The conviction of the man known as The Hatchet, infamous for filming himself torturing gay people, is good news. But the violence won’t end until homophobia stops being legal in Russia.
In a year of bad news for LGBT people across the global south and east, it’s been a good couple of weeks. A court struck down Uganda’s anti-gay law, and the country’s president has backed away from it. Kenya’s parliament rejected a draconian anti-gay bill. And now one of the nastiest men in Russia, Maxim Martsinkevich, has been sentenced to five years in prison.
You may know Martsinkevich from the dozen videos posted on the Russian social networking site VKontakte showing him and his colleagues threatening, beating, stripping, torturing, urinating on, and otherwise harassing gay people. His gang, known as “Occupy Pedophilia,” would lure gay men with the promise of sexual encounters, usually with teenagers, and then humiliate them online.
The video that got Martsinkevich—nicknamed Tesak, or “The Hatchet”—into trouble was a particularly odious one, in which he stripped and beat a gay Iraqi man, shaved his head, painted Stars of David on his body and a rainbow on his forehead, and humiliated him with sex toys.
Presumably, “Iraqi” was not the most startling word in that sentence. Yet interestingly enough, it was the one that got him into trouble with the law. Tesak was jailed not for harassing gay people—that’s basically the law in Russia now—but for being racist.
There’s a lot to unpack here.
First, it is quite true that Tesak’s group of thugs has disproportionately picked on “foreigners,” from this Iraqi individual to a black South African and an Uzbek man whose brutal torture was thought, at first, to be a videotaped murder.
In America, we call the ways in which racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and nativism all play off each other “intersectionality.” In Russia, it’s just nationalism. The Putin regime’s attack on LGBT people has been a piece of its revanchist nationalism, and indeed the extreme right that is now Vladimir Putin’s base has as much animus against foreigners as it does against gays. Long before Tesak launched Occupy Pedophilia, he ran an ultra-nationalist, neo-Nazi group called Format 18, with the same practice of making hideous torture videos—only against foreigners, not gays.
On the other hand, it’s easy to see his conviction as a cynical move by the less than fully independent Russian justice system. Tesak was becoming the public face of Russia’s anti-propaganda law. He was an embarrassment to Putin.
But how can the government object to persecuting gay people when it also persecutes gay people? Tesak’s conviction looks like a convenient way out. He’s thrown in jail, but homophobia is still OK. Indeed, the anti-gay aspects of Occupy Pedophilia’s campaign were omitted from the prosecutor’s presentation of the case.
There is, of course, that nagging problem of Occupy Pedophilia’s name and its claim of having tortured more than 1,500 gay men. Perhaps Tesak’s most famous victim was the Ukrainian Alexander Bohun, a former contestant on that country’s version of The X Factor.
And don’t expect OP’s antics to end just because its leader is in jail. Tesak appears in only a fraction of OP videos. There are plenty of other vigilantes interested in torturing gay men with the winking semi-approval of the authorities.
In fact, the trial of nine other members of Occupy Pedophilia is scheduled for next month. This trial, too, does not mention anti-gay violence and identifiesthe defendants only as members of an “extremist community,” which is a crime under Russian law.
And who knows what’s next for Tesak. He’s been in jail before, from 2007 to 2010, for making and selling videos depicting the torture of homeless people and Asian foreign workers. Like other extremist leaders, his reputation could grow while he is behind bars.
Meanwhile, copycat crimes are taking place elsewhere. Last winter in Barcelona, police arrested four young men for similar criminal acts.
In other words, Tesak’s sentence won’t stop the violence. To do that, more fundamental change is needed—starting with the state-sponsored homophobia that encourages such violence. Of course, that Tesak is going to jail is good news. But as long as the Russian Orthodox Church, Russian government, and Russian media spread lies about gays being pedophiles, perverts, or worse, there will surely be other executioners to take his place.