Is Yoga a Crime in Petersburg?

Dmitry Ugay. Still image courtesy of
Dmitry Ugay. Still image courtesy of

Persecuted for Yoga
An article by Dmitry Ugay, a follower of Vaishnavism who has studied and practiced the ancient science of reality for many years
Hare Krishna in Novgorod the Great
January 2, 2016

On December 1,  2016, the Indian philosophy of yoga was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Culture of Humanity. A bit earlier, on October 22, 2016, I gave a lecture entitled “Varieties of Yoga” and was also written up—on a misdemeanor charge for violating the so-called Yarovaya Law. I was charged with engaging in missionary work, a charge of which I am innocent. I was not even allowed to familiarize myself with the charge sheet. I am concerned by the complete lawlessness of the incident, which could result in the persecution of my many fellow citizens who practice yoga and study Indian philosophy, completely unaware of the possible dangers.

There was recently a wild discussion on Facebook of an article by the Indian national Prasun Prakash, who was pelted with foul accusations and insulted. Later, an attempt was made to break into the Center for Promoting the Preservation and Development of Indian Culture, founded by his father. It is amazing that people are being persecuted for work that even the most subtle interpretations could construe as missionary work. People are being persecuted for practicing yoga, a culture whose history dates back several thousand years, for yoga, who beneficial health effects have been confirmed by a myriad of medical studies. Even in the Soviet Union, popular science films about yoga were shot and publicly screened.  The Soviet science fiction writer Ivan Yefremov wrote about yoga, and it was taught to Soviet cosmonauts as part of their physical training. Carl Jung wrote about yoga’s serious therapeutic value, and over 250 million people worldwide practice yoga seriously. In a word, there are signs that a campaign against an entire culture has been unleashed, a campaign against one of humanity’s supreme achievements, a very nasty xenophobic campaign not only against yoga, but against India, its traditions, and its people.

I had been invited to given a lecture on the varieties of yoga at the Veda Life Festival on October 22, 2016, at Loft Project ETAGI in Saint Petersburg. The audience consisted of neophytes, many of whom would be hearing about Indian philosophy for the first time. I tried to make the lecture as simple as possible. Nowadays, yoga is seen mostly as a means of wellness. The general public knows nothing about the worldview on which yoga is based, on its high ethical and spiritual standards. So I emphasized the philosophy and ethic of yoga. In my lecture, I talked about the fundamentals, the things one might here in classes on comparative religion and eastern philosophy at liberal arts universities in Russia. True, I had to make some effort to do this, because I had shout over the loud music playing next to me on the stage.

I was interrupted after about forty minutes. The audience was visibly agitated. I didn’t immediately understand what the matter was, noticing only later that police officers had entered the room. Two officers came up to me, one in uniform, the other in plain clothes. As I learned later, there was a total of six or seven officers. The others went to inspect the other events at the festival, checking people’s papers, looking for the organizers, and acting nervously when people took pictures of them, officers of the law at a public event.

They asked me rather rudely to go with them. Initially, they wanted to lead me out of the building without letting me put my coat on. They behaved rudely and cheekily in a calculated attempt to intimidate me and keep me from coming to my senses. Fortunately, Sergei, a professional attorney who was attending the festival, turned up in the audience. He forced the police to let me put on my coat. He persistently asked the officers whether I was officially under arrest or not, but the officers kept mum. They were trying to spirit me out of the building quickly, but the lawyer was clearly putting a spanner in their works. He asked them to draw up an arrest sheet. He asked them to show us their IDs. He insisted he intended to act as my advocate and demanded that I be allowed to write up a power of attorney in his name.

The police officers silently ignored all these legitimate requests and forcibly dragged me to the exit, where a car was parked. Resisting the police meant giving them grounds for yet another charge, in this case a completely real charge, so I had to obey. Outside, yet another uniformed officer joined us.  Sergei threatened to call the prosecutor’s office directly. One of the officers finally produced an ID: Arsen Magomedovich Magomedov, a detective with the 76th Investigative Division. I was pushed into a police car. The police gave Sergei the brush-off, and he and my friends set off after us in a cab.

