Mads Nissen was in St. Petersburg when the Russian government passed its anti-gay propaganda law, and saw firsthand the simmering hatred that the legislation unleashed on the already-vulnerable LGBTQ community. The Danish photographer was meeting up with a 23-year-old named Pavel Lebedev, who had just recently come out, an excruciating decision that made him a walking target for hate crimes tacitly approved by the government. Nissen and Lebedev were talking when a bully with a crewcut approached Pavel, called him a faggot, and then pummeled him, all without fear of any legal consequences. From that moment forward, Nissen, who won World Press Photo’s Picture of the Year award in 2015 and has reported from conflict zones all over the world, devoted himself to documenting the hate for the rest of the world to see.
“I’ve seen violent attacks from homophobic groups that kidnap gays and torture them for hours, while filming it all to share it on social media,” Nissen, who returned to Russia several times over the next several years in between trips to cover guerrilla drug wars in Colombia, says. “I photographed lesbian couples that fear their children might one day be forcibly removed from them. I’ve been inside the court where people are accused under the new anti-gay law, and much more.”
LGBT pride parades and rallies, always risky propositions, are now illegal, and some of Nissen’s most haunting work captured the bloodied faces of the brave young men who dared show up after the law passed. We haven’t heard too much about gay rights in Russia since the Olympics in Sochi drew so much international attention, but the oppression marches on every day. In March, a small city called Svetogorsk, on the border of Finland, made it illegal for LGBT people to even come within its borders.
The law continues to wreak havoc on the country’s gay community, and by extension, the larger population. Russia has over 1 million cases of HIV, and the ultra-conservative government refusing to take action. Putin’s response? “Family, fidelity and faith.” But Nissen’s work is not all bleak; he also captured the quiet moments of private joy that are impossible for any government to stamp out, including one couple who invited him into their bedroom. “At one point I felt I needed some pictures of what it was essentially all about: love and the unstoppable desire between two people,” he says. –Jordan Zakarin
Yaroslav Yevtushenko embraces his boyfriend, Dmitry Chunosov, at a St. Petersburg marriage- registry office in June. Five same-sex couples attempted to submit marriage applications, but according to media reports, all the submissions were promptly rejected by the authorities.
Supporters try to protect activist Kiriee Fedorov from further attacks after he was violently assaulted by ultraconservative extremists during a gay-pride rally on June 29, 2013. Fedorov was later arrested. Russia’s gay “propaganda” law has been used to ban gay-pride rallies in St. Petersburg.
Twenty-seven-year-old Ruslan Amrayev, a ballet dancer at The Academy of Russian Ballet, smokes a cigarette at Central Station nightclub—one of just a few LGBT safe spaces in St. Petersburg. He was married to a woman for five years, but following their divorce, he came out as gay. A few years ago, two men with guns tried to gain access into the club to murder patrons. Although the effort was unsuccessful, unknown assailants released a harmful gas into the club a week later.
Dmitry Chizhevsky, 27, had his left eye permanently disabled in an attack on Nov. 3, 2013, when three armed men barged into a private meeting for gay activists in St. Petersburg. The attackers hit the attendees with baseball bats and shot Dmitry’s eye with an air gun at close range. The perpetrators still have not been found.
Polina Popova, 25, with her girlfriend, Irina Zinovieva, 37, who is eight months pregnant. The couple, who have been together for four years, used their gay friend as a donor. Some religious and conservative groups within Russia advocate the forced removal of children from all LGBT families. On June 30, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law an ambiguous bill banning the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” The law met with widespread condemnation from human-rights groups around the world.
Riot police watch a rainbow of balloons float into the sky as several hundred LGBT activists hold a rally in central St. Petersburg to mark the International Day Against Homophobia on May 17. Rally organizers struck a deal with police for permission to assemble and protection from agitators. In return, the organizers agreed not to use certain signs and slogans.
Vitaly Milonov, a politician and member of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg (United Russia party). He is Russia’s harshest and most influential critic of homosexuality and LGBT rights. Milonov was the principal sponsor of legislation criminalizing “homosexual propaganda,” which passed in 2013. He is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and volunteers as a subdeacon at a local church. On April 29, 1993, then-President Boris Yeltsin decriminalized homosexuality. Under Putin, Russia has seen a resurgence of nationalism and homophobia.