Listen to this story:
Berlin, Germany – Having visited the German capital twice before, Polina Punegova, from the Russian port city of St Petersburg, had often told her Ukrainian partner Yulia Maznyk that she would love Berlin’s architecture, graffitied streets and spirit of open-mindedness, and that they should visit together.
But following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the Moscow-based couple found themselves in Berlin in less than holiday-like circumstances.
They were visiting Budapest when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
“Everything was a mess,” says Punegova, 27, referring to the confusion that dogged them in the first days of the war. Through the airline, they discovered that their flight had been cancelled and that there would not be another, recounts Punegova, an IT project manager, while speaking at the Berlin community space of Quarteera, a German volunteer-led organisation supporting the rights of LGBTQ Russian speakers.
As the money in their Russian bank accounts lost value overnight due to sanctions, they had to react quickly. “We had so much to discuss: What are we going to do now? What will we do for money? What about our life in Moscow and our two pets – a dog and a cat?” says Punegova.
Among their concerns was how Russian authorities might treat Kyiv-born Maznyk, 37, if they returned to Moscow. Some months previously, upon returning to Russia after a trip to Ukraine, Maznyk was kept for two hours at the airport while authorities checked her documents. “The whole thing was pretty strange,” says Punegova. “We were worried that if we went back just as the war was beginning, authorities may keep her passport and we weren’t sure what they would do with her, either.”
Then came alarming news of anti-war protesters being tortured by police in Russia. Worried that there could be a wider crackdown including on the LGBTQ community, already hounded by authorities, the couple made the difficult decision not to return home.
Reaching out to a few support groups on social media and their friends, they learned about the strong network of support on offer in Berlin for LGBTQ people. The pair decided to go to Berlin, where they found a crucial support system through Quarteera.
Climate of hostility
Punegova and Maznyk are among the millions of people displaced by the war in Ukraine. More than six million Ukrainians have fled Ukraine, with around 60,000 in Berlin. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have also left their country, many fearing persecution for opposing the war, with some exiles now in the German capital.
Although there is very little data on how many Russian exiles identify as LGBTQ, activists in Berlin tell Al Jazeera that since the war started, the number of requests from LGBTQ people still in the country seeking support on how to leave has risen.
Russia’s LGBTQ community has long faced hostility and discrimination. When it comes to legal rights, such as protection against discrimination, and social attitudes towards the community on issues like same-sex marriage and adoptions, Russia ranks 34 out of 100 (with 100 being the most equal) on an equality index by Equaldex, a crowdsourcing collaborative platform that tracks LGBTQ rights globally.
Hostility grew with the 2013 so-called “gay propaganda” law that banned material promoting “non-traditional sexual relations to minors”.
Human rights groups say the law has led to increased homophobic and transphobic violence and has been used to stamp out the community’s visibility by shutting down LGBTQ websites that provide information and resources to teenagers, cancelling major events like Pride marches and curtailing support groups.
This hostility has permeated other Russian-speaking regions. In the southern Russian republic of Chechnya, in recent years, more than a hundred men have been abducted, tortured and forcibly disappeared in what have been described as “anti-gay purges” by human rights groups. Chechen forces are among those deployed to Ukraine.
Ukraine fares a little better (44 out of 100), according to Equaldex.
The community doesn’t have access to the same legal rights as opposite-sex couples, and same-sex marriage is not recognised. While homophobia and transphobia are experienced in areas such as employment, according to activists, since 2015 it has been against the law in Ukraine to discriminate against someone in the workplace based on their gender or sexual orientation, and following legislation in 2016, it has become legally easier for transgender people to transition.
Fears in Ukraine
Activists both inside and outside Ukraine say they fear what Russia’s homophobic and transphobic state policies may mean for Ukrainian LGBTQ people under Russian invading forces.
Oleksandra Matviychuk, head of the Center for Civil Liberties, a human rights organisation based in Ukraine, says that areas held by Russia and Russian-backed separatists since 2014 have seen persecution of LGBTQ people.
“We have been documenting cases of discrimination against the community,” she says, speaking over the phone from Kyiv. “There is a very specific ideology around gender roles and sexuality that Russia has been trying to impose on Ukrainian territories for years.”
Working alongside LGBTQ organisations in Ukraine, Russia and the surrounding territories, the organisation has been tracking the wellbeing of LGBTQ people since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and the conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine with pro-Russian separatists.
