Russia’s Anti-Gay Laws: How a Dutch Activist Got Caught in the Crosshairs

A Dutch filmmaker detained by Russian authorities for allegedly promoting homosexuality to a minor spoke with TIME about the LGBT community's struggle against rising discrimination.

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Roma Yandolin / Demotix / Corbis

Kirill Kalugin, a participant of a picket against homophobia, was arrested by police officers after he was attacked by former paratroopers during Russian Paratrooper day in St. Petersburg, Aug. 2, 2013.

On July 21, Russian authorities detained and questioned four Dutch nationals who were working on a documentary film about lesbian, gay, transgendered and bisexual townspeople in the northwestern city of Murmansk. In what appears to be the litmus test for Moscow’s recently drafted anti-LGBT legislation, signed weeks earlier by President Vladimir Putin, authorities allege the film crew violated a new “propaganda” law that criminalizes public discussion of homosexuality, especially with foreigners.

One of the activists, Kris van der Veen, 33, said they wanted to witness how the LGBT community was faring in an increasingly discriminatory society. “They have to be very silent and indoors because of the anti-gay law,” van der Veen told TIME. The crew first met with pro-LGBT groups in St. Petersburg, where police have violently clashed with gay-rights protesters. Then they moved on to Murmansk, which is a sister city to van der Veen’s hometown Gronigen, the largest city in the north of the Netherlands.

After months of coordination with Groningen’s mayor, the Netherlands’ consulate-general’s office in St. Petersburg and the House of Equality, an LGBT support system in Murmansk, the group met with community members who have faced hate and discrimination. They specifically did not seek out heterosexuals or minors.

The filmmakers posed questions like, “When did you find out that you might be different?” “How was your coming out?” “How did you tell your parents, if you told your parents?” That last question, they say, is crucial, as many gay people fear the admission and are interested in how others revealed their sexual orientation. After days of filming, they went to a summer camp outside Murmansk for a human-rights-themed weekend. Van der Veen said the event was held outside the city because it would have been difficult to organize in Murmansk under the new legislation.

At the camp, van der Veen gave a seminar comparing and contrasting equality in the Netherlands and Russia. He reminded residents of a formal Dutch saying: Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg (Just act normal, then you’re acting strange enough). Though bullying is still rampant in the Netherlands, the LGBT movement there is past its adolescence. In April 2001, the Netherlands was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage.

But in Russia, the gay-rights movement is in its infancy. A recent Levada-Center survey found that 85 percent of Russians disapprove of gay marriage, 34 percent think homosexuality is a disease and five percent say gays should be eradicated. “It’s not tolerated to be different, to act different, to look different in the streets,” van der Veen said. “These laws from the government that say ‘being gay is not OK’ is also an instrument for people who are homophobic.”

When the workshop ended, about a dozen policemen and security officers entered the hall. “They were discussing human rights when suddenly the police and migration officers burst inside,” said Maria Kozlovskaya, a lawyer from the Russian LGBT Network, a non-governmental organization that provides counsel for sexual and gender minorities. The Dutch foreign ministry also said it was concerned and “doing everything possible to provide support.”

Officers told van der Veen he had interviewed a 17-year-old, which is illegal under the new law. Sergei Alexeenko, head of the House of Equality in Murmansk, said that the individual in question acknowledged he was 18 years old. But for at least the next eight hours, van der Veen sat in a cold room without food or drink, defending himself as authorities prodded: “Do you think the Netherlands is better than Russia?” “Did you ask anyone to become homosexual?”

Van der Veen said he laughed at the absurdity of the question, but was a bit frightened and didn’t know what to expect. “I thought, well, the worst thing that would happen is I would get into prison for 15 days. But on the other hand, I was thinking I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “I wasn’t doing propaganda, but the law is very vague and arbitrary, so it’s very difficult to know what they see under the law.”

When the questions stopped, the four filmmakers were told to appear before a judge the next morning. They faced a fine, prison or deportation. “We were all very tense and the emotions came out,” van der Veen said. “You’re being questioned when you are gay and it’s something you can’t do anything about.” At the court, television cameras showed up to film and Dutch government representatives had become involved. But in the afternoon, they were stunned after being told, “You can all go. We will not take the case into consideration.” After their release and before the court could change its mind, the four quickly flew to St. Petersburg, where they stayed the night, then traveled back to the Netherlands the following day.

Officers took van der Veen’s hard drive, but he had backup copies and thinks he can still piece together the footage. Those in Murmansk who were filmed for the documentary were supportive, telling van der Veen, “Make sure our stories are told.” As he works to complete the film, he is looking ahead to February, when Russia will host the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

A high-profile event, the Games will likely test Russia’s anti-gay policies. On July 26, the International Olympic Committee said they had assurances from “the highest level of government in Russia” that visitors and athletes at the Sochi Olympics will not be affected by Russia’s anti-gay legislation. A few days later, however, Vitaly Milanov, author of the St. Petersburg anti-LGBT “propaganda” law, told The Echo of Moscow Radio that anti-LGBT laws will apply to athletes and fans at the games.

Van der Veen is still mulling what the next step against the Russian laws should be, but he’s certain that protesting at Sochi is better than boycotting the event—something other activists have called for. “I know it’s a difficult situation right now in Russia,” he said, “but you can try to find ways to put the topic on the agenda.”