Children 404 - Young Russian LGBT's: the love that dare not speak its name

 Pictures: Gerard van der Veer


Monday 1 december Movies That Matter screened the documentary Children 404. Children 404 was founded by journalist and activist Elena Klimova, in reaction to the criminalization of "propaganda for non-traditional relationships among minors" in Russia in 2013. Children 404 is an online forum for young Russian speaking LGBTs. '404' is the internetcode for 'Page not found'. Although at times misunderstood ("Why should I hide myself?!") Klimova meant the name, which she borrowed from an article in a newspaper, to mean "By and for young people officially unrecognized by the regime and meant not to exist".


For many teenagers Children 404 proves a lifebuoy. It is a digital environment that allows a break away from their isolation in their hometown, a space in which they can share their experiences with being chased, bullied and condemned for who they are.


The number of teenagesuicides in Russia last year was the highest in all of Europe. Almost on a daily basis Klimova receives messages in which teens thank her for saving their life. Part of Children 404 is a team of counselors who offer free on line advise. 


As a result of her efforts Klimova was arrested, accused of violating the new anti-propaganda law (In January this year Ms Klimova was proven not guilty, due to a lack of evidence). A judicial official of the city of Saint Petersburg, Milonov, known from previous attempts to stop homosexuality, had filed a complaint against the site.  Elena Klimova is nominated for the Human Rights Tulip 2014, a Dutch human rights award.



Main character in the documentary, next to Klimova, is Pasha, an eighteen year old boy. Having survived beatings and intimidation he is now determined to fight back. So he does - amongst other things by a one man demonstration in the centre of Moscow - but he dares to do that in the certainty that by two weeks time he will be gone for Toronto, Canada, for further education as a journalist and in the hope of finding a partner.



Trailer of the eventual documentary by Kris van der Veen. His original plan was hindered by loss of footage in Russia, Here we see him frustrated.


After the screening there was a discussion between political scientist Honorata Mazepus, working on her PhD thesis at Leiden University about how Russia, being a semi-autoritarian state, tries to win and maintain popular support and political legitimacy, and Kris van der Veen, member of the city council of Groningen, chair of the Groningen/Drenthe section of Dutch LGBT society/ organization COC and LGBT-activist, moderated by Marjolein Brouwer.


Focus of the discussion was 'What can one effectively do out of the Netherlands to alleviate the plight of Russian LGBTs?'. Van der Veen was held (not arrested) himself last year in Russia in Murmansk, charged with violating the anti-gay propaganda law, although he thought he had taken every necessary precaution to avoid this. He visited Murmansk as part of the 'sister city'-bond between Groningen and Murmansk, and also notified the authorities beforehand of his plans in Russia, as part of the year celebrating the lasting friendship between the two countries.



Underlying the discussion is a dilemma, the tension between principle/good intention and effect:

  • Actions undertaken by the West to support (NGO's of) LGBT's in Russia, even when asked for by Russian NGO's themselves, may do more harm than good. As an example: Van der Veen was arrested and later saw footage of his documentary in a very popular Russian tv-show, broadcasted by Russia 1, the most popular, state-controlled tv-company. The footage was combined with an image of himself with his eyes colored red, as in 'devil'. Furthermore it was suggested he had been making a pornographic movie (in reality it was a documentary about the coming out, fears and dreams of young LGBT's). On the one hand there is the good done by Van der Veen by visiting Russia and supporting the LGBTs he met, in face to face contacts, by giving a lecture or by making a documentary in which he shows real concern. On the other hand there is the harm done by Van der Veen's abuse in the Russian media, in which his caricatured self confirmes all prejudices about LGBTs and the West. 
  • The same tension exists the other way around, when one prefers actions chosen with the purpose of making a maximal impact on the majority of Russians with negative prejudices about homosexuality - for instance telling Russian-orthodox christians that "Jesus also mingled with prostitutes and publicans". This will irritate many LGBTs: "We are neither criminals nor people needing unasked for help by do-gooders who address bigots who think they are righteous" (the example is badly chosen in the sense that many young Russian LGBTs end up in prostitution when they run away from home, as a young man in Children 404 remarks)
  • Both examples show how actions done with good intentions kan have harmful consequences, which sometimes even overshadow the positive ones. Dutch philosopher Hans Achterhuis in the late 1990s coined the phrase 'Politics of good intentions' for this kind of arguing and action. One rule of thumb to prevent disasters from happening Achterhuis borrowed from Machiavelli: the goals one sets oneself ought to be connected with sufficient means to reach them. When the means available are insufficient, one soon ends up with harmful moralism.   
  • Can one really withhold one's support for Russian LGBTs and their organizations because of the bigger adverse than positive effects when doing so, and for that reason limit oneself to actions directed at reaching and winning the hearts and minds of the Russians opposed to homosexuality of their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters? An argued ' yes' could well be an honorable answer to this question. But those answering ' yes' probably will be vilified by more morally outspoken 'principled' countrymen - Achterhuis gives examples in his article. Although 'doing nothing' may sometimes be the least harmful action, inaction has a bad press and seems the same as indifference or even supporting the villain. (A more subtle option in the Russian case would be to give 'secret' financial support to Russian NGO's, as in 'silent diplomacy', if such a thing can be done without being discovered)

The terms of the dilemma are philosophically well-known: it is the tension between deontology (good is what is the right thing to do, regardless of the consequences) and a consequentialistic ethics (good is the action with good consequences). A practical problem with the consequentialistic ethics is that effects are difficult to quantify. How to quantify the worth of the sufering in jail ' for his/her people or cause' of a prisoner of conscience or the 'value' of a transnational gesture of solidarity?


