Russian Purge

For Putin’s Censors, Only Suicide Is Worse Than Homosexuality

Illustration: Mark Pernice

IT IS THE OPINION of Russian censors that there is something worse than homosexuality, and that is suicide.

The law “On Protecting Children From Information Harmful to Their Health and Development” bans the propaganda of suicide to anyone under 18. A September 2013 order from Roskomnadzor, the communications authority, explains what that means: “any mention of suicide as a way of solving a problem” and “the inclusion of information of one or more ways to commit suicide, descriptions or demonstrations, including textual … of processes and procedures that depict any sequence of actions.” A news site for the city of Saratov was so stymied by these restrictions that in September it published the following headline about a high school senior’s suicide: “In Saratov, After a Fight With Her Parents, a Student Committed a Certain Act for Certain Reasons.” Reporting what the girl had done might have violated the ban on description of suicide, and reporting why she had done it might have suggested it was her way of solving a problem.

There are no reliable statistics or studies of teenage suicide in Russia — in part, no doubt, because the chilling effect of Roskomnadzor’s prohibitions affects researchers — but it is fair to assume that some Russian teenagers contemplate suicide, and that, like elsewhere in the world but more so because of Russia’s anti-queer environment, a disproportionate number of these teenagers are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Recent examples include 18-year-old Vlad Kolesnikov in the Samara region; he killed himself in December, after being bullied for both his sexuality and his opposition to the Russian war in Ukraine. In February, an androgynous-looking 14-year-old eighth-grader in Saransk took a selfie on a roof before jumping to her death. A local newspaper reported on the suicide, noting in the last line that “on social networks, the girl took part in discussions of pansexuality and LGBT issues.”


A screen grab from the trailer for a Children 404 documentary.

Photo: Youtube

Lena Klimova, the founder and administrator of an online support group for LGBT teenagers, has seen it all, but the suicide-with-a-selfie story set her off. “You know, my dears, it may be true that the world is shit,” she wrote. “It may also be that we, the adults, are to blame for the world being the way it is. Maybe you’ll get older and take care of the mess we’ve made, once and for all. But here is what I can tell you for sure: There is nothing in death. No romance, no charm, no continuation.” She went on. It was a rant. She had been thinking about suicide a lot, because she reads a lot of letters about it.

Klimova launched the online community about three years ago. A then-closeted bisexual journalist living in the god-forsaken prison-industrial-complex city of Nizhny Tagil, she had set out to write a story about LGBT teenagers. The parliament was just then passing — unanimously, but over the course of months in several readings — its ban on “homosexual propaganda,” so the topic seemed timely. The depth of misery and despair Klimova discovered when she so much as scratched the surface was so profound that she decided to start a social network page for these kids. She called it “Children-404,” for the error code one gets after requesting a nonexistent web page. The group’s tagline is “We exist.”

Over the next couple of years, Klimova came out, got over 3,500 letters from LGBT teenagers (a few of them happy), received so much hate mail that it could make a (rather dull and repetitive) book of its own, made Children-404 her full-time job, and battled numerous attempts to have her prosecuted and the page shut down for violating the “propaganda” ban. For now, Klimova has been hit with fines, but the online community continues to exist, safely enough on Facebook and precariously on the more-popular Russian social network VKontakte.

After running the community for two years, Klimova put together a book of letters she had received and self-published it; the money came from a Russian-emigre LGBT organization in Germany. As she considered putting together a second, updated and more-polished edition, she was approached by several publishers. She doesn’t want to name them for fear of “creating trouble” for them, but one of them — Ilya Danishevsky, who runs an imprint at the AST conglomerate — volunteered the information to me.

When Danishevsky took the book to his publishing house’s lawyers, he got an answer he had never gotten before: a firm, unequivocal, nonnegotiable no. The notorious ban on homosexual propaganda — actually an amendment to the law “On Protecting Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development” — forbids the “uncontrolled and concerted dissemination of information that can harm the spiritual or physical development of children, including forming in them the erroneous impression of the social equality of traditional and nontraditional marital relations.” Danishevsky was going to market the book in the “18+” category, so that on the face of it, the book would not violate the ban. But the face of it has little to do with actual law enforcement, so his lawyer (who declined to speak to me) was adamant: The very subject of the book, LGBT teenagers, had no right to exist under Russian law.

The other editors who had expressed interest must have been hearing something similar from their lawyers or executives, because after several months they had all said no. “That didn’t leave a lot of options,” Klimova wrote to me. “One: knock on the doors of other publishing houses and wait months more for an answer — that seemed a dead end. Two: publish the book abroad — I’m holding that option in reserve. Three: self-publish, and take care of the postal orders yourself. That’s what we did with the first edition of the book, but it took a gigantic amount of time and labor. Four: use a service called Ridero. It allows authors to publish their books and then fulfills both e-book and print on-demand orders — that seemed ideal.”

Ridero is not subject to the same financial pressures as conventional publishers: It prints on demand, and if no orders come in, it loses hardly any money. It is still subject to Russian laws, though, so it has its own lawyers who review every manuscript. The vetting process usually takes a few days, but in Klimova’s case, it dragged on for months. The service knew from the start, of course, that the book’s subject was LGBT teenagers. But there was an even bigger problem: the subject of suicide.

After weeks of waiting, Klimova got a letter from Ridero: “We suggest you edit the text so that the wording cannot be interpreted as violating the Roskomnadzor order.” It turned out Russian LGBT teenagers mentioned suicide as a means of solving their problems or described the process itself on Pages 178, 183-190 (at least one mention per page), 215, 224, 274, 275, 276, 284, 285, 286, 295, 296, 308, 326, and 363. They wrote things like, “I feel like an outcast. I have seriously considered suicide, but only because I don’t know what else to do. It’s a dead end.” Or, “I would not wish it on an enemy of mine, this struggle to accept yourself, when it is better to die than admit who you really are.”

Klimova and Ridero were able to settle on one phrase that they figured would not violate the ban: “I considered suicide.” Where that didn’t fit, they cut the potentially offending references altogether. At the end of 2015, the book was finally cleared for publication. It is marked “for ages 18 and over.”

Part 1: Putin Doesn’t Need to Censor Books. Publishers Do It for Him.
Part 2: The Horror Story of Publishing Children’s Books in Russia

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