It’s Not Just Russia That LGBTQ+ Ukrainians Have To Fear

“I do not want to live under someone’s pressure, under someone’s negative attitude.”

Andriy Maymulakhin doesn’t see Russian troops from his home in a village outside of Kyiv, but he can hear what may be gunfire, and the distant sound of explosions. Sometimes, if the latter are close enough, his house will vibrate with the sound. 

Even if the invading troops are invisible, the signs of war are all around. On a recent trip to a nearby town, to collect insulin for a neighbor, Maymulakhin found the road blocked by a cadre of Ukrainian fighters, who’d felled trees to serve as a makeshift blockade against possible Russian advances. When he finally arrived at the town, he learned that the chemist had run out of insulin. 

“I know that unfortunately, slowly, Russian troops are invading Ukraine,” he tells GO Magazine by phone. “Not very fast, as they thought, but still, because they have much more guns and different missiles.” Further words to describe the advanced weaponry allude him. “I’m not a war expert.”

Maymulakhin is the coordinator of the advocacy group LGBT Human Rights Nash Svit Center, which operates out of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital now under siege from Russian troops. But Russian fighters aren’t the only one’s on Maymulakhin’s mind. A few days before, on two consecutive nights, armed fighters broke into Nash Svit’s office in Kyiv, which also serves as a living space for four of the organization’s members, refugees who fled from Luhanska following the Russian annexation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014. The armed men ransacked the office, confiscated computers and personal items, and detained the four men living there, who were subject to brutal physical and verbal assaults. 

The events of the two nights are detailed in a memorandum shared with GO and composed by Alexander ZInchenkov, one of the four men who had been living in the offices at the time (he and the others are now safe, Maymulaskin says, and have since been relocated). According to this account, the assailants broke into the office first on February 27, claiming that they were members of the Ukrainian national defense force, and that they had witnessed what they said were “light signals” beckoning from a window on one of the office’s upper floors. As they searched the office for the supposed signal, they confiscated electronic items and verbally assaulted the four men once they learned they were part of an LGBTQ+ organization. They then rounded the four men up, and transported them to a police station in the Dnipro district of Kyiv, where they were physically assaulted, including by Ukrainian police officers, and detained until morning. 

The following night, February 28, an estimated 12 armed assailants returned to the offices around 11 p.m. They tied up the four men, who they beat, threatened to kill, and robbed before leaving the premises.  

Although the memorandum notes that the men were speaking Russian, Maymulakhin, who was not present, believes the assailants were more likely, as they claimed, part of Ukrainian defense forces – “groups of people which [were] civilians before, but they were [given] weapons seven days ago,” he says. Newly armed, it’s possible such groups are using the chaos caused by Russia’s incursion as a means of clamping down on previously marginalized groups like the country’s LGBTQ+ community. However, it’s still too early to tell, Maymulakin says, whether such attacks have increased as a result of Russia’s military aggression. 

While Ukraine, prior to Russia’s invasion at the end of last month, has extended some freedoms to LGBTQ+ individuals in recent years, the country remains conservative with regards to sexual orientation and gender identity. Ukraine ranks 39 out of 49 European countries, with only 19% overall achievement with LGBTQ+ equality according to data from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association (ILGA). While the government has adopted components of a Human Rights Action Plan to criminalize hate crimes committed on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, and to recognize some form of same-sex partnerships, progress remains in an early stage.  

Social values are slow to change, too. LGBTQ+ events and gatherings have been targets for right-wing agitators, including an incident in May 2021 when assailants threw tear gas canisters into a film screening hosted by Kyiv Pride (whose director, Lenny Emson, spoke to GO last month). Within days, two other attacks occurred on LGBTQ+ gatherings and organizations, one in Kyiv and the other in the southern city of Odessa. 

However, for whatever faults Ukraine may have, many LGBTQ+ Ukrainians would rather fight for their country than live under Russian rule, which presents the ever-present specter of further oppression. Homophobic attitudes have gained strength in Russia following the passage of an “anti-gay” propaganda law in 2013 which forbids the distribution of LGBTQ+ related content and material to minors. However, the ban has effectively been used to quell any public demonstrations of LGBTQ+ affirmation, and LGBTQ+ groups and individuals are subject to censorship, discrimination and violence at the hands of both civil and governmental actors.  

Reports or virulent anti-LGBTQ+ violence and discrimination have been widespread in areas controlled by the Russian Federation, including in Chechnya, where homophobia has been an effective tool in bolstering the government’s authoritarian power. Discriminatory violence are also prevalent in parts of Ukraine that are now under Russian control following annexation in 2014. A 2016 report by the human rights organizations Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial and the Center for Civil Liberties Ukraine, compiled from eye witness testimony, found that LGBTQ+ individuals were frequent targets of violence and oppression throughout the Crimea, as well as in the Donetsk and Luhanska regions in eastern Ukraine. In addition to detention and even murder at the hands of Russian-backed armed forces, LGBTQ+ individuals were subject to daily violence from friends, family, and neighbors influenced by the spread of anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda.  

LGBTQ+ individuals and activists fear that similar violence spreading throughout the rest of Ukraine should it fall under Russian control. At the start of the invasion last month, reports emerged from U.S. officials that the Russian government had compiled a hit list targeting Ukrainian activists for detention, imprisonment, and even execution. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow further stoked fears in a sermon delivered on March 6, in which he blamed the violence in Ukraine – limiting it specifically to the eastern Donbas region – on Pride parades.  

Maymulakin has no desire to see these oppressions and values enforced on his own country which, he believes, despite its problems, is moving in the right direction. “We are developing a democracy,” he says of Ukraine. “That is why we, and especially LGBT people, and especially young LGBT people, we already feel free. And [the] coming of Russian rule it will be total – I don’t know. I do not want to live under someone’s pressure, under someone’s negative attitude.” 

Among his reasons for hope of a possible better future: he and his boyfriend, Andriy Markiv, have filed a case in the European Court of Human Rights, alleging that Ukraine’s current failure to recognize same-sex partnerships is discriminatory under European convention. The court communicated the case in January 2021, and it remains in its early stages. 

Maymulakhin hasn’t seen Markiv since the Russian campaign began. Markiv had been visiting relatives at the time of the invasion, where he remains, as it’s in a part of the country, Maymulakhin says, that is relatively safe from Russian advances. (Since speaking with Maymulakhin, Russia troops have expanded their assault into parts of western Ukraine.)  

Despite everything, Maymulakhin remains hopeful that they will soon be able to resume operations at Nish Svit, that he and Markiv will be reunited, and that Ukraine, for whatever faults it may have, will emerge victorious from this bloody conflict brought on by another power. 

“I hope it will be that Ukraine will win this war,” he says. And if Ukraine does, it won’t matter much if he goes to where Markiv is, or if Markiv returns to their home outside Kyiv. Where they reunite “will not be important. I shall go to him, or he will come here.” 

Editor’s note: Andriy Maymulakhin’s name does also appear in publication and legal documents in English as Andrey Maymulakhin.

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