I was taken to the 76th police precinct on Ligovsky. Sergei telephoned and asked what shape I was in. I remember that the police detectives laughed. They asked whether I understood that I would be put on trial, and that the judge would ask me unpleasant questions. They persuaded me to sign a statement they had written up beforehand They said if I signed, I would go home peacefully, but if I didn’t, they would put me behind bars for 48 hours: they had the right to do it.

Sergei had warned me that under no circumstances should I sign anything. Following his instructions, I refused to sign, invoking my right not to testify against myself under Article 51 of the Russian Constitution. They wrote down that I had refused to sign the statement and threatened to take me to court. I replied that, as officers of the law, they could perform their professional duties. A beat cop asked whether I understood that I was engaged in illegal missionary work, and what lay in store for me.

It was the height of absurdity. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Mircea Eliade had no idea that a simple recounting of their world-renowned academic works would be dubbed missionary work and sectarian preaching. In keeping with this rationale, any lecture on Indian philosophy at any university could be dubbed missionary work. But I was merely discussing how the various yogas imagined the law of karma and the way of liberation. Hundreds of similar lectures are given annually to students in different university departments. They form the basis for course exams and honor’s theses.  How would this mass of students feel were they to learn that they are now illegal missionaries? The level of nonsense has clearly gone off the scale.

At the precinct, there was a rather educated looking man among the officers. I don’t remember whether he was in uniform or not. He asked what my religious views were, how I viewed Russian Orthodoxy, whether I had a spiritual name, and whether I lived at home or the temple. I could not understand at all what this had to do with my case. I replied that I believed in Krishna, but in this instance it was completely irrelevant. It was my profoundly personal affair whether I believed in Krishna, Buddha, Cthulhu or a pasta monster. My lecture had not been about that. Besides, worshiping God was one variety of yoga, namely, Bhakti yoga.  Hearing an unfamiliar concept, the officer left me alone.

Then I was asked where I worked. I replied that I worked as a web programmer. They asked for and took my internal passport. I sat down on a bench in the waiting room along with other detainees.

Two hours later, a detective came for me. He sat down at a desk and wrote something with an intimidating look on his face.  Right then, Sergei called again. He told me to telephone the prosecutor’s office and file an oral complaint against the actions of the police detectives, because they were obliged to draw up a charge sheet and release me. They did not have the right to detain me. He texted me the on-duty number at the prosecutor’s office.

The detective said I had the right to make only one phone call (just like in American films about dangerous criminals!) and ordered me to switch off my phone, threatening me with force if I didn’t. I turned my phone off. Then he gave me a blank sheet of paper and said I had two options. I could go on denying everything and then I would spend a minimum of 48 hours behind bars here. He would lock me up in a cell, and then I would go to court. Or I could write out handwritten promise to report to the precinct on such-and-such a date and sign it, and I would be released immediately. I said I would not sign a blank piece of paper.

“Are you a moron?” the detective asked.

“Call me what you like,” I replied.

He left. I stayed in the waiting room. A woman who was not let out to use the toilet was wailing and cursing in the holding cell. Other police officers came and went, dealing with the current crop of detainees. Crates filled with fruit and peppers stood in the corner: a woman had been detained for selling them. She poured grapes into plastic bags and very humbly handed them over to the police officers. She was released, but her crates were left behind. Someone  else had been detained for not registering his car, while another man had been brought in for swearing in an Okay grocery store. The female desk sergeant quarreled with the women in the holding cell and the detainees, swearing at them.

I had been sitting there for a fairly long time. Three detainees had already been released from the front desk area. One of the detectives came in and asked the desk sergeant for the papers “on the Hare Krishna,” grabbed them, and left.

I went to the toilet. There were double doors in there without latches. I finally turned on my phone and called my friends. They had been scrambling on my behalf. They called me down and said I would be released soon. Soon after, the desk sergeant did in fact say I was free to go.

“And my passport? My passport was confiscated,” I asked.

She expressed surprised and walked out of the room. Ten minutes later, she gave me back my passport.

I headed out of the building. Passing a bored officer, I asked for a copy of my arrest sheet. He looked at me as if I were an imbecile and said I wasn’t supposed to get a copy.  Really? What about procedure?

There was nothing I could do, so I left the building. I hugged my friends and got into their car. We headed home.

