Human rights defenders know all too well what it means to be targets of hate and state harassment. And sometimes, something as simple as a photograph can kickstart a number of unfortunate events.
This is what happened to Olya P., an LGBTI and women human rights defender from Russia. After staging a street protest, her face and name were suddenly everywhere, after a picture of hers - shoulders wrapped in a rainbow flag – spread from one media outlet to the next. As the picture became a symbol of the protest against the country’s repressive laws against LGBTI communities, this sudden exposure made her a target of online hate.
It was when online abuse added to an already repressive environment that Olya reached out for support. She found it in ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders mechanism: thanks to a grant, she managed to join a self-care training, which also helped her strengthen capacities for her activism.
We met Olya at the 2016 ILGA World Conference in Bangkok, where she told us more about her story.
How did you become involved in the defence of human rights?
I used to live in a small town in the Moscow region, but we didn’t have any activity of this kind there. I was interested in politics, but I didn’t allow myself to read news because… I felt something rising inside of me, but I didn’t know what it was, nor what to do with it.
For almost two years, I stopped reading news. This means that I had not exactly known what had happened to Pussy Riot, or about the 2012 arrests after the Bolotnaya square protests in Moscow, until I moved to Saint Petersburg in 2012 and became an activist.
The first people I met there were LGBT activists: I discovered the city’s organisations quickly, and decided that I wanted to take part in every activity. As quickly as I found them, I also understood that I had no resources to join what they did. I dropped everything I was doing, and started volunteering for Coming Out - I have done so for four years.
In June 2013, I also started joining street actions. At first I didn’t want to, because I was afraid of violence – not against me, but I was afraid that homophobes could beat my friends and I would try and stop them. We had a lot of street actions that summer: the “gay propaganda” law was about to be adopted on a federal level in Russia, and we tried to protest.
After the 2013 Saint Petersburg Pride, all the world learnt about being LGBT in Russia, because there was a lot of violence: homophobes were throwing stones and eggs at us, and police ended up taking us to police stations, while homophobes could walk away free. It was horrible. This was my first time at the police station.
About 70 people were detained, and some activists had to go to the hospital following their release because they had been attacked during the action, and police didn’t want to call an ambulance.
The fact is that I was never scared for myself, but for others taking part in the actions. A person walking by me got attacked in the street right after a street action against the propaganda law, only for wearing a t-shirt with a pink triangle, and when something like this happens I can’t stay silent.
At a certain point, you started receiving hateful messages on social media on the grounds of your activism. How did that start?
It happened in 2015, after I staged a street protest in Saint Petersburg, holding a rainbow flag. After that, some media people found my social media handles and posted my photo with news about the action, using my name and surname. This is why people could find me in social networks, and began sending me messages that were… not very pleasant.
I had been involved in activism for more than three years at that stage, and I was experienced in how to handle these situations: I banned them immediately, but it didn’t work. People managed to find me and write whatever they wanted, especially people I didn’t know.
I have also always felt a threat from the State, too, because we have a law saying that street actions need to be approved in advance by a special committee. Without such an agreement, you can be taken to a police station and receive a fine for joining a street protest. And if you are taken to the police station for more than three times, you can end up in prison.
This is when I really felt threatened, because I constantly take part in these actions – not only advocating rights for rainbow communities, but also for other issues. I was taken to a police station twice in six months, and I was afraid that it could have happened again, even for no reason. I really felt in danger, and I was afraid to take part in other actions.
When I was a teenager, and until I was 25 and moved to Saint Petersburg, I always considered prison as a very distant reality, something that can’t touch me. But now, the reality is that I am interested in what happen in the prison system, and in finding ways to change it.
In Russia, whoever goes to prison receives a punishment, but people running the system can think that prisoners deserve more punishment. This system doesn’t correct behaviours, but just punishes them.
Was there a specific moment in your experience as a human rights defender that prompted you to look for support?
