This week, Russian authorities dealt what may be the greatest blow to LGBT rights advocates since Vladimir Putin signed into law the infamous ban on “gay propaganda in the vicinity of minors.”
On November 7, three police officers visited the home of Elena Klimova, the head of “Children-404,” a Russian online community that reaches out with supportive messages to LGBT youth around the world. Similar to the American “It Gets Better” campaign, the group spreads its message on social networks Vkontakte, Facebook, and YouTube. Children-404 derives its name from the common “page not found” error message that sometimes appears when a website is inaccessible. The group appeals to youths who feel similarly lost and outcast.
As of this week, Children-404 has piqued the interests of the Russian police, who asked Klimova, among other things, if the group publishes photographs of naked children—it does not.
Three days after the police visit, Klimova received a message informing her that Roscomnadzor, Russia’s Federal Communications Commission equivalent, has determined that Children-404 violates Russia’s “gay propaganda” ban. She is expected to appear at a Roscomnadzor office on November 18 to find out what legal penalties she will face—under Russian law, as an organization, Children-404 could be fined more than $20,000. Klimova says she fears, in the worst possible scenario, that authorities might pursue additional charges against her, in order to put her in prison.
Police launched the case against Children-404 in part because of a complaint by Anna Levchenko, leader of a project—once praised by Vladimir Putin—that claims to fight sexual violence against minors. In practice, however, the group appears to function as a cover for persecuting those who reach out to gay youths. In late October, Levchenko formally asked Russia’s Attorney General to investigate Children-404’s Vkontakte page for violations of the country's “gay propaganda” ban.
According to a letter from Levchenko, her group not only cataloged the supposed crimes occurring at Children-404, but it even approached some of its underage LGBT participants to interrogate them about why they identify as gay. In an online radio appearance earlier this month on Russia’s “Popular-Patriotic Channel,” Levchenko also accused Children-404 of trying to undermine the Orthodox Church, reciting a few examples of gay youths struggling with the “sin” of homosexuality and the supposedly anti-religious advice they received from Children-404 community members.
Writing on LiveJournal, Children-404 founder Klimova implies she will challenge Roscomnadzor’s ruling in court, but doesn’t show much optimism about the chances of overturning the decision. She concludes her LJ post on a note of desperation, saying,
ЧТО ТЕПЕРЬ ДЕЛАТЬ? Жить дальше. Имеет ли смысл (как это делают наши оппоненты) завалить Роскомнадзор письмами о том, что наш проект полезный, важный, нужный и вам / кому-то помог? Я не знаю. Имеет ли смысл создавать петиции и выходить на акции? Я не знаю. В конечном счёте каждый человек делает то, что сам считает нужным, и да будет так.
WHAT TO DO NOW? Life goes on. Is there any point in writing letters to Roscomnadzor (as our opponents love to do) saying that our project is useful, important, needed, and helpful to people? I don’t know. Is there any point in starting a petition or staging a protest? I don’t know. In the end, everybody does what they think is necessary, and that’s how it’ll be.
It is hard to underestimate the chilling effect the crackdown on Children-404 might have. The LGBT community is one of the least respected, most maligned groups in Russian society. Targeting Children-404 will undoubtedly discourage many LGBT youths in Russia from seeking support during adolescence, when they often need it most.
The attack on Children-404 might even deprive some young people of help that could prevent them from harming themselves. Ironically, Roscomnadzor is supposed to protect children from Internet trends associated with suicide. The war on gays, it seems, trumps that mission.