Later, I learned that my case had been sent back by the judge due to multiple procedural violations and the lack of corpus delicti. The arrest sheet in the case file had been filled out extremely clumsily. I also found out that, two months later, the old arrest sheet had been destroyed and a new one  drawn up that took into account the judge’s criticisms. The judge admitted this arrest sheet into evidence, along with a charge sheet filed several days (!) before my lecture. The case file also included the testimony of two fake witnesses, two women, one of whom had not even my lecture. All this time I sense what Sartre meant by the phrase “being under the gaze” and the saying “We were born to make Kafka a reality.” I hadn’t studied philosophy under Valery Sagatovsky in grad school for nothing. He had been depressed by the state of affairs in Russia. Unfortunately, now, several years after his death, the situation is even more alarming and uncertain.

Indian philosophy has greatly enriched Russian culture. The impact of Indian though on the Russian Silver Age was huge.  The complete academic translation of the Mahabharata was published in the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, an edition that required titanic efforts on the part of the editors and commentators. Numerous works by classic Indian thinkers, writers, and poets have been published. And who can imagine Russian today without the Indian cinema? Without Indian dance? Without yoga? Without vegetarian food? Is this Russia coming to an end?

P.S. I seek the help of religious studies scholars, lawyers, civil rights activists, reporters, and anyone who could help out by publishing this article in print and online publications or read the transcript of the lecture and confirm, as experts, that it contains no signs of missionary work.

Dmitry Ugay, “Varieties of Yoga” (lecture), Loft Project ETAGI, Petersburg, October 22, 2016

Also, if possible, you can support me by mentioning my court hearing in your publications, blogs, and social network pages. This will help avoid such incidents in the future. The hearing takes place at 3:10 p.m on January 9, 2017, in Saint Petersburg at 26 Fourth Soviet Street, Room 11, Section 211 (near Ploshchad Vosstaniya subway station).

With respect and gratitude,


UPDATE. A Petersburg court threw out the case againt Mr. Ugay on Wednesday, January 18, 2016.


E.M. Maha-Balarama Prabhu, “The Law on Missionary Work: A Survival Guide,” July 10, 2016, Moscow (in Russian)

Queerfest of Russia: A Battleground

The Russian LGBT festival QueerFest, traditionally a space for celebration, this year resembles a battleground, with each day a fight for survival. 

September 18, the QueerFest opening ceremony. Two hours before the event, the main venue calls to cancel. The reason: “compromised integrity of the arch over the entrance, which may result in its collapse.” At the same time, all other events continue.

The new venue is attacked by 20 “[Russian O]rthodox activists” accompanied by [Petersburg legislative assembly] Vitaly Milonov, who insult guests and spray them with a green liquid and an unknown gaseous substance. (video)

24 complaints were filed with the police, including one from a St. Petersburg human rights ombudsman’s office staff member.

September 19. The venue Etagi, well known for its social projects in St. Petersburg, cancels QueerFest’s events, including an event by the Manifesta 10 biennale, which is taking place in St. Petersburg this year. Organizers learn that Etagi received a phone call from the police. Another venue, planned for the next day’s event, cancels the same evening.

September 20. The planned “Night of Independent Music,” already having moved to a different venue, starts as planned, but midway through receives a fake bomb threat.

September 24. The police attempt to shut down a press conference entitled “Who is Shutting Down QueerFest?” There is now concrete proof that it is not the extremists that are scaring the venues but the police. The Regional Press Institute, which is hosting the press conference, is pressured by a police lieutenant colonel and a major to cancel the event under the pretext that “violations of public order may ensue.” RPI becomes the first and only venue that stands up to the pressure, exposing it to the media and the public.

At this point, the organizers no longer openly publish festival venues, instead inviting the wider public to view the event through the online feed. Hundreds of people view the events each day.

In the six years of organizing the festival, there has never been such a consistent and organized attack on our freedom of assembly and expression. Instead of ensuring public order by providing protections, the police use it as a pretext to shut down events. Instead of bringing the perpetrators to justice, the authorities look the other way,” says Polina Andrianova, one of the festival organizers. “Every means is used to push us into the ‘ghetto.’ Yet, the festival is about dialogue and being open in society, and our best defense right now is to stay visible.”