It was in 2015, in autumn, after the street action I was telling you about. The video with me covered in a rainbow flag was everywhere, even on Euronews. People wrote me nasty comments on social networks, and soon after that Ildar Dadin was sentenced to prison – I felt very depressed. It was too hard. I decided to see a psychotherapeutic group.
I had attended similar trainings earlier, and I knew the person who organised them. I asked whether I could join it, but they told me I needed money to apply. Then I began looking for support from an organisation which helps human rights defenders, and I ran into ProtectDefenders.eu. I applied for their support immediately: it was really urgent, because the group would have started its activity in just two weeks.
For me it was like a miracle, because I received a positive answer the next day. Thanks to their support, I could afford paying to attend the activities of a support group in Ukraine. It was very important for me to go there at that time because, among other reasons, I also wanted to let people in Ukraine know that not everyone in Russia supported the war, and approved of what is going on in Crimea.
Did taking part in this session help you?
Yes! I don’t know what happened when I was there, but when I returned to Saint Petersburg the feeling was like I had been depressed for the past ten years, and I had finally woken up. It was amazing.
It was a support group for human rights defenders, and we stayed for ten days around Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It helped me very much to understand what I wanted, and the importance of non-violent activism, and to learn how to communicate with people who are important to me.
I still think it was a miracle that I managed to join this group.
Aren’t you scared that the wave of hate on social media against you may start again?
I am scared, but I know that I will be OK: this is the point. Now I know that I will find ways to support myself and to manage. It’s not pleasant to receive threats on the Internet, even if you are a very spiritually developed person: it is just creepy, and if you are facing a situation of psychological crisis this may be the last drop for you. But now I know that it will not happen to me again: it can’t make me depressed anymore.
I am scared when I think of threats that may come from the State, though. Russia is such a country that gives you less and less space to move and organise activities to defend something you believe in.
Do you see the situation of our communities evolving in your country?
It doesn’t look like that, to be honest. In 2016, we could not organise even a single street action with the permission of authorities. I tried to organise an LGBT feminist bloc on the demonstration on the 1st of May: not only we were not granted permission, but our pages on VKontakte were blocked. And this happened to every LGBT initiative that year.
This is why people joined some ecologist or anarchist organisations to take part in the demonstration. For the second time, we could not organise a rainbow flash mob on the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia and we had to do something without having received a permit first – and the same happened with Saint Petersburg Pride. But if you join unauthorized street actions, there is always the risk to get arrested.
The “promotion” law created a system where people are not allowed to speak about our communities, making it so that, for the public opinion, we simply do not exist. And if we do not exist, we do not have problems and issues that need to be addressed. How to come out of such a situation?
If you join a public protest or a street action, you know that you may be assaulted. But I never hoped that someone holding political power would have seen me, or my photos on the Internet, and decided to change something.
To me, it is about simple people seeing me standing there with my placards: maybe they don’t know what I am talking about, but maybe they will go home, google it and find something about our issues for themselves, create their point of view. This is what has always been important to me.
Do you think that occasions like this ILGA World Conference can be useful for human rights defenders to come together and share their experiences?
This conference is an amazing opportunity. Most of the time, it is always the same circle of people who take part in street actions, and it can get tiring and frustrating from time to time, because the situation around you hardly changes. These events – but also visiting other countries which are more respectful of our rights, or taking part in Pride marches - can be so useful for activists in Russia! It is really inspiring to see that you are not alone, and that in other countries people like yourself are accepted and feel more or less safe.
ProtectDefenders.eu is the European Union Human Rights Defenders mechanism, established to protect defenders at high risk and facing the most difficult situations worldwide. ILGA is part of the Consortium of 12 NGOs leading the initiative.
If you are a human rights defender facing immediate threats, you can call the 24/7 hotline:
+353 (0)1 21 00 489
The emergency helpline works at any hour, every day.
LGBTI-friendly operators speak Arabic, English, French, Russian and Spanish.
Rapid international support will be mobilised.
ProtectDefenders.eu can also be contacted via Skype, secure web form and encrypted email.