The Art of Reading Russian Obituaries

A journalist was killed in St. Petersburg last week, but no one called for an immediate and full investigation. No one seemed to suspect that he was killed because of his work. In a country of frequent and varied violence, this was a different kind of crime, a murder that dare not speak its name.

There is a fine art to reading obituaries, as anyone who lived through the AIDS epidemic in the West and paid attention knows. Back in the late 1980s and 1990s, if an American newspaper reported that a young man had died and mentioned no cause of death (or attributed the death to “respiratory failure”), it was a safe assumption that the man had died of AIDS. If the obituary also referred to a surviving “longtime companion,” this seemed to provide confirmation.

The equivalent in contemporary Russia is an obituary that says that a man was found slain in his own apartment and there was no sign of forced entry. When this happens to someone well-known enough to warrant numerous written remembrances, the writers usually refer not to a killing but to a “tragic death” — as though it were not a criminal but a personal trait that caused the person’s demise. What they mean is that the deceased was gay and apparently died at the hands of someone he brought home.

No one can say how often this happens, but it happens enough to form a recognizable pattern. Many, if not most, LGBT people in Russia knew someone who died in this manner. When Alexander Smirnov, an official with the Moscow city government, decided to come out in a magazine interview three years ago, he chose to talk about this, too. “Two years ago someone I knew died,” said Mr. Smirnov. “He was found in his apartment, naked, stabbed to death. He was gay. You know how this happens? Gays often meet one another online. And there are whole gangs that come to gay men’s houses, then kill them and rob the apartment. Their families conceal the stories, of course.”

A female friend of Mr. Smirnov’s had implored him to be careful, not to invite home anyone he had met online. But what was he supposed to do? He was a closeted gay man who feared going to the few existing public gay venues to meet people and who feared even using public spaces to see in person someone he had met online. So it happened to Mr. Smirnov, too: A man he had met online came to his apartment with someone else, and they tried to kill him.

“I was bleeding out, feeling that I was about to lose consciousness,” he said. “I begged to be allowed to live. You cannot imagine how ashamed I feel. They are the ones who barged into my home and nearly killed me. They took everything I had, including even my phone. They are the ones who committed the crime, and I’m the one who is ashamed. I was shaking, but I couldn’t call an ambulance, because I would have had to explain what had happened.

“And, of course, I couldn’t say anything at work,” he continued. “I had my friends call my office and say that I’d been attacked at a bus stop. I didn’t go to the police. It would have been easy to find my attackers, but I didn’t have the strength to talk to the people in uniform. Now I blame myself for being weak, because those two can go on to kill someone else.”

Soon after going public with his story, Mr. Smirnov left the country. He is now living in New York, and he has applied for asylum in the United States.

When a man is found stabbed to death in his apartment, with no sign of forced entry, a double stigma kicks in, because the victim is presumed to have been gay, and it is assumed he was killed by someone he brought home for anonymous or casual sex. Exposure will further disgrace his family. This happened in one of the rare cases when an investigation was pursued. Ten years ago, Ilya Zimin, a prominent television journalist, was found dead in his Moscow apartment. A few days later, the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda published an article titled “Rumors of his nontraditional orientation haunted Zimin back when he was a student.”

So when the St. Petersburg journalist was killed last week, his friends wrote things like, “There can’t be that many versions of what happened, but I will not explore them,” or, “There are details, but I will not go into them.” People wrote similarly tactful phrases after the deaths of the well-known actors Vyacheslav Titov (found strangled in his apartment in Moscow in December 2011) and Alexei Devotchenko (found in a pool of his own blood at home in Moscow in November 2014).

What no one has written in response to any of these deaths is that the Kremlin’s antigay campaign, which simultaneously pushes people underground and communicates to the public that homophobic violence will go unpunished, ensures that these shameful killings continue.

by Masha Gessen
Source – The New York Times