QueerFest’s organizers ask partners to publicize what is happening and take a firm stand against the unlawful actions used to foil the festival with the acquiescence of the authorities.

QueerFest’s organizers urge the St. Petersburg authorities to:

1. Ensure that the attacks at the festival’s opening are properly investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice;
2. Ensure that the festival’s events can proceed with sufficient police protection.

The festival’s program can be found here. Follow the festival’s events online, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Editor’s Note. The above press release was slightly edited for republication on this blog.


Queerfest Opening Quashed by Attackers
Sergey Chernov
The St. Petersburg Times
September 24, 2014

Queerfest — an annual LGBT rights socio-cultural festival that opened in St. Petersburg on Sept. 18 — was forced to cancel most of its events following attacks, pressure from authorities, bomb threats and last-minute cancellations. A group led by anti-gay lawmaker Vitaly Milonov tried to get into the venue where the invitation-only opening event was held. After not being let in, the anti-gay protesters blocked the entrances and attacked the audience with an unknown gas and green dye, with the police not immediately intervening.

The festival’s opening event was moved to Ziferburg cafe on Nevsky Prospekt after the Kazanskaya 7 business center — where Queerfest’s scheduled main venue, the art space Freedom, is located — canceled the opening 90 minutes before its announced time. A representative of the owner annulled the rent agreement due to a “suspicion of damage to the integrity of the arch above the main staircase of the building,” which did not prevent other events from being held in there, Queerfest organizers said in a statement on Sept. 19.

The event started with a nearly one-hour delay at Ziferburg cafe after the Queerfest exhibition of photographs was hastily moved and assembled there. About 200 people, including foreign diplomats, were gathered when Milonov and between 15 to 20 anti-gay attackers tried to stop the opening.

Milonov, a United Russia deputy in the city’s Legislative Assembly and chairman of the committee on legislation responsible for the city’s 2012 law forbidding the “promotion of sodomy, lesbianism, bi-sexuality and transgenderness amongst minors,” led an anti-gay group to the cafe, located on the third floor of the Passage shopping center.

Showing his deputy identification, Milonov tried to get in but was stopped by security guards. He ended up instead standing near the door, swearing and throwing insults while telling the guards that ethnic Russians should not protect LGBT people. He described the audience as “pedophiles who rape children,” among other things. Attacks started minutes after Milonov left the building.

Having thrown vials containing unknown gas that smelled of rotting fish under the door, anti-gay attackers prevented visitors from entering and leaving, spraying green dye from syringes on them. At one point, both entrances to the cafe were blocked. One was locked from outside by attackers and the other was held by security and volunteers to prevent them from entering and attacking people inside.

“Milonov left just a couple of minutes ahead of the attacks,” organizer Anna Anisimova told The St. Petersburg Times on Sept. 21. “They met in the stairwell, or he passed the baton to them, but I can’t say for sure because the fact was that thugs came just after Milonov had left. They were not together at one time.”

A number of people felt sick because of the gas and one or two were eventually taken away by ambulance. According Anisimova, some 20 to 30 members of the public had their clothes spoiled by green dye, including two representatives of the St. Petersburg ombudsman Alexander Shishlov. She said that foreign diplomats did not suffer. About 20 formal complaints regarding criminal assaults were filed with the police.

The police that were stationed in large numbers outside the building did not intervene until Shishlov arrived and urged the officers to protect the festival’s audience, while Alexei Smyatsky, the chief of the city’s public safety police, was seen speaking with Milonov in front of the building at the time when the attacks apparently began.

As attacks went on outside the café, the opening event was briefly held with foreign diplomats expressing their support for the festival and the LGBT community in St. Petersburg.

Attendees included Norway’s Consul General Heidi Olufsen, Sweden’s Deputy Consul General Björn Kavalkov-Halvarsson, the Netherlands’ Deputy Consul General Hugo Brouwer, Acting U.S. Consul General Courtney Nemroff and U.K. Deputy Consul General Robert Kempsell.

On Sept. 19, Ombudsman Shishlov appealed to city council chairman Vyacheslav Makarov asking him to take measures against Milonov, reported. “The human rights of citizens were severely violated as the result of violent actions,” Shishlov wrote.