During the discussion the dilemma didn't really come to life, maybe because of this difficulty of quantifying the gains and losses of particular actions. Van der Veen mentioned the gains of his stay in Russia. In the same way he was positive about the anti-Putin-billboards used by Amnesty International in Amsterdam in 2013, when Putin visited the Dutch offshoot of the Hermitage: Russian LGBT's had told him they were encouraged by it.



In her suggestions for effective action Mazepus differentiated between actions by Russians and foreigners.

  • In Saint Petersburg a group of parents of LGBT's tries to meet parents aversive to the (possible) homosexuality of their child(ren). This initiative is free from the disadvantage of any Western action: as Russian propaganda claims homosexuality to be an exported cultural decadence from the West, any Western opinion in favour of LGBTs confirms the prejudice. It is like a famous Dutch advertisement in the 80s: "We from company WC-eend [toilet duck] recommend WC-eend".

  • Tactically/retorically well-advised for Westerners, according to her, would be to address the issue of LGBT's in an indirect way, under the broader umbrella of 'equality before the law'. Mazepus gave a somewhat related example: in Slupsk, the Polish city where she was born, just today Robert Biedron was elected mayor, the first (openly) gay mayor in the history of Poland (more info here). Biedron wasn't chosen because of his homosexuality but because he is a good politician (although he was outspoken about his homosexuality and everybody knew it). Nevertheless, in an indirect way, it can help make homosexuality more acceptable to society at large.


Robert Biedron and Anna Grodzka are both members of the liberal Palikot Movement party, advocating legalisation of gay marriage, abortion and marijuana (which undoubtedly fuels conservative Polish and authoritarian-nationalistic Russian prejudices). Anna Grodzka currently is the only transgender parlementarian in the world. The fourlettercode LGBT, according to her, frequently obscures lack of unity. Transgenders (the T) often enough remain "an awkward interloper, an unwelcome guest at a party where we don't quite belong".

  • Still, there is an important difference between Russia and Poland. Although homophobia is also rather strong in (Catholic) Poland, particularly in more provincial parts of the country, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is illegal. The rule of law guarantees LGBTs protection from discrimination and acts of violence. In Russia, on the other hand, stigmatization of LGBTs is to some extent legalized (the anti-propaganda law) and promoted by many (state-controlled) media outlets. Perhaps on the diplomatic/governmental level, Russian officials could and should be reminded that they are signatories of international human rights conventions. Here western politicians can make a difference.

For recent Amnesty International-action on behalf of LGBTs in Russia: see here.



Mazepus wasn't surprised by the 'arrest'  of Van Van der Veen and his making acquaintance with the employees of the current members of the former KGB. Also a caricature of Van der Veen being shown on Russian tv was business as usual to her (so one could argue that he could have expected the abuse of his footage and his persona).


At one point during the discussion Mazepus made an observation that suggested a pessimistic outlook on humankind: just as Russians at the moment were easily convinced by anti-LGBT-propaganda - and further propaganda, as Mazepus regularly notices in her conversations with young Russians, as part of her research - they would also easily be convinced the other way around. These sentiments are rather superficial.


Mazepus mentioned the change of attitudes towards Ukraine as an example of how easy it is for the propaganda machine of the Kremlin to spark negative feelings among Russians. Until very recently Ukraine was the most beloved foreign country in Russia. This sentiment has turned diametrically in a very short time.


One could object, though, that homosexuality, and people purporting to be males in a female body or the other way around, question conceptions of what it is to be a 'man' or 'woman' (and 'heterosexual' or 'homosexual'). A very tender male can be just as scary as a firm woman, dependent upon one's dearly held beliefs. And the resistance these deeply held convictions give rise to when challenged are not as easily overcome as the fame of a neigbouring country is changed.



Half a dozen muscle-bound men dressed in Russian paratrooper regalia and enacting a certain definition of malehood corner Kirill Kalugin as he appears on the annual celebration of paratroopers on Palace Square in St. Petersburg on 2 August 2013. Kalugin carried a rainbow flag containing the words '“This is propagating tolerance”. More info here.


After the Q&A Mazepus agreed with this objection, but qualified her own opinion, stressing, it seems, that sentiments/emotions resulting from propaganda, although in some sense 'superficial', are easily 'maintained'/fuelled' by state propaganda and have very real consequences:


"You are right that problems of sexuality pertain to certain core identity questions as well. And we know that when we look at the map of the world we have more countries that take a very conservative and often radical stand against homosexuality.


At the same time, there are many misunderstandings (in the case of Russia and many Arab countries even promoted ones) and misconceptions of homosexuality, like linking it with paedophilia or explaining it through upbringing in an immoral family environment or sexual abuse during childhood.


It is always easier for politicians to encourage negative feelings, rather than tolerance and equality, especially against perceived weak (hence not dangerous) minority groups. So one thing is a natural reservation or confusion resulting from socially-constructed or religious ideas about what being a man or a woman means, and another thing is to intentionally encourage hatred through spreading false information about homosexuality".


  • Laatste wijziging januari 2021.


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