Matviychuk says they have spoken to LGBTQ people about what life is like for them in Crimea and the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, collectively known as Donbas, controlled by Russian-backed separatists, and found that they live in an “atmosphere of fear” and discrimination. One of the biggest issues is that officials in these areas “have imported [the] Kremlin’s homophobic laws” that legitimise the discrimination and the criminalisation of the LGBTQ community, says Matviychuk.
A 2016 report that Matviychuk’s organisation worked on detailed discrimination encouraged by government structures. The report listed instances of government representatives expressing homophobic views in speeches to incite physical violence against members of the LGBTQ community and homophobia towards those considered, in the words of Sergey Aksyonov, the head of Russia-occupied Crimea, to be “destroying the moral health of our nation”. In such an atmosphere, according to the report, one organisation in Crimea tracked gay people online before setting them up on false dates where they were beaten after arriving.
The report also noted the limitations around LGBTQ activism in Donbas, the lack of available hormone therapy for transgender people, and the precarious situation for young LGBTQ people who are unable to access information or receive adequate psychological support.
Given what has been happening in regions under de facto Russian control since 2014, Matviychuk says it is unsafe for LGBTQ people to be open about their sexual orientation in areas where Russian troops are present.
LGBTQ activists say that they have heard reports of Russian soldiers targeting the community inside occupied regions, but say it is hard to get specific details due to limited contact with people in those places.
Ukraine’s LGBTQ community faces other challenges, according to activists.
“For LGBTQ people still in Ukraine, the situation is obviously the worst as they have little access to humanitarian aid, safe shelters and specific medical treatment,” says Quarteera’s Svetlana Shaytanova, 30, who comes from the Siberian city of Omsk but lives in Göttingen, Germany.
Anastasiia Yeva Domani, director of Cohort NGO, an organisation that advocates for the rights of transgender people, speaks to Al Jazeera via Zoom as she stands outside her home in Kyiv after an air raid warning.
Domani, dressed in a cream jacket, says, as she scans the sky, that one of the major concerns for the trans community is the lack of hormone treatment.
“It has gone from bad to worse. There is a real scarcity of hormone supplies and people who are transitioning don’t know for sure if they will get what they need from week to week,” says Domani.
With her organisation based in Kyiv, there is better access to supplies than elsewhere in the country. They have set up a system that allows trans people across Ukraine to request the hormones they need via an online form and then Domani visits pharmacies in Kyiv, collects what is needed and mails the medication.
Another major issue is the ID checks that are occurring across the country. When a trans person’s appearance does not match their gender marker in their documents, this has created issues such as restricting individuals from moving around freely and in many cases, from leaving the country.
“There is a particular problem for trans people who have ‘male’ marked in their identity documents. Since all men are required to stay in the country to fight, it is down to pure luck if a trans person or someone who identifies [as] nonbinary has been able to leave the country,” Shaytanova says.
Domani’s organisation is working to address this issue on a more systemic, governmental level.
Lenny Emson is the director of KyivPride. “We have been witnessing a rising number of homophobic and transphobic hate crimes across Ukraine where members of the community who are visibly LGBTQ are being attacked,” says Emson, speaking from Kyiv.
Activists have called for an investigation following a report of a violent attack against two gay men in the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa, where the pair say they were beaten and subjected to homophobic verbal abuse from Ukrainians in military uniform.
The police are too busy with the war to intervene in such cases, according to Emson, who plans to meet police force representatives to address such cases.
And for many LGBTQ people, life has become more precarious. Facing marginalisation and discrimination in employment before the war, Emson says many in the community are now jobless, requiring food, money and support.
Helping refugees and exiles
Many refugees and exiles have fled to neighbouring countries like Poland and Hungary, which have anti-LGBTQ laws.
Shaytanova says that among the recent arrivals to Germany, there have been reports of discrimination through verbal abuse and unequal treatment.
According to Maneo, a Berlin-based organisation that tracks cases of anti-gay violence, two gay men from Russia were subjected to homophobic verbal abuse from a staff member working in the refugee asylum department when the pair went to register for asylum in Berlin. They were then sent to a cramped refugee space outside the city despite there being accommodation available in the capital. The organisation has called on authorities to explain why the men were treated in this way.
Shaytanova says it is important that LGBTQ people have access to safe accommodation, specific medical treatments and psychological support.
This is where Quarteera comes in. Founded in 2011, the organisation supports LGBTQ Russian speakers in Germany as well as in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and has received around 3,000 requests from LGBTQ people caught up in the conflict.
Shaytanova says the organisation had to mobilise quickly to support LGBTQ arrivals from Ukraine as well as Russian exiles and mixed Ukrainian and Russian same-sex couples following the war’s outbreak. “The first two weeks were really exhausting,” Shaytanova says.