“I suppose that the active participation of a Legislative Assembly deputy in such actions discredits the city council and harms the reputation of St Petersburg. I request that you assess the actions of the deputy related to human rights abuses, as well as take measures for the code of ethics to be observed by Legislative Assembly deputies.”

Shishlov also urged St. Petersburg police chief Sergei Umnov to personally supervise the investigation into people’s complaints and take legal action against the offenders. He also asked Umnov to prevent possible attacks against the festival’s future events.

Despite Shishlov’s appeals, the pressure on Queerfest continued. An art workshop organized in cooperation with the Manifesta biennale and the conference “Queer or What Is the Art of Being Yourself,” Queerfest’s first public events scheduled for Sept. 19, were both canceled after the art space Loft Project Etagi refused to host the events one hour before the scheduled start.

On Sept. 20, the underground music club Zoccolo 2.0 canceled Queerfest’s Independent Music Night event, which was moved — in a shortened version — to the LGBT club 3L. At about 1 a.m. the police evacuated the venue due to a bomb threat. The LGBT club Malevich, located opposite 3L on Zastavskaya Ulitsa, was also evacuated.

“As far as we know, the police, among others, contact the owners of the venues and warn them about riots and put pressure on them, so that owners pressure the venues that rent their rooms from them,” Anisimova said.

“Zona Deistviya [a co-working space at Loft Project Etagi] was shut down altogether, so they create such conditions that nobody should work with us at all. On Sept. 20 we held a closed, peaceful musical event without any advertising at 3L and it still received a bomb threat, so even LGBT clubs fear working with us under the circumstances.”

Parents’ Day, a meeting with parents of LGBT people scheduled to be held on Monday, was also canceled “due to the inability to ensure the safety of participants. We fear for our parents; if we can cope with the situation, they don’t have such strong nerves,” Anisimova said.

Although Loft Project Etagi admitted reacting to a warning from the police, in most cases it was difficult to find out from whom exactly the pressure came, because the owners of the premises did not speak to the organizers directly but instructed the management of the venues.

Anisimova said that the festival would hold some lectures and a conference for a small number of people at places undisclosed for safety reasons, broadcasting them on the Internet. The events on Friday and Saturday will be public with announcements made on the festival’s website, assuming the situation does not deteriorate further, she said.

The festival’s closing event, a concert called Stop Homophobia in St. Petersburg featuring Swedish rock singer Jenny Wilson on Saturday, will be held but the organizers may move it into another venue that is less likely to be pressured by authorities and anti-gay activists — and would work on safety measures with security and in cooperation with ombudsman Shishlov.

According to Anisimova, attacks and pressure on the venues came as a surprise both to the organizers and the LGBT community.

“It was unexpected for me,” Anisimova said. “After the May 17 [the International Day Against Homophobia] rally and some other events went peacefully, it appeared that negative attention and homophobic aggression toward us had subsided. Turns out it hasn’t.”

Homosexuals and Homophobes: Victoria Lomasko on the Side by Side LGBT Film Festival

Originally published (in Russian) at

Victoria Lomasko
Side by Side: Homosexuals and Homophobes

When the organizers of the Petersburg LGBT film festival Side by Side invited me to serve on the festival jury, I agreed right away. I’m no expert on cinema, and I’m not a member of the LGBT community, but given what has been happening in Russia, the festival has become a political event, and being involved with it is a way of clearly expressing your civic stance.

As one of the organizers, Gulya Sultanova, told me, “This time, almost all the movie theaters [the festival approached] decided to support the film festival, despite the potential risks. And that’s worth a lot.”

I found it difficult to share Gulya’s optimism. I was certain that attempts would be made to disrupt the festival, and that trouble lay in store for organizers and festival goers.

A Dangerous Opening

Several minutes before the festival’s opening ceremony at the Warsaw Express shopping and entertainment complex, police got word of a bomb threat to the movie theater. While police combed the building for a bomb, festival goers hung outside in the chilly wind.

“There are homophobes on the corner. They’re really creepy.”

A gang of beefy skinheads appeared a few meters away from us. As Gulya later explained, the guys were nationalists from an organization called Soprotivlenie (Resistance). One female viewer standing next to me was visibly nervous.

