Life In Berlin: Escaping Violence And Arrests, Gay Russians Find Refuge In Germany

Feb 27, 2015

“My name is Kirill Kalugin. I’m 23 years old. I’m from St. Petersburg, Russia and I leave my country because I was afraid for my health, for my life, and for my freedom.”

Kirill Kalugin is one of a growing number of gay Russians seeking political asylum in the West. In November, Kalugin arrived in Dortmund, Germany, after multiple arrests, death threats and physical attacks. He’s been assaulted and arrested for waving a rainbow flag, as well as for demonstrating against Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“I was arrested many times,” he says. “It is scary first one but after it, you think it is normal.”

One of his gay friends was kidnapped by thugs and left naked in the forest. Kalugin watched another friend lose an eye when two masked men attacked a gay community center with a baseball bat and BB gun, shooting the friend in the face.

Kalugin says he grew used to the death threats, but became increasingly afraid of disappearing in a Russian jail. “I wasn’t afraid of these people. But I [was] afraid [of the] police because I know they can do with you what they want. Like Nadezhda Savchenko now - jailed. A lot of activists and people now - jailed.”

According to a December report by Human Rights Watch, police harassment and anti-gay violence have increased since 2013, when Russia passed a so-called anti-propaganda law that effectively criminalizes gay activism, including community and education projects. Arrests and detentions have also increased, and there have been several horrific murders. When a gay person is attacked, Kalugin says police often arrest the victim, not the perpetrator.

“I’m Pavel Lebedev from Voronezh, Russia. I’m in Germany now because I don't want to risk my life, and because I know that my government will do nothing to protect me.”

Pavel Lebedev is another young gay Russian seeking safety in Germany. He’s been attacked by thugs and arrested for showing a rainbow flag. The attacks got worse after an Orthodox fanatic published his photo, name and address. The worst thing, he says, is that the police do nothing.

Kalugin and Lebedev’s chances of receiving asylum are good, thanks to a 2013 ruling by the European Court of Justice that confirmed the right to asylum in the EU for people persecuted for their sexual orientation.

But the approval process can take many months. During that time, they're assigned to a refugee center, where they often share close quarters with refugees from countries where homophobia is as bad as in Russia, if not worse. Kalugin’s roommate is a devout Muslim from Algeria who tells Kalugin he’s afraid of being snatched by the devil. The last thing Kalugin wants is for the man to find out that he's gay.

The German authorities don’t publish statistics on gay refugees, but Kalugin and Lebedev say many of their friends have already left Russia.