Murder in Volgograd – Part 2

In a previous post I presented some information about the murder in May 2013 of Vladislav Tornovoi in Volgograd, as well as some background information for framing the discourse around homosexuality in Russia. This post continues where the last left off.

Vladislav TornovoiThe initial police report indicated that Tornovoi's murder was homophobically motivated, a rare announcement in Russia, but one seemingly corroborated by one of the alleged assailants' explanation that they had attacked the victim because he was gay.

In the days and weeks following the murder, the blogosphere reacted wildly. Russian LGBT activists were quick to circulate the news, which was subsequently picked up by Western European and US news outlets. As of last week, the English-language website Pink News published a piece titled "The 20 Most Shocking Anti-gay News Stories from Russia So Far" in which Tornovoi's death is presented as the top story.

However, back in Russia, Tornovoi's friends and family also reacted swiftly, denying he was gay. In the midst of conflicting reports, initial plans by local LGBT advocates in Volgograd to hold a demonstration on the International Day against Homophobia (May 17) to raise awareness of the case quickly evaporated.

Meanwhile Sergey Khudiev, a Russian Orthodox theologian, apologist and radio personality, wrote a withering essay, subsequently republished on the Russian site Orthodox Christianity and the World, in which he claims that not only is the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) not responsible for the murderous activities of Russian youth provided with an abundance of beer in lieu of an education against murder, but that there is no logical connection between the ROC's own statements regarding homosexuality and crimes against gays committed in the streets.

Further, based on reports that Tornovoi was not gay, Khudiev attempts to downplay the homophobic elements of the crime, claiming this was just one more tragic murder among many that the country has suffered.

Quoting the Russian LGBT activist Nikolai Alekseev's claim that Tornovoi's murder demonstrates, "the fruit of an ongoing homophobic national policy, a part of which is an initiative to ban the promotion of homosexuality," Khudiev responds with a defensive rhetorical flair:

If you would think to ask, 'Excuse me, but what's the connection?' then you are a murderous homophobe and an accomplice in monstrous crimes.

In his defense of the ROC, Khudiev goes on to claim that one is as likely to be chewed up by a crocodile on the street as to be killed by terrible, homophobic, Orthodox militants. He ends his essay by chastising "liberal journalists," who, possessing no claim to the message of the Gospel, should get out of the way of the ROC while it tries save this generation of youth from a swamp of alcoholism and crime.

Other reports also painted a somewhat different picture of a brutal murder in an economically depressed and crime-ridden region of Volgograd in which Tornovoi's drinking buddies were ex-cons, recently released from "the zone" as it is referred to in Russian slang. Within the penal system inmates live in a hierarchy of penetrators and penetrated and the attendant honor and shame associated with those who maintain their masculinity and those who are abased by playing a role deemed unfit for a real man. But even as more detailed investigative reporting has appeared, alongside it have come claims like that of Sergey Minenko:

"Frightening? Yes. But in this terrible crime, which has caused gay activists and their sympathizers to shout in a loud voice about the foreseeable results of the authorities' homophobic policies there is no homophobia. In prison there are no homophobes."

two men locked in Russian prison cell

Was Tornovoi gay? No one knows for sure. Russians don't generally make public declarations of same-sex sexual attractions. It is completely conceivable that Tornovoi's family and friends would not have known if he were gay. (I have known several Russian men of Tornovoi's age, to say nothing of their American counterparts, who chose not to reveal their sexuality to their families or previous girlfriends either.)

However, another emerging narrative claims that Tornovoi's murderers used the excuse of an offensive confession because they believed it would be a believable justification for their actions. Other Internet posts have claimed that Tornovoi insulted one of his formerly incarcerated friends, either in jest or as part of an altercation, by suggesting that the latter had been subjected to homosexual penetration while locked up.

We may never know exactly what happened on the night of Tornovoi's death. But I'd like to draw out a few points for reflection:

  • Whether Tornovoi was gay or not, the idea that a person's alleged sexual orientation could be used to justify murder is incredibly problematic. Multiple factors have worked together to create an atmosphere in Russia in which an alleged murderer can confidently claim that it would offend his sense of patriotism to find that he'd been sharing beers with a gay man and that such an offense to his patriotic feelings justifies murder. Thus, regardless of the victim's sexual orientation, the crime is not clear of homophobic/heterosexist taint.
  • Further, the slide from offense of religious feelings (the penalties for which have been updated to include felony classification and incarceration since the first essay was written) to offense of patriotic feelings is not all that far when Church and State have chosen to work hand in glove.
Orthodoxy or Death banner at monastery

Men of the Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers display the "Orthodoxy or Death" banner at the Joseph Volotsky Monastery

  • Finally, while the Moscow Patriarchate has made muted declarations about treating gays with pastoral responsibility, respecting "personal dignity and participation in public affairs," actions speak louder than words. Though Patriarch Kirill has made one statement about the infamous "Orthodoxy or Death" symbolism proliferating throughout Russia, groups like the Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers still show up at protests and stand shoulder to shoulder with priests and parishioners carrying icons who have chosen to publicly demonstrate against LGBT advocacy.

A clip from the May 27, 2012 Moscow Pride with the
Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers & various Orthodox Christian protestors

The complex interactions of church, para-religious auxiliary groups, and state doesn't stop there. At a recent conference I attended here in Chicago, an activist from St. Petersburg reported that before the LGBT protest held in St. Petersburg at the end of June a Russian Orthodox priest blessed anti-gay protestors at the scene before they moved forward to harangue and physically attack the LGBT supporters.

But the clarion call to anyone with ears to hear continued to sound in July of this year when His Holiness, on the topic of same-sex marriage, declared in the Kazan Cathedral:

Recently we have come up against enormous temptations, when in a number of countries the choice in favor of sin is approved and justified by law, and those acting in good conscience in the struggle against laws imposed by a minority are repressed. This is a very dangerous, apocalyptic symptom, and we should do everything to ensure that sin is never sanctioned by government law on the territory of Holy Rus', because that would mean that the nation has embarked on the path of self-destruction.

Any serious Orthodox theologian claiming that the ROC plays no role in the current attitudes toward sexual minorities in Russia is deluded at best and disingenuous at worst.  But as John Heywood noted in the 16th century: "There are none so blind as those who will not see."


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