Last January 35 year-old Evgeny Shtorn arrived in Ireland, having upended his entire life to flee Russia after he found himself in an impossible and possibly life-endangering situation. Before he was forced to leave his home, Evgeny worked at the Centre for Independent Social Research, a think tank which provides sociological research in areas that are not covered by official Russian academia, like LGBT+ studies or studies of racism.
Legislation introduced in Russia in 2012 under Putin requires non-profit organisations like the Centre for Independent Social Research, who receive foreign donations and engage in “political activity” to register and declare themselves as foreign agents. According to Evgeny: “On official levels they say that this law does not affect the physical person, it’s just against the organisations, but in reality it does. Everybody who works for these organisations is targeted as a foreign agent and is in danger.”
In his position at the Centre, Evgeny worked directly with LGBT+ organisations on issues including the effects of Putin’s gay propaganda law, which makes the distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” among minors, a punishable offence.
You saw the people here who were campaigning for a No vote in the referendum on the Eighth Amendment were proud – you can have this same feeling of being proud of your actions against gay people in Russia.
“We were trying to find some provable data on the hate crimes against LGBT people since the introduction of the law,” Evgeny explains. “We were collecting the court decisions about criminal actions committed against people with ‘non-traditional sexual orientation’. We collected all of the data from 2010 to 2016 to see if there was a rise in these crimes, and the answer is yes – there were twice the number of murders by 2015.
“That’s how the gay propaganda law works in Russia. It’s a green light for homophobic feelings and attacks on people who are already living with the stigma of being gay. In Russia, it’s very difficult to liberate from the gay stigma. It’s a society that claims to be traditional and orthodox, and which is proud to be conservative. You saw the people here who were campaigning for a No vote in the referendum on the Eighth Amendment were proud – you can have this same feeling of being proud of your actions against gay people in Russia. With this law, it doesn’t mean the policeman will come to your home and arrest or kill you; it means that the homophobe feels that the state is on his side if he wants to attack you.”
Stateless in a Russian Regime
St. Petersburg, where Evgeny and his partner of 13 years were living, has always been considered a more liberal Russian city. The four main LGBT+ organisations, including the Russian LGBT Network, are located there, and Russia’s LGBT Film Festival, Side By Side, takes place there every November. The city is also home to at least three gay clubs and one lesbian club. “But it’s not very safe,” says Evgeny. “There are various attacks on people leaving the clubs, but they are still one of the most important places for gay people to go.”
Evgeny and his partner were living a quiet, non-scene life, mostly socialising in the homes of their close circle of friends, when everything he knew was suddenly turned upside down. Evgeny, originally from the Kazakh Soviet Republic, and now a stateless person was in the process of applying for citizenship in Russia. The authorities had refused the application based on “technical details”. He then received a call asking for clarification.
“They invited me in, saying they were migration services, but when went there, it was the secret police,” Evgeny says. “I wouldn’t have gone alone if knew, because often you cannot leave that place. They are above the law.
“An officer of the Federal Security Service (FSB) showed me his ID. I was interrogated for almost two hours. On the wall, there was a huge portrait of Andropov, who was the leader of the KGB in the 1970s, which felt very strange. The officer was trying to recruit me, using my vulnerable status. They had searched quite a lot about me and knew was working closely with LGBT organisations, that I myself was a ‘foreign agent’. I was an easy target for them.
Being gay there is a nightmare; it basically means the end of your life.
“If they recruited me, my job would have been to betray other people. For me it was very clear, I would never collaborate with them. The officer mentioned in our conversation in a very subtle way the article of the Russian penal code about espionage and treason. The punishment for treason is very serious. What they can easily do is cancel your resident permit, because the Secret Service in Russia controls all the other state services, even the universities. It means that I would be sent to the centre for so-called migrants, which is basically a prison, a place you cannot leave while you wait for deportation. But they can’t deport me, because I’m a stateless person.
“They have to release you after two years, but they immediately arrest you and put you in there for another two years, and so on. Human rights defenders cannot enter that place, and we don’t know what is actually happening there. Being gay there is a nightmare; it basically means the end of your life. I am absolutely sure that if my story became public when I was in this prison for migrants, they could have transferred me to the Kazakh Secret Services, and I would not have survived.”
I left within one month of the interrogation, which in my case as a stateless person is almost a miracle.
After the interrogation, Evgeny was allowed to go home. “The first feeling, after the shock, was paranoia – that they were everywhere, that they were listening to my phone, reading my emails,” he says. “I didn’t know how to protect myself, what to do. I remember once when was a teenager, two very drunk guys tried to mug me on the street. I felt so small, so defenseless, and this was the same, 24 hours a day.
“The very next day after the interrogation, the FSB officer called again and this was the moment of real panic and fear.
