Man 'confesses' to murder of LGBT+ activist Yelena Grigoryeva, but Russia's LGBT+ community are not convinced

Grigoryeva had received numerous death threats online and offline in the week leading up to her death.

Person wears badge of Yelena Grigoryeva
Image: Anatoly Maltsev/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

On July 23, LGBT+ Activist Yelena Grigoryeva was murdered in St. Petersburg. Ms Grigoryeva had received numerous death threats online and offline in the week leading up to her death. The threats had become more frequent following her name being listed on the Saw inspired website, Пила.

Russian authorities were quick to dismiss allegations that her murder was fuelled by hate. Five days after the murder, they announced that Grigoryeva had been stabbed by an acquaintance during a drunken dispute.

Russia’s state media further promoted this idea, saying she led an “antisocial lifestyle” and that she was an “alcoholic”.

Murdered Russian LGBT+ activist Yelena Grigoryeva holding up a sign at a protest
Murdered LGBT+ activist Yelena Grigoryeva would frequent protests in Russia

They named the alleged killer as Aleksei Volnyanko, a 28 year-old who had been arrested a month earlier on drug related charges and according to authorities, he confessed two days later.

“She insulted me too much,” he says. “And I, being in a state of alcoholic inebriation, lost my temper.”

In state news reports, they said that Grigoryeva had been drinking with Volnyanko with news presenters dismissing the Saw site as a harmless PR campaign or a stunt by LGBT+ activists seeking asylum abroad.

“With a friend and four men, she drank spirits worth 45 rubles per bottle on a bench at night. So what do you expect?” asked one such report on the state-run news channel Rossia-24. “The headlines will no doubt be loud, and they’re unlikely to be about a banal domestic killing. After all, that doesn’t sound as pretty as ‘death for LGBT ideals.'”

Among those interviewed by state broadcasters in Russia, was Timur Bulatov. Bulatov is a “Muslim self-styled civic activist” who has become well known in recent years for his anti-LGBT+ rhetoric.

Grigoryeva was one of many LGBT+ activists whom Bulatov threatened on social media. But one exchange in the days before her murder has fueled suspicion of his complicity among her friends and fellow activists.

Self-styled anti-LGBT activist Timur Bulatov

On June 11, Bulatov sent Grigoryeva a photo of a knife he had carved himself. Using an expletive and homophobic language to refer to LGBT+ people, he asked her if it would be “awesome” to kill them with the weapon. The following day, apparently interpreting one of her comments as a threat, he wrote: “Get ready scum. You said everything!”

Grigoryeva immediately sent screenshots of that exchange to her friend Aleksandr Khmelev. “If something happens to me, you know my address,” she wrote. Khmelev saved the screenshots and shared them with authorities.

Bulatov was brought in for questioning following Grigoryeva’s killing. He said he was at home at the time of the incident and could prove it. At this point, Volnyanko had already confessed and Bulatov was quickly released.

Bulatov denies all involvement in Grigoryeva’s killing and alleges she had threatened his family. He also denied any link to the Saw website, but in posts now removed from his VK account (Russina social mesia site), Bulatov appeared to claim authorship of Saw.

“Inshallah we will SAW OUT the ROT, mold and DECAY,” he wrote, using language with which he regularly refers to the LGBT+ community online. “WHO’S NEXT?”

Few of Grigoryeva’s friends believe that Bulatov was directly involved with Grigoryeva’s murder, with some describing him as a “troll”.

Her killing and the questions that surround it have instilled a climate of fear among LGBT+ activists that was already there before Saw.

A vigil was held outside the Russian Consulate in London following Yelena’s murder

Threats towards LGBT+ activists continue to this day.

On August 25, an email came through to Vitaly Bespalov’s private inbox from the address [email protected]

Bespalov edits an LGBT+ friendly website in St. Petersburg and was one of those named on the Saw list.

“Hi Vitaly! My name is Saw and I want to play the fourth level of the game with you and all your rear-driven friends,” it read. “You are our holy sacrifice.”

Bespalov was ordered to find and murder Maksim Lapunov, a gay man who said he was abducted and tortured in Chechnya before October 1.

“You have probably not forgotten about the murder of the boozer Yelena Grigoryeva,” the message continued, taking responsibility for her killing. “You will not find the people who ordered it. And it will be the same for you, if you don’t meet our conditions.”

Bespalov reported the threat to the police on August 27 and says he has yet to receive an answer.

“I’m not afraid that I’ll be killed by people who write these threats,” Bespalov said. “But I don’t discount the possibility of attacks by people whom this situation could inspire.

“This is a community that no one will protect. Not the police, not investigative organ[isations], no one. So the message is: this is fair game.

“That’s my main fear,” he said. “I know that if something happens and I go to the police, they’ll do nothing. And that’s an unpleasant feeling.”

© 2019 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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