She says the organisation has helped around 750 people on a range of matters such as acquiring HIV medicine, finding temporary, safe accommodation and navigating the German asylum system.
In areas where they don’t have professionals, such as psychologists, they forward requests to bigger organisations.
In the first few weeks of the war, Quarteera was receiving at least five messages a day from Russian LGBTQ people – around 30 percent of requests – compared with one or maybe two a week prior to the war.
Yet while Quarteera can help Russians in the same way they do Ukrainians once they are in Germany, it is restricted on how much it can offer those inside Russia. “We get a lot of requests from people saying that they have no visa, no money, and they can’t leave Russia. And in this case, we have to say no. It’s very sad, but we are powerless,” says Shaytanova.
Under German law, it is illegal for them to help people leave their home countries and seek asylum, but Quarteera is currently lobbying to make the asylum process easier, she says.
Figuring out where to go
Quarteera assisted Punegova and Maznyk by providing bureaucratic support and putting them in touch with people in similar positions so that they can seek the advice and the experience of others.
When the war broke out, the couple headed to Maznyk’s cousin’s home in Munich to figure out what to do, says Punegova. Adding to their stress was concern about Maznyk’s mother, who refused to leave Kyiv. “There were a lot of tears and panic attacks during these initial days,” says Punegova.
After finding out about a support network in Berlin, they boarded a train to the German capital, travelling with just a few items of holiday clothing, including the swimsuits they had planned to wear in Budapest’s baths.
Shortly after their arrival at the emergency flat offered to them when a friend posted an Instagram story about their situation, they were contacted by Quarteera after an acquittance told the group they needed assistance.
One of Quarteera’s 30 “buddies” called to see what they needed. It was only after this call and after hearing the buddy’s reassurances that Quarteera could help them that the couple start to worry less. Now, finding themselves in the city they always wanted to visit, Punegova remarks wryly, “It is funny how that has turned out.”
Part of the war efforts
Marina Usmanova, the director of a feminist LGBTQ inclusive organisation, and Dan Aute, head of the board of an NGO for transgender people, both based in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, have been in Berlin since the beginning of March.
Speaking over Zoom, they say that despite limited legal rights and intolerance towards the community from some segments of Ukrainian society, the LGBTQ community in various cities across the country was developing well prior to the war.
“That’s why we are really grateful to the Ukrainian army. They are not only saving our lives, but also our identities because when we are in Ukraine and under Ukrainian legislation, we are free to be out as LGBTQ people,” says Emson, who has been a visible member of the LGBTQ movement for 20 years.
Keen to not derail the progress made in recent years, Emson says this year’s Kyiv Pride will still go ahead. Unable to take place inside the country, it will join up with Warsaw Pride on June 25, when 80,000 participants are expected.
Usmanova and Aute held a solidarity march on May 17 in Berlin, the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, with Quarteera to highlight the risks faced by their community. They will use funds earmarked for plans disrupted by the war to help LGBTQ people in Kherson with food and other supplies and for evacuation.
Still, Usmanova says it is important to not overlook that “the community is very big and diverse and it is doing a lot for the war efforts inside Ukraine”, including fighting on the front lines and providing medical assistance.
“What has been frustrating,” Usmanova says, “is how little focus the media have given LGBTQ people, such as trans women who have joined the military, and the role they have been playing in the war efforts.”
Punegova and Maznyk, sitting at the Quarteera space as children played outside in the lunchtime sun near one of the few remaining parts of the Berlin Wall, say they recently secured temporary accommodation.
Their days have become less fraught now that they have somewhere to stay and owing to the support they receive as part of a wider group of people connected to Quarteera.
Punegova’s priority is to find a job in Berlin, while Maznyk, who used to work as a nanny in Moscow, volunteers at a homeless charity that is now offering support to Ukrainian refugees. “One of the first things we did when we got to Berlin was find out how we can start helping others, because the first thing you can do to calm yourself down is support others in similar positions,” says Maznyk, speaking in Russian as Punegova translates for her.
Maznyk worries less now about her mother, who seems to be in a safer part of Kyiv and is keeping herself busy by preparing food and distributing medicine to Ukrainian soldiers and residents.
The arrival of their dog Mors and their cat Sanya after both travelled by road with a pet travel company has helped them to feel a little settled, but uncertainty plays on their minds. Friends back home tell them they made the right decision.
“Times are tough for people living in Russia right now, economically, and especially if you don’t like the current government,” Punegova says. “But when we think about the future, the main hope is for this war to stop because until that happens, it is difficult to think about what the future holds for us.”