“I moved from my flat to a friend’s place and started contacting all my friends in LGBT and other human rights organisations I knew. They told me had to get out. They are very experienced human rights defenders and basically they just took me. I’m a very privileged person; I was really helped by good, clever, intelligent and kind people. I left within one month of the interrogation, which in my case as a stateless person is almost a miracle.”
Journey To Ireland
To keep the work of his helpers confidential, Evgeny does not want to talk about his journey to Ireland. But because of them, he was connected to LGBT+ activists here, who welcomed him, a situation that does not happen for most LGBT+ people fleeing to Ireland from brutal regimes.
“Since coming here, I’ve realised that my diaspora is LGBT. It’s not just simple help I’m getting; it’s something more, it’s a real friendship towards me. From certain people, you see that it’s not just a job or activism. I was put in contact with a very good lawyer from the Irish Refugee Council who gave me some very useful information on how to proceed.”
In March, after taking a lot of advice, Evgeny decided to claim for asylum in Ireland.
“It was not an easy decision,” he says, given that once you claim for asylum here you are put into the Direct Provision system, which houses asylum seekers as they wait for their applications to be processed, a procedure that can take a very long time.
“I see a lot of young people who are really deteriorating there [in Direct Provision]. They become completely degraded to just basic needs.”
“Since then I have been living in the Direct Provision reception centre in Dublin, which is usually the first place you go after you claim for asylum,” Evgeny explains. “You wait there for transfer and you can be sent to any part of Ireland. You don’t know where it will be, or when it will be. Just one day you will find your number in the administration office, and they will give you a letter with the destination, two or three days before your transfer.”
Evgeny believes a system where asylum seekers are given a place to stay, food to eat and some basic needs covered is good, to begin with. “But when it’s something that lasts for years and years, it’s not good for the people or for the state,” he says. “I see a lot of young people who are really deteriorating there. They don’t do anything, they can’t study or work, they sleep all day or sit on their phones, they are not allowed to cook for themselves, or wash a dish even. They become completely degraded to just basic needs.”
For LGBT+ people, the Direct Provision system comes with serious extra challenges. Because they are housed and have to share rooms with people from the countries they fled or any other, who often are steeped in the homophobia of their home countries, LGBT+ asylum seekers are often forced back into the closet again and live in fear of being found out.
“I believe we need a separate safe Direct Provision centre for vulnerable people such as LGBTs and victims of domestic violence.”
“You lack the right to be visible,” Evgeny says. “I am not scared, and everybody knows that I am gay. But if you are closeted in a hermetic place with homophobes who express it openly in your own language, then it is a system of oppression. I believe we need a separate safe Direct Provision centre for vulnerable people such as LGBTs and victims of domestic violence.”
Although LGBT+ organisations in Ireland work on a number of fronts, there is no NGO in Ireland working directly with LGBT+ asylum seekers. “There are no special programmes of support, there are no special places to go, and this is needed,” says Evgeny. He wants to use his own experience of working with LGBT+ organisations in Russia to make life better for LGBT+ asylum seekers here.
“What I would like to do is build some kind of network of LGBT asylum seekers, which can be transformed in the future into an organisation with special programmes. There could be a great opportunity, for instance, for LGBT asylum seekers who don’t speak English to learn from other LGBTs.”
“Now it’s just a fantasy. I don’t know how exactly to do it, or how to pursue it, but I still think it’s needed. I really think that it’s impossible without the Irish LGBT community on board. I hope that there will be some Irish LGBT activists who will be open to helping us and open to working with us, providing us with information and some other types of support.”
“I left without being one hundred per cent conscious of what I left, and what was taken from me – my home with my partner, my friends, my family, my mother, it’s a lot.”
Documenting LGBT+ Lives In Ireland
Evgeny also wants to document the deeper emotional experience of being an LGBT+ asylum seeker by mounting an exhibition using personal artefacts.
“Last year in August, my partner and I went to the Black Sea for a holiday, and while we were there I bought a t-shirt. When was fleeing Russia, unconsciously I took the t-shirt with me and realised over here that it brought me these memories, that it brought me back. All my previous life is in this physical object. The idea of the exhibition is to bring these objects together, with the stories of their owners to create this atmosphere of memories, or pasts and presents mixed with these LGBT lives and LGBT stories, here in Ireland. I think it could enrich the Irish LGBT community.”
Meanwhile, Evgeny is slowly coming to terms with the enormity of the loss in having to leave his home so suddenly. “It’s only now that I’m realising how much had to leave behind,” he says. “I’m trying not to think about it. I left without being one hundred per cent conscious of what I left, and what was taken from me – my home with my partner, my friends, my family, my mother, it’s a lot.”
And as to when he might return to Russia, Evgeny is uncertain. “I hope to go home when Putin dies, but under his regime, don’t think so. And we don’t know what will happen next. Nobody knows.”
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