“Now they’ll start throwing rocks at us, like during the rally at the Field of Mars. Now they’ll start firing at us with pneumatic guns!”

Right there among the gay activists was Dmitry Chizhevsky, a black bandage on his face. It had only been just recently that persons unknown had attacked an LGBT community center and shot Chizhevsky in the eye with a pneumatic pistol.

Side by Side organizers asked festival goers not to wander off by themselves.

We were finally ushered into the movie theater. The Dutch film Matterhorn, about a father who has kicked his gay son out of the house, opened the festival.

Police escorted Side by Side viewers from the movie theater to the subway.

Predictions by Foreign Guests

Post-screening discussion of Out in East Berlin: “I think the tough times are still ahead of you.”
3_strahi“We were afraid of pogroms, that they would try and kill homosexuals in the street.”

At the last minute, many foreign guests had been frightened to come to Russia.

Side by Side Received Five Bomb Threats during Its Ten-Day Run

Five times the police received false threats of bombs planted at Side by Side festival venues. Loft Project ETAGI art center and Jam Hall Cinema were each threatened once, the Skorokhod cultural center, twice.

“We’ve received another bomb threat, friends!”

The police and ambulance came each time, and everyone was evacuated from the buildings where the “bombs” had been “planted.” At ETAGI, for example, its staff, patrons from its cafes, bars and shops, and its hostel guests were kicked out onto the street along with LGBT activists.

The people behind the false bomb threats have not been found.

Side by Side co-organizer Manny de Guerre: “No venue will ever work with us again.”

Manny’s worries were justified. After the bomb threats, both the Zona Deistviya co-working space at ETAGI and Jam Hall Cinema terminated their agreements with Side by Side for the remaining screenings.

One day, the festival program was disrupted entirely. Not only were the screenings not held. A discussion entitled “Young People’s Freedom to Access Information on LGBT” was also canceled.

Lena Klimova: “In our city, many people don’t even know the word LGBT.”

Lena Klimova, a journalist and creator of the Internet project Children 404, was supposed to take part in the discussion. She had specially come all the way from Nizhny Tagil for the festival.

Through the Back Entrance

The screening, at Jam Hall Cinema, of Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle), which was then playing without incident at many other theaters in Petersburg, was interrupted by a bomb threat. The police led viewers out of the theater through the back entrance. At the main entrance, Petersburg legislative assembly deputy and United Russia member Vitaly Milonov demanded that police free children whom the “sodomites” were, allegedly, “forcibly holding” at the screening. Around twenty lowlifes came out to support Milonov.

“We caught several minors in the movie theater and photographed them with their IDs.”

While waiting for the theater to be checked for bombs, Side by Side viewers took refuge in a nearby cafe, but several people, including me, lingered on the street. A policeman came up to me.

“Tell your people not to stand in the street but to hide in the cafe. They could be attacked.”

“They don’t want to go into the cafe.”

“It’s dangerous. Although they look like ordinary people. Maybe they won’t be noticed, and no one will bother them.”

While what the policeman said jarred me, it didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was the absence of support for Side by Side on the part of Petersburg’s civic and leftist activists.

In the Bomb Shelter

After Jam Hall pulled out of its agreement with Side by Side, the festival moved to the Green Lantern Press Club, a small basement space. No bomb threats were made to this venue.

As festival jury member Bård Ydén remarked, “What bombs? We’re already in a bomb shelter.”

The feature films Tom at the Farm and In the Name Of and the documentary film We Were Here were shown in the “bomb shelter.”

LGBT Christians

In the Name Of is about a priest’s struggle with his homosexual desires. Andrei, a pastor at a Protestant church, took part in the post-screening discussion.

LGBT Christian: “A persecuted minority is being oppressed in the name of the church.”

“I’m offended by the idea that a person can’t be both Christian and LGBT.”

The pastor recounted how he had once invited LGBT Christians to celebrate Easter at his church, but the other parishioners had refused to eat at the same table with them.

Pastor: “The Bible unequivocally treats homosexuality as a sin.”

