On May 9, during a night out drinking beer, Vladislav Tornovoi revealed to a pair of longtime friends that he was gay. The 23-year-old’s dead body was found naked the next morning in the courtyard of an apartment complex in the southern Russian city of Volgograd. His skull had been crushed with a piece of broken pavement. His genitals were mutilated, his ribs broken and he had been sodomized with beer bottles with such force that they damaged his internal organs. Before they left, his assailants set fire to his battered body.
Tornovoi’s drinking companions have since been arrested. Originally described by police as a “drunken brawl,” Russian authorities now list the incident as an anti-gay crime, perhaps owing to an interview given by one of the suspects in a striking legal-defense strategy that consists of blaming the victim.
Univosti News: “Why did you shove a bottle up his rectum?”
Suspect: “Because he said he was gay.”
U News: “How deep did you shove it in?”
Suspect: “All the way through.”
U News: “What did you do after?”
Suspect: “I started stomping on his ribs.”
U News: “And after?”
Suspect: “I took a brick and dropped it on his head 5 or 6 times.”
“It’s part of a very alarming tendency,” Olga Lenkova, spokeswoman for the St. Petersburg-based Coming Out advocacy group, tells Vocativ. “But the people who killed him, or are accused of killing him, really thought they could get away with it by suggesting he was gay.”
Tornovoi’s murder was the latest, and perhaps the grisliest, of what gay activists say is a rising tide of violence against homosexuals since President Vladimir Putin returned to power a year ago. There are no official statistics on how many anti-gay attacks occur each year in Russia, but in a country of about 142 million people only three homophobic incidents were recorded in the entire country in 2011.
Given the high-charged environment, it may not be surprising that Tornovoi’s friends and family were quick to distance themselves from the implication that he was a homosexual.Former classmates denied he was gay in a video posted on YouTube, claiming the “killers are somehow trying to justify themselves and their actions.”
“Let us bury him in peace without your lies and rumors,” they said. “We ask the news media to stop trying to spin him as gay to make his death a media circus.”
The narrative of Tornovoi’s sexuality highlights the deep challenges facing the gay rights movement in Russia, where homosexuals are widely seen as second-class citizens or suffering from an affliction.
“Even if he was a heterosexual, we’ve seen the anti-gay backlash,” Lenkova said. “Riding on the wave of homophobia, [the suspects] thought if they said he was gay, and he had offended their sensibilities, the people in power would act in a way that’s more lenient,” she said. The thinking goes, accordingly Lenkova, “We did it for a good cause.”
Public support of gay rights has plummeted in Russia over the last decade, and a new poll released last week found that about half of Russians said homosexuals should not enjoy the same freedoms as heterosexuals. The Levada Center poll also found the percentage of people supporting equal rights for homosexuals dropped to 39 percent in 2013 from 51 percent in 2005.
In the United States, public sentiment about homosexuality has gone in the exact opposite direction. Over the past eight years, every U.S. state has increased in its support for gay marriage, with an average increase of 13.6 percent, according to a UCLA study released in April. Gay marriage is now legal in about 15 countries, including overwhelmingly Catholic Brazil, which gave de facto approval to same-sex unions this month.
The Orthodox Church in Russia, which maintains close ties with the Putin’s Kremlin, has suggested homosexuality is a “threat” to the nation.
“The idea of a liberal society [was] canceled by the economic crisis of the 1990s,” said gay rights campaigner Nikolai Alexeyev. “The church plays a key role because it has influence over people who live in poor conditions.”
Russia’s parliament is now debating a law that would ban “propagandizing homosexuality” to protect people under the age of 18. Critics say the law is so broad it can be used to silence any kind of gay rights discourse, including magazines, newspapers or protests.
That law is already on the books in St. Petersburg and several other municipalities. It is scheduled to be taken up again by lawmakers in Moscow on May 25.
Tornovoi’s name has become a rallying point for those opposed to the legislation.
“Aunt Elena, how did you sleep? It is me, Vlad Tornovoi with crushed head, without genitals and with three bottles in my torn intestines,” one man tweeted at Russian lawmaker Elena Mizulina, a leading proponent of the bill.
Mizulina’s office declined to comment on the propaganda bill or Vlad Tornovoi’s death.
A group called “Vlad Tornovoi: Killed by homophobes in Volgograd,” has sprung up on VK—Russia’s top social networking site—with several hundred supporters urging outraged Russians to “scream about this to everyone.”
“Lately there have been a lot of these incidents across the country, and the authorities are covering that up,” the page reads.
To activists like Alexeyev, progress will only come after sweeping changes in leadership and mindset. For him, there is no use trying to discuss the issues with the current government. ”I’m absolutely pro-radical activism,” he says. “I think that sitting there writing to lawmakers, participating with the same people who are trying to institute the propaganda law…isn’t that idiocy? Were the Jews in the ‘30s discussing how to build the gas chambers better?”
On Friday, a small “International Day of Homophobia” rally took place in St. Petersburg, where about 100 protestors rallied for 15 minutes while enduring expletive-laced taunts from an even larger counter-demonstration.
“We need to stomp out this shit, it’s happening all over Europe,” said one anti-gay counter-protestor.
Nearby, a girl attending the rally clutched a sign that read: “I’m 17. The authorities tell me I don’t exist. The Nazis say I should be killed. But I’ll live.”