. Two and a half years ago he took a job at Vyhod, where he monitored human rights violations and got involved with international advocacy. At the end of 2021, he was appointed executive director of the group.
He says that Vyhod’s work has changed dramatically over the past two years. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many services had to be moved online. But this made it possible to counsel people outside of St. Petersburg. In many ways, the experience of working online was the key to the organization’s ability to keep the volume of work at the same level as before when the armed conflict in Ukraine began, and in some areas even to intensify assistance to LGBT community members.
“I told my colleagues that I would not stop them from going to rallies against war in Ukraine, and if someone was detained, there would be no sanctions for missing a day at work. Everyone had to choose for themselves where they were more useful and important, in jail or at the office," Voronov recalls the last days of February.
The Vyhod management first discussed the idea of evacuating employees to another country about a week after February 24. By that time, according to Voronov, "a critical mass of threats had accumulated.” In addition to the prospect of dealing with a registry of toxic content in Russia that included information about childfree, feminism, and the LGBT community, there were now new criminal laws for spreading fake information and discrediting the Russian army.
“Several members of our team were detained at protest rallies. It was obvious that our employees were in danger: both because of their work with us and because of their personal activities. There were too many risks. We didn't know at what point it could become really bad," Voronov says.
Eventually, in the spring, around a dozen of employees moved to Vilnius. According to Alexander, not in every visa-free country on the territory of the former Soviet Union employees of Russian non-profit organizations feel safe, while in Lithuania "the risks associated with the Russian state are minimal.”
After the move, the community center in St. Petersburg was closed. Almost all work now is online.
Demand for emigration
With the war in Ukraine, views on Vyhod’s social networks went up. Now people publish more documents, memos, and reviews on security issues, new laws, and ways of moving to other countries. More LGBT people are looking for a job abroad. Denis Oleynik, the coordinator of the career counseling program at Vyhod, is in charge of this section.
For more than seven years, he has been helping to recruit, adapt and develop employees for companies in the restaurant business, telecom, computer games industry, and others. He also volunteered for the LaSky project, which works on preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The career counseling program opened two and a half years ago. Back then, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, Denis and his colleagues were helping people who had suddenly lost jobs because their companies got closed or downsized.
“At Vyhod you can have one consultation for free. The typical question is whether you should talk about your sexual orientation and whether you can get fired because of it. A large chunk of questions comes from transgenders: what you should do if your documents show the former you, while your appearance has already changed? I take look at the situation. I find out about the company, about the position, and whether the person has any friends within the company. And then I make a recommendation. The main thing is to help people calm down, give them more information,” Oleynik says.
After February 24, the number of visits has doubled, and the questions have changed. One of the reasons is the growing pressure on the LGBT community. According to Oleynik, after TV stories about the "gay propaganda" law getting tougher people are more scared of being fired because of their orientation.
Evgeniya, a transgender girl from Novorossiysk, works as a sales assistant. Her coworkers treat her well, but after February 24 she has become worried about her future at the company.
Denis Oleynik advised Evgeniya to find a job in a field where transgender people are not discriminated. She has long wanted to become an artist and do art projects abroad.
“I wanted information on the professions that are in demand now, and how to further proceed with my art. Talking to my advisor helped me with my plans. My art is about LGBT people. I have a story about transgender people, and I would like it to be public. It's impossible in Russia, so I focus on other countries,” Evgeniya shares.
According to Denis Oleynik, the number of job requests in Europe and some South American countries has dramatically increased in the past half a year:
“We had to change the format of our program. Now the main concern is Russians who have left their home country. Our team has also planned some events in Georgia and Armenia where we will consult on the difficulties of adaption to a new country and on finding support groups. Our initiative is unique for the countries of the former Soviet Union. Others typically don’t go beyond the ‘first aid’ operations; they distribute condoms, provide prophylaxis, or a shelter. We, on the other hand, provide knowledge.”
The head of the "Legal Aid" program (he asked to remain anonymous) also spoke about the increased number of inquiries after February 24. According to him, earlier people came to Vyhod mostly to file a legal appeal, formalize an agreement with a counterparty, or execute a contract with a partner. This year the situation has changed.
“Now we have many female couples coming to us; they feel threatened. They inquire about the ways to evacuate, but they are worried that the childcare authorities might take away their children. We also have a lot of letters from those who have demonstrated against the war or who write about their lives on social media. And significantly more transgender people seek help," the head of the Legal Aid program says.
In early June, Baltic Pride took place in Vilnius. It is the largest LGBT culture festival in the Baltic States, hosted alternately by Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn. In addition to the parade, concerts, and parties, there were events with politicians, activists and volunteers. For example, a large conference on the situation with the LGBT community was held at Vilnius City Hall, and a talk show at one of the city's cultural centers was attended by Lithuanian Minister of Economy and Innovation Aušrinė Armonaitė, who supports the legalization of same-sex partnerships in Lithuania. For Vyhod employees, those events presented a good opportunity to meet their local colleagues and share their experiences.
“If you are in contact with international NGOs and you live in Russia, this is something almost criminal, even treasonous. But I don't see anything criminal in this. This is a normal situation in which the whole world lives," Voronov says, recalling the early summer events. “This is exactly what Russia does as it tries to spread its influence around. Establishing communications with international NGOs and embassies works for the country's image.”
Vyhod is revamping its work in response to demand from Russia. According to members of the initiative group, they had spent the first months outside of Russia being busy with relocating and "surviving," but now they are in search of answers to new challenges.
Vyhod members are afraid that they may lose contact with part of the LGBT community in Russia. Previously, closeted groups (for example, elderly gay men, or lesbians, or people with high levels of internal homophobia) were only included in their research because someone from the initiative group could speak to them personally. Now it's much harder to do.
“Our fear is that we will become less sensitive to the situation in which Russians live. In Lithuania, we are working a lot on feedback mechanisms. We want to understand better what's going on in Russia," Voronov says.
The main challenge right now is to save members of the LGBT community from the partial mobilization and help them to safely relocate to another country. It is still possible.