We Were Here

We Were Here, about the AIDs epidemic among gays in San Francisco in the 1980s, made a huge impression on me. The epidemic claimed over fifteen thousand lives during this period. The US government considered introducing a compulsory quarantine, clothes with identifying marks or special tattoos for people infected with HIV. Mass protests by the LGBT community put a stop to such plans. Gays demanded information about the new disease, development and free distribution of drugs, and government support for HIV-positive people. At the same time, the LGBT community established charitable organizations: hundreds of gay activists became volunteers, while many lesbians donated blood and worked as nurses.

One of the people featured in the film, AIDS activist Ed Wolf, came to the festival.

Ed Wolf: “I’ve ridden around Petersburg. You have many gays here. I saw them myself.”
Moderator: “So the American government wasn’t willing to solve the problem?” Ed Wolf: “An army of activists forced the government to act.”

Thanks to the civic engagement of the LGBT community and, later, the society at large, the epidemic in San Francisco was stopped relatively quickly.

Ed Wolf continues to work on HIV/AIDS issues. According to him, women are now at risk.

“It’s hard for women to force their husbands to wear a condom every time.”

Wolf also said that gays are also men and that it’s time for them to reconsider their patriarchal views of women.


At Side by Side, I noticed that the LGBT community was also not free of sexism. Spotting my jury member badge, one young gay man asked which movies I would be voting for. Hearing I had chosen Blue Is the Warmest Color and Lesbiana: A Parallel Revolution, he said, “Those films are so boring. And lesbian sex is disgusting to watch.”

Most of the films shown at Side by Side were shot by male directors and dealt with gay love. Lesbiana: A Parallel Revolution was the only feature film at the festival made by women about women. The screening room was half empty: men did not come.

The audience at Lesbiana

Lesbiana combines interview with aged lesbian activists who were involved in the LGBT and feminist movements during the 1970s with documentary footage from the period. In those years there were a lot of separatist lesbian communes, where women lived and engaged in painting, sculpture, literature, music and performance.

Sharing our impressions of Lesbiana at a cafe: “I wonder whether there are ‘feminine lands’ in Russia where only lesbians live?”

Jury Deliberations

The jury at Side by Side consisted of Alexander Markov, a filmmaker; Marina Staudenmann, director of the Tour de Film international film festival agency; Bård Ydén, director of the Oslo Gay and Lesbian Film Festival; and two people far removed from the professional cinema world, Elena Kostyuchenko, a journalist and LGBT activist, and me.

 Alexander Markov (on left). Elena Kostyuchenko: “As the only LGBT activist on the jury, I’m responsible for authenticity.”

Our discussion quickly shifted from the films to Russia’s homophobic policies.

Elena Kostyuchenko: “If they start removing children from LGBT [families], our lives will change forever.” Marina Staudenmann (on right)

We were nearly unanimous in our choice of the winning feature film.

 Marina Staudenmann: “La vie d’Adèle.” Bård Ydén: “La vie d’Adèle.”
Alexander Markov: “La vie d’Adèle.”

Valentine Road, about the murder of a transgender schoolboy by his classmate, won the prize for best feature-length documentary film.

The Festival’s Closing Ceremony

Aside from the by now routine bomb threat, viewers who came to the closing ceremony had a surprise in store from the Rodina (Motherland) party. Party activists handed out “gift bags” to them.

Side by Side organizers describing what was in the “gift bags”: “The bags contained rope and bars of soap, along with a note reading, ‘From Russians with love.'”

Gus Van Sant, the festival’s most anticipated guest of honor: “The people who wanted to shut the festival down caused the LGBT community to close ranks.”

Gus Van Sant showed up at the Side by Side closing ceremonies with Sergei “Afrika” Bugaev, whom he introduced to the audience as his “good Russian friend.”

A woman in the audience asked the famed director, “What is a Putin endorser doing at an LGBT film festival?”

Van Sant chose not to answer the question.

Afterparty at the Malevich LGBT club

Sitting among gays and lesbians at the closed LBGT club, I mulled over my impressions of the events of the festival. I had felt frightened several times during the clashes with homophobes, and I was glad I was heterosexual. I would not be forced to live my entire life in a constant state of anxiety.

Towards the end of the festival, Gulya Sultanova said, “We’re just a festival, but there’s the sense we’re running a military operation.”

LGBT activists are just people. Why must they live as if they were invisible or criminals?